Use it or Lose it: Strategies for Keeping Your Greek

You've spent hours drilling vocabulary lists into your brain. You've repeated verb paradigms until you could recite them in your sleep. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, you've made it through the infamous Greek class. 

But now you're moving on. You're graduating, getting married, launching off into full-time ministry. If you're not careful, your hard-earned Greek skills will begin to atrophy like unexercised muscles over Christmas break. Before too long, most of what you previously learned will get away in your brain in the category called "Useless Information." 

I talk to pastors from time to time who'll say things like, "I did well in Greek in college, but I've forgotten most of it," or, "I really wish I had kept up with my Greek. It would have really helped me." I want to plead with you to get to work to prevent the atrophy of your Greek muscles. In fact, if you use your Greek faithfully, you will not only keep it, but improve in it. 

There's another group who may be reading this: those who've been away from Greek for a while. If that's you, you can glean from much of what I write. I encourage you to pick up Greek For Lifeas well as work through Clint Archer's excellent series over at the Cripplegate

So for those who still have your Greek, how can you keep it?

Read Greek. 

After just one year of Greek, you should have a solid grasp of the basic vocabulary and grammar of the Greek New Testament. Starting with simpler books like I John, simply commit to reading your Greek New Testament for 5-10 minutes a day. Read it out loud, then go back and translate it as best you can, looking up any unfamiliar words. A Reader's Greek Testament is an excellent investment, as it will define unfamiliar vocabulary as you go. You're not aiming at perfection but proficiency. After a few months of doing this, you'll begin to intuitively feel the tense of the verbs, the syntax, and the flow of thought. Best of all, you'll know the joy of reading the very words that the Holy Spirit inspired and that were written by the original human authors. That's truly awesome. 

Several years ago, I read Greek for Life and was inspired by Plummer and Merkle's call to regularly read the GNT. I've been faithfully doing so on (nearly) a daily basis since then. It has enriched and blessed me tremendously in my walk with Jesus. 

Talk Greek.

By this, I don't necessarily mean trying to speak Koine Greek conversationally. Rather, I mean finding a fellow pastor or Greek geek with whom you can discuss and read Greek. I've got a couple of pastors in my area with whom I do this, though not as regularly as we'd like to. We simply take a chapter and read it out loud to each other, alternating verses. We read the verse and then give our best translation. This has been a great help to all of us. We can correct each other's pronunciations and translations. Like having a workout buddy, this kind team work provides encouragement and accountability. It's a great way to prevent Greek from going onto the "Gonna do it one day" list. 

Teach Greek. 

As the adage goes, the best way to learn is to teach. A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a first-year Greek class. All who have had that experience will tell you that they learned more than their students. Topics that were fuzzy in my mind before the semester (third declension nouns and liquid verbs, anyone?) became crystal clear by the end. When you have to make the complex simple and the boring interesting, you "get it" for yourself as much as for your students. 

There are a lot of ways to do this. Find someone in your church who wants to learn the language. Start working through a first-year Grammar with them. Tutor a college student who's taking the class. If you've got the credentials, volunteer your services to your local Bible college to teach an undergrad Greek class. Find a pastor who wants to re-learn Greek after years of disuse and teach them. 

Preach Greek. 

Why did you learn Greek in the first place? While you might say, "Because it was required," the right answer is to give you a crucial tool for accurately exegeting the eternal words of God. Other than reading Greek every day, the single best way to keep up with your Greek is to (shock!) use it in your weekly sermon preparation, kind of like your Greek prof suggested to you. 

For me, this means preparing my own translation of every NT text I preach. In doing so, I parse every single verb, participle, and infinitive I encounter. This helps me stay fresh with my verb paradigms. I look up key terms in BDAG and Louw-Nida, giving me important insight into the text's meaning. I then go phrase by phrase through the text, analyzing the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and rhetoric of the passage. If I'm working through a complex argument, I might even diagram my text.

Is this labor-intensive? Yes. Overkill? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Absolutely. 

For one thing, digging into the original languages slows me down enough to consider what the text actually says. All too often, our greatest impediment in understanding God's Word is our familiarity with it. Reading God's Word in its original language banishes shallow familiarity and forces us to engage the text with the carefulness and wonder of a first-time reader. 

Once my language study is complete, I've essentially prepared my own mini-commentary of sorts. I can then (and only then) interact with the commentaries in a meaningful give and take conversation. I go with questions I want to be answered. Sometimes, they will point out things I missed or correct assumptions I had. The point is that it's a dialogue, not a monologue; a conversation, not a lecture. 

Using Greek like this each week will do two things. First and foremost, it will make you a more careful exegete and preacher. Second, it will, over the course of many years, get Greek down deep into your mind, transforming it from useless information to indespensible skill. 

One aside: I rarely take my language work into the pulpit with me. Most people do not care that you discovered a pendant accusative or hapax legomena in your study. Greek, as one of my teachers used to say, is like your underwear: no one wants to seem them, but you better have them on (unless you're Superman...and you're not Superman). 


If you're currently taking a Greek class or you recently wrapped up your theological education, my plea is simple: use your Greek training. You've invested valuable time and hard-earned money to gain this skill. Use it well to the glory of God. 

You'll be glad you did. 


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