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Learning Languages in Seminary

July 19, 2007

coffee.pngI’ve been watching the wonderful series of posts by John Hobbins on the plight of North American seminary education, especially in relation to language an solid biblical knowledge. For some reason, it was reading Christopher Heard’s post on the subject that I though that I should add my own ruminations to the mix.

I spent one miserable year at Westminster Theological seminary and four years at Fuller seminary earing two degrees. At Fuller I TA’ed everything from languages to Medieval and Reformation Church History, as well as taught two rotations of the standard intro to Hebrew. From all this it seem to me that the big problems with learning languages in seminary are 1) it is really too late to learn the language completely, and 2) most folks don’t really want to learn anything for learnings sake.

While the first point seems self explanatory, let me dwell a moment on it. The average age of a seminarian at Fuller when I was there was 35. That was, however, an average made up of all three schools: Theology, Missions and Psychology. By far the youngest folks were in Psychology. When teaching, I was always the youngest person in the room, when TA’ing I was 90% of the time. And, I had learned Hebrew years before coming to seminary. By far, most seminarians in the States are folks coming back to school after having been out in the private sector for years. While I’ve heard the M.Div referred to as a “mid-life crisis degree,” it seems a bit of an over statement; but only a bit.

Beyond the average age of a seminarian, the more important problem is that the M.Div is a practical degree. The most oft heard question in seminary classes that I’ve been in was “how can I apply this to my ministry?” Languages are not readily applicable to ministry for most of these folks. While I have a pastor friend who preaches out of his NA27, most folks aren’t going to be doing this. They’ll probably be preaching out of the NRSV, the NLT, the ESV or (God forbid) the NIV.

As such, they don’t see the point in learning the language for the sake of learning the language. Rather, most folks I’ve run across on a standard M.Div track want enough Hebrew to understand the commentaries. They aren’t going to be reading the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. They will be looking up “key words” to see what “insights” the original languages can provide for them.

While I was fascinated by John Hobbins’ posts on how the seminary system works in Europe and lament the loss of a classical education here in the states, I don’t think anything will change anytime soon. American pragmatism is and will continue to be the philosophical mainstay in most seminaries in the States.

One Comment
  1. jake mccarty permalink
    July 19, 2007 3:35 pm

    I enjoyed your post and loved your appeal to pragmatism.

    I have only one observation. When lamenting this state of affairs one should avoid the odd, misguided perception of what constitutes knowledge of Hebrew. Masoretic Hebrew is not Biblical Hebrew! Only after some exposure to other Semitic languages will students feel comfortable with abandoing the Masoretic phonological system. I doubt that many seminaries have done that, ever.

    Enough Masoretic Hebrew to use a few tools coupled with study of history, psychology, etc… seems like it would be more helpful in the long run. I prefer to hear sermons on modern issues with a couple of random unhelpful verses tossed in for posterity’s sake moreso than most SBL presentations.

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