Sunday, September 4, 2016

SEBTS Library Talks: The Importance Of Studying The Biblical Languages

My friend Dougald McLaurin recently hosted a panel discussion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary featuring David Beck, Ben Merkle, and Tracy McKenzie. The subject was the importance of studying the biblical languages. Obviously, I was interested. Given the importance of the discussion, I wanted to chime in with a summary of the interview, highlighting some important points, as well as offer some of my own thoughts in response to the questions that Dougald posed to the panel. You can watch the panel video here. By the way I've indented the panel participant's answers. I haven't included all of the answers, just some. You definitely want to watch the video for yourself. My own comments are not indented.

Question 1: Why is it important to study biblical languages?
David Beck: “The study of the biblical languages is important because it is essential to understanding the Word of God. God in his sovereignty chose to give us his Word in Hebrew and Greek.”
Beck goes on to point out that because we are not first century Greek speakers—none of us—and because there are no pre-first century Hebrew speakers, everyone is dependent upon a study of the biblical languages. Everyone to some extent is dependent upon such a study because everyone who studies the Bible in some way does so in the arena of a world in which the Old Testament and New Testament have been translated into a modern language. He goes on to point out how a knowledge of the Scriptures via translations leaves one dependent upon “someone else’s knowledge and interpretation of [the original languages] and not your own.”
Ben Merkle: “You really don’t want to be a second-hander when it comes to God’s Word. You don’t want to be relying on what someone else said. You don’t want to have to rely on, maybe it’s the commentary that happens to be in your library; maybe it’s the commentator that you heard someone else quote. . . . What we want to be able to do is open God’s Word and see for ourselves what the real issues are, and to be able to come to those decisions on our own.”
Tracy McKenzie: “You study the biblical languages to be able to understand the intention of the author. I think, just speaking in particular of the Old Testament, the biblical author they connect these words and phrases throughout these different books—in the books, outside the books—they connect these things together via words and via syntax and things like that, and sometimes the English translation—actually often—the English translation may or may not pick up on that. So it’s very important to read these in the original languages. I was also going to say, I was—this really gets to the next point about the tools and translation—but I remember being over in Italy a few years ago talking with a pastor there—an Italian pastor there—and we were trying to communicate. And I didn’t know any Italian and he didn’t know any English, and so we tried Google translate. So he would type something in in Italian and he would expect it to spit out some kind of English. It just made no sense. So, although we have some great tools to study the languages, ultimately they don’t yield the sort of kind of first hand knowledge, if you will, that the study of the biblical languages really does.”
And now for my short answer.

Words have meaning. They have ranges of meaning. Because words have ranges of meaning, it behooves us to study those words in the languages in which they were written and with as much a peak into the past––into the historical milieu in which they were used––so as to narrow down those ranges of meanings until we arrive at the inspired authorial intent. One example that I might point to is the word δοῦλος, found a number of times in the New Testament, especially at the beginning of some of the letters. How are we to understand this word? And more precisely, what did a New Testament author mean when he wrote it? Is an author like Paul in Philippians 1 stressing the fact that he is one who serves, or is he stressing the idea that he is owned? What about when words are used in conjunction with other words, e.g., in prepositional phrases or participial clauses? Well, think about Rom. 5:8 and the last prepositional phrase: ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν. Did Christ die for us or did he die for us? You see there are a couple of ways to understand this prepositional phrase, even in English. The English in most translations is actually intentionally ambiguous if you ask me. Let me explain. I could say to you, "I'm going to the store to get a present for my wife." Now how will you understand the phrase "for my wife"? Do I mean that I am going to go and buy a present that I will in turn present to my wife as a gift? Or do I mean that I am going to go to the store and buy a present in my wife's stead because for one reason or another she cannot go and do it for herself? It matters, doesn't it? And we need to get into the habit of wrestling with this ambiguity and getting down to intent of the author, not just getting in the proximity or general vicinity of what the author intended.

Question 2: What would that first hand knowledge of biblical languages do for someone? Obviously for biblical studies students we can kind of see the importance of biblical languages for what we want to do, but what about for missionaries, counselors, and pastors? How important is that for them in their professions that they’ve sought to go into?
Ben Merkle: “ . . . sometimes you say, ‘Well, we have so many tools, we don’t need to study the languages. We can just open up our computer program, we can punch in a few things, and it will give us the results.’ Well, a friend of mine is a carpenter. I have the same tools that he has. I have the exact same tape measure. I have the same square. I have almost the same hammer. Mine’s yellow, his is red. But it’s the same brand. Now in his hands, those tools are a lot more effective and efficient. If he starts hitting and banging on something, he’s going to know what he’s doing. He’s going to know how to use those tools. He’s had practice. He’s spent time. He knows the house. He knows all about it. He knows what’s on the other side of a wall. And so when I start remodeling my house, I don’t do it without him. I call him up and I say, ‘Hey Richard, come on over.’ Because I have the same tools, but I don’t know how to use them. Just because you have the tools, it doesn’t mean you know how to use them. You know, information is out there. Why come to seminary? All the information in seminary is out there. But we come to seminary because we are being trained how to use the tools effectively. And so it’s crucial that we not just learn about them. You can learn about a hammer—what it does. You can learn about a tape measure—what all the little marks are. And how to use a square. But if you don’t know how to use them effectively and efficiently and accurately, then you’re really not going to get anywhere.” [And then Ben has a great little joke as the response transitions to David Beck. I love Southeastern profs. Priceless.]
David Beck: “Richard may be the carpenter and the general contractor, but there’s a difference between whether or not, when Richard comes, he tells Dr. Merkle, ‘Now you stand over there and watch, because I can’t even trust you with your yellow hammer.’ Or whether he is able to say to Dr. Merkle, ‘Because you have some familiarity with the tools, as long as you are under the supervision of someone who’s a real expert, then you can actually participate in the project.’ And I think for us to try and use our computer language tools without ever having studied the languages is like not even knowing the difference between the hammer and the saw and yet trying to get some kind of benefit and result from it. We need to at least gain enough familiarity that we are competent to evaluate the discussion, that we have an identification of parsing, and we know what that means—we know the significance of what a tense or a voice or a mood is.”
Every Christian should want to be a better student of God's Word. And studying the biblical languages should make you a better student of God's Word. I think a little bit differently pedagogically than the individuals in this video, all of which I know and respect. One of them even taught me Greek way back in 2003. I think the grammar-translation model has a number of major flaws. For one, second-language acquisition research is deafening clear that grammar-translation as an approach is problematic. In fact, only classicist and biblical language professors as a subset of that first category still operate using this approach. Personally I could teach a grammar-translation course. Not a problem at all. But is there evidence to support the approach? Shouldn't SLA literature at least be considered, and shouldn't we ask whether the findings of that research (which is by and large concerned with modern languages) has any impact on the pedagogy of the biblical language classroom? One thing that stood out while I watched the interview was there was an emphasis on paradigms and vocabulary, especially in the first two semesters of Greek and Hebrew. What was interesting though is David Beck acknowledged that so many students were only opting for two semesters (i.e., not taking Greek III or Greek IV or one of the Greek exegesis courses, in which the segway to exegesis really took place). If that's the case, when are they going to get that supervision in using the tools? I suppose the burden could be placed on the student––if they choose not to take more Greek or Hebrew, then they aren't going to get more than paradigms, vocab, and translation practice. Or maybe SLA research has something to say here. Maybe tasked-based language pedagogy could benefit the students, especially since they are just going to take two language courses (which is going to keep happening as seminaries continue to lower their program requirements [e.g., M.Div. 72 hours or 80 hours]). Maybe we should focus on exegesis and certain skills that students need in ministry and cut out some of the unnecessary memorization. Then we could focus on that supervision for the two courses that we have with students. Still give them grammar, but instead of "mastery" (which doesn't really take place, even if you have four courses in a language) aim for familiarity and conceptual awareness and we could focus on "skills"?

