There’s a Greek alphabet tucked into my cookbook shelf, and every so often I bump into it in my search for a recipe. It’s an apt metaphor for the place and prominence that deep study plays in my every day life — tucked somewhere between the soup and the muffins. The reappearance of that chart never fails to stir up a tiny pang of regret. Why didn’t I study Greek back in my college days when I had the opportunity — and the time?
Once outside academic life, it’s nearly impossible to invest the years of study that are required for mastery of a language, so naturally I could not resist reading Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill’s Greek for Everyone, which promises to focus on a working knowledge of biblical Greek with an emphasis on facilitating in-depth study of the New Testament. My “what have I gotten myself into?” response at the beginning of chapter one has mellowed to a quiet realization that this is a discipline that will enhance my study. So with whatever small time I am able to invest, I’m back to the beginning again with the daunting task of learning a new alphabet and phonetic system, but I’m convinced that it will be worth the effort for five reasons:
- A better understanding of New Testament (Koine or common) Greek reveals the reason for many of the differences that appear in our English translations. Word order in Greek is much more fluid than in English. Furthermore, Greek prepositions can take on a range of meanings that are narrowed down by paying attention to their objects. Therefore, differences among translations function as a flare, drawing attention to interpretive issues that deserve special care in our reading and studying.
- Words by themselves can easily lead us astray. The big picture is critical for effective meaning-making, and the Greek language’s tendency to hang multiple supporting clauses off one main clause makes it challenging to identify the main idea of a sentence. Take Ephesians 1:3-14 for example. The grammatical structure of this one sentence (yes, one sentence!) in the Greek is completely lost in the English translations, which break it into shorter, more readable sentences, BUT which do not carry forward the flow of thought from the original. No matter how much time I spend on my alphabet and phonics chart, I’ll never straighten this out on my own. However, this heightened awareness will make me a more careful reader.
- On-line resources for Bible study abound. Interlinear Bibles, lexicons, parsing aids, and concordances make it possible to study the New Testament with minimal knowledge of Greek, but they also open the door to a fragmented scatter-shot approach to study that results in “dynamite” force blasting forth from every reference to power in the New Testament and leaves well-intentioned preachers loading down words with every possible range of meaning, regardless of context. Dr. Thornhill offers helpful questions to bear in mind when studying individual words: What concept is the word intending to invoke here? What is the significance of using one synonym instead of another? Am I examining a word that carries “theological weight” in the passage? What is the possible range of meanings for this word, and are there other terms with similar meaning?
- Language is a key factor to understanding the context of the New Testament. Being a mono-linguistic North American is only one of the biases that I bring to my reading of the Bible. Dr. Thornhill urges his students to “stand under” a text rather than “standing over it.” I can’t say this any better than he did: “We must . . . allow the text to read us, to reshape our presuppositions and to reform our mind as we read it.” Amen.
- Borrowing a term from Grant Osborn, Dr. Thornhill describes the interpretive process as a “hermeneutic spiral” — a journey more than a destination that is “consistently applied and reapplied as we dive into the deep water of the New Testament.” An attitude of “epistemic humility (recognizing that we are not omniscient)” explores the background of a text, reads it in context (and even out loud, if possible), compares translations, and then examines lexical, grammatical and syntactical issues in order to develop a tentative description of the passage’s meaning. Only then are commentaries, books, sermons, and articles consulted to confirm the reader’s conclusions.
A high view of Scripture includes an understanding that “texts do not just have something to say, but they they also have something to do.” This is the reason we read and study Scripture, and whatever tools we have in our hands, God will use them as they are offered to Him. For now, in these days of “seeing through a glass darkly,” my knowledge of God will be veiled no matter how much Greek I learn, but it’s nice to know that by pressing into a fuller knowledge of the Bible I can bring those bookends of “already” and “not-yet” a tiny bit closer together, adding to that fuller knowledge with a more faithful doing of the will of God.
This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”