Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed: Section 3

Part 17 of series: Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
In my last two blog posts I have commented on recent changes in the exegesis exam of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In a nutshell, the PC(USA) no longer requires candidates for ordination to pastoral ministry to demonstrate knowledge of biblical language (Greek and Hebrew). Moreover, candidates do not have to try to show the “principal meaning” of a text.” Now they can simply offer one “faithful interpretation,” whatever that means.
If you want to see why I’m critical of these changes, please read what I’ve already written. Today I want to add some final comments before I finish my diatribe about the exegesis exam changes.
The Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, the group responsible for the exam changes, offered little by way of defense of its actions. It did reproduce some questions or comments that it received from folks outside of the committee. They were meant, I suppose, to provide some sort of rationale. So let me respond to these.
Does the format of the exam truly allow inquirers/candidates to demonstrate a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew?


No, it doesn’t. In the past, candidates could pass the exam with much less than a “working knowledge” of Greek and Hebrew. But they would have needed at least a basic knowledge of one of these languages.

Is this examination the appropriate vehicle through which to judge one’s facility with Biblical languages?

No, by itself, it was not the appropriate vehicle. But it was an essential part of this judgment. It showed that candidates could do more than pass exams in Greek and Hebrew. They needed to have some ability actually to use one of these languages.

Is it reasonable to expect readers who may not have had training in Greek and Hebrew, or who themselves have not maintained a working knowledge of these languages, to determine if an exam adequately demonstrates facility in these languages?


No, it is not reasonable to expect readers who don’t know biblical languages, or who have once studied them but have since forgotten them, to grade exams with respect to their use of Greek or Hebrew. So, if we think it’s important for candidates to know Greek and Hebrew, then readers (at least of certain sections of exams) should be people who have some facility with these languages. The choice of graders, as well as the content of the exam, should reflect our values as a denomination. [Many thanks to Jim Berkeley for helping me see that my original answer to this question was based on wrong exegesis of the question! Jim, apparently, wasn’t satisfied with my faithful interpretation. For some reason it mattered to him what the original questioner actually meant. How modern of him!)


Examinations which are otherwise well written cannot receive a passing grade without demonstrating a working knowledge of the biblical languages.

Yes, that is right. And that’s because the PC(USA) used to believe that a working knowledge of biblical languages was something a pastor should have, and that a candidate for ordination should be able to demonstrate.

The language requirement in the biblical exegesis exam seems to duplicate, or call into question, academic work that students have already done in their language and exegesis classes in seminary.

Yes, in a sense that’s true. But this is true with almost every kind of examination or credentialing for the professions. The bar exam, more or less, duplicates what law students did in law school. Etc. etc. etc. I don’t think, however, that requiring the use of Greek or Hebrew in an exegesis exam necessarily calls into question the academic work students have done. It does require all students, no matter which seminary they have attended, to demonstrate similar ability, and this seems fair. But it also helps students to retain their biblical languages, knowing that they’ll need to use them for the exegesis exam.

Rich passages of Scripture contain more than one “principal meaning”, and may lend themselves to several interpretations which are valid.

I’ve already commented on this at length.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series within a series on the PC(USA) and its exegesis exam.

  • Matt Ferguson

    As one who passed all parts on our polity exam the first time through (and I say that to clarify there are no hard feelings toward the process as I experienced it) and as one who has served as a “reader” of ordination exams, I don’t like our process. I think if we have folks who have passed seminary classes but fail our exam the problem is more with the seminary classes. If candidates pass their classes at seminaries we approve, that should be enough to show their ability in those areas and, if not, then we have problems with how those classes are being handled by the seminaries.
    I would much prefer working on the seminary ends of things, requiring subscription to some basic Reformed essential beliefs, and then having a standard set of questions to be asked in a Q and A on presbytery’s floor as our process and consider it done as far as that goes.
    While many here would object because of our denomination’s stress on IQ and abilities to do perform well in academic skill areas more than candidates spiritual life and gifts, I would bet the process I outlined above would do a bit better at our having faithful, able pastors.

