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Abstract Approach to Practical Greek
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Kenneth S Wuest
Practical Use of the Greek New Testament (Revised edition; Chicago:  Moody Publishers, 1982, 157p.)

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While taking a technical approach (most of the chapter headings are oriented towards certain grammatical features) this book gives clear practical guidelines for interpreting the Greek New Testament.  As reflected in the title, the goal of the book is to enhance the practical use of Greek in Bible study and exegesis.

As the author states in his preface, “A Bible expositor may have an excellent training in the elements of Greek grammar and in syntax.  He may know his declensions and conjugations perfectly.”  Yet with all his training, such a person may have “never learned how to make a practical use of the rules of Greek grammar and syntax.”

Limited by Language
Having worked in a number of languages, and been involved in training cross-cultural workers in language learning, I have seen hundreds of people who are limited by their language (even their native tongues) rather than learning how to use their language as a tool for their own expression.

With a clear commitment to the sacredness of the revelation in the written Word, Kenneth Wuest tries to enable the Bible teacher-expositor to be fluent in the original language of the New Testament – seeing its practical, not simply its theoretical, character and implications.

When I was asked to review the book for the publisher in 1982, I was writing in the Kenyan context, and considering the book in that setting.  I evaluated the cross-cultural value of this resource, which was obviously designed by and for an analytical western, highly literate clientele.

I was concerned with the abstract and analytical character of the book.  Since it was oriented to abstract grammatical headings, this was quite distant for the practical, relational worldview of East African peoples.  I wondered how really practical it was for actual use of Greek in use in the passages of the New Testament.  However, a broader concern is that the book seems to ignore the cultural worldview of the ancient Greeks themselves, relating meaning to English.

Limited Value
This book is proposed as practical (as proposed to theoretical?).  For the African setting, it would appear, however, that this book would have limited use for the average pastor-preacher.  It will be of use to those actually engaged in technical work such as actual translation, or critical commentary or development of (advanced) Bible study materials.  But even in the English-language context of contemporary American and UK, this book focuses on the abstract and not on the dynamic social cointext of Greek itself, where the language finds its meaning.

The average level of literacy in the native languages of Africa is low, though rising rapidly in recent decades.  Though technical literacy has increased, African cultures are oral and relaitonal in their orientation, while the nature of this book is analytical and technical.

All of the translation problems dealt with are oriented to English-language equivalents, not hte original usages and meaning in Greek langauge and society.  It has little application to either the African language forms or the language-culture situation.  It is important to note that there is no similarity of any of the African languages to the European group, which includes English and Greek.

For the few hundred pastors, teachers and theologians in East African countries who have interest or proficiency in technical exegesis and translation, the practical approach of this book will be very helpful.  The application of its insights will, however, depend almost entirely on the ability of the particular reader-scholar to make his own evaluation and apply the insights gained to the African situation in either the African tongues or English as used in various sections of Africa.

Language Realities
However, that is only the starting point of the problem I saw.  Responding concerning the limitations in an African setting, the publisher was able to dismiss the initial objection easily enough by simply saying they had not planned to release the book in the African market.  (Was this really originally in the plan, or did they decide that in consideration of my review?  If they had not intended to market the book in Africa anyway, I wondered why a preview copy, in proof stage, was provided to their Nairobi dealer who asked me to review it for them.)

But the problem in universal.  The objections to its format and approach affect how one actually views and approaches the biblical text itself.  This is a problem for a western student or teacher of the Bible.  Here is why.  The book, while touting itself as practical, is totally analytical and theoretical!  It could be called practical only in the very broadest sense, perhaps in that it was written in somewhat of a handbook format.  But it ignores on-the-ground realities of how language works and is actually used in practice.

There is little indication that Wuest has any appreciation of the problem of culture-context translation/interpretation.  The major value of the book is also its major limitation – its close attention to the Greek idiom and expression, or in reality, how this idiom and expression has been trasitionally interpreted into English.  So it does not put the reader much closer to the actual Greek.

The book can provide a great service to those already generally aware of the Greek language and having already extensive experience in study of the Greek New Testament and translation into English.

This, however, is only the first step in adequate translation or exegesis.  There is very little attention to the basic concept of language and the problems of conceptual translation, with virtually no attention to cultural meanings inherent in languages.  There are few helpful guidelines for translating the cultural equivalents of the Greek-European concepts.  This is a problem, of course, in a different worldview context like Africa.

Thus those working in African contexts will have to depend on their own critical powers to apply what they learn about Greek-English verbal or grammatical translations to the African situation.  But most westerners seem to naively assume that they can pull the Greek wording and usages into their own modern western contexts with no loss in value or meaning to the Greek.

The modern American or European setting and worldview is extremely different from that represented by the Greek language, and even more distant from the Jewish eastern mindset that underlay the early Christian developments and teachings in the New Testament texts.

