Thursday, December 3, 2015

Steve Walton On "Learning The Biblical Languages"

The Encyclopedia of Christian Education (ed. G.T. Durian and M.A. Lamport [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015]) was published this year. I've finally gotten around to looking through one of its volumes. Volume 3 has a rather interesting essay titled "Learning Biblical Languages." Interesting, huh? Well, before I get to that essay, let me just share a snippet of what J.I. Packer says in the foreword:
"When education is casually defined as imparting know-what along with know-how, or as telling people where to look things up, it hardly sounds important. In truth, however, education is serious business." (xiii)
Education really is serious. The Great Commission is an educational endeavor through and through. People come to the cross and place their faith in the Savior of the world because someone has "educated" them. That makes Christian education is super important.

I enjoy encyclopedias. That's how I stumbled upon Steve Walton's essay on learning the biblical languages. And I'm glad I did. It was a short read, but well worth the reminder tonight. 

Walton writes this: "Learning biblical languages is crucial for Christian education: it enables learners and educators to engage with the Bible itself, rather than a translation, however good. Translators must choose one translation, and some knowledge of the original languages helps in understanding translators' dilemmas in considering the best way to express a word, phrase, or sentence" (720). He goes on to list four "aims" that motivate people to learn the languages. First, you get to see the text better and understand "how stories and arguments are organized," paying attention to grammar and syntax (720). Second, you get the tools. Third, you get to see how far removed we are from the biblical text. About this he writes: "engaging with biblical languages enables us to fell the strangeness of the Bible, which leads to appropriate humility in interpreting it, for we recognize the limits of what we may claim from the Bible" (720). And fourth, we start thinking for ourselves and we get set free from the commentaries. 

I'm on board with all of this, with a possible minor quibble with the first quote above from Walton's essay ("translators must choose one translation," which I'm not sure I know what he means). So what about classes on New Testament Greek? If our Greek classes don't hit his four aims, then I think we can throw in the towel and tell students the truth–they're just memorizing paradigms. But who wants a class on paradigms? –Not me, and probably not you either. I think we can hit these four aims in the very first Greek class. Nothing will be perfect, and nothing is ever exhaustive. But I think we can hit these four aims. We can start by introducing students to lexicons and explaining the difference between expositional and exegetical commentaries in the first week of learning Greek. "They're just learning the alphabet, Thomas! You're gonna kill them," I hear you say. Nah, they'll be okay. I promise. They can do it. They can handle it. And not only do I think they can handle it, I think they'll appreciate the class more, they'll appreciate Greek more, and they'll start to see their motivation for Greek grow. 

Steve, thanks for your essay. The encyclopedia looks great too. I'd love to see our library get a copy, if they haven't already. 

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