EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Robert L. Plummer, professor of New Testament interpretation, talks with Towers writer Annie Corser about his new book, Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek.
AC: How did this book come about?
RP: This book, like most books I’ve written, was not necessarily planned. My good friend Ben Merkle who started the Ph.D. program here with me in 1997, asked me specifically, “Would you like to co-write this book with me?” So it’s not something I really had on the radar, but we both love teaching Greek. We started teaching Greek together in 1997 as Ph.D. students. We love seeing students ignited with the passion for learning Greek. We like to make it fun. So it just seems like whenever Ben asks me to do something with him, it’s hard to turn down. So we did it, and it’s a little different from other books I’ve written. It’s very conversational. It very much reads more like a magazine or a newspaper. My most recent description of it to try to explain it to people quickly is it’s like your life coach for the Greek language. So you may be taking a class, you may be studying Greek on your own with a textbook, but you sort of need someone to come in, your wingman, your life coach, who’s going to say, “Okay, this is how you can learn this quickly, these are the things that are going to distract you. Here’s how you stay in it for life. Don’t forget this is important. Here’s a devotional. Knowing Greek really matters. Here’s an inspiring quote from John Calvin. Here’s what John Piper has to say. Here’s from a student five years ago.” We also included a chapter for those who have left Greek and have abandoned it. It includes inspiring stories of Dan Wallace and how he got encephalitis and forgot all of his Greek and had to relearn Greek from his own textbook as he was teaching it. A lot of pastors I run into are ashamed that they got so busy that some of their knowledge of Greek or much of it has slipped, and they don’t want that to be the case, but they don’t really know how to get back. So this book is intended for the beginning student to really learn how to learn it and keep it. It’s intended for the current student because we even have a chapter on what to do in your summer and winter breaks to make sure you don’t lose it and you progress. It is for the graduate who either wants to stay in it and is at a good place now, or (more frequently) has moved away and is trying to bring it back.
AC: You said pastors you talked to are ashamed of losing their Greek, how do you see that shame affect them?
RP: I’m a Greek professor, so when I meet our graduates 10 years later, I’ll sometimes say kindly, “Are you staying in the Greek text?” or something like that. Or people, through the Daily Dose of Greek, people I’ve never met will email me and say, “I graduated from seminary and I took Greek, but I got so busy in pastoral ministry I let it slide and I didn’t know how to get it back. But I found this and I just do a little every day and I’ve been doing it two or three years, and I can read Greek. I’m so excited. It wasn’t a waste!” I think part of it is when people first go into pastoral ministry, they’re often overwhelmed by the new lifestyle, preparing weekly messages and getting to know the people. So the tyranny of the urgent takes over and if they haven’t developed good habits, they sometimes lose what they really value. We live in a distracted society, and the book speaks about how our brains are wired to respond to new information, so with people there’s this sort of self-reinforcing neurological loop, where people get into checking Facebook and looking at Instagram or these kinds of things and really wasting a lot of time that they don’t realize. Part of the book is looking at some of this research and thinking about how to bring structure into your life to choose to do the things you value most for the long haul.
AC: Do you notice current students also battle that same guilt and shame?
RP: It’s less common because they have the assistance of external structures. They have the structure of classes and the structure of curriculum that often is guiding them through, but you do sometimes find students who allow the demands of other classes crowd out their Greek and Hebrew habits, and I tell students it really doesn’t take that much. Honestly, if you’re in Greek five or 10 minutes a day, you can maintain a really good working knowledge. But for the same reason people can’t floss their teeth regularly or exercise regularly, I think quite honestly a lot of this has more to do with habit and distraction than knowledge of Greek, so that’s why much of the book deals with how to develop habits, how to avoid distractions, and how to think critically about how we’re spending our time. With the limited time we have, how do we use that effectively?
AC: How important are communities of accountability and how can students pursue that?
RP: I think that’s very important. Obviously, the model we are given in Scripture is that we should not forsake assembling of ourselves together. The author of Hebrews says we should join together regularly in fellowship, and Jesus founded the church through his apostles. The vision we have for the Christian life is a vision of community, and I think that’s true academically as well. We need other people. We help pull each other along. This is why people pay a lot of money for personal trainers: They can’t exercise like they want on their own. They need someone to help them. Why do people join exercise classes? Why do people find Bible studies so beneficial? Not only for the accountability but also for the insights from other people. It’s never been easier to have these communities digitally, electronically, remotely. There are Facebook groups mentioned in the book. There’s Daily Dose of Greek. There are other means of remaining in fellowship with people even if you’re on the other side of the world where you’re kept in Greek together, you’re journeying together, but obviously here on campus, there are student reading groups. I think few people can succeed in the long run of staying in their Greek and Hebrew unless they have some way of journeying with others through that.
AC: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
RP: I hope the book helps people, ignites them with a passion for lifelong reading of the Greek New Testament. That includes increased skills, ease in learning, inspiring stories, vision for where they want to go and how to get there, so again, like a personal trainer for an exercise program, this is your personal trainer for Greek. You may know, “Well, I’d like to be in shape, I’d like to go to the gym. Why don’t I do it?” So this is a book that says, “Hey, let’s get you where you need to be with Greek for the trajectory of the rest of your ministry.”
AC: What is the purpose of the quotes?
RP: In my own study of Greek, I’ve always found quotes from historical figures, and not only for Greek but almost anything, to be enduring in my memory. So when Martin Luther talks about the value of the languages, or Calvin, or Wesley, there’s a richness and a depth to their perspective. So for years I’ve collected these, and I know other people who have collected these quotes. We got a big file from Peter Gentry that he had collected and some from other friends. I asked former students to give feedback on what was helpful, so you’ll see a few of them in there. So I think it’s just surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We also included devotionals at the end of each chapter where there’s a text and the purpose of that is to say, “Hey, knowing the Greek and studying the text really makes a difference.” It’s a constant reminder that this is worth doing, because you can’t engage in theological questions at the deepest level until you’re looking at the original text.