Monday, October 21, 2013

Teaching The Biblical Languages: Part Two

I concluded Part One in this series on teaching the biblical languages with these words:
"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."
There's a difference between teaching a student straight content and teaching a student the skills he or she will need for a lifetime of ministry. I don't think anyone would question that. I think, however, that many believe students learn the skills by being taught the content. Let me briefly explain what I am hoping for the students God sends to me. I want them to thrive as teachers of God's Word. I want them to feel comfortable interacting with the Greek text and the Greek-based commentaries. I want them to know how not to do a word study, and how to properly do one. I want them to think through syntactical issues in their passages, and not stare into space as they read their intentionally ambiguous "literal" translations. I want others to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want my students to study their passage using the Greek and the tools. Moreover, I want them to be efficient. I want them to get the most from their time in God's Word. Why? Because ministry is tough, and we never have as much time to prepare our messages from the Word as we like.

David Clines, who I quoted in Part One, writes this in his chapter entitled "Teaching the Biblical Languages: Time for a Rethink?"
"The traditional view of teaching's purpose has been to impart knowledge. The second biggest educational change that has taken place during my career has been the recognition that the impartation of knowledge, though necessary and desirable at many levels, is not generally appropriate for higher education. Here we want our students to gain understanding rather than knowledge and to learn how to do things rather than to learn stuff" (163).
"[T]he time is ripe for considering how to upgrade the intellectual value of language teaching and learning, by transforming it from a process of acquisition of facts to the acquiring a set of skills in handling a biblical text" (163).
What exactly does this mean? Well, I've been thinking about the Greek exegesis classes that I had in seminary. All of them, with the exception of those led by one professor, were content focused instead of skills driven. I remember sitting in one Greek class, for example, and the professor began to talk about a certain genitive in one of Paul's letters. I remember him saying, "This is the genitive of source." A student raised his hand and asked, "How do you know that?" The answer was far from satisfying. That sort of classroom certainly has to change. The "This is so-and-so" classroom imparts knowledge, of course. But the "This is so-and-so" classroom fails to cultivate a steady, trustworthy discipline in doing sound exegesis that a teacher of God's Word needs for the rest of his or her life. The "How" focused classroom is much more likely to carry over into a set of skills that a servant of the Lord will use for (and continue to hone over) a lifetime of ministry.

My own personal philosophy of theological education views seminary as a place where men and women come to receive the skills that will deepen and enrich their various ministries. It is impossible to teach without imparting knowledge. I'm not suggesting that we don't attempt to teach and explain God's truth in the classroom. What I am suggesting, however, is that we do not view seminary as the place where students find out the meaning of every book, of every discourse unit, of every sentence, of every clause, of every lexeme, of every morpheme in the Bible. It is the place where proper parameters for interpreting the Word of God are drawn, where Christian servant-leaders cultivate and hone those skills that will equip them to accurately interpret and explain the Word of God for the rest of their lives, and where they receive mentoring and instruction in godliness and leadership.

I've been working on my syllabus for an upcoming Greek Exegesis of 1 Corinthians class. In the heyday of the traditional approach, all I would have to do is come in and tell people what each verse means. Here's what I did over the weekend. I wrote up my syllabus based on what I thought would be a great class. Then today, I sent a text message to a really close friend of mine who is pastoring in upstate New York. I sent the syllabus to him and said, "Hey, brother! Do me a favor, please. Review this syllabus, especially the assignments, and tell me if this would have helped you at all in your ministry setting." In other words, would what I have created really translate into practical benefit in local-church ministry? Guess what happened. Yep, I ended up basically rewriting my syllabus. I had some good stuff in there. I even had some stuff that stayed. But we nailed down a handful of skills that need to be cultivated, and then we adjusted the assignments to build these skills. Will I be mining out every single bit of divine gold nestled within 1 Corinthians? Even if that were the goal, it would be impossible. Instead, I'll show our students some of the things that I have panned and mined out 1 Corinthians through my own study of the letter, but I'm also going to teach our students how to pan and mine for themselves.


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.

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