Friday, July 8, 2016

More Thoughts On Learning Biblical Languages

Kevin McFadden (Associate Professor at Cairn University) has a post over at the The Gospel Coalition titled "Preacher's Toolkit: Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough?" You can read it here. Let me give you just a few statements from the post and then I'll offer some comments.
1. "Hebrew and Greek are probably the hardest subjects in seminary. . . . Many pastors look back on their language classes with bad memories of memorizing vocabulary and forms or being put on the host seat to parse nouns and verbs." 
2. "[M]any (if not most) pastor's don't use the biblical languages much in their sermon preparation. Their busy schedules don't leave them much time to translate a passage, so any insight they have into Hebrew or Greek usually comes from commentaries." Kevin also mentions how most use of the biblical languages, when it actually does occur, is focused on the meaning of a word, what is called "lexical analysis" or "word studies." And he says this "can be done by hovering the mouse over the Hebrew or Greek in Bible software." 
3. "Bible software hasn't really changed anything. . . . Software has simply changed the delivery system and sped up certain tasks." 
This whole issue of using the biblical languages is near and dear to my heart. In my case, I teach multiple sections of New Testament Greek each year. Honestly, I don't want to write a January 2, 2053 opinion article for the New York Times about how I've devoted my life to teaching a language and yet most of my former students aren't using anything that I taught them. I don't want to repeat the words of James Romm (Professor of Classics at Bard College), who wrote in his NYT opinion column, "What did I contribute to [them], except the most laborious eight credits they ever earned?" I'm begging the Lord to help us all figure out how in the world we can get our students to use the languages that we are teaching them. And for students of holy writ, using the languages is an important component.

I couldn't help but notice that Kevin mentioned how he took three years of Spanish in high school and yet now he can't use it because he "didn't actually learn the language." Now I don't want to specifically comment on Kevin's Spanish class. How could I? I wasn't there, I didn't teach it, and I have absolutely no idea what it was like. But I do want to address the issue of connecting a particular reality with a particular (supposed) cause. Does three years of language instruction––in any language––teach students the language? Can any student "learn the language" in two or three years of language instruction? What does it really mean to "learn the language"? I think that's a pretty good question and one that really needs to be answered by all language instructors, but especially by those who teach the biblical languages. Clearly defined "objectives" would be really helpful if we were going to make statements like "I didn't actually learn the language." I think another thing that we need to consider is what is the relationship between courses, continued use, and actually learning (1) more about the language and (2) using the language in more meaningful ways for whatever context a person is living or serving.

Kevin wrote, "Many pastors look back on their language classes with bad memories of memorizing vocabulary and forms or being put on the host seat to parse nouns and verbs." They probably look back on their language classes like that because that is a pretty good reflection of what most language courses look like. Like everything in life, there needs to be transfer to real life application. Too much emphasis has been placed on a mastery of vocabulary and paradigm after paradigm and endless categories of syntax that most students of New Testament Greek throw in the towel, knowing they can never get all that, especially when life and ministry demands so much more of their time. I think most pastors and students of the New Testament feel like those elements of Greek language study pull them away from the actual study of the text. And in some cases they're right.

Kevin wrote, "You can't actually use a language you don't know." This got me thinking a lot, especially about my own experience with Spanish. If you asked me today if I'm fluent in Spanish, I'd say, "I'm not even fluent in English." Of course, I say that facetiously. My Spanish is pretty good. I get along fine when I'm traveling abroad, visiting family in Honduras, speaking in local churches to Spanish congregations, even co-translating resources like Aprenda a leer el griego del Nuevo Testamento. And certainly my Spanish is better today than it was in 2005 when I moved to Tegucigalpa. But you know what? I used Spanish. "Knowing the language" wasn't a prerequisite to me putting in practice what I had already learned. And I made some mistakes along the way. But if I had never put it into practice, would I have learned what I can say I know today? I don't think so. I don't think a traditional grammar or a traditional Spanish course would have prepared me with Spanish like putting it into practice in real life scenarios over the past eleven years.

