How Knowing Greek Guards Against Prejudice and Partiality
Starting last year—off the back of beginning to lecture at a theological college—I wrote a series of articles exploring the value of studying New Testament Greek. In them I argued that the many discouragements train us in perseverance; the required discipline can strengthen our prayer lives; and failing promotes humility. As the above title indicates, in this post I’m going to explain how learning the original languages cuts against prejudice, partiality, and confirmation bias.
Before doing that, and incase anyone needs reminding, in the same way that God opposes the proud he is against partiality. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). I’m fully aware that that section of James’ epistle goes on to rebuke those who were prejudiced against the poor and gave preference to the rich. Only, we can also say from this that God is principally opposed to partiality. As N. T. Wright writes: “The world is always assessing people, sizing them up, putting them down, establishing a pecking order.” We all do this. We’re all guilty of prejudice, whether deliberate or unwitting. And we shouldn’t.
But below I focus on what we might call theological prejudice and confirmation bias; and how becoming proficient in New Testament Greek works against it.
Partiality Isn’t the Best Hermeneutic
If you’ve ever read a technical commentary, you will have encountered sections where the author lays out various interpretive options for a verse or word. I’m usually about halfway through the second of eight possible meanings when I skip to the bottom to learn which of them the commentator concludes is correct. Then if it’s a commentary by D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, G. K. Beale, or another writer of a similar calibre, I assume their decision. In other words, I don’t reach my own interpretive conclusion based on the persuasiveness of the arguments—let alone the biblical text. Rather, my interpretation is determined by my bias towards the author.
Before taking this any further, let me make one thing clear: you and I will never be as competent in our grasp of Greek as the aforementioned writers. So I’m not here to dignify delusions. There’s a reason they’re writing the technical commentaries and you’re reading about them at Rekindle. However, we still need to practice discernment. Furthermore, we should be wary of interpretive conclusions grounded in confirmation bias—or theological prejudice.
Without a serviceable, working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew you simply cannot weigh the various syntactical or grammatical options outlined in a technical commentary, evaluating their significance for meaning. And for Christian preachers and teachers who want to take the Bible seriously, this isn’t something you can just shrug off.
The Commentators You Like Can Be Wrong
One of the authors I mentioned above has already written an outstanding book about knowing just enough Greek—or Hebrew—to butcher the meaning of a biblical text. So everyone should read Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies; and, since I’m making recommendations, Michale Gorman’s Elements of Biblical Exegesis too. But we digress. And I’m not here to rehash their work. Rather, as my title suggests, I believe that learning Greek keeps us from partiality and confirmation bias I’ve demonstrated above.
When I’m unable to critically engage with a commentator on the more technical aspects of a biblical text my decision essentially comes down to my opinion of that commentator. Do I like Carson? Yes. Does that mean he’s always correct? No. Has G. K. Beale written the greatest book on Revelation this side of glory? Almost certainly. But is every interpretive decision he makes incontrovertible. Again, no. My worry here is that when we turn to these works and writers it’s either in search of an infallible word from them or in order to support my own interpretation.
Last year I edited an academic article dealing with baptism. At one point the student appealed to βαπτίζοντες in Matthew 28:19, pointing out that it’s the only occurrence of that verb as a present, active, participle. This appeal was then supported by citing a respected commentator. Now the observation at least somewhat true: it is the only occurrence of that verb form (present, active, participle) in the plural. However, it appears in the singular elsewhere. This peculiarity is quite simply explained by the fact that Jesus is addressing the disciples as a group, which is why he also uses a plural imperative (μαθητεύσατε).
My point in bringing this up isn’t to suggest I’m any better—I’ve made what I deem my own erroneous appeals to uncommon Greek words. Instead, it’s to demonstrate that my preference for a commentator proves nothing from the biblical text. A certain level of theological bias is unavoidable. On top of that, we should be committed to our theological stable—by way of confessional standards and creeds. But that doesn’t mitigate against God’s exhortation to “rightly divide” the scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15). Don’t confuse confirmation bias with interpretation.
Greek Is a Great Platform for Theological Dialogue
Going over this point with my first year Greek students, I said that hermeneutical work has to be more than siding with the authors and speakers you like or esteem. Lest we give ourselves over unthinkingly to theological bias. There’s much room for disagreement—just as there’s a place to confidently assert a doctrinal point or position, over against another. Sometimes the task of interpretation entails critiquing the conclusions of others. But when you’re doing this just make sure you aren’t merely wielding the conclusions of another to do so.