Question 3: How has learning the languages benefitted you in your spiritual walk with Christ?
David Beck: “Anytime that we get a better understanding of the original authorial intent of any biblical text . . . that’s going to impact your walk with him, your intimacy, your growth. . . . We’ve been in local church ministry where we’ve been teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people of God. And that’s a great responsibility. And we want to do it accurately and right. A recent example, the last opportunity I had to preach—a few weeks back—I preached on the Lord’s prayer. Now we all know the Lord’s prayer. We can all recite it. We learn to do that at some point in our Christian walk. But even the way we recite it in English hides some things that when you discover them in the Greek just make a profound impact. We say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ as if that’s all introductory material and then we get to the meat of the prayer—‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’ But when you examine that in the Greek text, there’s a deliberate structural parallel between ‘hallowed be thy name’ and ‘thy kingdom come.’ But we don’t translate it that way in English. So as I was preaching this text, I actually told them that a better rendering of this to help you understand and how this was originally constructed is ‘hallowed be thy name, coming be thy kingdom, accomplished be thy will.’ And just having those three lined up parallel like that just makes me stand back and think about what the text is really saying and gives me I think a greater insight into what Jesus was modeling for me in that prayer—a full acquiescence to the will of God. None of these things are endowed. The question is will I fully submit and surrender and participate in God’s activity in those three things.” [Ben and Tracy chime in and then the discussion comes back to David Beck.] “What we do not want to convey is that unless you gain the level of competency that we have gained and had the level of formal academic instruction that we have had that then you can’t make use of them. Because the majority of our students will never have that opportunity. But rather what I strive to do is to demonstrate, even with my students who are taking two semesters of Greek—which, if they’re honest (and I verbally acknowledge this), they are there primarily because it’s a requirement for graduation for the degree track their in, rather than already being committed to the importance of the languages—my goal is that by the end of the second semester, if they never have another formal course in Greek, they will have come to see: (1) not only that Greek matters, but also [2] that they can use what they have gained throughout the rest of their lives, throughout the rest of their ministries. They do not have to put it away because they haven’t gained enough to make use of it. Because I believe that even with that minimal level of instruction—which is not our goal; our goal in that class is to convince everyone they need to take more; but recognizing that many won’t, I want them to realize that after a year of Greek, every time you open up your English Bible to prepare a lesson or do your devotions from the New Testament, you can open up your Greek side-by-side. And if you know the right resources and have them available to you, whether they be on computer or they be hardbound on your bookshelf, that you can utilize them, and you can now make sense of the discussions, of the issues that are raised, of the nuances that are being discussed. So there’s never really an excuse for putting it away never to come back to it again.”
I couldn't agree with David Beck more when says, " . . . that they can use what they have gained throughout the rest of their lives, throughout the rest of their ministries. They do not have to put it away because they haven't gained enough to make use of it." Knowing everything isn't a prerequisite to being able to use Greek. And to piggyback on the analogy in the previous question, knowing everything about every tool and every detail about the hammer (its form and function) isn't a prerequisite to having someone sit you down and show you what it looks like to do what you're going to be doing in ministry. As you work, you can talk about that hammer, just like my boss did with me. He let me know that the hammer he gave me was a framing hammer, but that there are many types of hammers–hammers for all sorts of different jobs. I learned some of the "grammar" of carpentry not in a classroom, but while I was walking with my boss across floor joists in a house we were building in Raleigh. It was on the job training. Now some jobs are so serious you can't do your training "on the job." Some jobs are so serious your company will put you into a mock environment. That's what happened when I got a job at a bank during grad school. They didn't just throw me behind the teller counter. Nope, they sent me to a "fake" bank in Raleigh and we basically role-played all of the responsibilities of a bank teller––the whole day, the whole week. And you know what, I made mistakes. I even misplaced a few dollars that none of my colleagues could account for. But my supervisor was there, and she figured it out and let me know where I messed up.

Had I been able to follow-up in the discussion, I might have asked David to elaborate on his rendering of those particular requests. How does it help him better understand what the text is really saying and what greater insight does that deliberate structurally parallel give him into what Jesus was modeling in that prayer? Do you really have to translate the verse in this way in order to help the audience grasp the author's (and more importantly Jesus') intent better? It seems to me that rendering a verse in a way that confounds the audience actually compounds the task of having to explain to them what the author meant. I would just focus on what Jesus was trying to say to them, instead of trying to drop them down into the world of the Greek sentence structure, especially in a local church (and I would say that of any local church, even one made up of a hundred A. T. Robertson's). I bet you in any given local church on Sunday most people aren't going to know what the word "hallowed" means. We probably need to figure that word out and make sure people understand it crystal clear. And beyond that, we can explain the importance of those three verbs in Matt. 6:9–10. We could also unpack the whole idea of the passive voice with those imperatives. Are these things that God does? The three objects in these clauses are matters near and dear to the heart of God––his name, his kingdom, and his will. Interestingly, when Jesus shifts in the prayer to what disciples should ask the Father to do for them (as opposed to himself), the verbs shift to the active voice. And Jesus teaches us to deal reverently with these in prayer. And he probably does structure them this way . . . so that they could remember them. Fortunately, this is one of the passages in Scripture that you can bet people have heard growing up (though fewer today than when I was growing up). Even in English it's got a ring to it.

