Thomas Murphy on using Greek and Hebrew in the Pulpit with Care

In seminary, we would frequently debate and discuss whether and how we should “show our language work” in our sermons.  After all, so often in our exegesis, we find that the pew-Bibles (whatever translation they be) do not emphasize something or translate a text as well as the original.  When this happens, how do we deal with the discrepancy?

One the one hand, we do not want our people to forget that the English versions they have in front of them are just translations and carry the strengths, weaknesses and translational-presuppositions of any translation.  On the other hand, we do not want our people to think that their English Bible is insufficient to comfort their hearts with the gospel and reveal God’s will to them truly and sufficiently.  In his Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office, Thomas Murphy offers wise words that neither neuter the minister from teaching his people about the original languages via his preaching, nor give him free-reign to become a Gene Scott and teach his people that they cannot truly understand God’s word apart from his linguistic expertise:

A much-needed caution should here be given to all preachers: it is, to avoid the habit of correcting the ordinary English version of the Scriptures in the pulpit.  There are some ministers who are constantly doing this.  Sometimes the conviction can hardly be avoided that it is done as a display of learning; and a poor weak one it is.  Sometimes, no doubt, it is honestly done to impart a clearer understanding of the word.  But it is nearly always unwise, hardly ever in good taste.  It is always unwise if not done in a very guarded manner.  Its tendency is to weaken, and ultimately destroy, confidence in the Bible as it is in our hands.  Instances could be given where preachers have assailed the English version so often that some of the best of their hearers have declared that they did not know what to receive, for they could not tell whether any particular passage was correctly or incorrectly translated.  It should be made a matter of conscience not to trifle in this way with the word in its present venerable form.  Its meaning may be explained to the fullest extent, but the version should ever be touched with a very delicate hand.

Pastoral Theology, pgs. 134-35.

I think Murphy offers some important wisdom on this front.  I would add to this that should this be done “to impart a clearer understanding of the word” or “explain its meaning to the fullest extent,” ministers do well to treat the pew translation fairly.  Rather than teaching the congregation that this is a difference between “right” and “wrong” or “faithful” and “unfaithful” translations, he should explain it in terms of a difference in translational emphasis.  I find a helpful method is to say, after reading from the pew Bible, “another way of wording this is ….”

While there are no doubt many ways of handling this reality with which we wrestle as ministers, Murphy’s words offer us sufficient leeway, though also wise caution.  His language of using a “very delicate hand” can hardly be stated better!


4 Replies to “Thomas Murphy on using Greek and Hebrew in the Pulpit with Care”

  1. Amen to that!

    When I was in seminary our homiletics profs would throw a fit if we started “in-the-Greek-it-really-says.” If I recall correctly one of them used to say, “Language work in a sermon is like underwear. You need to wear it, but no one needs to see it.” A great little proverb in my estimation :)

    As something of a language geek, this was initially very hard for me, but the longer I’ve preached, etc. the more I think that this is important. Almost always when a pastor pulls out the language guns, there is a tad of arrogance at work. This, of course, is not always the case, but from my own experience in preaching I am convinced that this is more often the case than not (Yes, I’ll admit to having to do some repenting! :) I have also noticed that it seems like those who are better versed in the Biblical languages generally don’t need to resort to showing it off (i.e., to make a music analogy: beginning guitar players are infamous for playing loud and emphasizing every note, while the true masters know how to play softly and allow the flavor of the music to come through).

    As you suggest, Andrew, there are far more appropriate ways to get across the nuances of the original languages without resorting to a pastoral (dare I say sacerdotal?) power play. God’s Word is trustworthy in English, and as Murphy notes, parishioners can easily become paralyzed in personal Bible reading afraid that they need the pastor to tell them “what it really says in the Greek and Hebrew” before they can interpret and apply it to their lives.


  2. Nice stuff, Nevada. I especially think the guitar analogy is quite fitting. I didn’t have a chance to write back, but nice stuff too on the RPW comment. Yep, we’re in substantial (perhaps complete) agreement.

    It gets hard to be consistent with this when dealing especially with particles in the NT. They can often have a wider semantic range than the English equivalents. I’m especially thinking of Eph 1.4 (part of a text I preached on a few weeks back as part of a Lord’s Day 10 sermon) where the ESV (pew bibles) say that Christ blesses us “even as” he chose us in him, whereas BDAG (and Wallace too perhaps? I forget!) shows that this is more of a resulatative nuance, he blessed us “because” he chose us in him…. Of course, “even as” and “because” can perhaps be brought closer together in certain English circles, I know more people who use the word “because” than who use the collocation “evan as.” I just made a comment that the word “even as” functioning in the way we usually say “because” to show that our being chosen in Christ was that very greatest blessing of which Paul was writing. Anyway, just another place…. (my Greek has gotten so rusty… I can’t believe I’m using a Greek example here!)

    The peloni almoni of Ruth 4 is another time when it seems crucial to use a little Hebrew in the sermon; “Mr. So-and-so” rather than “friend.” Plus you get the nice little rhyme!

    Anyway, still, I think Watson is just so right on. What a man of humility. I’ve been so glad that I’ve been re-working through this book. It’s really been good for me. This next week is back to school reading for the upcoming quarter (Seth Sanders, David Carr and Mircea Eliade). Guess I’ll have to wait until spring break to dive back into ministerial type reading!


  3. There are times when a pew English bible just blows it – all translation committees have some agenda, whether they can overcome it very well or not. So, what’s a preacher gonna do if the thesis of his sermon includes an affirmation of what the Greek or Hebrew says and the pew bible stands in disagreement to one extent or another?


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