Theology & Communicative Language Teaching:Does learning Greek as a living language impact theology?
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
"I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... "
These were the words spoken to me by a fellow biblical scholar after I explained that I study and teach the biblical languages communicatively, that is, as living languages. To be fair, this particular scholar is someone I have a lot of respect for, both in terms of scholarship and character. Nevertheless, their immediate response reflects a sentiment shared by many in the biblical studies community. The sentiment that communicative teaching and learning is essentially irrelevant for theology and exegesis.
However, one thing I have noticed that is common to all (or most) of those who express such a sentiment ...
They have not learned to speak the biblical languages themselves.
I'm sure a significant portion of my readers who have learned to speak Koine Greek or (Biblical) Hebrew have had similar interactions and experiences. Or, perhaps, they have at one time asked the same sort of questions themselves. We all probably have our packaged responses, made ready for just such encounters. We rehearse them and hope that we might change minds, even if just a bit. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not.
Some of my recent Greek activity has led me to get rather excited about one possible answer that we might pack away for our next encounter of such a kind—the truth is, I am far more excited about how this idea might impact and change us than I am about how it might change minds of those skeptical of our approach. All this preamble leads me to address one aspect of the following question in a bit more extended fashion:
Does learning Koine Greek as a living language
impact our understanding of theology
While many before me have outlined numerous ways in which communicative learning is necessary for a high level of proficiency in reading, the recent launch of the Koine Greek Video Blog (see here) has caused me to think through this question from another angle. For those who have not yet seen it, in the Koine Greek Video Blog I discuss issues of linguistics, grammar, exegesis, and theology (though no one has yet submitted a theological question) about Koine Greek in Koine Greek. The first two episodes of the blog are both close to 30 minutes each—they are not just a few artificial memorized sentences read from a notecard; they constitute real discourse about real academic issues all discussed and explained in Koine Greek.
Preparing for and filming these episodes has got me thinking about how reaching more advanced levels of Koine Greek spoken proficiency begins to influence the way you think about and categorize knowledge about the subjects you are discussing, such as linguistics, grammar, exegesis, and theology.
It is the last of these, theology, that I really want to focus on in the rest of this blog post ...
When I used to live in Israel, I would engage in theological conversations on a fairly regular basis. Throughout this time and since, I noticed a peculiar evolution in my theological conversations as I learned more and more Hebrew and became more and more proficient in the language. In the initial stages, I would simply try to find the best translation of certain terms I had learned in English (justification, righteousness, atonement, propitiation, mediator, reconciliation, faith, works, etc.) and use them in Hebrew as I would have in English.
After attempting theological conversation with such terminology for some time, it eventually became clear that the terms I was using were not quite understood in the way that I intended. It took a long time, years actually, before I finally realized that I had to change the way I discussed these concepts. The remedy to this problem, however, was not as simple as choosing more appropriate translations for the concepts I was trying to articulate. Rather, I had to reshape and recategorize the whole way I thought about certain concepts. In some cases, two English concepts became one concept in Hebrew, in other cases, one English concept became two in Hebrew. Such a reconfiguration of my theological knowledge (in Hebrew at least) can probably best be illustrated through a series of questions, all prompted by differences in expression between the languages:
Is there a difference between righteousness and justice?
Should I speak of atonement or the covering of sins?
Is God's foreknowledge more about knowing people or knowing deeds and information?
When we meet together as the Body of Christ, is it a "church" (the building) or a "church" (a congregation of people)?
Do we obey, fulfill, keep, or uphold the commandments?
Is it best to describe Jesus as upholding, fulfilling, or interpreting the law? Or all of the above?
Do we speak of going to heaven when we die or entering into eternal life?
Is God's grace only unmerited favor, or does it mean more than that?
Now, describing how each of these questions is to be answered and how it might have led to discussing a subject differently in Hebrew is far beyond the scope of this blog post. Nevertheless, such questions do help to illustrate some of the ways in which my theological categories and concepts have had to reconfigure when discussing certain ideas in Hebrew. After all, each and every one of these questions essentially springs out of the simple question, "What word should I use right now?"
Now, I do not doubt that biblical scholars of Greek and Hebrew who do not speak the languages might also be able to identify these differences. In fact, I expect that they should be able to do so—but this is about far more than attention to subtle differences and nuances in meaning.
After all, I also expect that they will continue to spend most of their time discussing these concepts in English, with English terms, and in familiar English categories. In fact, this is the norm for me (and probably us) as well! The temporary reconfiguration of our theological concepts into Greek or Hebrew categories is but an exotic trip to a distant land; after but a brief time away, we promptly return home and file away all that we have seen and experienced into photo albums, only to be pulled out for the occasional guest or when we're feeling nostalgic.
It is not so much the question of whether a Biblical Greek scholar (or anyone for that matter!) is capable of venturing out into that land for a few sustained moments—we are used to scholars explaining how ancient Greek and Hebrew might have conceived of certain ideas differently—but rather, whether they are capable of staying in that land for such an extended period of time that their whole way of thinking and doing things begins to be influenced by the local culture.
There just simply is no substitute for the impact of what constantly having to formulate your theological thoughts in another language such as Koine Greek (as opposed to English) will do ...
The question I really want to get at here, is what if we stayed in that exotic land for more than a weekend, or a week, or a month? What if we took up residence there for most of the year? What if, though we ourselves might never walk and talk like the locals, gave our children the privilege of growing up there? To cast off the analogy and put it simply ...
How might frequent theological conversation
in Koine Greek begin to influence the way
we conceive of and discuss theology?
What if we could teach theology in Koine Greek? What if we could write papers about theology in Koine Greek? What would preparing to discharge either of these tasks on a regular basis do to the way we think through theological issues? How might discussing free will and God's sovereignty in Koine Greek change our "gut" reaction to the idea itself? What would asking and answering theological questions in Koine Greek do to our underlying presuppositions about theology?
I have no doubt that if we can reach such advanced levels of Koine Greek proficiency that we are able to have deep and passionate theological discussions is Koine Greek, we will see the way we conceptualize of theology beginning to change. Some new questions will rise up in our minds. Some old questions will begin to fade away. Our whole system of thinking about theology will begin to map itself onto the theological worldview of the New Testament with a precision unknown to us before.
Do I believe such an endeavor will lead to new and different doctrines? Not at all. To suggest so would be irresponsible. However, I do believe it will lead to us experiencing and understanding the doctrines we already know in a more precise, accurate, and authentic way.
One might feel excited and lifted up by such an idea for a brief time, only to come crashing back down to the earth a moment later thinking, "That sounds incredible, but my Greek is nowhere near that level." To such an objection, I have but one response: Although the total reconceptualization of our theological system as a permanent state of affairs might not be achievable unless we reach a very high level of proficiency and have regular engagement in the language with others at a similar level ...
I have witnessed the seeds of this reconceptualization
already among beginning students.
Some of the most fun moments for me when teaching Greek and Hebrew over the years have been when I ask or answer a question in a way the students don't quite expect, but then their reaction slowly unfolds before me: They pause. A second of silence. A glimmer of light hits their eye. Something clicks. Their head slowly tilts back. And then ... pure delight, smiles, on their faces and mine. I just witnessed something special.
In fact, the most rewarding moment in all of my years of teaching was just such a moment at the intersection of language learning and theology. At the end of acting out in dramatic fashion (and in Hebrew!) a story based on the idolatrous man in Isaiah 44, who worships part of a tree but burns the rest, we reached the punchline and climax of the entire story, which both drives home a linguistic structure and theological point:
האתפלל אל פסל אשר בן לילה היה ובן לילה אבד
'Should I pray to an idol which came to be in one night
and in one night perished?'
Our students had followed this story attentively, engaging with our questions and actions all the way through. When we reached that final line, it was a moment I will never forget. The students may not remember it, but I do. When we uttered that final line, our students' faces—their eyes—told me that they had got it ... in Hebrew! We had just transcended language learning through language learning and entered into a sphere of understanding which transcended language itself. The spiritual and theological had met with the linguistic and pedagogical.
Reaching this moment came at the end of a four-week beginner intensive course in Biblical Hebrew. If such a moment can be achieved in such a relatively short amount of time, how many more of these moments await us if we can advance in Koine Greek to the point where we are not just reserving πίστις, δικαιοσύνη, χάρις, ἀγάπη, and ἱλαστήριον to the occasional exotic trips and photo albums on the shelf, but are actually living in a land where they are part of our surroundings?
If these things are so, I have but one more question ...
Why not make it a goal, as a community and as a team, to reach a level of proficiency where we can discuss free will and God's sovereignty in Koine Greek? Why not so advance in our fluency that we can debate the legal context of δικαιώματα in Hebrews 9 in the language in which the Egyptian legal papyri were written? Why not imagine a day when there is a Koine Greek version of GotQuestions.org for those seeking Koine Greek discussion of biblical and theological issues?
... Why not? ...
Let me conclude with this: We are all in this together. As a mentor of mine and a good friend Randall Buth likes to say at the beginning of a new language course: "Language is a team sport!" We must grow in this together.
This website and blog are but one piece in that equation. It exists to help move us closer, even if only an inch at a time, to that new distant land. So if this excites you, let's work together. Find friends with whom you can discuss theological issues in Koine Greek, even if only by Skype. Start small. You can even start forming some theological questions in Koine Greek and submit them here. I would be happy to answer them in the Koine Greek Video Blog. If all you can do is formulate them in English, start there. I will translate them and demonstrate how to talk about them in Koine Greek in the blog.
And, of course, if any of you have any ideas of how to advance in this together, please share them!