“Men learned in the Greek and Hebrew languages”

(Old Facebook Post)

Did you know that Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were “men learned in the German, Latin, Greek, and also Hebrew, languages”? (From the Hutterite Chronicle.) Felix Mantz had even been marked out by Zwingli for teacher of Hebrew in Zwingli’s projected evangelical academy. The Hutterite Chronicle also states that “soon thereafter [after the first re-baptism service] several others made their way to them [to Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock], for example, Balthasar Hubmaier of Friedberg, Louis Haetzer, and still others, men well instructed in the German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, very well versed in Scripture.”

Do we have such men in our churches today? Or we content to pretend such education is really unnecessary–claiming, on the one hand, that Scripture is plain enough that education beyond high school is only likely to confuse our interpretation and relying, on the other hand, rather casually on the expert scholarship of others–those who translate our Bibles for us, produce our Bible dictionaries and commentaries, and do the heavy work for us of refuting false doctrine by their careful exegesis of Scripture? Should our own heritage teach us something about the crucial role of exegesis in biblical languages? (I’m posting these questions as someone who cannot read Hebrew or Greek.)

Follow-up reflections:

Conservative Anabaptists have no truly first-rate Bible scholars, to my knowledge (despite lots of wonderful second and third-rate Bible teachers), and I think our doctrine suffers for it in ways that tend to hamper the health of our churches and the success of our witness.

I remember John Piper once stopping in the middle of one of his teaching sessions (something pretty technical, I forget) and telling his audience that most of them should not live the life he does. He told of how he walked passed a homeless man on the way to the meeting, too busy to help because of the fast pace of his life as a scholar-pastor-teacher. Most people should be free enough to stop and help. His point was that the church needs a few people like himself and lots of people not like himself. I think he was right. I’m arguing we might not have the few scholars that we need.

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2 thoughts on ““Men learned in the Greek and Hebrew languages””

  1. Hello Dwight,
    I am a new reader of your blogs, having been introduced to “Red Letter Reductionism” by my son Steve
    . This article goes to the “quick” of a deep longing I have had for many years. How can we encourage pastors to preach with both passion and doctrinal, thought-provoking sermons when so many of the people we preach to are more interested in sermons that are full of “practical” illustrations embodied by warm and fuzzy stories? I have been preaching for 31 years and my desire to see young ordained brethren aided in developing the gift of preaching has become deeper. There are two things that are sorely lacking in conservative Mennonite preaching; 1) How to study and prepare for sermons and 2) A well-rounded understanding of the Scriptures (systematic theology) shaped by an Anabaptist understanding of the Bible. The lack of teaching from the Word (expository) rather than about the Word (topical) is an indication that these are lacking in so many of us.

    I would be glad for any help you can offer. It may be that you see other things that contribute to preaching that is so often devoid of passion and lacks words and content that cause people to think.

    Blessings to you and your family on this Christmas day. May your vision for the Bride of Christ grow deeper and your love for Him grow and in His mercy and grace make you more and more like Himself. Romans 8:28-34

    Elmer Smucker

    1. Elmer, thank you much for your kind blessing and for your thoughtful comments! I am honored you took time to write what you did.

      You asked: “How can we encourage pastors to preach with both passion and doctrinal, thought-provoking sermons when so many of the people we preach to are more interested in sermons that are full of “practical” illustrations embodied by warm and fuzzy stories?”

      I don’t think there is any one magic answer to your question. Rather, the need calls for a lifetime of multifaceted, shared efforts. It excites me to hear of your passion for seeing younger men trained to become better preachers. And I agree with your two observations about what is lacking in many of our pulpits. How to respond to such needs? Here are some quick, incomplete thoughts to continue your brainstorming:
      * As per your original question, our response should address not only ordained pastors but also everyone in the church. Good proclaimers and good listeners both help each other grow. For example, I would be excited to see churches begin small group training about basic principles of Bible interpretation, using accessible books such as Read the Bible for Life, by George Guthrie. We don’t have to agree with every detail of such a book to receive many blessings from discussing it together.
      * It would be great if many of our leaders would also read some more challenging books on biblical interpretation. Then they could train the congregations in how to read the Bible well by demonstrating what they learn through solid expositional sermons (and exegetically-rooted topical ones, too).
      * In my own case, I was greatly blessed to participate in a leadership training program that was aimed at non-ordained church members who had been identified by the church as having “leadership potential.” Allen Roth in NYC at Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church deserves thanks for initiating and leading this “Servant-Leader Apprenticeship” program, which included several years of reading and discussing books about biblical interpretation and theology and leadership, practicing preaching sermons, sitting in on leadership team meetings, and more. This experience convinced me that we need to find a happy medium between seminary-for-all-leaders and no-intentional-training-for-any-leaders. It also convinced me that training should start before leadership responsibilities are given. Is it accurate to say that we have too many “novices” in our pulpits–men who may have been Christians for years but who have not experienced the mentorship and training that will equip them to lead with as much wisdom and maturity as their years might suggest? Thank God we also have wise men among us who have learned to be self-motivated learners.
      * More financial support for leaders in some of our churches would also be a great blessing, especially if that support was directly tied to providing extra time for sermon prep, for reading good books, for listening to free seminary lectures online (see my audio links under “Other Resources”) and for extra training (such as taking in Steven Brubaker’s class on Bible interpretation during a winter term at Faith Builders).
      * I think a key component here is to help younger preachers and teachers find older mentors who can model Bible study and share a “big picture” biblical theological understanding of Scripture. Being a reader, I’ve found mentors in print. Listening to good sermons and lectures has given a “voice” to some of the authors I enjoy reading. But even for an English major reader like me, initial mentoring under Allen Roth and alongside several other brothers was crucial for starting me down the path of biblical study. Where can such mentoring relationships take place? Ideally, within each local church. Realistically, not all our churches have strong mentors present, so finding mentors and like-minded peers at places like The Shepherd’s Institute, Faith Builders, and more will be important.
      * But how to awaken a sense of need? Perhaps the best place to begin is for people like you with a sense of the need to speak out unashamedly about it, and to model careful, rigorous, passionate exposition of Scripture each time we preach and teach. I think that there are a lot of people who, when they hear good preaching, develop a hunger for more. I’ve sensed this both from some statements given to me after some times when I’ve been given grace to speak God’s word clearly, and also in my own experience of hearing other good preachers. (For example, I’ve been impressed by how seriously many Reformed preachers take their task–much more seriously than most Anabaptists, I’m afraid. Their example has stirred me, even when I disagree with some doctrinal points.)

      Those are some rather spontaneous thoughts in response. The one other thing I want to say is that I affirm what you said about preaching with passion. I long for more of that in my own life–for the truth of the gospel and all of Christ and his blessings to sink down deep in my soul and further transform my life so that my words will rise out of experience and a deep relational knowledge of God. May God raise up more gospel proclaimers, and may we cooperate with him in the task!

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