The Importance of Biblical Languages

In his Grammar, A.T. Robertson, the noted Southern Baptist Greek scholar of yesteryear, shared the conviction of A.M. Fairbairn when he said, “No man can be a theologian who is not a philologian. He who is no grammarian is no divine.”[1] In other words, both of these men thought that learning and knowing Greek and Hebrew were absolutely necessary for anyone studying Scripture and theology. Unfortunately, in our day, many theological students, pastors and scholars see no need to study or use the biblical languages. To the contrary, this post will address—with help from Martin Luther, the German reformer—why they are necessary for preachers and teachers to learn and know.

Perhaps the biggest reason given today for not learning Hebrew and Greek is that so many good English Bible translations are readily available to us. A similar problem existed in Luther’s day. He once asked, “Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages? Do you say, ‘We can read the Bible very well in German?’” Luther gave a lengthy answer to his own question.

Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude.

If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel … No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom … In former times the fathers were frequently mistaken, because they were ignorant of the languages and in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure [boldface emphasis mine].[2]

Notice at least three points in the answer Luther gave. First, he knew that Scripture—and specifically, the Gospel—was communicated in the languages written by the Holy Spirit-inspired biblical authors. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic, while the New Testament was penned in Greek. The Bible was not originally written in German. Remember that Luther was a professor of New Testament and engaged in an exegetical study of Romans in Greek when he “rediscovered” the Gospel that had long been lost—in particular, the doctrine of justification by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ. Today, we have some great English translations, but they are not written in the original languages in which the Bible was written. Someone once said, “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil.”[3] We should endeavor to go to the original sources. Second, the reformer thought that just as languages were necessary in receiving the Gospel, so also they were essential in keeping the Gospel. He feared the Gospel would be lost if Hebrew and Greek were given short shrift. Third, Luther knew that preachers in his day preached good doctrinal sermons; in other words, their theology and doctrine were good and even orthodox. However, he also knew that it was possible to be correct in one’s theology and doctrine but not really know the actual meaning of the texts on which the theology was based. Theology is imposed on the text when this happens. Unfortunately, this problem of “theologizing” the text is one current in our day just as it was in Luther’s time with the Waldenses. Luther thought that having the right theology but erring in determining the actual meaning of the biblical text left one “without arms,” i.e., defenseless to fight against errors that encroached upon our faith.

He went on to say,

It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O’ how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor— yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O’ how their effort puts our indolence to shame [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther frowned upon the neglect of the Bible and the languages in which it was written. He lamented that it was shameful not to know the Bible well. He thought it even more sinful not to study the biblical languages, especially when the opportunity to learn them well afforded itself in his day with an abundance of resources. How much more so in our present day!

When contrasting “simple preachers” of Scripture who did not know or use the languages with preachers of God’s Word who were “versed” in the languages, Luther said,

Though the faith and the gospel may be proclaimed by simple preachers without the languages, such preaching is flat and tame, men grow at last wearied and disgusted and it falls to the ground. But when the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and words [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther rightly thought that the biblical languages bring “freshness and force” to one’s preaching. He opined that those who preached without the languages were limited, and these limitations would ultimately show up in their preaching. He went on further to say, “to interpret Scripture, to treat it independently, and to dispute with those who cite it incorrectly … cannot be done without languages.”

Some additional benefits of learning the biblical languages are (1) you will be able to determine and critique whether an English translation is an accurate one; (2) you will see things in Hebrew and Greek that you just cannot see in an English Bible; Scripture truly comes to life when studied in the original; (3) you will become a better preacher and teacher of God’s Word because you are able to interpret it accurately; consequently, with Spirit-filled living, your sermons will be full of conviction and authority; (4) a whole new world of resources will open up to you because now you will be able to read and understand a variety of books that you have not been able to use beforehand; and (5) you will now be a first-hander and no longer have to mimic others—like commentators X, Y or Z—when you preach. You will not have to rely slavishly on them as you did before. Sometimes I hear of preachers who leave their churches and move after two and a half years or so because they run out of sermon material. That will never be the case when you learn the biblical languages.

This blog post was not written in judgment of those who have not had or do not know the biblical languages. God will only hold us accountable for the opportunities we have had and for what we did with them. If you have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would encourage you to be faithful with the training you have acquired. Learn the languages well and use them! If you have not had the opportunity to learn Hebrew or Greek, I would encourage you to take some courses should the prospect ever be available. You will not regret it.

Knowing Hebrew and Greek goes a long way toward helping us become more effective stewards of the Gospel with which God has entrusted us. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a great place to learn the biblical languages and put them into practice. Come join us and let us demonstrate what a difference knowing Hebrew and Greek makes. Allow us the joy and privilege of helping prepare you for a lifetime of ministry.


[1] A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 3rd ed. Rev. and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton/George H. Doran Company, 1919), x.
[2] All of the quotes from Martin Luther in this post are public domain and are compiled in a variety of resources, e.g., Hugh T. Kerr, ed., A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966).
[3] Source unknown, but many scholars have cited the quote over the years. William D. Barrick and Irvin A. Busenitz, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Sun Valley, CA: Master’s Seminary, 2004), 12, attribute the quote to Polish rabbi, Haim Nacham Bialik. Source found at http://drbarrick.org/files/studynotes/Other/B_B_Hebrew_Grammar_2005.pdf; accessed: 15 March 2016.

Terry Wilder

Terry Wilder

Associate Dean of PhD Programs and Professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Wilder is a Professor of New Testament in the School of Theology. He is married to Denise and has two sons, Ian and Aaron.
Twitter: @DrTerryLWilder
Website: onaccountofhisname.wordpress.com
Terry Wilder