There are many times in preaching, teaching, writing, and especially in arguments regarding spiritual matters when people will turn and make an appeal to the original Greek of the New Testament to bolster or explain their position. We can understand the appeal; many strive to learn New Testament Greek in order to gain a better understanding of the Bible, and we might hope that nuances in the Greek may provide that elusive piece of evidence we need in order to make a more compelling point or argument. Nevertheless, appealing to the Greek can also be fraught with difficulties. There are many times when appeals to the Greek are entirely unwarranted– more often than not, difficulties that seem to exist in English are representing difficulties that exist in Greek. Rarely do we find a “Greek silver bullet” that solves a dilemma posed in English translations. While it is true that all such translations are the work of men and have their difficulties and weaknesses, no one should despair about understanding God’s will in English.
Yet it is true that English and Greek are different languages, and there are times when knowledge of Greek may help communicate some nuances and differences that may not be easily rendered in the translations. In these situations an appeal to the Greek can help facilitate better understanding of the Bible.
“Theological” or “Ecclesiastical” words. One weakness of most Bible translations is that they follow the traditions set down long ago about certain words of theological or ecclesiastical (“church”) importance. Some of these words (e.g., baptism, church, fellowship) will have more expansive meanings in English than they do in Greek. Other words (e.g. justification, sanctification, worship) come with the “baggage” of denominational theology and are often misunderstood. The meanings of these words in Greek can be used to clarify God’s intentions in using them.
Definitions. While Greek and English are part of the same language family (Indo-European), words in both languages often do not have one to one equivalence. The range of meaning in a Greek word might be different than the range of meaning in its English equivalent (e.g. agape / love). Occasionally the literal Greek provides an image not found in the English equivalent: a good example is splagchnizomai, which literally refers to a feeling in the bowels, and thus translated “moved with compassion” (cf. Matthew 9:36). Such pictures help to clarify and illuminate the meaning of the words in the Bible.
Grammatical details. In general, Greek is much more specific about the functions of its words (matters of syntax). Adjectives grammatically agree with the nouns they modify; both adjectives and nouns have cases that show their function in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive, etc.). Greek verb forms often provide number and tense in their forms (i.e. first person present tense). Furthermore, Greek tenses also indicate the aspect of the action, whether the action is continuous or one-time, completed or continuing. While the latter is somewhat true in English it is often missed, and at times is essential for understanding the meaning of what is said (e.g. “to have” in 1 John 1:8 is in the present tense and thus progressive or repeated; in 1 John 1:10 “to sin” is in the perfect tense and thus completed). While proper care must be exercised about appeals to Greek grammar, we can see that there are times when it can help us more accurately interpret the text.
These are the most valuable ways to profitably use appeals to Greek in order to help people understand the Scriptures. It is good for us to not expect the Greek to solve all or even most of the challenges that arise in understanding the New Testament. Instead, we should be assured that our Bible translations do well at presenting God’s word to us in English, and appeals to Greek should be limited to when the English could use clarification or illumination.
Ethan R. Longhenry