Yesterday Fuller Northern California celebrated the retirement of John Koeker after 55 years of teaching biblical languages for Fuller. He asked that I say a few words about the privilege of teaching scripture. Here is a rough outline of what I said.
(In Honor of the Retirement of John Koeker)
Often, when we begin to study scripture, particularly in a seminary context, we start by imagining that theological education is about cultivating familiarity. We know and love scripture, and we anticipate that we will deepen along these lines of what we already know.
Such learning is its own privilege. And hopefully it happens. It happens while we are in seminary and it continues to happen after.
But there’s another aspect of teaching scripture, and especially when we’re talking about the biblical languages. We don’t just confirm and deepen the familiar scripture that we already know and love.
We also make the familiar strange.
In fact, this might be the most important thing that happens in seminary. We come in hoping that we will master the word. But when we are confronted with the strangeness of what we once thought was familiar, we realize that it is the word that masters us.
The word of God that enters where we thought we most clearly understood and demands that we listen again, relearn what we thought we knew.
Behind the strangeness of the once-familiar scripture stands the strangeness of the once-familiar God. The God who can never be mastered.
Any mastery we might have thought we had over scripture becomes a target for the Spirit of the living God to break down and reveal God to us in fresh ways.
Learning Greek and Hebrew will do this.
We begin thinking that the languages will give us the tools to nail down the meaning of the text. We hope that when we learn what it says “in the original Greek” that we will be able to pronounce definitively on what the meaning might be.
But the languages open up possibilities rather than nailing them down. They multiply possibilities rather than diminishing them.
And as scriptures cannot be nailed down for our mastery, we discover again and again that God who speaks through them cannot be nailed down for our mastery.
Let’s take Greek.
A seminary student comes in knowing full well some of the most basic dynamics of the Christian faith. We are justified by faith. By believing. Justification by faith.
And the student learns the Greek word behind all this: pistis.
Then one day the student is reading through Romans in Greek. Because, after all, that’s what you do. And comes across Romans 3.
At first, all is going well, “If some did not believe, their unbelief…” so far so good. But then, “… will not nullify the pisits of God, will it?”
God has pistis? What does that mean? God doesn’t have to believe in anyone. Clearly this is talking about God’s faithfulness.
But if pistis is talking about God’s faithfulness, what if that’s what Paul thinks we need as well?
What if Paul’s hope is that people exhibit sustained faithfulness toward God, entrusting ourselves to God?
The familiar becomes strange and new and powerful.
The gospel of faith in Christ blows up ideas of intellectual assent as we recognize our calling to entrust our very lives to God even as Jesus did by going to the cross.
This is the privilege of teaching. Not to tell people what’s there, the content to be mastered, but to give them the tools and the expectations that the God who speaks in scripture will always continue to do so in ways we can’t predict.
The biblical languages open this world to our students. They make the familiar strange.
There’s another sprout that can grow from this strange, unpredictable world of scripture. And languages embody this reality: the strange can always become familiar.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew because people spoke Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek because people spoke Greek. We read the Bible in English because people speak English.
These are not mythological Holy Spirit languages chosen for their unique ability to communicate what is Other. They are demonstrations that the God who is other than us can nonetheless always make God’s strangeness familiar for any language, people or culture.
In other words, part of privilege of teaching Bible, and biblical languages in particular, is giving students a front row seat to the Mission of God.
Biblical languages are the thin edge of the wedge into this Mission. They show us that God is deeply committed to speaking so that people can hear and understand.
Precisely because these languages are so strange to us, they show how the gospel of God can become familiar to people living across times and places. God makes Himself known so that people can understand. This is why the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. This is why the New Testament is written in Greek. And this is why we continue to render it into English.
Because the strange gospel of the strange God can always be made familiar to people of any culture, of any time, of any place. This is the mission of God.
That’s what you’ve been up to the past 55 years. Making the familiar strange, and thereby opening up for students the possibility that God will speak a new word even on old familiar ground.
And, demonstrating God’s willingness to bring the divinely strange into any and every culture of the world.