I will present here the original problems as I identified them at the time (expanded and explained a bit).  These go to the assumptions underlying the book, more than the intentions.  Three major characteristics of the book serve to indicate the worldview assumptions underlying the work that result in the limitations of this publication.

Translation Approach
 (1) The first is more implicit.  The total approach of this resource is a translation approach, and this involving only the English language.  Thus its largest audience appears to be Americans and possibly other English-speaking exegetes with application to preaching, in-depth analytical Bible teaching, or related areas of ministry in an apparently high-literacy and high-education constituency.  But the book does not appear to try to recover the Greek context ans usages that might throw light on the original meaning of a New Testament usage.

Besides being distant form the dynamic relational orientaoitn of African and most world cultures, is is likewise distant from modern western generations who have seen through the classical Rationalist assumptions of the analytical approach used in the Modern era since the European Enlightenment.

The English-language target audience is certainly understandable.  This is the home context of the publisher.  But the problem is that the working context is the English language (and thus its cultural context and worldview).

This means you are not really dealing with Greek anyway!  You are dealing with English.  The whole approach to the Greek is through English and from the perspective of English.  This is the circular format I have found in the academic approach in western education related to Bible Study, until the last few years of the 20th century.

Circular Sourcing
The meaning and usage of a Greek word of grammar feature is explained how?  By telling you the ways it has been translated into English!  This means you are interpreting the Greek New Testament from the point of view of previous English translations!  This is the self-sourcing approach followed by classical lexicons!

A T Robertson (Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research) was a notable exception to this solipsistic approach.  Robertson actually probed the writings of the Classical through the medieval period to discover how a word or feature was used, and from that he derives possible intended meanings of New Testament writers.  He constructed his encyclopedic resources by hand and it was originally published in 1914.  I am privileged to own an original copy of the 5th Edition of 1934.

Robertson's approach is linguistically sound, based on actually examining the target language in its own context, not in translation context.  Robertson painstakingly gathered acatual usages and examples of every word or syntax feature on which he wanted to comment.  We want ot know what Greek meant to the Greeks, not what later people made of it from their limited cultural situation and knowledge.

Western Philosophy (Worldview)
(2) The book also assumes a very basic and classical Western analytical philosophical setting – so many of the questions of theological interpretation will not relate at all to the African setting.  The whole general worldview and life-style of Africa is only at superficial points similar to the classical European world-view or philosophy.  An English-language European working cultural context will be alien to and African context.  This will be double work for someone whose native language is not English.

But this philosophical abstract approach is a limitation even for English natives.  European Christian theology is traditionally expressed in a philosophy out of another time and worldview, which we now realize does not make the gospel very relevant to modern western culture either.  Using a classical (medieval or early modern) philosophy and analytical approach is not a very practical way to approach the Greek New Testament.

Many of the “practical” concerns dealt with in this book will still not make much difference in the African context or the contemporary American cultural and language context.  Having to work in English to get to the Greek makes it doubly hard for someone whose mother tongue is not English.  With the additional world view difference for various cultural worldviews, and in the African or other world languages, terminology reflects different categories and a different concept of reality than that assumed in the western cultures.

What are intended as "practical" concerns in this book are actually quite abstract and formalized, not practical in any common sense of the word.  But the worldview behind the approach compounds the difficulty even for current European natives.  It is in fact not very practical for English-speakers either.  The postmodern Westerner is also more relationally and practically oriented.

Faulty Understanding of Language
(3) The emphasis on a verbal (word-equivalent) approach to inter­pretation seems to impose limitations on the meaning of the Greek text and appears to ignore the major principles of interpretation followed by the Bible Societies – that of "dynamic equivalents."

The author seems to see language as primarily words rather than concepts and it is not clear that he appreciates the gap between the thoughts intended and the grammar/vocabulary an author must use as tools to express the intented thought or idea.

That is, there seems to be a view that language is extremely precise rather than fluid, or that there is a prescriptive character at the base of language use, rather than the obvious fluid "consensus" character of any language.  This character has been extensively documented for 200 years as the inherent charactrer of human language.

This is reflected in chapter 11, p. 149:

Verbal inspiration demands that the translator hold to the exact meaning of the word in the original, and not offer an interpretation of his own, based upon the general idea which he may think he finds in the sentence.

The first question which the expositor must settle for himself is therefore, as to just how close he will keep to the words of the Greek text.  If he believes in verbal inspiration, he will hold himself to an exact translation of every word.  He will give every word its full force.  He will see that the weight of his translation will be supported by every word.  He will bring the weight of his exegesis to bear down heavily on every word.  (Author's emphasis)

The writer apparently feels language consists primarily in words.  This is the major limitation.  It has been definitvely and extensively documented that meaning in language resides in syntax and usage, of which individual words are only components.

