Monday, December 21, 2009

Greek and Hebrew in Seminary

Let's say there was a surgical procedure that was ideal for a particular kind of surgeon to know, but not essential for patients to survive and indeed do quite well without. Let's say that this procedure was very difficult to master, and it took a tremendous amount of time to teach. Let's say also that even after one to two years of studying the procedure, only about 5 out of every 100 med students could actually learn it well enough to perform it with any benefit at all. Let's say that 80 of those same 100 students never really "got" the procedure or forgot it within a month of learning it--even after two years of study.

Further, let's say that the other 15 out of 100 tried to use it, but actually did more harm to the patients they tried it on than good. Finally, let's say that there were other skills that those surgeons would use practically every surgery that their teachers were having trouble finding room to fit into the course of study. Now, I ask you, would you require the med students to study this procedure... or would you offer it as an elective for those who truly had the potential to master it?

Such, my friends, is the nature of Greek and Hebrew in the typical seminary curriculum.


paul said...

What an odd comment from my former Greek teacher. But I think it's an interesting comparison and a good point. I must say that I was one of those students who didn't get it, but it was a good (and stretching) experience.

Pat Hannon said...

or would you offer it as an elective for those who truly had the potential to master it?

There are still plenty of opportunities to offer Hebrew and Greek electives for students who are truly interested. My own "traditional" seminary experience did not require Greek or Hebrew. Wesley Seminary is far from alone in offering Biblical Languages as electives rather than core courses.

Craig Moore said...

I would go to a better medical school that taught this basic. I would want to be the best medical practitioner I could be and if my school accepted mediocrity like this, I would chose one that had higher standards and expectations for students.

Ken Schenck said...

Craig, I'll be glad to listen to one of your sermons to evaluate how well your preaching is informed by the proper use of Greek and Hebrew.

Mark Schnell said...

After being a pastor for a good while without Greek and Hebrew and then going back to school and having four semesters of each I'm glad I have it now. But, and there's always a big one of those when I'm around, I have come to the conclusion that what pastors need are the tools to interact with Greek and Hebrew. It would be great if they could be taught enough of both so they could use Bibleworks or similar programs, and "get it" when using commentaries that get into the original languages.

A pastor might not need to understand how to identify an accusative ending but they would be helped to understand the significance of it when a commentator describes it.

When I went back to school I was snooty at first and glad to be going to a school that required the biblical languages. I changed that opinion after the first semester or so. But I think a school would do well to help pastors have a very basic understanding.

To keep with your surgical metaphor, I would want my primary care physician to be able to carry on a conversation with that surgeon and also help me to understand what that surgeon does when I ask a question. I would want my PCP to be able to help me know if the surgeon was a quack or not.

Ken Schenck said...

Mark, we will be offering exactly this sort of Greek course this very summer (with Hebrew to follow next summer), with the option of going on to memorize the forms behind the functions as well. It makes sense for those who invest in these languages actually to get something back. The way it is normally practiced is like buying a bunch of Enron stock at full price.

T. Webb said...

As a seminary grad who has worked hard to learn and maintain the languages well, and still learns how little I really know... I have to agree with you quite a bit. I find the languages so very, very helpful... I wish more ministers would devote themselves to them.

Andrew said...

This analogy was very helpful in illustrating how learning the languages often work.

Still, given that conclusions drawn from texts are still very diverse even with the aide of the expertise of many language scholars demonstrates that learning the languages will not completely rid us of our interpretive lenses. I'm hoping that for those without the skills, referring to the professionals are still trustworthy enough not to lead us in the right direction.

Andrew said...

that was supposed to read "referring to the professionals is still trustworthy enough to lead us in the right direction."

Marc said...

As one who had two years of Greek I find that the first year was useful in that I know how to handle it - or at least understand when a professional is discussing it. The second year of translation meant very little to me. In the end - I still found it was best to rely on the professionals.

The familiarity and appreciation of the languages is vital; the mastery is not.

Craig, to consider a school better because they teach one form of surgery is erroneous. For the student will be learning that form of surgery at the expense of not learning something else. With the availability of today's tools it is really a matter of efficiency. I can study Greek on my iPod now!

Hebrew Scholar said...

In many ways this is quite a good parallel with original languages such as Hebrew and Greek. However, I disagree with the parallel slightly. Whereas students not suited to that specialist surgery could perfectly well spend their careers never knowing about it or even trying, I don't think that is the case with studying Hebrew or Greek. Think of the surgery as being more like washing and hygiene for surgeons - i.e. not something you can elect to avoid if you don't like it or can't do it. In other words, being a seminary student without knowing (at least some) Hebrew or Greek is like a nurse or doctor who knows nothing about hygiene. At some stage, even if you are brilliant in other ways, patients are going to die or become ill. Without a knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, you are experimenting with interpretation - not basing it on solid rock, and your students will become spiritually ill as a result.

Ken Schenck said...

HS--I want to make it clear that I myself prefer to read the Bible in the original languages, am an above average teacher of the original languages, and have taught them for two decades! The following is less a response to you as a continuation of the previous discussion.

There are hermeneutical issues involved here. Can a person understand enough of the biblical text to proclaim God's word using only an English translation. If the answer is no, then the vast majority of Christian proclamation throughout the centuries has been askew. Take Augustine, who did not know Greek or Hebrew--all his thinking becomes as filthy rags. And since the vast majority of American preaching uses the original languages wrongly if at all, let's say that it would be better if most Christian services just left out the preaching part.

The next problem, though, is that I doubt you will find that the sermons with the greatest power to change lives comes from preachers who extensively use the original languages correctly. If anything, I suspect these are mostly the province of small dying congregations where no one is coming to Christ at all. I picture a small Presbyterian church whose congregation has an average age of 65 and whose pastor is highly erudite but reaches out to no one in the community (they drive past the church without hardly even knowing it it there).

I would also argue hermeneutically, that this is a paradigm thing too. Since the Reformation, there has been a drive to "get back." But the Christian use of Scripture is not primarily about "getting back" to the original meaning. It is about the gospel "coming forward" to today. The more we emphasize "getting back"--and do it competently--the more the biblical text becomes an ancient artifact. But Greek and Hebrew are not nearly as helpful for coming forward.