“Decker,” Etymologically Speaking, Means “One Who ‘Decks’ Linguistic Errors in Exegesis”

decker Rod Decker nails it in this brief paper he delivered at the recent Bible Faculty Leadership Summit, a get-together of professors from Fundamentalist Protestant schools. Decker knows whereof he speaks, having published a work on linguistics (pictured) in Carson’s Studies in Biblical Greek series.

His comments in the article are all worth reading, but perhaps especially these:

Unfortunately, much conservative theology of the past century focused on word studies, probably due to a truncated understanding of verbal inspiration. Yes, the words are inspired—the exact words God wanted used and all the words of the original texts (i.e., verbal plenary inspiration)—but those words are only the building blocks for the syntax and the larger literary structure—which are equally inspired. Words, syntax, and structure are essential to communicate propositional truth. Yet theology is too often done by discussing individual words. This methodological error is perpetuated and encouraged by the frequent citation in the theologies of individual Greek words, usually parenthetically and seldom with comment. Doing so contributes to the perception that theology is based on the individual words.

. . . .

I would make one final appeal to my friends in the theology department: stay reasonably current in discussion of the languages. Don’t rely on your seminary training from many years ago. If you get the impression somewhere that you missed a relatively recent grammatical revolution, be advised that there have been no revolutions in the understanding of the languages in the last 50 years, but progress is steady, if slow. But progress it is. We do understand the languages better than did the generation before us, for by standing on their shoulders, we can see just a bit farther—enough farther in some cases to avoid some mistakes and misconceptions of our fathers. We are also a bit more modest these days (or at least ought to be) in what we can “prove” with the biblical languages. In a sincere effort to reflect an inspired, inerrant text, our predecessors sometimes overstated their case with a maximalist approach to grammar and word studies. Though grammar and lexicon are indispensable, we must be cautious not to push them beyond what their weight will bear.

I couldn’t say a louder amen. Read the whole thing.

One More Excerpt from Alan Jacobs’ Latest Book

Jonathan Swift, Jacobs says, looked for “some method . . . for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever.”

Jacobs comments:

This is a recurrent theme among linguistic academicians and their allies: a deep conviction that the dominant usage of their own time—or, more precisely, the usage into which they were educated, the usage of their youth and young adulthood—is a pure or ideal form of the language, any deviation from which marks a decline.

Language is a living entity. You can’t force it to stay the same anymore than I keep my baby from growing.

Such a comment, of course, calls for a baby picture.


Alan Jacobs: BBEdit Freak, Essay Master


I keep insisting to my wife that I’m not a real reader. I play at it. I pretend by force of will to be a reader. I wanna be one when I grow up. That’s all.

But there are those writers who turn me into a reader by their force of will, their skill and verve and depth. Alan Jacobs is one of those.

On his blog, Jacobs reveals his night-time identity as a word-processor control-freak who actually uses BBEdit to write everything because it gives him complete layout mastery.

But in his books—like The Narnian, Original Sin, and A Theology of Reading—and essays—like this new collection—Jacobs is an insightful prose master and illustrator. Yeah, illustrator, I think that’s it. He finds the best stories to tell, but they are there to make his points.

My all-time favorite is in Original Sin: A Cultural History. You have to read the one about the two-headed cow. It’s a striking and abiding illustration of total depravity (without in any way being defiling).

This excerpt from his new book is another good example. He tells a few stories from the field of lexicography—a field most people would consider the definition of dull. But everyone who reads his essay should come away knowing otherwise. Jacobs is a powerful ally in my quixotic battle against lexicographical prescriptivism.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

Twenty years before [the great Samuel] Johnson began his dictionary a lexicographer named Benjamin Martin wrote:

The pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language is utterly vain and impertinent, because no language as depending on arbitrary use and custom, can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a mutable and fluctuating state; and what is deem’d polite and elegant in one age, may be counted uncouth and barbarous in another.

These words should make the epitaph of all Academies of language, and all forms of classicism as well — meaning by classicism what C. S. Lewis calls “the curious conception of the ‘classical’ period of a language, the correct or normative period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent.” . . . .

This is not to say that there are no excellences or barbarities in language. There are both, as Lewis well knew. But this grasping at past excellences as a means of preventing future barbarities is a mug’s game. To steal a line from William F. Buckley, Jr., there are certainly times to stand athwart history yelling Stop, but not in the Linguistic arena; yelling there is “utterly vain and impertinent.”

Hessians vs. Yankees

Hessian_jagerHow did the word “mercenary” get a metaphorical sense and a literal one?

It started in classical Latin, says the OED, long before English was a twinkle in the Celtic eye. Mercenarius back then could refer straightforwardly to a soldier paid to serve in another country’s army or, in an adjectival form, to someone who was doing something for money when he shouldn’t have (either shouldn’t have been doing the something or shouldn’t have been doing it for money).

But etymology is a funny thing. Mercenary in contemporary English basically has two senses, and I think in most people’s minds the literal sense predominates even if it didn’t come first in history. A mercenary to most is a soldier fighting not for country but for pay.

