Column Title: In Search of Right Words: Saint Augustine, Rhetoric, and Preaching
By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University
September-October: “Hallelujah: Discovering the Strangeness of Scripture”
Column Description here: Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in his work On Christian Doctrine, illustrates the important relationship between preaching and rhetoric. Even in his day, many questioned what use the church could possibly gain from the study of oratory. Nevertheless, Augustine saw something much deeper in communication that many Christians still miss centuries later. This column will be a personal journey through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, through which he shows how God can, in fact, use rhetoric to help us see more clearly the beauty of scripture as well as find the right words when articulating gospel truths to others.
Hallelujah: Discovering the Strangeness of Scripture
In the days of seminary, I remember my first experiences of taking Hebrew and Greek courses. I was immediately thrown into considering again the meaning of the biblical text rather than simply learning new languages. Passages that I perceived to fully understand were made foreign through this experience. I am forever grateful.
In a previous column, I discussed the importance of audience analysis by preachers and teachers of the word. The goal of doing so, Augustine argues, is to make that which is unfamiliar familiar so that barriers can be overtaken for the goal of teaching, understanding, and maturing.
For this to occur, however, the teacher must analyze himself, but in a different way from the audience, to distance themselves with scripture by making the familiar unfamiliar. This is best experience through the study of biblical languages.
Consider, for example, the Hebrew word “Hallelujah” which means “praise the Lord.” It should seem strange to us that as we watch the original Shrek movie, our emotions are impacted by Leonard Cohen’s song entitled, “Hallelujah.” At least in this way, we need to be alienated from this pseudo familiarity that we might see the true contents of God’s word.
Augustine, the fourth century Bishop of Hippo argues in On Christian Doctrine that, “The great remedy for ignorance of proper signs is knowledge of languages. And men who speak the Latin tongue, of whom are those I have undertaken to instruct, need two other languages for the knowledge of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, that they may have recourse to the original texts if the endless diversity of the Latin translators throw them into doubt.”
Recently, I came across a criticism laid against Christians, primarily Protestants, because of their lack of willingness to study biblical languages despite their belief in scripture as God’s word.
The premise is correct, but the critique lacking.
Although seminary training is not required of pastoral ministry among most protestant denominations, the study of biblical languages is still perceived by many as essential.
The critique holds only if one sees biblical language training as merely an intellectual pursuit which switches the focus of ministry from community to self. Rather, one should see the study of biblical languages as a means to clarify scripture for lay members who do not necessarily have the time or financial means to go to seminary.
Training in biblical languages, therefore, performs the opposite action for a minister by removing the preconceived familiarity with scripture. The Bible is a compilation of ancient texts immersed in undeniably different social, religious, philosophical, and political contexts. Therefore, if the biblical teacher does not wrestle with the unfamiliarity, then a mature interpretation of the text cannot be articulated to the audience.
Personally speaking, studying the Bible in its original language and context forced me to realize my own limitations which, in turn, became a steppingstone for new growth in personal discipleship and even my service to others through the task of preaching.
Remembering the Body Logic of the Church When Studying Languages
Uniquely, Augustine never actually learned New Testament Greek but rather was personally bound to Latin interpretations. Nevertheless, God used him to change the world through his life and training. Imagine what can be done in your life and ministry if you seek to use the resources at hand. Most do not realize it, but twenty-first century Christians have a wealth of resources especially through seminary training.
Kevin DeYoung argued a few years ago that the contemporary church currently has more theological resources at hand than any other time in history. These resources, of course, include the biblical languages among many others. The seminary where I graduated, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is home to The H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies which allows students to translate and work through Greek manuscripts.
Biblical Languages are essential, as Augustine notes, when attempting to articulate the gospel more clearly. Without doing so, growth is limited in our own understanding and our preaching, not unlike Augustine. Thus, we should be honored by the academic work occurring in our seminaries. When we do, we remember and honor the body logic of the church.
We need our seminaries because they exist to help equip future ministers and lay leaders with resources that edifies the church. Paul’s analogy of the church as a body composed of many parts illustrates this point (1 Cor. 12: 12-31). Just as the congregation needs the pastor to aid in interpretation of the scriptures, pastors need those Christian scholars who have undertaken a career of education in biblical languages.
Not all Christians are gifted and called to the same work of ministry. Rather, we should consider how God calls some to be academics to serve a unique capacity that will, in turn, result in trained ministers who can properly serve in congregations.
I am so thankful for my seminary experience at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Despite the commute and busyness of life, those professors and educators poured into my life and education in ways that without their doing so, I would not be doing the work I am currently a part of at William Carey University. More pertinent to this conversation, the language training received still challenges my faith in unique ways.
When using Hebrew or Greek to study scripture a passage rightly becomes strange to my twenty-first century mentalities. It is only through that strangeness that I am able see the gospel rightly and articulate it to those before me.
 “Augustine – On Christian Doctrine, in Four Books.Pdf,” accessed June 6, 2022, http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Augustine%20doctrine.pdf.
 Kevin Deyoung, “Why the Church Still Needs the Seminary,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed September 11, 2022, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-the-church-still-needs-the-seminary/.