There are uses for all of these. They all have their place. Sometimes, because we say that the only standard for faith and practice is the Bible, we begin to assume that any other tools are not only a waste but are an insult to us or our faith.
When we read Luke 2 and read about the shepherds who were watching their flocks at night, we understand more when we know what a shepherd is. We need to know the definition of that word. We need to know what a flock is. If we did not have a teacher at some point or a dictionary, we would not know what these things are. Are these necessary for the most important part of the text? No. But do we see what the shepherds were really doing when they left their flocks to go to Bethlehem and see Christ? They were leaving their occupation and their method of providing for their family. They left what they had to go worship their Savior. Do we need to know the historical context of Israel and the value of a flock to know that they made a sacrifice? No, but to understand what type of sacrifice this is, yes, we do. Is it helpful to know the history and culture of that day to realize that they didn’t have cars or automobiles to jump in and drive over and back? Is it useful knowledge to understand the types of countryside that was in the area of Bethlehem? Was it plains, or hills, was it desert or fertile? Of course these things all add to the context of the story. These are things that are not necessary for our Christian faith, but they bring a fuller understanding of what the Gospel narrates to us.
A pastor who stands before his congregate and who brings forth, from hard work and study, the cultural implications – because the Bible was written in a culture and to certain people who understood that culture – so that we might have a fuller understanding today, is appreciated. We appreciate the perspective that allows us to more fully understand the narrative. When he gives us the definition of hard words like “propitiation” we appreciate that so that we can grow in understanding. The Bible itself doesn’t define propitiation for us. It doesn’t tell us what that means. We do know that Christ satisfied the wrath of God against sin. We can learn that theological truth from Scripture, but not from a passage where we don’t even know the meaning of the words.
We need tools, and God has given us tools to help us. These are common sense things. We obviously need to know the definitions of the words we are reading for them to impact us. We need to know the context of the narratives to gain a greater understanding. We need to know the cultural and historical context of the epistles so that we understand what the city of Corinth was like and what idols, temples, and belief systems Paul was combating against.
The original languages of the Scripture are no different. But before we dive into this, we need to understand a smidgen of where our English Bible came from. It didn’t get written by God like the original ten commandments that were shattered on the mount. It didn’t get spoken by God to men to write it down. God never spoke English to the writers. Instead, God had the Bible written (through inspiration – which we are not covering) in the languages of the authors that he used. This leaves three languages which the Bible was actually written in – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Authority is from God and God alone. My authority in my household comes because God has designated me the head of the house. A pastor’s authority over the flock comes at the hand of God and so does the Government’s authority, and any other true authority. All authority is either from God, or usurped. So the authority we have in our Bible is from God. The authority of any translated work is derived only from the original work. If I were to translate Shakespeare, my translation can only be called Shakespeare as it is faithful to the original text. Otherwise I have to put other stipulations in front of it. When it becomes simplified in the same language, we add caveats to the title to make it plain that this is not the original work. As a text is faithful to the original manuscripts of Scripture, then that text carries the authority of Scripture, which is the authority of God. This is one reason there is so much debate over English versions. Which one (or more) is most faithful to the original text? (This is not my goal today, and is considered off topic as far as comments are concerned.) Which carries authority as it is correctly translated from the Greek?
The English Bible you hold is authoritative only because it came from God, and it came from God in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. So, it is only authoritative as it is correctly and faithfully translated to leave the same meanings and words as the original. For centuries (since the Bible was first written, and copied, and copied, and copied) it has been held by orthodox believers that the copies and translations carry the same authority as the original as long as they are faithful. Since the Reformation it has become a standard that the everyday common people should have the Bible in their own language. Theologically it has been defensible, but the reason is because of the origin of authority. It is from God. The Scriptures are self-authenticating (meaning they authenticate themselves, since it is quick [alive]).
Returning to the initial theme of the post, the original languages are helpful for understanding. They are not necessary for our individual salvation. They are not necessary for our individual growth or for our Christian life. But they add context. They add history. They give clarification. English words, like Greek words (and I’m sure most languages), have multiple meanings built into the word. Duck has two (I’m not aware of more?) meanings. It could be the animal – the duck swam in the water, or it could be the verb – to duck beneath something. Greek also has multiple meanings and sometimes one is more obvious than the other. By the context the translators took the Greek words and prayerfully and carefully put those into English for us. We believe that God blessed the efforts and so we have God’s Word in English for us with the authority of Scripture. It was meant for everyone. The priesthood of the believer is an obvious theme in the New Testament and you do not need to learn ancient languages to walk with God. But just because the translators did a good job and were blessed, does not mean that the words they translated into carry the same meaning today.
The example I listed above fits perfectly here. The translators used the work quick coming from the Greek zao which literally means life. So, we have today the option of understanding that the word quick in old English meant alive, or we have the option of understanding that the Greek word from which quick was translated meant alive. Understanding old or new English is not any different from understanding the Greek. Language is a tool.
The problem that often arises with this tool, as opposed to the others I have mentioned, is that in the Bible version debate, it has become acceptable to correct the English version. This means that the English version does not hold the authority of God because it is being corrected by any person to stand in the pulpit with a little bit of language. More often than the history or the culture you may find a type of gloating in the use of the language when in fact the text said the same thing in English and the use of the language was in fact no help at all. This is insulting and offending. If the authority of the English version is undermined then the response that many feel (“I need someone to explain my Bible to me”) and the emotional chains that come with it (“I no longer am a priest before God but I need someone to intercede and help me”) are completely justified. This is why the retort is usually that the situation is akin to the dark ages under a Catholic priest. Because that is the bondage that is offered to someone who knows the freedom of Christ.
The conclusion then is twofold. For those that do not know the original languages, recognize that they are a useful tool. That our English is only authoritative as it derives itself correctly and faithfully from the original (what we call derived inspiration). Therefore, the citing of Greek or Hebrew is not necessarily an attack but a way for us to see a greater context and gain a deeper understanding. We need to assume this of the speaker. Give him/her the benefit of the doubt when they bring these things up. Know though, as you already believe, that our English version is derivatively inspired and so it is authoritative. You are not tied to the dictates of what others say the languages may say, but as they open up a greater context and deeper meaning, you can search the Scriptures to find whether those things are so (just as you would with a historical or cultural context).
For those that do know the original languages, use them understanding what they are. They are not for each individual at his/her whim to correct the text in front of them. The people who have translated the texts were far more brilliant than most who are looking at a Greek lexicon, or using a study tool. Don’t pick the definition of the Greek word that most opposes the one in the text. Authority comes from God, and an attack on the authority of the English Scripture is akin to putting those believers in spiritual bondage. Don’t cast a stumblingblock, but use the tools you have worked for and been given by God to exhort and uplift.