William Cunningham on the need for ministers to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
... A man’s real theological knowledge may be said practically and substantially to be measured by his real knowledge of the Greek Testament; and in order to understand aright the Greek Testament, it is of course indispensable that he be familiar with the Greek language. And this leads us to advert to the general subject of the necessity of an acquaintance with the original languages in which the word of God has been given us by its authors. The Old Testament, you are aware, is written in the Hebrew language, with the exception of two or three short passages in Chaldee; and the New Testament in Greek.

The Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament constitute the word of God given by the inspiration of his Spirit, and forming the only authoritative rule of faith and practice. The will of God is to be learned authentically only from an examination of books written in these languages; and hence it follows at once that every one who is really desirous to know the will of God, and to know it thoroughly and authentically, and especially every one who aspires to be a religious instructor of others, is bound to acquire such a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek as may qualify him to derive his knowledge of God’s will at once from the fountain-head, or at least to be able to test all the views that may be pressed upon him, by a reference to the only infallible standard, and to be qualified to defend, if necessary, his convictions upon religious subjects from the same sources. ...

For more, see William Cunningham on the need for ministers to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

N.B. I think that William Cunningham overstates the case a little in the full extract, but the basic point is an entirely valid one.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
The need for SOME ministers maybe...but not all. And Latin? Why Latin? If we heap on extra qualifications for the ministry we are not truly helping the ministry, the Biblical qualifications mainly being character-based and not based on linguistic abilities, especially of dead languages.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
The need for SOME ministers maybe...but not all. And Latin? Why Latin? If we heap on extra qualifications for the ministry we are not truly helping the ministry, the Biblical qualifications mainly being character-based and not based on linguistic abilities, especially of dead languages.

Latin polishes and sharpens English prose, which in turn sharpens one's thinking. Latin also opens doors to many untranslated Reformed texts.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
Latin polishes and sharpens English prose, which in turn sharpens one's thinking. Latin also opens doors to many untranslated Reformed texts.
Sure. But the Bible never demands it for ministers. And not all ministers are English-speakers. Most of the world is Asian. There is a danger of putting too many requirements on the ministry and making it out of reach for much of the world's population.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Sure. But the Bible never demands it for ministers. And not all ministers are English-speakers. Most of the world is Asian. There is a danger of putting too many requirements on the ministry and making it out of reach for much of the world's population.

I know the Bible doesn't demand it, nor would I reasonably expect Asians to do the same. Nonetheless, Latin is close to Greek in structure. Those who have a Latin background learn Greek much better than the average American.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
His point about Latin is less relevant today as there is so much material translated into English (though a mountain of literature remains untranslated). Learning the biblical languages, however, should not be an optional extra for any minister. Nor do I even believe that such requirements should be lowered for missionaries, as missionaries especially need to be highly trained to protect flocks largely composed of recent converts.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
I know the Bible doesn't demand it, nor would I reasonably expect Asians to do the same. Nonetheless, Latin is close to Greek in structure. Those who have a Latin background learn Greek much better than the average American.
How much to demand on seminary students though? 3 new languages as a requirement for ordination? Too much. Saying a thing is good if they want to and demanding it as a requirement are two very different things. The primary demands of ministry are not academic but people-related and character-based. I for one wish the Reformed would read less and do more, and be less academic and more involved with serving people on a day to day basis.

