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19 September 2022

I believe that preaching in many contemporary churches would suffer no great loss if preachers in those churches would reduce or eliminate their use of the biblical languages.

What? Wait a minute. Why am I—a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament, and an author of a textbook on Biblical Aramaic—urging less use of the original languages of the Bible? Surely I’m not serious.

Actually, I am quite serious about this. Biblical languages are simply irrelevant to the way many contemporary preachers carry out their work in the pulpit.

To start explaining what I mean, let’s consider what congregations “get” from the sermons they hear. What’s their “take away”? As congregants walk out of the church building, what part of the religious speech they just heard sticks with them?

Perhaps it’s a theme: social justice, racial reconciliation, stewardship of the environment, peace, love, and so forth. Maybe it’s the illustration the preacher used: possibly a charming fable, a funny story, or a personal anecdote. It could even be the application part at the end about contributing to the building fund, loving one’s neighbor by being a good citizen, or about how people really should be more winsome and culturally sensitive toward secularists or those who practice different religions. If these are the main impressions one receives from much contemporary preaching—and I think I am not far off the mark on this—it should gradually become clear why I suggest that preachers in these churches are wasting their time if they use the biblical languages.

Themes, illustrations, and applications like those mentioned above determine the majority of sermon content in many churches. We should notice the nature of these themes, illustrations, and applications. Edit out some religiously tinged terminology in an environmentally themed sermon, and the remainder could just as well serve as a speech at a political rally. Spin a thrilling illustrative yarn, and a preacher could garner many “likes” on a podcast. Remove mention of God—if he was indeed mentioned—and applications about “doing more” and “working harder” could effectively summon the orator’s familiar friend, guilt, to motivate an audience to action.

Theological “fire alarms” should be ringing—urging evacuation—during the preaching of sermons like this, for these sermon themes, illustrations, and applications are not Christian in any specific sense. They do not require warrant from the Bible. Not a single one. That’s a problem.

In the end, what fundamentally separates a theme-driven preacher from a purveyor of manners and morals? What distinguishes an illustration-driven preacher from an entertainer? What differentiates an application-driven preacher from a motivational speaker? Precious little, I’m afraid. What’s more, these moralists, entertainers, and motivational speakers in religious dress truly have no use for Hebrew and Greek.

Brothers and sisters, elders and deacons, church staff and church members, it’s time to lament and repent.

It’s time to lament the present state of “famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11) It’s time to repent too! When others turn away because of the intolerable “hard sayings” of Jesus, for example, we should instead blurt out with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

It’s time to return to the Bible, the authoritative and sufficient word of God, in text-driven preaching. Communicating joyful submission to Scripture in word and deed, the text-driven preacher proclaims God’s textually-communicated message, and thereby proclaims the precious word that the people of God are starving to hear.

For getting to the heart of the text, there is simply no greater aid to the text-driven preacher than the ability to interpret it in its revealed form, before translation. The Bible in translation is like an image of a rainbow rendered in grayscale. It may be a faithful representation, but no amount of fineness in pixel resolution can compensate for its dispiriting lack of color. Is it too much to ask that the chief “imagers” of faith in our congregations—our preachers—whom we may even pay to receive training in expensive, specialized schools called seminaries, simply study the sacred word in all its full spectrum of beauty? Surely then, Scripture’s vibrant words ringing in preachers’ ears and quickening their pulses as they preach, churches could leave behind the superficial sermonizing with which we are all sadly too familiar.

To be sure, knowledge and use of the biblical languages doesn’t guarantee faithfulness to the Bible. However, the biblical languages are a basic tool that preachers should wield with confidence. Carpenters need not become “saw experts” to use a saw, and they certainly shouldn’t explain their sawing technique to customers who buy their woodwork. That said, it is reasonable to expect that they use a potentially dangerous tool like a saw with much greater skill and safety than those who don’t make a living cutting wood.

Likewise, I urge that preachers without biblical language training refrain from picking up tools they don’t know how to use. To them I plead, just preach the word of God: not your culture’s word, not your denomination’s word, not your church’s word—and please—not your word. Then, as you carve out the time in the midst of the daily press of ministry, why not worship the Lord through study of the languages through which he chose to reveal himself? Why not marinate your soul in the sacred text as you draw close to it as never before? Why not let God’s words, as they were spoken, thrill your heart and revolutionize your preaching? Surely we need more of that kind of influence from Hebrew and Greek in church!

Dr. Scott N. Callaham is the author of Modality and the Biblical Hebrew Infinitive Absolute and lead editor of World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues.