Why Am I Pursuing a PhD in Hebrew?

In 2010, John Piper was asked, "Should pastors get PhDs?" He responded, 

"If you're already a pastor, I wouldn't get a PhD. It's a lot of work, and the payoff is really small. Really small. When I say really small, I don't mean studying the Bible is small payoff. But the way most PhD programs are set up it is small payoff. Because you have to read so much junk in order to get your PhD. You have to become an expert in what other people are saying, most of which is wrong. And if you're a pastor, set yourself to study the Bible and take courses. But don't worry about a degree for goodness' sake."

Piper later goes on to state that if a person is pursuing the pastorate but also desires to receive a PhD, "I would much rather you do a wise PhD--that is, go to a place where they really let you study the Bible mainly." While I would arrange my response to the question a bit differently than Dr. Piper, it appears the thrust of his comments suggest that whatever additional education a pastor, or aspiring pastor, pursues should aid him in a further understanding of the holy Bible. If that is his analysis, I agree. However, that still leaves a wide range of doctoral possibilities. In my case, why Hebrew?

Before proceeding, please understand that I am writing from a certain perspective. In God's providence, I have been given the opportunity to pursue a PhD. Many pastors are unable to walk the aisle of doctoral training. In fact, many ministers do not have a seminary education. If one is unable to pursue either, that does not mean he cannot accurately interpret the scriptures. He may be unable to plunge the depths of scripture linguistically, but he still, along with the apostle Paul, can say, "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1-2). 

Where, then, do I find inspiration to pursue a doctorate in Hebrew?

1. God

With the same thrust Paul exhorted Pastor Timothy, the Holy Spirit exhorts pastors today, saying, "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:1-2). As a minister, I am called to both understand and preach the word of God. But what is the word of God? Is it the KJV? NASB? ESV?

During my first semester in seminary I recall being throughly disturbed. One of my former professors announced, quite confidently to the class, as he held an ESV in his hand, "This is not the word of God." I remember thinking, "What have I gotten myself into? Have I enrolled in a 'liberal' seminary?" While some might suggest the professor overstated his case, especially in light of WCF 1.8, it seems that his motivation for making that declaration was to point us to biblical languages (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), which are more closely aligned with the original autographs of the holy Bible. To know the word of God, according to a former professor, is to know the original languages.

The benefits of knowing the biblical languages, particularly Hebrew in my case, are numerous. My studies have provided a greater understanding of the Old Testament and ability to interact with Bible translations and commentators. Regarding the latter, it may be beneficial to note the commentator's education. Many of them do not have doctorates in Old Testament theology. More than that, they do not have a Hebrew linguistics background. It would seem, when interacting with commentators, one would desire scholars who are particularly trained in that area of scripture. After all, if you were having difficultly seeing, would you arrange an appointment with a cardiologist who has general medical training or an optometrist? In my experience, when I read commentators who do not have specialized training in the Old Testament, many of them recycle information from other commentators and provide more a comparative analysis of the passage versus diving into the text of scripture linguistically.

Having a specialized degree, however, does not guarantee an accurate interpretation of the scriptures. At a minimum, it should provide a foundational knowledge that allows one to interact with God's word--Hebrew--in the Old Testament. What happens from there depends on the scholar's disposition toward God and the scriptures.

2. The saints of old

John Currid writes, "When we consider the Reformation, it is usually characterized by the Latin expressions sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fides. And, indeed, these are principal teachings of the reformers and truths that we ought to hold to dearly. Yet, I would argue that the commitment of the reformers to the study of the original languages of the Bible was one of the hallmarks or emblems of the Reformation. It was the Reformation that gave the study of the biblical languages their true significance with a definite goal: to obtain a serious and impartial understanding of the Scriptures..." (Calvin and the Biblical Languages, 69). Earlier in his book, Currid underscores the importance of the biblical languages not simply for the reformers generally but John Calvin more specifically. Apparently, "Calvin entered the pulpit carrying only his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament..." (28).

More recently, both J. G. Machen and B. B. Warfield mentioned the importance of knowing the original languages.

J. Gresham Machen, during a presidential convocation address at WTS, said, "If you are to tell what the Bible does say, you must be able to read the Bible for yourself. And you cannot read the Bible for yourself unless you know the languages in which it was written... Hence, if we want to know the scriptures, to the study of Greek and Hebrew we must go" ("Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan," in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, 188-89).

B. B. Warfield wrote, "If the minister is the mouth-piece of the Most High, charged with a message to deliver, to expound and enforce; standing in the name of God before men, to make known to them who and what this God is, and what his purposes of grace are, and what his will for his people [is]--then, the whole aspect of things is changed. Then, it is the prime duty of the minister to know his message; to know the instructions which have been committed to him for the people, and to know them thoroughly; to be prepared to declare them with confidence and with exactness, to commend them with wisdom, and to urge them with force and defend them with skill, and to build men up by means of them into a true knowledge of God and of his will, which will be unassailable in the face of the fiercest assault. No second-hand knowledge of the revelation of God for the salvation of a ruined world can suffice the needs of a ministry whose function it is to convey this revelation to men, commend it to their acceptance and apply it in detail to their needs. . . . For such a ministry . . . nothing will suffice for it but to know; to know the Book; to know it first hand; and to know it through and through. And what is required first of all for training men for such a ministry is that the Book should be given them in its very words as it has come from God's hand and in the fulness of meaning, as that meaning has been ascertained by the labors of generations of men of God who have brought to bear upon it all the resources of sanctified scholarship and consecrated thought" (Warfield, "Our Seminary Curriculum").

3. My former professor

Miles Van Pelt, professor at RTS and visiting professor at Westminster Seminary California, encouraged me to pursue additional education in Hebrew. Besides his personal encouragement, his vigor and depth of understanding of the Old Testament were inspiring. His constant refrain in class, as he taught us the intricacies of Hebrew, was, "I want you love Jesus more." That was his motivation for teaching Hebrew. How fitting! It still affects me today.

Much more could be said regarding my pursuit of a doctorate in Hebrew, but for the purposes of keeping this post somewhat short, I will end here. For additional considerations regarding your pursuit of a PhD, please read Dr. Jones' post.