Yesterday I talked a little about what a gifted interpreter John Calvin was. I’ve often pondered just what it is that sets apart the really great exegetes. In my opinion, the best exegetes are not necessarily those who have the greatest expertise in the original languages, although such knowledge certainly helps. Rather, I think the best exegetes are those who have the greatest literary acumen. In other words, the best interpreters are those who understand how to read written texts and grasp their meaning through the literary clues they contain. That skill is developed first by grasping one’s native tongue and understanding how people communicate through speech and the written word. Once acquired, that skill is easily applied to texts of other languages. On the other hand, those who never learn to read well cannot seem to overcome that deficiency no matter how well they learn the original languages. That’s why I say it is better to be able to read English well than to know Greek or Hebrew.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is great value in learning Greek and Hebrew. There certainly is. But I have known people who learn the languages almost like they would learn a mathematical formula. They can tell you with seemingly scientific precision what kind of genitive this is or what a given tense indicates, yet their interpretations often seem strained and artificial. That is especially true when they’re dealing with texts which do not fit neatly into a set of grammatical rules. If they have no intuitive sense of how native speakers sometimes bend grammatical rules, play with language, and take verbal shortcuts, they can unwittingly impose a meaning on the text which is not actually there.
This is not just true of those who learn Greek and Hebrew. I saw the same thing in some of the English literature classes I took in college. You could sometimes identify students who were actually majoring in English by their very vocal attempts to read symbolic meanings into the poems and narratives we were studying. They were trying so hard to be insightful that at times they completely misread the texts. Worse still, I had at least one professor who never bothered to correct such misunderstandings! It made me wonder how well he understood the texts himself. (Come to think of it, that was the last English class I took in college!)
In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that much poor preaching stems from the fact that people today are not in the habit of reading and understanding literary texts. Having never developed the literary acumen I’ve been discussing in this post, they tend to scan texts for the information they contain without much view to the ways in which those texts communicate meaning. “Exposition,” he bemoans, “Is therefore virtually a lost art.”
In the end, great exegesis is more art than science, and the greatest exegetes are those with the best grasp of the artistry of human language. Learning Greek and Hebrew is a great boon to the exegete, but without a clear sense for how people communicate, knowledge of the languages will only take you so far. Conversely, those with literary acumen can make better use of the original languages than those without it. Again, that’s why I say it is more important to be able to read English well than to know Greek or Hebrew.
What does all this have to do with Accordance? I’ll discuss that in my next post.