Question 4: If you could go back to your first year grammar self, when you were taking Greek or Hebrew, what advice or warning would give to yourself back then that might benefit first year students taking the languages today?

I’ve gone through and identified the one thing that each of these men would tell first year students. Go and listen to their complete answers though. There’s a lot of context that gets left out here.
David Beck: “Memorize those paradigms so that you can actually begin to use the paradigms to identify the forms you’re looking at. And then you can begin to go from there.”
Ben Merkle: “You have to prepare for the work. It is work. It’s not easy. If you learn the easiest language in the world and you don’t know it yet, it’s hard.”
Tracy McKenzie: “Don’t—for the sake of time—don’t neglect your paradigms and memorization. Just don’t do it. We’re all pressed for time these days. . . . Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent push out your Greek and Hebrew paradigms at this first year stage. . . . This is a lifetime journey, not a one year sprint."
Again, the emphasis on paradigms might be overdone. In a grammar-translation course, you better get the paradigms. Anyone want to guess what second-language acquisition research says? In a task-based language course, you can get by without the focus on paradigms. We're teaching you how to do a particular set of tasks using a particular set of skills.

Question 5: What are some ways to keep up with the biblical languages after the first year of study?

That's a great question. I'll speak about Greek. Carry your Greek New Testament everywhere you go. Use every tool that you need to. Never stop pushing yourself. Read broadly. When you don't know something (e.g., like a grammar term), look it up. Look up passages you are studying in the indices of your Greek grammar and find out what the grammarians are highlighting about your text. Make observations about the text in concentric circles: (1) from your initial reading of the passage, then (2) as you study through your text using lexicons, grammars, and commentaries, and then (3) from your post reading of the passage in light of everything you've found, highlighting the most important issues and summarizing them in a way that makes sense to the everyday human being. Do this as you study the New Testament. No one should have to fit Greek into their schedule. Your schedule should already have Bible study in it. Just bring Greek into the process.

Question 6: What are some practical things that you did to start off with after your first year or when you were trying to get back into the biblical languages?

Great question again. I'd recommend diagramming passages that you are studying. It helps you start to see lexical issues you'll want to dig into and it helps you start to wrestle with the syntax. Don't go wild and do all those crazy complicated diagrams that no one can ever make sense out of. You need a four year program of study just to figure out how Kantenwein's method actually works. Simple diagrams are best. Identify finite verbs and then put finite ideas on a main line. Put modifying material subordinate to the finite idea in a way that makes sense to you and helps you visualize the main idea of the text (especially with NT letters). Start comparing multiple translations. Don't get a favorite translation and swear by it! I will never appear on a promo video for a translation (people say never say never). Champion using multiple translations and encouraging others around you to do so. Read those translations––yes, including The Message––and start to notice differences in the way lexical and syntactical issues are highlighted. By the way, if you do that you'll start to pay attention to textual issues as well. Let looking at multiple translations train you as you spot those types of issues that need your further attention. And start highlighting intentionally ambiguous translations like the one I pointed out above with Rom. 5:8. If it's vague, try and figure out what the author meant. If it's vague to you, it's vague to those you will teach.

Question 7: What are some upcoming courses that might interest students after their first year of Greek or Hebrew?

Well, up here at Capital we'll be offering a New Testament Use of the Old Testament course beginning in October and then in the spring I'll be teaching Greek Exegesis of Philippians. Both of those are challenging courses . . . but your life will never be the same.

Question 8: Which language is better to study?

This is like the question you're not supposed to ask language people. But let me give it a shot. Study them both, especially in a way that alerts you to the types of issues you'll encounter in exegesis in both languages. You'll inevitably gravitate towards one, usually the one you enjoy teaching out of or are inclined to teach from more than the other. And then use it every time you prepare and study. And always make sure you don't become an exclusive English-based student in one while going to the original language in the other. Push yourself in both. And the truth is, if you have a task-based approach, you're going to be equipped to do just that. After all, grammar isn't the goal. Use in ministry is. And you can grow into grammar. But that only happens as you use it.

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