April 9, 2007

Greek in the Pulpit?

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

There are preachers, generally of the expositional sort, who frequently refer to the original languages in the sermons.  They build their theologies from the tense of Greek verbs (“The verb here is the aorist which refers to punctiliar action in the past”) and spend time in their sermon on word studies (“The word here is ekklesia, which is derived from ek, which means ‘out’ and the verb kalein, which means ‘to call’….”).

Sometimes what they say may be in error.  But even when it’s not, I still wonder how helpful such appeals to the original language really are in a sermon.  In exegesis?  Yes, it helps to know the original language and to do word studies and so forth.  In a sermon?  Not so much.

But here’s the main reason I rarely refer to the original languages when I preach:

But the congregation were wrong, I think, in imputing fault to the sermons of Dean Drone.  There I do think they were wrong.  I can speak from personal knowledge when I say that the rector’s sermons were not only stimulating in matters of faith, but contained valuable material in regard to the Greek language, to modern machinery and to a variety of things that should have provded of the highest advantage to the congregation.

There was, I say, the Greek language.  The Dean always showed the greatest delicacy of feeling in regard to any translation in or out of it that he made from the pulpit.  He was never willing to accept even the faintest shade of rendering different from that commonly given without being assured of the full concurrence of the congregation.  Either the translation must be unanimous and without contradiction, or he could not pass it.  He would pause in his sermon and would say: “The original Greek is ‘Hoson,’ but perhaps you will allow me to translate it as equivalent to ‘Hoyon.'”  And they did.  So that if there was any fault to be found it was purely on the side of the congregation for not entering a protest at the time.  — Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, p. 83.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:21 pm | Discuss (8)

8 Responses to “Greek in the Pulpit?”

  1. Paul Baxter Says:

    Lovely quote. I’ve been meaning to read Leacock whenever I actually find one of his books.

  2. Valerie (Kyriosity) Says:

    Coincidence: The Carnahans and another family were over for dinner Saturday night, and I was recounting the funniest children’s sermon I ever heard. Back in my PCUSA church about a hundred years ago the associate pastor once explained to the preschoolers the derivation of ekklesia. I think the entire congregation was shaking its collective heads and wondering, “Jim, what in the world are you thinking???”

    I kinda like a little Greek now and then if there’s really a good reason for it. But if you’re going to teach it to the 3-year-olds, for pity’s sake let them stay for the whole shebang. And expecially for communion — if you’re going to make them eat sawdust, then for pity’s sake let them wash it down with the bread and wine!

  3. Pete Says:

    John, you’ve basically said that Greek is boring, so we shouldn’t include it in a sermon. As we say in IT land, it’s usually not the software or the hardware. It usually the user that’s at fault. In this case, it’s the preacher that makes it boring, not the language itself.

  4. John Says:

    Au contraire, Pete. I didn’t say it was boring, though it may well be (and I’m sure Dean Drone’s was).

    The problem, it seems to me, is that when a pastor starts discussing the intricacies of the Greek language in the pulpit it’s all Greek to the congregation.

    It comes across, I think, as an appeal to the pastor’s expertise, since the congregation can neither follow nor challenge the pastor’s argument.

    As far as the congregation knows, the pastor could be pulling the wool over their eyes as badly as Leacock’s Dean Drone who wants to translate one word as if it were another. Who’s going to stop him? No one, because they don’t know Greek. He’s the expert.

    Now I know that preachers struggle with the English translations they’re sometimes forced to use and it’s good to have some familiarity with the original languages so that you can understand where those translations are wrong and what the commentaries are talking about.

    But when I’m preaching, I rarely refer to Greek or Hebrew words or grammar because I know that stuff doesn’t mean anything to the congregation.

    Mind you, sometimes I’ll say, “Our translation says … but if you look at some other translations, you’ll see that they say….” or even, “Literally, what Paul is saying is…”

    Those are also appeals to authority to some degree, inviting the congregation to trust my exegesis (but then the whole sermon is that, to one degree or another).

    But I guess it seems better to me not to cloud things by throwing out a whole lot of Greek which befuddles the congregation and impresses (?) them with my expertise (“Wow! I didn’t understand a word he said about that, but he sure knows his Greek! What a scholar our pastor is!”)

  5. Pete Says:

    Ah, I see your point. And I agree that specific references to Greek words often lose people.

  6. RevJATB Says:

    I almost never refer to the Greek or Hebrew in a sermon, because I’ve rarely heard it done in such a way that it didn’t sound like bragging on the part of the preacher. And on top of that, his pronunciation is invariably atrocious, which makes the whole thing quite ironic.

    Greek and Hebrew are a necessary part of your homework if you’re a preacher. But putting them out in front of the congregation in a sermon is a little like setting out a bag of flour for your dinner guests. You can’t make bread or rolls without flour, but you serve them the bread, not the flour.

  7. Matt Says:

    In every church I’ve joined, the pastor has invariably looked at me nervously, or else singled me out for a verbal check during his sermon. “This word means this – right, Matt?” I do not like this sort of attention, and wish they would check before the sermon. For the fact is that they are pastors, and part of their job in the pulpit is to tell us what the text says. It is, I say, their job. Not the job of any layman in the pews, no matter how many letters he may have after his name. And just as important – but less obvious – it is not the job of Thomas Nelson or Zondervan either. It is the pastor’s job. If the whole church is using the NIV or the NKJV or a bunch of different translations, that’s fine. But we should see our English Bibles as the starting point for the pastor’s “Targum”, not as the touchstone against which the pastor’s interpretation is to be measured. God promises to bless the Word, especially preaching. He didn’t list publishing houses among the offices of the church.

    Then there are those pastors and — more often — seminary professors who use Greek as a club to beat others, confident that no one else knows it well enough to catch them making mistakes. Such people commonly tout the virtues of the “grammatical-historical method” and insist that the interpretations of their theological opponents are rendered impossible by a simple consideration of the tense of this verb or the case of that noun. Some do not do philological study at all, but merely pass on received opinion, or read the text through the lens of this or that theological grid, and then dress up their interpretation with philological jargon to make it sound scientific. Such men will, I think, be judged most severely. They exude an air of expertise when they really have none.

    If anyone has any suspected examples of the latter, let me know.

  8. Dad B Says:

    I’ve heard “God loves a _hilarious_ giver.” (II Cor. 9:7) … thus we should give hilariously (i.e., abandon all reason and give like one who laughs insanely).

    Or, a preacher who uses the derived sense of a Greek word. E.g., dynamite comes from dynamis, therefore “power” is the power of dynamite.

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