Saturday, October 19, 2013

Teaching the Biblical Languages: Part One

David J. A. Clines has a chapter in Foster Biblical Scholarship: Essays in Honor of Kent Harold Richards entitled "Teaching the Biblical Languages: Time for a Rethink?" It is a masterpiece. His essay moves through six advancements in the realm of pedagogy and Greek language instruction, which he says "challenge current practice" (161). They are:
  1. Student-centered learning
  2. Skills-driven instruction
  3. Different learning styles
  4. Student-learning outcomes
  5. Increasing pressures of other disciplines on the theological curriculum
  6. Usefulness of electronic resources
On #1 above, Clines has got some powerful statements on pedagogy. Try this one out: "The biggest change that has taken place during my own career as a teacher of biblical studies has been the transition from teaching to learning as the focus of our endeavors . . . . [I]f one looks into such a classroom, what one sees is no longer a teacher teaching students but students learning, with the assistance of teachers" (162). As Clines says, the shift is huge. It is monumental. They are two different classrooms. Everything is designed around the teacher, not the student. Or the opposite is true; everything is designed around the student, not the teacher. The danger in the old way is it makes the teacher the most important person in the learning relationship. In fact, the greatest, as Jesus said, must become the leastest (yep, that's a word). The shift Cline mentions is a critical one; it is one that identifies the students as the most important persons in the classroom. What of the teacher then? Cline answers, "In this scenario, the teacher has given up the role of the sage on the stage in favor of that of the guide by the side . . . more of a facilitator of student learning than an expert passing on knowledge" (162). Think about what this means?

Clines uses this example about biblical language instruction:
"Traditional teachers, like the teachers we ourselves had (on the whole), believed (and still believe), among many other things, that a student of Hebrew must learn (by heart) the forms of the regular verb. Some will settle for nothing less than the forms of all the verbs, regular and irregular, but let us just say, the regular verb. Now learning the regular verb includes learning the forms of the Hophal, does it not? Not many teachers of elementary Hebrew know, I wager, that the Hophal occurs fewer than 400 times in the Hebrew Bible. There are some 74,000 verbs in the Hebrew Bible; thus, only one in every 185 verbal forms is a Hophal. There are some 300,000 words in the Hebrew Bible; therefore, one has to read 750 words of Hebrew, on average, before one encounters a Hophal. That means that if one reads five chapters of the Hebrew Bible, one is likely to bump into as many as--two Hophals. Why, I ask, have we been making our students learn all the forms of the Hophal when it is so rare? Would not a student-centered learning approach take a cost-benefit view of the matter" (162-163).
The mastery-approach starts off with well-intending students eager to read in the original languages. Guess what happens between the eighth and tenth week of beginning Greek courses. Many of those same students who started off all pumped-up about the language become overwhelmed and rethinking the value of the languages. Add to this that most classes relegate the "ministry" part of language learning to the ninth credit hour (or further along, if at all) and students quickly disengage. The class becomes something that they just want to pass, not something where they are developing skills that they will use for a lifetime of ministry. A knowledge of the grammar is critical, no doubt. But, as I have said earlier this week, you cannot postpone showing a student the value of the biblical languages later and later in the curriculum. The discipline of using the languages in ministry has to be cultivated throughout the entire program. Knowledge, in my opinion, might be better defined as familiarity with concepts, not mastery of every jot and tittle and words occurring five times or less including all of their conjugations.

That's another reason why I believe David Alan Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek is the best introductory Greek grammar out there. Rote memorization is kept to an all-time low. Identifying the different tenses has never been easier. Does a word have anything that appears before the stem? No. Okay, then does it have a σ between the stem and the suffix-ending (amalgamated or not)? No. Then it's present. Does a word have the past-time morpheme? Yes. Okay, does it have a stem change or a σα? Okay, great, it's aorist. What about the perfect? Spot the κα and reduplication. You get the idea. More than that though, Black introduced us to the value in exegesis as we worked through the grammar.

For the future scholars who will take the helm of biblical language instruction in our theological institutions, there needs to be that in-depth study of the biblical languages. But we can no longer tailor our programs, which we say are designed to equip the local church, to scholars. The great majority of students in our seminaries are not going to be teaching at one of the major theological training centers. The vast majority are going to be preparing Bible lessons and sermons while performing a number of other leadership responsibilities, such as visiting the elderly in the hospitals, doing funerals, counseling husbands and wives on the brink of divorce, meeting with prayer groups in the morning, etc. No wonder using their Hebrew and Greek is the first thing to get cut once their wheels hit the asphalt in local-church ministry. Seminaries have failed to do the cost-benefit analysis for those that are most important in the classroom. But, I promise you, pastors and other Christian servant-leaders will do a cost-benefit analysis once they are in their respective ministries. And guess what again? Learning how to use the biblical languages won't make the cut. Why? They should have been taught how to use them in seminary. Instead, they were walking through the wrong type of fog, namely the rote-memorization, lopsided grammar fog. "A little bit of Greek is dangerous," the saying goes. Yes, a little bit of Greek (with no guided instruction in how to effectively use it in local church ministry) is dangerous. I suggest we aim to give students less of what they can get with a click of a mouse, and more of the skills they'll need once they've clicked the mouse. Here's another proverb that might be helpful here: "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." But, one thing is for sure: If you know he's going into the wilderness, don't spend the three years you have with him teaching him the anatomy of fish. If you do, he'll be a vegetarian once he's in the wild.


Clines, David J. A. "Teaching the Biblical Languages: Time for a Rethink?" Pages 161-168 in Foster Biblical Scholarship: Essays in Honor of Kent Harold Richards. Edited by Frank Ritchel Ames and Charles William Miller.

No comments:

Post a Comment