That's why I also think we need to define what real life scenarios are for students of the biblical languages. Is speaking Koine Greek a real life scenario? I don't think so, though I have friends who do. Is reproducing paradigms a real life scenario? I don't think so. I don't think anyone does. What is a real life scenario, especially given we have a limited amount of time in a seminary curriculum to train and equip students for what they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives? Well, first of all, I don't think there is just one scenario. There a number of tasks that students need to be able to do if they are going to be effective students of the New Testament. Word studies have already been mentioned, so I'll touch on that one. Finding out what an author meant by a particular lexeme is a task. It is a task made up of numerous tasks. It's not as easy as hovering an arrow over a Greek word in a Bible software program. Knowing how to do a "power word lookup" in Logos though would be a task. Opening up different lexicons is a task. Distinguishing between a lexical issue and a syntactical issue is a task. Being able to identify word study fallacies is a task. Finding out where a word is used in the LXX is a task. Being able to identify cognate words is a task. Etc. Etc. Etc. Most students never learn how to do this because they're too focused on memorizing all the paradigms. Maybe if we showed them how to do these tasks, they might start doing them after the Greek course is over? Maybe then I won't have to write my own Romman op-ed for the NYT in 37 years?

I think we sometimes confuse learning a task with learning morphology. You can learn to do something without having a perfectly painted backdrop of morphology. Sure, the more you know, the better. But no one learns everything (in most real life scenarios) before putting skills to work. Most people don't teach the intricacies of bicycles before getting their kids on the seat of a bike and telling them to pedal. I bet most people learn about riding a bike from actually riding it, and they learn much of the intricacies of bicycles inductively over time as they enjoy bikes.

Kevin is spot on when he says that learning a language is more than just looking up words. There's more to using Greek and Hebrew than just consulting a lexicon. And there's more to using Hebrew and Greek than just using an exegetical commentary (as opposed to an expositional commentary). There's more. I think there needs to be a balance between grammar and praxis. It can't be one followed by the other. They need to be taught in tandem. The praxis component involves tools, not a single tool. In the 21st century, language instructors need to embrace these tools and incorporate them in their instruction. Kevin is right, Bible programs are helpful, but they are not substitutes. The same can be said about grammar. Grammar is helpful, but it is no substitute for praxis and showing students how to do the work they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives as they study the Old and New Testament in the languages that God gave them.


  1. One more factor. I'd add is that the statement that "Bible software hasn't really changed anything" seems myopic. Calculators didn't "change anything" - but transformed math pedagogy. Same with spreadsheets and accounting, computer analysis and statistics, and so on. By analogy...I suspect there is a qualitative difference because of what tools enable today. I'm not sure it is fully evident what the final outcome will be, but it will be different. It's combining technology and human research and skills to do something better and different, not just faster. And I have in mind not just the software packages (Logos, Accordance, Bibleworks), but also google books, online resources, and more. And in 20 years people will probably look back and wonder what people were thinking when they said such things.

    1. That's a great point, Carl. I'm just thinking about the stats class that I took when I was in college and then the stats class that I took in my doctoral program. They were totally different courses. In the former, we had to do all the set-up, all the math, all the equations and calculations (granted not by hand). In the latter, we focused on setting up the study and, even more, the interpretation of results. Laboring over the math of everything was not worth the investment of time. The technology had advanced, and it would run what we needed to run. It freed up the time for more meaningful instruction. I've said this a million times, but there's a reason why we don't walk into a math class on any university campus in the United States and find students using abacuses. The only place you might find one of those is a history class, because that's what it is––history. We need to ask ourselves the question as language instructors, what time is freed up today because of the technology we have available to us? And how does that change our classroom?

  2. For what it is worth, I use Greek and Hebrew every week - both through a weekly pastors reading group, and in preparation for sermons. I certainly have benefited from the ease which Bible software has infused into weekly preparation - especially as a "super-concordance." But, to borrow Dr. Sanders' illustration from above, a calculator is effectively useless without the fundamental understanding of arithmetic. Likewise, Logos, et al., are effectively useless, with regard to the biblical languages, devoid of a fundamental instruction in the grammar, syntax, and rules of exegesis; three things I am happily indebted to my professors for having received.

    1. Alex, it makes me super happy to know that you are using Greek and Hebrew each week. And I bet it helps having a pastor-mentor who is doing so too. I'll never forget walking into Jesse's office and seeing Hebrew up on the white board. He was preparing for his message for that Sunday. If only I could hear and see things like that more often. If only more people were using Greek and Hebrew like you each week!

      The focus in biblical language instruction can't be grammar at the expense of praxis, nor can it be praxis at the expense of grammar. The focus needs to be on teaching people to do what they are going to do for the rest of their lives and packing in as much of the grammar and tools as you can in whatever time frame you're given. But the focus needs to be on the tasks.

      Thankful for you, bro! We need to get together sometime!