We need more pastors in the trenches and slums and less in their ivory towers.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
His point about Latin is less relevant today as there is so much material translated into English (though a mountain of literature remains untranslated). Learning the biblical languages, however, should not be an optional extra for any minister. Nor do I even believe that such requirements should be lowered for missionaries, as missionaries especially need to be highly trained to protect flocks largely composed of recent converts.
So I must learn Greek (already done) then Hebrew, then a national language wherever I move, and then the tribal language? My whole life would be spent in a classroom. A tribal missionary doesn't need both Greek and Hebrew, and especially not Latin. And if these rules are the same for Papuan or Indonesian pastors this would eliminate 99% of the ministry. If the translations are trustworthy and are the Word of God, then a Papuan pastor needs neither Greek nor Hebrew to minister to his own people. Seminary professors might, but not the common pastor.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
So I must learn Greek (already done) then Hebrew, then a national language wherever I move, and then the tribal language? My whole life would be spent in a classroom. A tribal missionary doesn't need both Greek and Hebrew, and especially not Latin. And if these rules are the same for Papuan or Indonesian pastors this would eliminate 99% of the ministry. If the translations are trustworthy and are the Word of God, then a Papuan pastor needs neither Greek nor Hebrew to minister to his own people. Seminary professors might, but not the common pastor.

Given that you have done it all, it must not be that difficult. ;)
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
So I must learn Greek (already done) then Hebrew, then a national language wherever I move, and then the tribal language? My whole life would be spent in a classroom. A tribal missionary doesn't need both Greek and Hebrew, and especially not Latin. And if these rules are the same for Papuan or Indonesian pastors this would eliminate 99% of the ministry. If the translations are trustworthy and are the Word of God, then a Papuan pastor needs neither Greek nor Hebrew to minister to his own people. Seminary professors might, but not the common pastor.

No one said anything about ordination. And Cunningham's remarks are directed to Western models.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
Given that you have done it all, it must not be that difficult. ;)
I have not done it well. I cannot read much beyond 1st John in Greek. Paul is WAY beyond me and too complicated. And I have forgotten much of the tribal language. There is only so much giga-byte space in one's noggin and my noggin had mercury in it for a year.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
No one said anything about ordination. And Cunningham's remarks are directed to Western models.
Why would western models be different if the scope of the Church is worldwide? Would he recommend fluency in Mandarin or Cantonese, or perhaps Sanskrit since it is an ancient dead language like Latin, for Asian pastors? A pastor's job is already very busy (if he is doing it right). Stacking up extra-biblical requirements gets in the way of the service he needs to do for his flock.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Why would western models be different if the scope of the Church is worldwide? Would he recommend fluency in Mandarin or Cantonese, or perhaps Sanskrit since it is an ancient dead language like Latin, for Asian pastors? A pastor's job is already very busy (if he is doing it right). Stacking up extra-biblical requirements gets in the way of the service he needs to do for his flock.

Educational models aren't locked in stone. You should use whatever model reflects the current need. Most of the people in my church don't speak Mandarin (now that I think of it, three do speak either Mandarin or Cantonese; three others speak Urdu), so we will probably default to some Western-oriented model. In any case, those languages won't be lingua franca for various reasons.

If you can point to a lot of church history resources in Sanskrit, then I am open to that. As I've said before, no one is making this a requirement.
 

C. Matthew McMahon

Christian Preacher
Just as a note on the Form of Presbyterian Church Government on Ordination: "(2.) He shall be examined touching his skill in the original tongues, and his trial to be made by reading the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and rendering some portion of some into Latin; and if he be defective in them, inquiry shall be made more strictly after his other learning, and whether he hath skill in logick and philosophy."

The Westminster divines did not exclude men from ministry for language deficiency (a defect in their training). They would have had to make up their defect in original languages by their "other learning" (but put a big emphasis on the words "strict" and "other LEARNING" as well as their skill in logic and philosophy.
 

NM_Presby

Puritan Board Freshman
... A man’s real theological knowledge may be said practically and substantially to be measured by his real knowledge of the Greek Testament;
I think the point of ministers needing to know the languages is valid, but this line strikes me as quite an overstatement (perhaps the one you were referring to). While the languages are valuable, we also should strongly affirm that faithful translations are truly the Word of God and do enable us to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, lest we strip the Scriptures from laity again.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
There is an interesting interchange on this subject between Gresham Machen and Martyn Lloyd Jones, which may be seen by comparing their inaugural addresses for the two seminaries they founded, Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and London Theological Seminary (1977). Machen, in line with the Reformed tradition, made excellence in Biblical languages virtually pre-requisite for being preacher; Lloyd-Jones on the other hand - clearly interacting with Machen's address - thought languages a superfluous extra, as much of a hindrance as a help to the preacher. Instead his seminary would be more focused on Biblical Theology and church history, especially the history of revivals.

