Part 18 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
So far I’ve put up three posts on recent changes in the exegesis exam of the Presbyterian Church (USA). If you haven’t been reading along, I’ll summarize by saying that 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 a “faithful interpretation.” (Check out Jim Berkley’s commentary on this “Attractive Nonsense.”)
The Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, the group responsible for the exam changes explained their intentions this way:
We believe that these changes will make it possible for the seminaries to do what they do well, namely to teach Greek and Hebrew and to train students in the art of exegesis, and not have the examination repeat an academic exercise that students have already experienced. At the same time, the changes in the requirements of the exam will allow presbyteries, who know their inquirers/candidates in a way the exam graders cannot, to use the exam as a tool in determining one’s readiness for ministry, including a working knowledge of the biblical languages.
First of all, the exam in no way makes it possible for the seminaries to do what they do well, since the exam is independent of the seminaries. This is bluster. It is true, however, that the exam in its new form does not have students repeat an academic exercise they have already experienced. But why have an exegesis exam at all, then? Students have taken exegesis and preaching already. So why have an exegesis exam with a preaching component? According to the committee’s logic, the exam in its new form is still redundant and unnecessary. If what the committee has done remains intact and becomes part of the PC(USA) practice, I predict that this is the beginning of the end of ordination exams, period. Think about it. Right now we require candidates to pass ordination exams on Presbyterian polity. But we also require students to pass seminary courses on Presbyterian polity. Isn’t it redundant and unnecessary to have a polity exam, if we accept the committee’s logic? Ditto with theology and worship exams.
Second, the changes in the exam will not give presbyteries any greater ability to determine a candidate’s readiness for ministry, except that they will receive comments about the candidate’s language ability. But this was true in the past as well, so there is nothing gained here. In fact, the new exam will take away from presbyteries the chance to have tested a candidate’s ability to use the tools of biblical study to determine the original meaning of a text. Presbyteries will now be able to know only that candidate can produce a faithful interpretation of a passage.
And so, once again, we see evidence of the end of the PC(USA). Up to now, the PC(USA) has been distinctive (though not unique) among denominations and churches in expecting its ordained pastors to have a basic knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and to be able to use language and other skills to discover the “principal meaning” of a biblical text. When so many churches and denominations allow people to be ordained as pastors without seminary training or instruction in biblical exegesis, the PC(USA) continued to affirm the importance of such training. Behind this affirmation was a conviction about the importance of the original meaning of Scripture. The new PC(USA), even if it continues to exist into the future, will not be like the old PC(USA), a denomination committed to the right interpretation of the Bible. The PC(USA) we have known is ending right before our very eyes.
I want to close with a story and a word of encouragement for candidates and seminarians. A good friend of mine, a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA), is in the midst of taking the biblical exegesis exam. When I mentioned to her the changes in the exam, she almost became unglued.
“What is my denomination saying to me?” she asked, angrily. “Why did they require me to take so many classes in Greek and Hebrew if I didn’t need to use what I had learned? Why did I have to take exegesis classes if I need only to come up with a faithful interpretation? Why has the PC(USA) wasted my time this way? I am really angry.”
“I understand your anger, and share it,” I replied. “But don’t despair. Yes, the PC(USA) isn’t interested in whether you can use Greek and Hebrew. And it isn’t going to ask you to find the original meaning of a passage. But you didn’t take so many classes just to pass your exegesis exam. You took those classes and learned those skills so you could be an effective interpreter of Scripture. You did those things so you would be a better pastor. And you will be because of your efforts. So, forget about the PC(USA). What you have learned will help you know with greater accuracy what Scripture means. It will make you a better teacher and preacher of God’s Word. And it has been and will be honoring to God, who chose to reveal himself through a Greek and Hebrew, the original meaning of which is hugely important, no matter what the PC(USA) thinks.” (Photo: I’m presenting Bibles to children at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I loved giving children their very own copies of God’s Word.)
I preached weekly sermons and taught weekly Bible studies for over 20 years as an ordained pastor, at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and at Irvine Presbyterian Church. During those years I prepared more than 1,000 sermons and studies. I will admit that there were some occasions when I was just too busy to pay close attention to the original languages or even to seek out the original meanings of the biblical passages. But, for the most part, I tried every single time to go back to the Bible to discover, not what I thought it meant, but what it really meant. And, believe me, there is a difference between these.
On literally hundreds of occasions, I would come to a biblical passage with what I thought was a fairly good idea of what it meant. Sometimes I’d even have planned a sermon on the basis of my own faithful interpretation. But then, as I studied the text, going back to the original language, I would discover that the text actually meant something different from what I had presupposed. Because I was committed to careful exegesis and to the authority of the biblical text itself, I sometimes had to change the main point of a sermon. My faithful interpretations, however well-intended and reasonable, turned out to be wrong.
Now you may want to object that I was able to do this sort of exegesis because I had unusual training. I agree that the average pastor did not take the number of language classes I had to take for my Ph.D. in New Testament: five years of Greek, two-and-a-half years of Hebrew, plus many exegesis courses. Indeed, there was a time when average seminary graduates were mostly unable to use the ancient languages they had learned in seminaries. But this has changed drastically because of the computer. Now people with a solid year of biblical Greek can use that Greek well. To be sure, they will miss some of the nuances. But, with a decent computer and a fairly inexpensive computer program, they can use their Greek with competence. I know this for a fact because I taught Greek to dozens of seminarians. I also helped most of them prepare for the PC(USA) exegesis exam. I’m not aware of any who were unable to pass that exam in its earlier form, at least on their second try.
So, if you’re a candidate or seminarian or pastor, don’t let the PC(USA) mistaken change discourage you. Continue to learn and use the biblical languages. Continue to seek the original meaning of a biblical passage. These disciplines are precious, and will help you know and communicate God’s truth with greater accuracy and impact.