My impression is that the adjective, always pejorative (“Edward had mercenary reasons for marrying Eleanor”), in most people’s minds derives from that literal sense. But why? What’s so wrong with being a soldier for pay that its adjectival form would become only and ever a slight?

My humble guess is that people do see something intrinsically wrong with killing in war when you’re not doing it in self-defense. Another way of putting it: it isn’t worth giving your life for money, only for kith and kin. Someone who takes that risk is essentially elevating money to a level of importance it simply doesn’t deserve. A colonial American matriarch could comfort herself with the thought that her son’s blood bought freedom for his nation. But what were the Hessian mothers supposed to do?

A Christian is not mercenary, C.S. Lewis has pointed out, for striving after the reward of God Himself. But if he tries to use his relationship with God to get stuff, he’s been converted to Hessianity.

Why Study Greek?

I have always enjoyed languages, especially English, because my father did for me what I hope to do for my son: he insisted that I express myself and he created a welcoming environment for that expression. I took Latin in eighth grade, and my eyes were opened not only to a bit of Latin but, more importantly, to the real nature of my own language.

I later took about six years of Spanish in high school and college, I am officially “proficient” in German (after 40 hours of grammar cramming and the judicious use of an online dictionary!), and, of course, I’ve taken a good bit of Greek and two years of Hebrew.

By my count, I’ve taken 9 semesters of Greek, including three semesters of intro, three of book classes, one of textual criticism, and two of grammar and linguistics.

But a shift has been going on in my thinking over the years, especially because of those last two classes. I learned through them that the value of Greek is not in original word meanings hidden to the lay public. That’s a farce, and a dangerous one. It’s not really in syntactical treasures which will wow your congregation, either. It’s not in besting available English translations. The value of knowing NT Greek is found in, well… It’s in…

Moisés Silva

I have found myself in just the position of Moisés Silva, and it’s partly his fault. He tells the story in one of his chapters in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation of how he was asked to address a group of prospective seminary students on why to study Greek. Out of the abundance of his linguistically sensitive heart, his mouth spoke, so he began with some warnings and continued with some negatives. As time ran out, he squeezed in a few positives. He found out later that one prospect chose not to attend his school because of his talk. He was never asked to speak on that topic again!

The negatives of knowing Greek are better than the negatives of not knowing it, but they’re still present. That’s probably because linguistics needs to be made a part of the study process, or at least it needs to be a requirement for the undergraduate liberal arts training which should already be undergirding a future pastor’s seminary studies.

But I’ll allow Silva to bring us back to the title of this post: What are the positive reasons for a future pastor to study Greek and Hebrew?

A measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the text. Continued exposure to the original text expands our horizon and furnishes us with a fresh and more authentic perspective than that which we bring from our modern, English-speaking situation.

In my own preaching during the past twenty-five years, explicit references to Greek and Hebrew have become less and less frequent. But that hardly means I have paid less attention to the languages or that they have become less significant in my work of interpretation. Quite the contrary. It’s just that coming up with those rich exegetical nuggets is not necessarily where the real, substantial payoff lies.

Silva also points out that Greek grammar may not be the secret key to good theology, but it can certainly rule out the possibility of bad theology in a given case. Jehovah’s Witnesses can impress someone with the fact that “God” in John 1:1 has no definite article, but a rudimentary knowledge of predication and definiteness in Greek will soon show their view to be in error.

Silva also notes that pastors who do not know Greek will not be able to interact with commentary literature or evaluate different English translations. If a member of the church asks him why two translations differ, he’d have to shrug his shoulders.

Silva also points out that if seminaries don’t require Greek and Hebrew, students won’t take them. It’s the equivalent of removing algebra and history from the required list of high school courses. And if students in seminaries don’t take Greek, teachers of their other courses will have to lower the complexity of their lectures. They won’t be able to make subtler linguistic points to their classes. And students won’t be able to speak as intelligently among themselves. And someone who might have been a great scholar of Greek will never get the chance because we won’t be introduced to the topic—do gospel Christians want to cede all Greek and Hebrew scholarship to unbelievers?

Finally, Silva says, there are intangible benefits to studying Greek and Hebrew. In high school, you take algebra whether you will be using sine and cosine in ten years or not. It improves you. It makes you culturally literate. It lays down some brain pathways you will use in ten years. The biblical languages do the same.


I’m sure Silva and I have missed some good reasons for studying Greek, but let me say that all the reasons for it become better reasons if you also take advantage of the advances in linguistics which scholars like Silva have made available. So I’ll end with a few book recommendations on the topic (click to buy):

If you don’t read anything else on this list, read this book. And re-read it a few years later. It’s that good.

This is the second place to start. Silva is less difficult than Barr but goes more in-depth than Carson chooses to in his more introductory text.

This is a classic; Barr was a teacher of Silva’s. Difficult if you haven’t mastered some linguistic concepts already.

Poythress has a simple style that, like John in the NT, belies his intellectual and theological depth. In that he follows his mentor and friend, John Frame.

Haven’t gotten much into this, but I’ve read the opening and I’ve seen it recommended.

I’ve sampled this, and I found it quite helpful.

This isn’t a work of linguistics, per se, but it is very stimulating on hermeneutics in general.