Machen on the Minister and His Greek Testament

J.G.MachenAlthough many students arrive at theological college eager to learn the biblical languages, some students (and some sending churches) have lingering questions over the value of learning Greek and Hebrew for pastoral ministry. Most of these questions are not new.

J. Gresham Machen was one of several who found himself addressing what he called the “widening breach between the minister and his Greek New Testament” as modernism and pragmatism began to impact seminaries and theological training a century ago. This was Machen’s diagnosis:

The modern minister objects to his Greek New Testament or is indifferent to it, first, because he is becoming less interested in his Greek, and second, because he is becoming less interested in his New Testament.

As to the first objection, that ministers and seminarians are less interested in Greek, Machen saw the disinterest in Greek as a symptom of a deeper malady afflicting modern education. He discerned a general cultural rejection of the humanities and classics that was mirrored by many in the churches. This, he traced ultimately to a pragmatic conception of education and anthropology.

As for the second objection, Machen did not mean to imply that ministers were completely neglecting the Bible, nor even that they were often spending too much time on ‘other duties than preaching’ (though he did think this was true). The problem went deeper as Machen proceeded to explain:

[T]he minister has ceased to be a specialist. The change appears, for example, in the attitude of theological students, even of a devout and reverent type. One outstanding difficulty in theological education today is that the students persist in regarding themselves not as specialists, but as laymen. Critical questions about the Bible they regard as the property of men who are training themselves for the theological professorships or the like, while the ordinary minister, in their judgment, may content himself with the most superficial layman’s acquaintance with the problems involved. The minister is no longer a specialist in the Bible, but has become merely a sort of general manager of the affairs of a congregation.

In Machen’s time, this, too, was a function of pragmatism and an impoverished view of what ordained Gospel ministry looked like. The results of such an approach to theological training were obvious to Machen.

First, ministers cannot be ‘specialists’ without a knowledge of the New Testament in Greek and will constantly be at the mercy of other experts or authorities. In this vein, Machen argued that “the student who is without at least a smattering of Greek is obliged to use for the most part works that are written, figuratively speaking, in words of one syllable.”

Second, ministers without the languages are, in many matters of theological importance “at the mercy of the judgment of others.” They are, Machen claimed, not equipped to “deal with all the problems at first hand” by grappling with the original text.

Third, ministers without Greek are ill-equipped to get to grips with critical questions of genre and structure of NT books in a way that enhances preaching and ministry by enabling them to understand and apply the text carefully. Machen contended that such ministers may ascertain the ‘content’ of the Scriptures but will struggle with the question of ‘form’ and, by implication, of function and purpose.

Machen argued in the strongest terms against this low view of the biblical languages in the theological curriculum.

[The Bible] is not merely one of the sources of the preacher’s inspiration, but the very sum and substance of what he has to say. But if so, then whatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret and defend it … The work cannot be turned over to a few professors whose work is of interest only to themselves, but must be undertaken energetically by spiritually minded men throughout the church. But obviously, this work can be undertaken to best advantage by those who have an important prerequisite for the study in a knowledge of the original languages upon which a large part of the discussion is based.

So what did Machen propose if we grant that the minister desperately needs to know and be able to use his Greek New Testament? He began by noting that the Koine Greek of the New Testament is not overly difficult, even for those who do not have a broad background in languages or the humanities. He quipped that “a very fair knowledge of it may be acquired by any minister of average intelligence.” Machen also made two practical suggestions:

  1. Always read the Greek NT aloud.
  2. Read the Greek NT every day without exception, “Sabbaths included.”

Machen concluded with a hearty exhortation:

Ten minutes a day is of vastly more value than seventy minutes once a week. If the student keeps a “morning watch,” the Greek Testament ought to be given a place in it; at any rate, the Greek Testament should be read devotionally. The Greek Testament is a sacred book, and should be treated as such. If it is treated so, the reading of it will soon become a source of joy and power.

A century later, those of us who teach Greek at Oak Hill College are still giving ourselves and our students the same advice.