Saturday, May 17, 2008

Biblical Language Requirements at Churches of Christ Graduate Schools

Is there a connection between studying biblical languages and serving faithfully as a preacher? I'd like to know what you think about this. A little background, institutional and personal.

There's an old assumption behind the traditional curriculum at those institutions entrusted with the task of training future ministers for the church; seminaries, divinity schools, graduate schools of religion and the like. The assumption goes like this: It's very important for the minister to be able to read, with no more than the help of a lexicon, the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament.

Although that sentiment squares with my own prejudice, I have no way of knowing whether "in real life" that requirement necessarily leads to a better, more-fruitful ministry of the Word. Because those kinds of standards were held up for me, and because I have since cleared them, I like to think that the training was worthwhile. I would be willing to say that in my bones I know that it is worthwhile and important. For example, when comparing different translations of the Bible, it's helpful to be able to look over the shoulders of the translators and have some idea if they did a good, mediocre, or poor job of rendering the Word of God in English.

My caveat is that I have nothing like social-scientific, empirical evidence to back up what I think and feel. In terms that people in the Churches of Christ can appreciate, I have no way of knowing if being able to parse a participle of the Greek verb baptizo makes one more likely to baptize others. (I know, I know, getting into water isn't the ultimate standard of discipleship).

What do you think, or what have you experienced regarding the connections between the study of biblical languages and the ministry of the Word?

By the way, I quickly surveyed most of the graduate schools of Bible connected with Churches of Christ. I wanted to know what the language requirements were for the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) a three-year professional degree which has long been the standard academic requirement for ordination in many mainline Protestant churches. In the following unscientific table, I start with the highest level of requirement and work my way down. Here's what I found out.

1. Pepperdine requires a year and a half of both Hebrew and Greek. Harding Graduate School requires two years of Greek, one year of Hebrew.

2. Freed-Hardeman requires a year and a half of Greek and one year of Hebrew.

3. Abilene Christian, and David Lipscomb require one year of both Hebrew and Greek.

4. Lubbock Christian requires one semester (a half year) of "Introduction to Hebrew Study Tools," and one semester (a half year) of "Introduction to Greek Study Tools."

Among those sets of requirements, which ones should be raised, lowered, or kept where they are? Why?

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For what it's worth, for the Associate of Arts in Religion, Amarillo College requires one year of language study. Among the languages that one may choose are several modern ones (Spanish or German, for example) but also New Testament Greek. In the future, we hope to begin offering one year of Biblical Hebrew. Then, we plan to change the requirement so that Religion majors will have to study at least one of the two main biblical languages for one year in order to satisfy the requirements for the degree.


Arlene Kasselman said...

This conversation came up during a class I took recently at ACU and I was amazed to find out that for many seminaries and schools around the country there are no longer language requirements at all.

I for one have not kept up my Greek but I know what tools to use and how to use my Greek for any exegetical work I do.My graduate program did not require an Hebrew.

This is a hard question for me. I know that for ATS accreditation purposes Schools of Theology need to maintain standards. However, I am way more concerned that people preparing for ministry are spending time in classes dealing with Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Practices. All the head knowledge in the world will never replace a life intimately connected to God.

Matt said...

Are people doing the MDiv in 3 years? That sounds tough. I think Harding Grad requires 3 semesters of Greek (A, B, and Readings) + advanced NT exegesis (which has a Greek components) to finish the series of four classes. Hebrew = 2 semesters. Hebrew readings is optional.

As far as your main question goes, I don't have a problem with ministers not having a thorough knowledge of biblical languages with one caveat...don't act like you do. So many preachers don't really know what they are talking about when it comes to languages and do word studies that get it all messed up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Frank.

I've had ... I think ... three semesters of undergraduate Greek. I believe that was sufficient for HUGSR several years ago when I took some classes there. I have not kept it up. It is something that must be fed and nurtured and honestly I did not feel that it offered me the practical needs of dealing with everyday problems and helping everyday people. The resources are out there if you want to find out something ... but I seldom delve into the ancient languages. Yes, there are some nuggets of good stuff there...and some truths that the English cannot share ... I applaud those who do it ... but I do not think it necessary nor helpful for the most part. I'm always glad to have a friend who is immersed in the languages, though, when I do need some insight. That's my thought about it anyway!

Frank Bellizzi said...

Arlene, my guess would be that the trend is less and less required language study. I think that's a shame. And it's never been more convenient to study languages. But I agree that love builds up, while unloving knowledge just puffs up.

Matt, I doubt that many people are doing the M.Div. in three years. For someone with an undergraduate degree in Bible and no working responsibilities, it's possible. But no, it's not common. It took me 10 years going at the average rate of 3 courses a year. Maybe Hall L. Calhoun set the record. By the time J. W. McGarvey sent him to Yale Divinity School, Calhoun was so well-trained he was given the B.D. (M.Div.) in 1902 after two semesters of study. After that, he went to Harvard for the Ph.D. Calhoun's class photo still hangs in the hallways at YDS. I used to walk by it and hear him saying, "Hit the books, Bellizzi!"

About language requirements at HUGSR, I stand corrected. How could I forget "Greek Readings" and "NT Exegesis"? I went back and edited the post. Thanks.


I think that a lot of preachers are where you are in terms of keeping up with languages. You're right to say that it's something that has to be nurtured. That's one of the main reasons why I'm teaching Hebrew to a handful of people. The course has not yet been added to the curriculum at Amarillo College. My students are professionals who are doing this "for fun" (for mostly-religious reasons). I didn't want to and just couldn't let go of all that investment of myself in Hebrew (about 3 years' worth of formal study).

Matthew said...

Interesting post, probably most ministers have not continued to study the languages after school, but even what remains has been helpful to me.

Frank Bellizzi said...


My own experience suggests that there's a tipping point at which the study of language will continue to serve the student for the rest of his life. That is, the person will be able to legitimately use commentaries that refer to the original languages, will be able to use a Greek or Hebrew concordance, etc.

Now, where is the point? Different people, different points. But I think it would be best if everyone who had the opportunity would study both classical Hebrew and Koine Greek for a year and a half at least.

Of all the schools I've listed in the original post, I prefer the Pepperdine and Harding Grad requirements.

Royce Ogle said...


I had a semester of Greek many moons ago. So far as I can tell it has been about as usefull as 9th grade Algebra.

Maybe I'm just lazy, or not very smart, but I am content to glean from those much more able than I in the languages of the Bible. Detailed word studies are a few clicks away for almost everyone. Don't misunderstand, I admire anyone who wants to venture down the path of Hebrew or Greek but I do best on a familiar highway.

His peace,