Monday, January 30, 2017

An Interview with Ray Van Neste On The Biblical Languages

There's a twenty-three minute interview by Jason Allen (President of MWBTS) with Ray Van Neste of Union University over on Jason Allen's website. You can listen to it here. I've gathered together about eight minutes of the interview and transcribed it below. I'm always interested in seeing these interviews. What do people think about the languages? What do professors think about them? You folks know that I have a serious interest in biblical language instruction, especially in addressing the elephant in the room––that most people spend a lot of money on language courses in seminary and most end up not doing much more than a simple word study (if even that) after their studies. Once again, as you'll see in this interview, people who teach Greek know that most people aren't using Hebrew and Greek very much, if at all, after seminary. We know it, but most just end up telling students to "suck it up" and start reading a little bit each day. I'm wondering––have been for a while now––if we can do something different that changes the focus of a language course from reading to doing certain tasks that can immediately transfer into ministry. Reading and translation as aims in a seminary setting must not be cutting it for the majority of students. Remember what James Romm, Professor of Ancient Greek at Bard College, wrote in his New York Times op-ed last year the day after New Years (see here for the whole column):
"Am I Professor de Breeze? The span of my teaching career is rapidly approaching his. Of the scores of students to whom I have taught Beginning Greek, only a small minority learned to read it with real comprehension, and of those, only a handful still do. What did I contribute to the others, except the most laborious eight credits they ever earned?"
Romm sees it. And biblical language professors at Bible colleges and seminaries all around see it. Yet, most are not addressing the question of pedagogy. Con Campbell at least pointed s in that direction in his book Advances in the Study of Greek:
"Add to those concerns the real issue of language retention and the alarming number of Greek students who fail to keep their Greek over the long haul, and we see that Greek pedagogy is an incredibly important topic. You might be the best Greek teacher in the world, but if most of your students forget most of what you taught them, how useful is that? I always cringe when a pastor either embarrassingly admits, or (perversely) proudly declares to me, that he or she has lost the knowledge of Greek; it always causes me to wonder whether I am completely wasting my time. Greek instructors who do not want to waste their time and the time of their students must pay attention to pedagogy, and their pedagogy must include a strategy for retention." (p. 210)
"As few and fewer students elect to study Greek, as more institutions lessen their emphasis on languages, and as nearly all students struggle to retain what they've learned, Greek pedagogy has probably never been more important. It is essential that Greek instructors and professors everywhere consider how to teach Greek in the most effective manner possible. This may mean tweaking long-held practices. It may mean completely rethinking one's pedagogical approach. While we tend to cling to methods we know–which may be comfortable and safe–good teachers ought to be willing to adapt and change for the sake of their students. Ultimately, what is good for Greek students will be good for Greek, and good for the exegesis, teaching, and preaching of the Greek New Testament." (p. 222)
Hopefully we'll continue to see a shift not necessarily towards any one approach (including my own), but rather a shift towards pedagogy and a discussion that is aimed at justifying what we do pedaogically, based on the soundest research and data. In order to get the latter, by the way, we have to start assessing––and I mean really assessing––not just asking students "Do you think Greek is important? Check yes or no" or reviewing a capstone exegesis project to see if it was really good. We have to do more. But my point is, I hope we continue to witness a shift towards a pedagogically focused conversation about biblical language instruction.

