EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Robert L. Plummer, professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, talks with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith about the new intermediate grammar he co-authored, Going Deeper With New Testament Greek.


AJWS: Most intermediate grammars tend to be more technical and don’t have all the things this book has — exercises, practice sentences, Bible passages to translate, and vocabulary. This book seems like it’s taking all the different books one uses in a Syntax and Exegesis-level class and puts it into one text. Was that balance important to you?

RP: Ben Merkle, who is one of the co-authors, has been my friend for over 20 years. We were in the Ph.D. program and we’ve worked on several different projects together. So when Ben five years ago asked me about this book, we just started brainstorming. We’ve been teaching intermediate Greek for years, and we asked, “What will be the ideal textbook?” We would want with each lesson for students to be reminded that this is important. So each chapter begins with a teaser — here’s how something in this chapter really affects the meaning of the text — and the student can say, “I’m learning Greek to read the Bible, to really know things,” and it makes a difference. We also tried to be clear and not have too many grammatical categories, not be too technical, to really remember the intermediate level of student we’re trying to teach. When Andreas Köstenberger joined the project, he also brought many good ideas and years of teaching experience.

AJWS: Now, you wrote the opening chapter of the book, “Textual Criticism,” which is probably surprising to some people. Why start there?

RP: Before you talk about what the text means, the first fundamental question is, “What is the text?” We have to agree what John or Paul wrote before we can debate what they mean by it or translate what they mean. And whenever I’ve taught Greek Syntax, I’ve always had a section on text criticism and I’ve felt like students really want to know something more about that — especially in the last few years when you have some more sensationalistic voices on the side of skepticism, such as Bart Ehrman and others. I find that when students really learn a little bit more about text criticism it actually increases their confidence in the Word of God. I think students will go away with confidence in the authority of Scripture and the way God has preserved it.

AJWS: How did you incorporate some of the recent advances in the study of Greek, such as aspect theory and discourse analysis?

RP: I think I can speak for the other authors: Among the three of us, we’ve been teaching Greek for roughly 20 years or more. We are lifelong learners. We don’t want to teach Greek the same way now that we taught it a decade ago. We want to be reading current scholarship and keeping our teaching as fresh and accurate as possible, so now we’re just bringing what we’ve been doing in the classroom into a textbook format. For example, when I first started teaching, I taught there was a “deponent” category for the voice of a verb, alongside active, middle, and passive. Those of us who study Greek talked about deponency for a long time, but then I started reading some of the current debates about it — Dr. Pennington has written a couple of really helpful articles and chapters about that — and scholarship has really in the last 10 years turned on that and said the category of deponency is a false category for Greek. I think the evidence is overwhelming for that. So the right thing to do then is give it up and teach the right thing. Then, as a teacher, you’re excited about it because you’ve learned something and you’re rightly conveying it now, and you’re just honest about your own learning process. I think that makes students want to learn.

AJWS: For someone who is thinking about seminary or maybe just starting out, why study Greek? Why can’t we just read our English Bibles?

RP: As a famous Jewish poet said, reading the Bible through translation is like kissing your bride through the veil. When you love someone, you want to be as close to them as possible — you don’t want any barrier between you. If you love the Word of God you don’t always want to be one step removed. Let’s say you’re preparing your sermon, you’ve got three great English translations, you’ve got great commentaries, but then people disagree. If you don’t know Greek, you can’t even follow their disagreement. You just have to basically flip a coin or say, “I really like this cover, I like this guy better — John Piper, whatever he says must be right!” I think the desire to study Greek comes from a desire to get close to the Word of God. There’s a reason that for centuries, since antiquity, those people who are serious about knowing and studying the Scriptures ultimately are drawn to a study of Greek and Hebrew. Thankfully, here at Southern we have a lot of students who want to learn the languages because they value the Word of God. And I think you see more and more liberal and mainline seminaries where the authority of Scripture has eroded, and they’re not requiring Greek and Hebrew anymore. Why should you learn Greek and Hebrew if what the Bible says doesn’t really matter?

AJWS: Let’s take our hypothetical seminary student. You’ve convinced him to study Greek. He’s been in school four years, he’s about to graduate, he’s taken six Greek classes, Advanced Greek Grammar, and he’s ready to go off into life. What advice would you give to somebody like that who not only doesn’t want to lose his Greek but also wants to improve it over time without the strictures of the classroom environment?

RP: That last qualification is important: You no longer have the strictures of the classroom environment so you have to apply those strictures to yourself. So, it’s a matter of time management and self-discipline. Just like if you’re a responsible person you have to change the oil in your car or cut your grass or floss your teeth, you’re going to have to say, “What does it look like for me to have Greek and Hebrew in my life?” And if you’re in pastoral ministry, that needs to significantly overlap with what you’re preaching and teaching.

I think you have to write out your own rules: “I’m not going to drink coffee until I have my Greek New Testament open.” It has to be rigid, and then you probably need to tell someone else and they need to somehow hold you accountable because life gets busy. That’s one of my heart’s passion is to keep people growing in their knowledge of Greek and not to apostatize from the language. Too many well-intentioned people vaguely think they’ll keep up with their Greek and Hebrew without a plan, without writing it down, without incentives and disincentives.

AJWS: You’re very involved with helping people keep up with their Greek, like your website Daily Dose of Greek. How much of a passion is this for you personally?

RP: It’s one of the main things I want to accomplish in this life. I have a sacred mission to keep pastors and other Christians reading the Greek New Testament for life. Not just because I love Greek — and I do love Greek — but because of my commitment to the Bible as the Word of God and my belief that as pastors and Christians really know and read and savor and believe the Word of God, it’s going to change them, it’s going to make them more faithful teachers, it’s going to make them people who will proclaim clearly what the Scripture says and ultimately that’s the proclamation of the gospel. It’s the only hope we have in this life.

AJWS: Do you teach your kids Greek?

RP: Well, we have taught them, and they can all to varying degrees sing the alphabet and such, but my seventh grader is taking Greek at her classical school and she’s working through a beginning grammar. She’s a quarter of the way through and we have a lot of fun. I help her with translations and check her translations and she knows that I enjoy it.

Sarah Beth, my daughter — she loves Mrs. Elizabeth Pierce [ed. formerly Elizabeth Mee], her teacher and one of my former Greek students. Sarah Beth is excited about learning Greek and she’s passionate about it. Mrs. Pierce uses games and songs and other creative methods with the kids. So, I have the double delight of seeing my former student, Mrs. Pierce, teaching another student who happens to be my daughter, which is really fun. Sarah Beth knows I love it so much that she’ll say, “Dad, can we read a little of the Greek New Testament before we go to bed tonight?” Even though it’s past her bedtime, I’ll say, “OK, OK, we can read a verse or two.” I don’t know if my other two children will take to Greek as much as she has, and that’s fine if they don’t. They’re all different.

AJWS: Should we teach Greek in our churches?

RP: I think that would probably depend on the context. Clearly one does not need to know Greek to understand the Scriptures and to be saved or to grow as a Christian, but it is striking how many non-ministerial people in ordinary walks of life have a desire to learn Greek and Hebrew because they want to be as close as possible to the Word of God. I hear stories from former students and other people who tell me, “I’m teaching a little class of Greek to people in my church and they’re loving it.” If you have people who want to do that in your context, I think that’s great. I think there are other ministry contexts where it just would not further the advance of the gospel. Maybe it would seem that you’re creating a gnostic sect of more educated people. But as long as it’s just seen as optional, and if there are people interested, there’s nothing like teaching Greek to really learn it.