On one point, Lloyd Jones undoubtedly right: it is possible to preach gospel well without any awareness of original languages. Church history proves that point. Nor will knowledge of original languages, however great, substitute for a genuine calling from God. Yet this argument can be pressed too far. Balaam’s ass undoubtedly spoke God's Word to Balaam, but that doesn't mean four footed preachers are the way forward. Question is not what is possible but what is desirable. What is undoubtedly desirable is that the preacher should be an expert in God’s Word, able to discern trees as well as the forest, each with fullest possible understanding of Bible. Not all will do creative exegesis/push forward the boundaries of Biblical scholarship. But all should strive to show themselves as approved workmen, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). You don’t need to be a Hebrew or Greek scholar to understand the gospel and to communicate it to yourself and to others. But a basic knowledge of Hebrew and Greek will keep you from committing some of the more common errors, and an advanced knowledge will likely make you a better reader of the Bible than you would otherwise have been. One of the reasons I'm on the Puritanboard is to help answer some of the questions people have that need such knowledge.

But some will say, as an older minister once said to me, since all of these experts have translated the Bible into English, why do I still need Hebrew? I can get the sense of the original from the commentaries. Yet at the time of Reformation, one of most revolutionary aspects of the reformers’ teaching was to return to original languages over against a Church-approved translation (the Latin Vulgate), which involved also a return to text of Scripture over against authoritative commentaries. Zwingli’s first act in Zurich was to preach on Matthew ex fontibus scripturae sacrae – from the fount of sacred scripture using his Greek New Testament. There is something special about hearing on Sunday the fruit of the minister’s own labors with the text through the week. Some of the Reformers suffered greatly for their commitment: George Wishart was martyred in Scotland in 1546 for teaching the Greek New Testament. These men clearly had strong convictions about the necessity of the study and use of Biblical languages.

They did so because they understood how difficult the work of translation is. Have I said that before on this forum? Any translation involves an element of interpretation, no matter how woodenly literal you try to be. And when you have a multiplicity of translations, how do you decide which one to choose? Do you simply count heads and go with the majority translation? Or do you weight their arguments? And how do you weigh their arguments if you don’t know the original languages?

To give a simple example, the KJV (along with the Scottish Psalter) disagree with the ESV about the translation of Psalm 121:1: is it a statement (KJV) or a question (ESV)? My mother was very disturbed about modern translations making changes like this in the sacred text, but a first year level of Hebrew would have taught her that me'ayin is always a question. (And if you think I'm wrong about that and you want to defend the KJV, how will you do that without Hebrew?)

On the other hand, having taught pastors in remote tea picking areas of Sri Lanka with a very rudimentary education, I don't think they need to wait until they have mastered Greek and Hebrew before they share the gospel with their neighbors. I'd rather they invested their time in studying a sound translation of the Bible into their own language (which of course takes people trained in Greek and Hebrew).

I also find it fascinating that people who found seminaries invariably create them in their own image: Machen's background in languages and apologetics still defines Westminster, while Lloyd-Jones emphasis for London Theological Seminary echoed his own interests and concerns. One might add Beeke/PRTS and Pipa/Greenville for other examples of the same thing.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
I think the point of ministers needing to know the languages is valid, but this line strikes me as quite an overstatement (perhaps the one you were referring to). While the languages are valuable, we also should strongly affirm that faithful translations are truly the Word of God and do enable us to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, lest we strip the Scriptures from laity again.

Yes, I do think that that particular line was overkill.
 
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