Machen on the Minister and His Greek Testament

J.G.MachenAlthough many students arrive at theological college eager to learn the biblical languages, some students (and some sending churches) have lingering questions over the value of learning Greek and Hebrew for pastoral ministry. Most of these questions are not new.

J. Gresham Machen was one of several who found himself addressing what he called the “widening breach between the minister and his Greek New Testament” as modernism and pragmatism began to impact seminaries and theological training a century ago. This was Machen’s diagnosis:

The modern minister objects to his Greek New Testament or is indifferent to it, first, because he is becoming less interested in his Greek, and second, because he is becoming less interested in his New Testament.

As to the first objection, that ministers and seminarians are less interested in Greek, Machen saw the disinterest in Greek as a symptom of a deeper malady afflicting modern education. He discerned a general cultural rejection of the humanities and classics that was mirrored by many in the churches. This, he traced ultimately to a pragmatic conception of education and anthropology.

As for the second objection, Machen did not mean to imply that ministers were completely neglecting the Bible, nor even that they were often spending too much time on ‘other duties than preaching’ (though he did think this was true). The problem went deeper as Machen proceeded to explain:

[T]he minister has ceased to be a specialist. The change appears, for example, in the attitude of theological students, even of a devout and reverent type. One outstanding difficulty in theological education today is that the students persist in regarding themselves not as specialists, but as laymen. Critical questions about the Bible they regard as the property of men who are training themselves for the theological professorships or the like, while the ordinary minister, in their judgment, may content himself with the most superficial layman’s acquaintance with the problems involved. The minister is no longer a specialist in the Bible, but has become merely a sort of general manager of the affairs of a congregation.

In Machen’s time, this, too, was a function of pragmatism and an impoverished view of what ordained Gospel ministry looked like. The results of such an approach to theological training were obvious to Machen.

First, ministers cannot be ‘specialists’ without a knowledge of the New Testament in Greek and will constantly be at the mercy of other experts or authorities. In this vein, Machen argued that “the student who is without at least a smattering of Greek is obliged to use for the most part works that are written, figuratively speaking, in words of one syllable.”

Second, ministers without the languages are, in many matters of theological importance “at the mercy of the judgment of others.” They are, Machen claimed, not equipped to “deal with all the problems at first hand” by grappling with the original text.

Third, ministers without Greek are ill-equipped to get to grips with critical questions of genre and structure of NT books in a way that enhances preaching and ministry by enabling them to understand and apply the text carefully. Machen contended that such ministers may ascertain the ‘content’ of the Scriptures but will struggle with the question of ‘form’ and, by implication, of function and purpose.

Machen argued in the strongest terms against this low view of the biblical languages in the theological curriculum.

[The Bible] is not merely one of the sources of the preacher’s inspiration, but the very sum and substance of what he has to say. But if so, then whatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret and defend it … The work cannot be turned over to a few professors whose work is of interest only to themselves, but must be undertaken energetically by spiritually minded men throughout the church. But obviously, this work can be undertaken to best advantage by those who have an important prerequisite for the study in a knowledge of the original languages upon which a large part of the discussion is based.

So what did Machen propose if we grant that the minister desperately needs to know and be able to use his Greek New Testament? He began by noting that the Koine Greek of the New Testament is not overly difficult, even for those who do not have a broad background in languages or the humanities. He quipped that “a very fair knowledge of it may be acquired by any minister of average intelligence.” Machen also made two practical suggestions:

  1. Always read the Greek NT aloud.
  2. Read the Greek NT every day without exception, “Sabbaths included.”

Machen concluded with a hearty exhortation:

Ten minutes a day is of vastly more value than seventy minutes once a week. If the student keeps a “morning watch,” the Greek Testament ought to be given a place in it; at any rate, the Greek Testament should be read devotionally. The Greek Testament is a sacred book, and should be treated as such. If it is treated so, the reading of it will soon become a source of joy and power.

A century later, those of us who teach Greek at Oak Hill College are still giving ourselves and our students the same advice.

Advertisements

Theological Education in Community

people-1209916_640

 

Ryan Glomsrud recently offered a historically-informed and attractive vision for theological education: living and learning in community.

Communal life of all sorts, academic, social, and residential, existed at these institutions both formally and informally. Formally, one thinks of the familiar routine of school-life: lectures, seminars, colloquies, chapels, conferences and activities that take up much of the day. But informal life together was almost as formative and important as the formal, existing alongside of and in support of the academic experience. At the time of the Reformation, countless students, aspiring Protestant pastors, and Reformed scholars exchanged personal letters, travelled extensively, and lived together in shared spaces, cultivating piety and the life of the mind. This served to enhance and supplement what was learned in the classroom and gleaned from books in myriad ways.

Dogs in the post-Reformation Leiden library; table-talk with Luther and Bucer; oranges, cigars, and tennis with Machen … the post on the Westminster Seminary California site is well worth reading.

Those of us who teach and learn together at Oak Hill College will resonate with much in Glomsrud’s piece. In an age when so many other modes of training are on offer, what a blessing full-time, residential training offers at seminaries and theological colleges like this! At Oak Hill many of us literally live together onsite. Faculty and students are neighbours. Discussions in lectures spill over into coffee chats in the Academic Centre or are continued over lunch in the dining room. Our study of the Scriptures, of their implications and applications and of the Triune God who reveals himself and redeems sinners issues in doxology in chapel and prayer triplets. Fellowship groups gather in faculty homes weekly for discussion, prayer and fun. Students (and sometimes even faculty!) are out on the football pitch or the ultimate frisbee field together each week. Student spouses meet regularly for prayer, Bible study and encouragement.