  • Evan

    The problem here, as I see it, is not the notion that you would have to be able to read Greek and/or Hebrew cold, since it was an open book exam (and now a take-home exam.)The problem is the “faithful interpretation” language. There is no definition.
    If one can put whatever gloss one wants on the Scriptures, it makes it so much easier to do what one wants anyway. When Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, your faith is in vain and those who have died in Christ have perished. Yet virtually all of my ordained Presbyterian minister professors asserted that the Resurrection never happened, and even if it did, it was not necessary. If you are having to explain what Paul the writer originally meant, that dog won’t hunt. If you are playing “faithful interpretation,” well, game on apparently.
    I agree with many others that the issue comes down to the authority of God’s Word, and ultimately, the One who gave the Word.

  • J. Falconer

    Rev. Mark Roberts, Thanks again for another excellent intellectual analysis! We loved the picture of the antique German Bible. Also, thanks again for sharing the family’s vacation photos. Again, have a nice week.

  • Kurt Norlin

    What’s the difference between the original and fixed versions of the third question? They look identical to me.

  • David

    You missed the point of the 3rd question. It wasn’t whether it is reasonable for the candidate to know Greek or Hebrew. The questioin was, is it reasonable for the reader.

  • Mark Roberts

    David and Kurt: Yes, I had misread the question. Don’t you love it?! I made an exegetical error. Of course you both (and I) think it was an error, because the original meaning of the question matters to us. Jim Berkeley emailed about this, and I fixed my answer. Thanks.

  • HenryH

    While you’re fixing errors, I just noticed that there are two posts both marked “Part 14″ in this series. “What’s Good About Denominations? Revisited” (Aug 22) and “Where Do We Go From Here? Section 1″ (Aug 25)
    I’ve really appreciated this series. The church my wife and I grew up in left the PC(USA) back in 1986 or 87 and joined the EPC. I think it’s important to remember that a church can leave the denomination without ceasing to be Presbyterian. Although the PC(USA) is by far the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. (the next four in size do not equal a quarter of the PC(USA)), it certainly isn’t the only one.

  • Mark Roberts

    HenryH: Oops! Thanks.
    P.S. One of the tricky things about blogging is the lack of an official editor. So I’m always glad when my readers point our errors.

  • RevK

    Even with the errors, I’m good because I know your principle meaning. (And pray that you aren’t too hard on my errors…)

  • Rev. Ralph E. Nelson, D.Min.

    I am a retired Presbyterian pastor who has taught Greek and Hebrew on the college level over the years on a part time basis and tried faithfully to use the languages in my preaching preparation. I have a masters degree in Hebrew scripture from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I have also worked as an exam reader for a number of years and have encountered exegesis papers all the way from excellent to pathetic.
    While I have always voted and argued in favor of thorough language training, I have to admit that Americans have a real problem when it comes to language study, and that is the cultural attitude toward other languages. Years ago leaving a seminar in Edinburgh in which I had delivered a paper on the difficulties of translating the Copper Scroll, one of my Scottish friends caught up to me and said, “Ralph, for an American, you’re different.” When I asked him what he meant he said, “Well, you come over here knowing your languages well, and that is just not something we expect of Americans!”
    If you want to earn the disdain of many Americans, just demonstrate any degree of fluency in other languages. Argue for language training in the schools and people will shout at you, “Everyone should learn English!” I remember the Sunday morning when a family in my congregation introduced a young exchange student from Denmark. During the greeting time I walked over and welcomed him in Danish, and one of the women in the congregation called me a show-off.
    Add to that the fact that students who take exegesis exams home have recourse to all sorts of computer programs which do the work for you, and you really do not have to have much of a working knowledge of the language. And that is one of the problems with which the Cooperative Committee has struggled.
    When I minored in classical Greek in college, my professor had the only fool proof method I know for determining your ability. She would take you out of the exam room individually, sit down next to you in another room, open a Greek text and set it in front of you without dictionary, and ask you to begin reading and translating out loud. But we don’t have time to do that in the examination process nor do we have the examiners who could handle it.
    You can do only as much as the common culture will support. We Presbyterians are one of the only denominations which requires a working knowledge of both Biblical languages. It is a skill worth fighting for, but we must always remember what we are up against.
    Rev. Ralph E. Nelson, D.Min.

  • Joseph Cejka

    As for ironic synchronicity, look over questions 56 to 60 in the Presbyerian Catchism, which have been the daily readings at PCUSA.ORG. I love it.

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