On theology and language learning

Theology, done well, addresses the whole person: body, soul, affections, desires, virtues, faults, history, present and destiny. It also addresses all of human life and culture. It was only with hindsight that I began to see the shape that theology itself gave my own studies while a seminarian. In learning to be a theologian, I learned to be a historian, a constructive systematician, a reader of ancient texts (in their original languages), an interpreter of those texts and a translator of those languages, a preacher, a pastor, an analyst of culture(s), a writer, and many other things. Or at least, I started trying to learn those things.

Why should seminary students learn to read Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew? Translation is not an exact science. It always involves interpretation on the part of the translator: you translate according to what you think the author meant to say, and do so by choosing how you think it should be said in your target language. We translate as human beings for other human beings, as living language users doing what Google Translate cannot.

When we only have a translation, we are dependent on that translator’s interpretation. That is certainly the case for the vast majority of Christians as they read the Bible, which in itself is no bad thing: in that regard Lamin Sanneh’s work reminds us that Christianity has always been a faith that exists ‘in translation,’ its Scriptures being written in three languages. How important, then, that the Christian community has those whose efforts guide us in our dependence upon the interpretations of others. The church needs preachers who are exegetes, and scholars who can interpret the Scriptures with nuance and clarity.

More than this, though, Sanneh also reminds us that the Christian church resembles its Scriptures in being pluriform in language and culture from the moment of its birth. This is where Sanneh has helped me try to understand my particular role as someone who works between systematic and historical theology. Thus far my research and writing has focused largely on a particular point in the history of Christianity and the theology developed there: neo-Calvinism, a distinctive branch of the Reformed tradition beginning in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. More specifically still, I have tried to serve as an interpreter of Herman Bavinck, neo-Calvinism’s leading systematic theologian.

I do not work in Biblical Studies, but to my mind it would be unthinkable that I could do a PhD on the word ‘righteousness’ in the Pauline corpus, or the structure of Amos, or the role of particular ideas in the Pentateuch, without learning to read Greek or Hebrew: I would be utterly dependent on the interpretation of other scholars in their translation of the text, and would not be able to justify my choice of a particular English translation of the texts in question. I would unwittingly perpetuate errors in their translations. Indeed, I would not even be aware of those errors.

I work in historical theology, and to my mind it is no less unthinkable that I could do a PhD on the role of the organic motif in Bavinck’s (Dutch) work, or Calvin’s (Latin and French) writings on John’s Gospel, or Barth’s (German) Römerbrief, whilst having no knowledge of their original languages. The reasons are the same: someone else has produced a particular interpretation of Bavinck, Calvin and Barth, and by never reading those texts in the original languages I would (unknowingly) import the subtleties of interpretations not my own, whilst being wholly uncritical as a recipient of their interpretations. I could not ask; has this translator understood Bavinck correctly? Is this English rendering of Barth’s German text accurate, or are there mistranslations at key points? Does this recent translation of Calvin suggest that the translator has been influenced by more recent theological giants, and is rendering Calvin in that light? That is to say nothing of the problems posed by one’s knowledge of a particular writer being restricted to an often limited number of translated sources. What if your entire thesis is contradicted (or confirmed!) by an untranslated source of which you know nothing?

Language learning is no less important for the systematic and historical theologian than for the Biblical Studies scholar, though I fear this point is sometimes lost on theologians within our discipline. For that reason, I require my PhD students (who are working on Dutch theology) to take my weekly Dutch seminar. So far this semester we have read and translated texts by contemporary and older theologians (Arnold Huijgen, Barend Kamphuis, Herman Bavinck), a historian (George Harinck), newspaper articles, and texts from Dutch websites. They are learning to produce scholarship based on the original sources and are becoming skilled as original interpreters of those texts. No doubt their future students and readers will benefit from their hard work.


3 thoughts on “On theology and language learning

  1. Hi James,

    I couldn’t agree more! I’m an aspiring systematic/historical theologian having just completed my BA Hons in Theology and I’m taking a year out before pursuing an MA. As part of my year out, alongside a fairly heavy theological reading schedule (including from October Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics… In translation for now), I plan to continue to master my current three languages of Greek, Hebrew and Latin (especially this one, the newest) and from January add German. Not only do I love languages and have a bit of a flair for them, I aldo think knowledge of the relevant ones is of the utmost importance in any theological research. This is the case partly because the entirety of the Gospel is based on a divine act of translation: the incarnation.

    P.S. As a Bavinck scholar, do you think the state of Bavinck scholarship historically speaking is such that there is potential to do constructive work in dialogue with him…?

    Keep up the blogging,
    Soli Deo Gloria,


  2. Dear Jared,

    It’s good to hear of your interest in learning both the Biblical languages and a modern research language. Mastering all of those will take years of effort – but it will be more than worth the investment of your time.

    Re. Bavinck scholarship: definitely. Bavinck was a great thinker, and the significance of his work more than qualifies him to serve as a dialogue partner in constructive theological work. As an academic field, ‘Bavinck studies’ is growing rapidly – with lots of good theologians publishing work on him. So we also have a strong (and ever expanding) body of secondary sources with which to engage as well.

    Best wishes,



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