Although Oak Hill is not the church – indeed we exist to serve the church – the relational, intellectual and formational web woven by this kind of full-time residential theological study is dense, beautiful and powerful. In close partnership with sending and placement churches, such an experience for three or four years focuses and amplifies the effectiveness of Gospel ministry training in wonderful and lasting ways.

And what might this kind of training experience mean for the future of the churches and their ministers? Scott Manetsch has written of the kind of nascent yet rigorous theological education in Calvin’s Geneva that generated the sort of biblically and theologically robust ministers who were able to sustain and grow the initial work of the Reformation on the continent over time:

The fact that many members of the Company of Pastors shared the same educational background is important for several reasons. At the most basic level, the Academy’s intensive program in theology and exegesis helped prepare Geneva’s ministers for their vocation of interpreting and preaching the Word of God. In addition, the students who received their theological training at the Academy were exposed to a single system of doctrine and a common religious culture. If the lecture hall introduced them to reformed theology, the pattern of religious life in the city shaped their understanding of public worship, moral discipline, and ministerial comportment … This common program of theological education and religious enculturation – as well as Beza’s formidable leadership – goes far in explaining the confessional solidarity and cohesiveness displayed by the company of pastors during the half-century after Calvin’s death. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford, 2013).

What a privilege to live in such a learning community – one that embraces and is embraced by the churches but which concentrates theological resources in a way that no single church can. And what a privilege to learn in such a formative community where the goal is to be and become church ministers and workers who are always growing together in their proclamation of the Word of God and their worship of the God who has given us his Word.

Do we need Academic Caesars or Servant-Leaders?

julius-caesar-626422_1280

Steve Fuller, professor  of social epistemology at Warwick, writes today in the Times Higher Education that we need Roman-style dictators to lead our academic institutions in the current cultural moment and political climate:

This probably sounds vaguely threatening and, to a certain extent, it is meant to be. In the first instance, a Caesar of university leadership must be a proven academic who can command the respect of other academics (just as the Roman dictator had to command the respect of the other magistrates). But academic Caesars must also be consummate politicians. They must know the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of their colleagues, so that they can divide and rule, impose their will and get some radical things done.

Yes, it sounds threatening. It also sounds utterly pragmatic. And it sounds like a place most of us wouldn’t like to teach.

Some of Fuller’s goals (financial stability, enfranchising alumni) are very attractive, even in my own, relatively small theological training institution. But surely there are wiser, more principled – and more theologically reflective – ways to proceed.

Fuller’s points about knowledge for the ‘public good’ and even the ‘vulgarisation of knowledge’ are surely worth considering, especially when we’re talking about Christian theology and Gospel ministry. But I’m sceptical of the values driving his strategic vision for increasing access to knowledge and re-imagining university level education in this country. Moreover, there are cautions here for theological college and church ‘leaders’ – I’d suggest Caesar is not the first-century ‘king’ we want to emulate.

Teaching academic writing

adult-1868015_1280Ben Brabon of the Higher Education Academy (UK) has recently written about ways to help students master academic writing through creative, consistent support. In his post on “Writing in the Mouth” he writes

By facilitating opportunities for students to read, write, structure, critically analyse and revise together (using collaborative technologies such as Peerwise), academic writing skills can be positively nurtured.

Forget (in order) to learn

forget-to-rememberBenedict Carey recounts the history of memory studies and experiments related to forgetting and remembering – nonsense syllables, snippets of poetry, images. It is a history that leads to what is currently called the New Theory of Disuse, or better, Forget to Learn. According to this theory there are two strengths related to memory: storage strength and retrieval strength.

Storage strength is just that, a measure of how well learned something is. It builds up steadily with studying, and more sharply with use. The multiplication table is a good example. It’s drilled into our heads in grade school, and we use it continually through life … Its storage strength is enormous.

By contrast, retrieval strength has to do with accessibility:

Retrieval strength, on the other hand, is a measure of how easily a nugget of information comes to mind. It, too, increases with studying, and with use. Without reinforcement, however, retrieval strength drops off quickly, and its capacity is relatively small (compared to storage). At any given time, we can pull up only a limited number of items in connection with any given cue or reminder.

What studies on the interaction of these two memory strengths indicate is that, depending on the information to be remembered, our storage and retrieval might be strengthened by intentionally spacing our study and our efforts at retrieval. Forgetting (initially) what we’ve learned might actually help us remember it better in the end.

Using memory changes memory – and for the better. Forgetting enables and deepens learning, by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some breakdown that, after reuse, drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn, 36, 37, 40-41.

Administration and the “fallacy of accountability”

files-1633406_1280

In Bill Reading’s analysis of the “posthistorical” university, it is “the administrator rather than the professor” who is the “central figure” in what is fast becoming a “transnational bureaucratic corporation.” William Deresiewicz calls this “administrative elephantiasis.” Similarly, Benjamin Ginsberg, in the The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, writes,

‘Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants – who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.’

Particularly striking is Ginsberg’s analysis of universities’ strategic plans which, rather than identifying unique strengths and future directions, are nearly identical. He concludes that the point is “not the plan but the process”: an “assertion of leadership” and the erosion of the power of the faculty. It is the appearance of process that counts. Stefan Collini comments that the “fallacy of accountability” is “the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been properly done.”

 

Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 4-5.

Trust and learn

Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the trust-1418901_1280master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of Enlightenment epistemology … a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others … the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (Viking, 2015), 137-38.