Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad.
Recently a good friend directed me to the following posts by Tyler Williams, who was dovetailing off a post by John Hobbins about the state of linguistic education in Christian seminaries: namely, that it’s pathetic. I agree completely. In addition I think one should add historical education–e.g. Greek and Roman history–which is all but entirely absent in the seminary context and is equally important, but here I’ll focus on language.
When I went to Westminster Seminary, we probably had among the more rigorous linguistic training among seminaries: three semesters each of NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew, in addition to a hermeneutics course, all of which was required before you took your basic NT and OT courses, in which our translating ability was also examined. Most seminaries I know of offer 2 terms of each language with only one required, which is pretty sad: no language I’ve ever learned before–and I know quite a few–ever took one semester to develop even the remotest competence. But I see clearly now that it was still too sparse. Take Greek for instance. In three semesters we unquestionably did not cover what is ordinarily taught in one undergraduate semester of classical Greek. And as such, by the time we were done, though we could fumble through some parts of the NT, some parts were impossible (Luke, Hebrews–which really are very easy compared to most other Gk authors, even in documentary papyri), our training did not leave us with the education requisite for handling other relevant Koine authors–say Appian or Josephus–much less non-Koine authors less relevant to NT studies–say Euripides, Herodotus.
I think the decision to teach “NT Greek” as a language all its own is both symptomatic of and a contributor to the problem. Over on NT Gateway, Mark Goodacre of Duke polled Greek teacher’s favorite NT Grammar (results here). This is a bizarre question if you think about it. In a sense yes, it’s possible to teach NT-specific Greek, but it’s like teaching only part of a language. This was recognized in the “old days” when the foundation to any seminary education was a solid education in classics. Beginning w/ Classical Greek–via grammars like Hansen and Quinn–really should be students’ entre to the New Testament in Greek. We would only get to the current situation if we felt we needed a shortcut through the language; though this approach will only lead to further problems.
The real sad part about this is that seminaries are creating a mass of ministers who are incompetent in the languages of the Bible, who are dependent entirely on translation and commentaries, and who are therefore making theological and ecclesiological decisions significantly beyond their expertise. This is especially scary when you have ministers in certain denominations starting to deal with very old issues based on important philological and historical data that have been a major footnote to scholarship for the past 40 years, and who are very quick to render them fundamentally wrong. Strangely, often if I make accusations that they’re unqualified, one gets the response that I’m elitist or taking the Bible out of the hands of the common man. I like to remind that the Bible was put into the hands of the hands of the common man by experts in the first place.
Hobbins Notes that Ismar Schorsch also decried the level of training in Jewish seminaries, where I was also a student until a few months ago. The speech mentioned by Robbins was actually quite controversial–not least because Schorsch was on the editorial board of Etz Hayim, which he decried, and as well as the head of Conservative Jewish movement he criticized for the past 30 years. That aside, as a former student of both a Jewish and Christian seminary, let me say they are completely incomparable from the perspective of linguistic education. For instance, JTS for instance required 2 full years of Modern Hebrew, in addition to text classes all in the original (no translation for the most part), in order for me to graduate. I don’t say that to pick on Christians. Indeed, in being one myself, it causes me to lament the value we place on knowing the languages and our preference for shortcuts. We clearly don’t think it is very important.
I was alerted to a response or sorts by R. Scott Clark. I’m actually astonished someone found this blog–I didn’t think anyone knew about it. Lest I be misunderstood, my comments above or below aren’t meant as a criticism of a particular seminary–though some doubtless deserve it–it’s more a critique of how we do seminary in general; how we prep our ministers.
I don’t think I disagree w/ Clark per se–I agree seminaries are for training ministers, not linguists, and we should be very cautious to not confuse the two. Though I still really believe the bar should be raised–I suspect even at WTSCal. It doesn’t make sense that individuals for whom Biblical interpretation is the core of their job not be able to comfortably use the Bible in Greek and Hebrew–not necessarily w/ super facility–and I’ve met a precious few ministers who would admit their languages are that strong (but most are honest about it). I don’t know what WTSCal exams are like, but at WTS we too were only allowed Gk and Heb texts in exams, but we only needed them for 5-15 passages/exam tops, and most of us didn’t even remember those 3 yrs out. That’s not much. I wonder if WTSCal is different, but I doubt it (I hope I’m wrong). But let me re-emphasize: I don’t think it’s their fault per se–I can’t imagine any institution being able to adequately prepare persons for the ministry with only a 3-4 year bachelor’s training (which is really what a seminary education is). And that’s really what this post is about: not singling out any seminary, but rather the system.