What you're going to read in the interview below is not terrible per se, just typical. Ask someone these standard questions, and you'll generally get some pretty standard answers. But there are some points I want to comment on. But first, I need to give you the transcript:
JKA: Why study the languages?
RVN: You really should not study the biblical languages unless the biblical text is important. But if the biblical text is important, then it matters to get as close to it as you can. And the point, you alluded to earlier, is not to shame anybody. And folks can point to this person or that person who was used greatly and didn't have as much access, but I don't know of any who didn't say along the way 'I got as much as I could, I wish I could've gotten more.' And we live in a day of such amazing access that if we value the Word of God, then we need to try and get as close to that text as we can and study it as much as we can, not because we're gonna correct all the translations that are out there. We have good translations, but we want to get just as close as we can. I have also illustrated it by saying, 'If you met a girl, somebody you know decided you're gonna marry this girl, and she wasn't a native English speaker, you'd want to know her heart language. Well, the heart language of the Bible, at least in biblical languages, are Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. And God is sovereign. And he chose to give them to us this way. So there's something to this. I would hope people are drawn to it. We can't really drive folks to it. If we rely on guilt, that isn't going to get us far. But if we see the value, if we see the preciousness of it, then everything we can get is gonna be good. And again, so then we aren't dealing with shame, we're just saying, 'What more can I do? What further steps can I take?
JKA: So many young men who pastor, they go to seminary, the first semester they show up, they have baby Greek. It's intimidating, it's challenging, it keeps them up at night, they struggle, they kinda manage to work their way through it, and they get through it and in hindsight it may have even felt like a seminary hazing experience. And part of them feels like they wish they could stay fresh, they wish they could spend time in the Greek text, but hospital visits happen, urgencies happen, and the wife has a baby, complexities come in. So they find themselves kinda sitting atop a melting iceberg of Greek knowledge. What do you say to that pastor who lives with a sense of guilt, wishing he had more, wishing he was better versed, wishing he was as strong as he was when he was taking exegesis classes in seminary?
RVN: Well, I would say we all deal with this, right? Life comes at us and we're not able to do all the things we want to do. But one thing I've learned along the way, again just life, is there are various things I look at and say, 'Wow, I wish I was better at, I wish I was doing more of.' And then five years later I'm still wishing I was doing more of. But we'll tend to wait until we can make huge strides before we do anything. That means we never do anything. So the thing to do is just start chipping away. Just a little bit. So I really love the UBS Reader's Greek New Testament because it has the standard text, and then it has the more difficult forms translated at the bottom of the page. That's what I have by my bedside just to read. And just start reading. Somebody says––and I know, I've been in pastoral ministry. I've heard professors who say you should study forty hours for every sermon, and we're all looking, going, 'Does he do math?' But whatever it is, do as much as you could with it. And read, I think reading everyday, again just a little bit even, is good and you begin to get the feel of it. And that UBS Reader's thing is great. If people have software things where you can put your cursor over it and read, then that's helpful. And you gotta fight discouragement because it'll come in saying, 'Well, you looked up every word. You didn't do anything.' That's not true. You did a lot. You've looked at it. You're getting a sense of it. And so I said, 'Well, I've been doing this two weeks. I don't feel like I know more than I did.' No, no, no. We're thinking two years, twenty years, forty years. We're trying to look long haul, let this slowly seep into our souls.
JKA: I remember many years ago hearing John Piper say that––I think he had like a January sabbatical or a February sabbatical––and making the comment that that sabbatical every year was his attempt to learn Hebrew. And every year he would spend time trying to learn or relearn Hebrew. I wonder at the seminary level or the Christian college level that you serve at at Union, what stewardship responsibility does the professor have? And here's what I mean by that. I don't think any professor––I never had a professor in Greek or Hebrew that I felt like they were being capricious, or just trying to be difficult because it was fun to be cruel. I never had that. At the same time, what stewardship does the professor have for this not to be shock therapy, where students are just dying to make a passing grade and get out of it? And the shock therapy––again, not the cruelty of the professor perhaps––but the feeling is I gotta cram this all in for the next three months, or this semester then the next semester, and try to cram and force a student, and trying to serve the church, trying to serve the student. All this is honorable and noble, but is there a sense in which if you take that approach and you're so intense that you have students leaving the class every semester thinking, 'I am so glad I got that behind me. I never wanna go through that again in my life,' if you in some way might be hindering the cause instead of helping it?
