Friday, February 06, 2015

The Greek Fathers

Critics of Protestantism sometime contend that the Greek Fathers had a signal advantage over modern NT scholars. After all, that was their mother tongue. There are, however, numerous problems with that contention:

i) At best, that argument would only work for Greek orthodox apologists, not Roman Catholic apologists. Catholic theology owes more to the Latin Fathers than the Greek Fathers.

ii) No doubt there's a certain initial advantage in being a native language speaker. That, however, is easily offset by other considerations.

iii) For instance, there are lots of Arabs who are fluent in conversational Arabic, but they lack a command of classical literary Arabic to read the Koran. 

iv) Shakespeare uses many obsolete words which are unintelligible to the average contemporary English speaker–even well-educated speakers. That's why we have annotated editions of Shakespeare. 

In principle, someone who learned English as a second language could acquire a better understanding of Elizabethan English than a native speaker. You can have a German Shakespeare scholar. 

v) And it's not just obsolete words. Some words remain in currency, but change their meaning. To take a classic example:

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep (1 Thes 4:15, KJV).

In period English, "prevent" had the archaic sense of "precede." But the wording can trip up a modern reader. His idiomatic command of contemporary English is a disadvantage in that situation. 

Misunderstanding a word is worse than not understanding a word. If you know that you don't know what it means, then you're not misled. But if you think you know what it means, even though you're mistaken, then you have a false belief about what it says. Ignorance is better than error. 

vi) There's much more to exegesis than word-studies and parsing syntax. There's tracking the flow of the argument or narrative arc, having an ear for literary allusions, &c.


  1. There is also the phenomenon that 4th century writers (for example) didn't have the kind perspective that we have about the flow of history. We know today (from inductive study -- archaeology, inscriptions, documents) that they simply did things differently in the first, second, third, and fourth centuries (for example). So a 4th century writer like Eusebius has been caught projecting what he sees in the 4th century back into the 1st and 2nd centuries. In that sense, having an understanding of the Greek language was more than off-set by an unrealistic view of history.

  2. Steve, please delete this comment after reading it....

    I'm enjoying what I have read so far on your blog. I found a typo you might want to be aware of... I think "signal" should be "single" in the first line of the blog post.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks, but "signal" is what I meant. "Signal advantage" (where "signal" is a synonym for "great, notable").