He also assumes there is one "exact meaning of the word in the original" and that translation involves no interpretation.  How many English words do you know with only one "definition" (usage)? It appears that he has had no experience in non-European languages, and apparently in no language other than English.  Or otherwise he has allowed an abstract theological predilection to limit his concept of language and language-­culture relationships.

Limiting the Bible
This is an easy trap to fall into.  Most of us in some way limit what we will allow the Bible to say to us or the way it must say it.  With the tendency in Africa and some other "new-literate" societies towards literate legalism, this danger cannot be underestimated for new literate settings.  We must encourage ourselves and others to allow the Bible the freedom to speak in its own way from out of its own cultural setting, so that then the meaning may be clearly put into a new language in such a way that the same implications are conveyed or allowed.

In an early classic on Bible Translation approaches, Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber of the United Bible Societies in The Theory and Practice of Translation, state:

"If a translation is relatively literal (i.e., a formal correspondence translation), it is likely to be overloaded to the point that the listener cannot understand as rapidly as the reader speaks.  This is particularly true in the case of expository materials" (p. 30).  And further, "The priority of the audience over the forms of the language means essentially that one must attach greater importance to the forms understood and accepted by the audience for which a translation is designed than to the forms which may possess a longer linguistic tradition or have greater literary prestige" (p. 31).

Romantic Greek
There may be a further assumption in Wuest's thought that has hindered, rather than helped, other translators and expositors as well.  There may be the sentimental and romantic notion that Greek is somehow a more perfect language.  Some writers grow absolutely poetic in their rhapsody about how ideal or superior Greek is as a theologically able language.

Some have a notion that somehow Greek is better than any other language for conveying God’s truth.  Unrealistic claims have been made for Greek’s form and idiom.  The denotation of its vocabulary may be considered somehow clearer, a more universal paradigm for expressing ultimate knowledge or truth.

Some even give the impressions that the language is somehow above and beyond cultural limitation.  The thought of the Greek people and their language has for some reason been considered superior by some, the distinctions and categories of the Greek language somehow definitive.

In reality, Greek is like any other language – it represents the cultural worldview and social culture of the people who use is (or used it) as a native language.

Practical and Universal
Two factors should serve to refute this concept and warn us against idolization of the verbal form of the Greek Testament or of the pagan people whose language it was and whose thought and world-view it reflected.

First, what has been learned in the last few decades about language, languages and cultures indicates that every language of every people is adequate to express the cultural milieu and communication needs of the people who speak that language as a native (or primary) tongue.  If they can think it, they can say it, whatever their native language.

The forms will also be different, and there will rarely be any direct correlation of any one word in any certain language with any similar word in any other language.  The "superiority" of one language or culture over another is a purely relative and judgemental determination.

As the gospel becomes accepted by a certain people and the Bible becomes important to that people, the language will adapt for expression of the Christian concepts entailed, through mechanisms and forms unique to that language itself, without the need of any linguistic imperialism on the part of either Greek, English or any other foreign language with different linguistic patterns, requirements, and implications.

This is true even where word borrowing is concerned.  Borrowed words are always related to the system of thought in the host language, and on the basis of the format and thought forms of the host language.

Further, all languages are always changing, and word meanings are never static, and rarely do words have single indisputable meanings common to all native speakers of the language.  This means that neither the language of the Greek New Testament nor any target language for translation can be clear and unequivocal in usage, meaning or implication.  Ambivalence and creativity are two characteristics shared – to varying degrees – among all languages.  These insights are not clear in Wuest's book.

Second, the cultural context and limitations of the message of the New Testament in the Greek language cannot be ignored, or otherwise the very meaning of the Incarnation – the basic and central doctrine of the Christian confession – will be denied.  In terms of the doctrine of Incarnation, here is what we can say.

God the Father made his revelation in a parti­cular cultural form at a specific point in human history, and the written witness to this event was in a particular tongue written, not in abstract formulations, but in story forms, in reference to particular needs of specific groups of people who accepted that revelation.  (Ref the difference between teh Four Gospels.)

This particularity provides both a universal principle and the need to interpret or abstract that universal from the particularities in which it was expressed, and then re-express that principle faithfully into new particular language, cultural and historical identities of real human beings.

While there are valuable insights in this book for understanding the Greek, the approach

(1) is limited to a simple English-translation context,

 (2) does not take into account the dynamic and culture-context character of language,

 (3) appears not to take into account current knowledge of language and culture and accepted translation theory and

 (4) does not clearly take into account the above-stated incarnational principle.

The reader using this tool will have to use it craftily and warily to get beyond the working context of modern analytical English academics, and use channels to get into the actual Greek mind behind the text.  Modern Greek sources offer options.

Related Resources on Amazon:
A T Robertson:  Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research
Nida and Taber:  The Theory and Practice of Translation

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Based on a review first written for the publisher for the prepublication copy of the book, 1982
This review written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 7 November 2008
Revised 11 May 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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