RVN: That's a good question. And it's tricky, right, because there are some students who are going to feel like they're overwhelmed if you just give them a little bit of work to do. So I think any good professor has to be a pastor. You're shepherding this class, right? So anywhere from Gregory the Great to Baxter or whoever, they'll talk about how do you minister to this soul, how do you minister to that soul? So, I'll have some students who I'll tell, 'Yeah, it's hard. It's time to suck it up and learn to work hard. Because [...] they just haven't had that challenge before. And then you've got the other ones, I think number one, who's pastoring a church, he's had a death in the congregation, and has had health problems himself. That's not the same message. It's a whole different face there. And I think, yeah, the professor has a responsibility, in every class, to help a student see why we're doing this. So I think it's great, so many of the resources we have now are putting us into the biblical text right away instead of doing 'The farmer saw the poet's daughter,' so that when you're doing exercises you can begin to show just a little bit of where we're going and what this is for. I try to give them some readings along the way where people are talking about 'Hey, here are some of the benefits.' Because if we don't know the value––we don't work hard on stuff we don't know what the value is. And it's not fair to just say you should know the value. I see my role as teaching the material. And then I am an enticer. I need to entice them to the value of this. And my prayer, every week when we pray for the quiz, I pray in some way about 'helping us to know you, Lord, through your Word, and help us to be a good steward of this. This integratedness is key.
JKA: That is key, and now I want to come back to something you touched on. You touched on the tools that we have. And it is amazing. I mean, I'm a young guy. I graduated from seminary with my MDiv degree in 2004, so not that long ago. But even what's come along in the last twelve years or so is truly staggering. You know, I preach conferences in different public contexts of ministry, and it seems like every month, before I preach at a conference or church setting, I'm sitting through a Logos presentation or something or a language tool presentation. I'm sitting there thinking, 'That is amazing.' You know? And I'm like, 'Where was that?' And I was teasing one of these presenters a couple months ago––I said, 'You guys are like one breakthrough away from putting all seminaries in America out of business.' And I joke because, of course, there's many, many reasons and needs for seminaries, and these tools aren't an end-all. But what do you say to the person who says, "Well, why do I need to sweat Greek for a year or two or the rest of my ministry when I can just click, click, click and––presto––I have the answer that I need?
RVN: I had this conversation the other day. As you might imagine, it's a fairly regular conversation. It's basically, at one level, the same question that gets asked, 'Why should I bother with this since I have an English translation?' The answers to say, 'Well, these are great tools, but part of the point is your own discovery. I think it's related to the idea of preaching other people's sermons. Obviously, learn from other people's sermons, draw from them and everything else, but it is the labor of wrestling with the text that shapes you. I use as an example––it's not the main point of this text, but just as an analogy––when Jacob's wrestling with this shadowy figure (I think, perhaps, the pre-incarnate Christ), it's the wrestling, that engaging with God, where he is changed. And that's us. So just the fact that I can get different answers, it's in the wrestling with it. And those answers, that's my answer that I wrote for somebody, somebody else's answer that they wrote for them. You'll want to be able to engage the conversation, not just take somebody else's answer for these things.
There's more in the interview. The next question is "How to stay fresh?" But I'm tired of transcribing, and honestly not all that impressed. You can go check out the audio. Let me just offer a few quick observations. First, what is it that we want people to be able to do after a series of Greek courses, for example? If the goal is to read the text, then do seminaries offer enough courses in the curriculum to ensure that students, working hard of course, can reach that goal? And how is this really assessed? Is translation and parsing an accurate reflection of reading comprehension? Do students with a reading comprehension, whatever level one determines to be sufficient, transfer that knowledge into meaningful Bible exposition? Does being able to read by default mean a student can accurately and efficiently perform a lexical analysis of a word? Is there any assessment throughout the course to identify if a student will commit any of Carson's lexical fallacies at the end of their second or third semester of Greek? Do students need to know how to analyze the textual data for a variant issue in the New Testament, or is it really enough to just skim over the transmission of the New Testament text, talk a little about papyri, uncials, Majority text, 01, and B, etc.? Can students who have two or three semesters of Greek, when asked to explain the issue of πρῶτος and πρῶτον in John 1:41 do so in a way that makes sense, identifying how both impact the meaning of the passage and how the textual data supports one over the other as original and why? I have lots of questions. Unfortunately, we don't really see these questions come up in discussions on biblical language instruction.

We get reminders and exhortations for students from long ago to come back to their first love and pick up their GNT's again and just start reading, or pick up their grammars again and do it all over (to no avail, I bet, ninety percent of the time). We get the anecdotes of "not kissing a bride through her veil" or knowing the language of a wife whose first language isn't English, both of which I like and can relate to––I don't ever want to kiss Lesly through a veil, and I know exactly how important it was for me to learn Spanish to speak not just with her but also her family. I guess I'm just hoping––and praying––that there is a major turn in the way we do things as far as the biblical languages are concerned. Con Campbell is right: "This may mean tweaking long-held practices. It may mean completely rethinking one's pedagogical approach." The question is are we ready to do so. Are we ready to step back, myself included, and ask, "Is this best for that Greek student? Is this really the best use of this time with that student?" And, if we're honest, it means that we have to do the same type of research with biblical language pedagogy that we hope our students will do with Greek and the texts of Scripture––dig in, work hard, and be faithful with what God's given you. If only we would do as much with our Greek courses as we hope our students would do with Greek in their ministries.

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