Specialist or Manager?: The Minister and His Greek Testament by J.Gresham Machen
A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Ray Van Neste shared a blogpost about Dr. A. T. Robertson on the value of Greek for Preachers. His post alerted me to the fact that I had been meaning to post a chapter from J. Gresham Machen called “The Minister and His Greek Testament.” I have provided the bulk of the chapter below, but if you would like to read it in its entirety, you can find it in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. by D.G. Hart, 210-13. (
The widening breach between the minister and his Greek Testament may be traced to two principal causes. The modern minister objects to his Greek New Testament or is indifferent to it, first, because he is becoming less interested in his Greek, and second, because he is becoming less interested in his New Testament.
The former objection is merely one manifestation of the well-known tendency in modern education to reject the “humanities” in favor of studies that are more obviously useful, a tendency which is fully as pronounced in the universities as it is in the theological seminaries. In many colleges, the study of Greek is almost abandoned; there is little wonder, therefore, that the graduates are not prepared to use their Greek Testament. Plato and Homer are being neglected as much as Paul. . . .The advocacy of the study of Greek and Latin should never attempt to plead his case merely before the bar of “efficiency.” Something, no doubt, might be said even there; it might possibly be contended that an acquaintance with Greek and Latin is really necessary to acquaintance with the mother tongue, which is obviously so important for getting on in the world. But why not go straight to the root of the matter? The real trouble with the modern exaltation of practical studies at the expense of the humanities is that it is based upon a vicious conception of the whole purpose of education. The modern conception of the purpose of education is that education is merely intended to enable a man to live, but not to give him those things that make life worth living.
In the second place, the modern minister is neglecting his Greek New Testament because he is becoming less interested in his New Testament in general—less interested in his Bible. The Bible used to be regarded as providing the very sum and substance of preaching; a preacher was true to his calling only as he succeeded in reproducing and applying the message of the Word of God. Very different is the modern attitude. The Bible is not discarded, to be sure, but it is treated only as one of the sources, even though it is the chief source, of the preacher’s inspiration. Moreover, a host of other duties other than preaching and other than interpretation of the Word of God are required of the modern pastor. He must organize clubs and social activities of a dozen different kinds; he must assume a prominent part in movements for civic reform. In short, the minister has ceased to be a specialist. The change appears, for example, in the attitude of theological students, even of a devout and reverent type. One outstanding difficulty in theological education today is that the students persist in regarding themselves not as specialists, but as laymen. Critical questions about the bible they regard as the property of men who are training themselves for the theological professorships or the like, while the ordinary minister, in their judgment, may content himself with the most superficial layman’s acquaintance with the problems involved. The minister is thus no longer a specialist in the Bible, but has become merely a sofrt of general manager of the affairs of the congregation.
The bearing of this modern attitude toward the study of the Bible upon the study of the Greek Testament is sufficiently obvious. If the time allotted to strictly biblical studies must be diminished, obviously the most laborious part of those studies, the part least productive of immediate results, will be the first to go. And that part, for students insufficiently prepared, is the study of Greek and Hebrew. If, on the other hand, the minister is a specialist—if the one thing that he owes his congregation above all others is a thorough acquaintance, scientific as well as experimental, with the Bible—then the importance of the Greek requires no elaborate argument. In the first place, almost all the most important books about the New Testament presuppose a knowledge of Greek: the student who is without at least a smattering of Greek is obliged to use for the most part works that are written, figuratively speaking, in words of one syllable. In the second place, such a student cannot deal with all the problems at first hand, but in a thousand important questions is at the mercy of the judgment of others. In the third place, our student without Greek cannot acquaint himself with the form as well as the content of the New Testament books. The New Testament, as well as all other literature, loses something in translation. But why argue the question? Every scientific student of the New Testament without exception knows that the Greek is really necessary to his work; the real question is only as to whether our ministry should be manned by scientific students.
Note: Only after I typed this up, I realized that it was available in its entirety online! Oh well, you can find it here. Lesson learned.