Part 15 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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I just became aware of a couple of major changes in exegesis exams of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I want to offer some comments on these changes. This may seem like a detour from my series on The End of the PCUSA? Revisited, but, in fact, it is not. The changes in the grading of the exegesis exam illustrate why the PC(USA) is struggling to stay alive.
Let me offer a brief word of background for those who aren’t familiar with PC(USA) exegesis exams. For decades, candidates for ordained pastoral ministry in the PC(USA) were have been required to pass an exegesis exam. This required careful, well-informed, accurate interpretation of an assigned biblical text in the original languages (Greek or Hebrew). Moreover, the candidate prepared a sermon outline, so as to demonstrate the ability to use scholarly exegesis in a practical, pastoral context.
When I took the exegesis exam in the 1980s, it was a four-hour “open book” exam. Candidates were allowed to use any tools or helps they could bring, including dictionaries, grammars, concordances, commentaries, etc. At some point during the last twenty years, the exam was changed to a “take home” exam, in which candidates were given several days to finish it. I actually thought this was a positive change, since it did not place a premium on academic speed. Moreover, it provided candidates with a situation that was similar to that which they’d face as pastors, with a few days to work on a sermon.
Now, the exam itself and the way it will be graded have been changed in a couple of crucial ways. Here’s what I have learned from the PC(USA) website:
1. The demonstration of a working knowledge of Greek and/or Hebrew will no longer be a requirement in order to complete the examination successfully. When exams are graded, the readers will comment on the language facility which is demonstrated in the paper. Such comments will be offered as guidance for Committees on Preparation for Ministry in determining readiness for ministry.
2. The wording of the instructions for the Biblical Exegesis examination have been amended. Inquirers/candidates will be asked to offer “a faithful interpretation” of the assigned text, rather than “the principal meaning” of the text.
Why have these changes been made? The website explains that the committee in charge of the exams has completed a two-year evaluation process. Their goals in making the changes are stated as follows:
It is the sincere hope of the members of the PCCEC that these changes in the Biblical Exegesis examination will free students to focus on the larger issues of interpretation and practical application of Scripture, as well as to use the biblical languages as tools in that process.
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.
My Reaction to These Changes
You will probably not be surprised to learn that I’m not happy with these changes. I say this, in part, as one who has taught both Greek and Biblical Exegesis in seminaries, including the PC(USA)’s own San Francisco Theological Seminary. But my unhappiness with the changes in the exegesis exam has less to do with my seminary teaching experience and more to do with what the changes imply about the PC(USA)’s understanding of Scripture, its authority and interpretation.
First of all, notice what the committee hopes will happen because of the changes in the exam. They hope that the changes “will free students to focus on the larger issues of interpretation and application of Scripture, as well as to use the biblical languages as tools in that process.” Now I’m all for getting people to focus on the larger issues of interpretation and application of Scripture. But let’s do a careful exegesis of the phrase: “will free students to focus.” From what will students be freed? Here’s what’s implied. They’ll be freed from:
• From using original languages in their exegesis.
• From knowing what the original words really meant and
how they were used.
• From trying to discern “the principal meaning” of text.
In other words, students will not be expected to know what the original language of the text said, or what the original author of the text intended to communicate. They will be set free from these disciplines to offer simply “a faithful interpretation” of the text.
Wow! What a watershed moment in the history of Presbyterianism! For the first time, as far as I know, we are officially rejecting a traditional understanding of biblical interpretation, one in which the text has a principal meaning, one that takes seriously the intentions of the author, and one that requires the student to wrestle with the original meaning on the way to creating some “faithful interpretation.” Now we are allowing “a faithful interpretation” of a text to suffice, even if this “faithful interpretation” is not in sync with the original language or meaning of the passage. What a monumental move for the PC(USA)!
If you know anything about the study of textual interpretation in the last few decades, you’ll immediately recognize what’s happening here as a postmodern view of textual meaning. The notion that a text has a primary meaning has been rejected by many in our day, in favor a more subjective approach. Some theorists would even say that the real meaning of text inheres, not in the text or in the intentions of the author, but in the responses of the reader.
I certainly recognize that different readers respond differently to the same text. Moreover, I acknowledge that I can learn a great deal from the way other people respond to a text. Further, I’m willing to admit that my own readings, however much they are based on relatively objective criteria, like Greek or Hebrew definitions and grammar, are nevertheless impacted by my own subjective biases. A purely objective reading of a text is impossible.
But, in spite of these admissions, I, along with the PC(USA), have always believed that it was still possible to get fairly close to “the principal meaning” of a text. One way to access that meaning was by translating from the original language of the text. This was assumed by the PC(USA) . . . until now. Apparently, as a denomination we no longer believe that a principal meaning exists, or that it can be found even if it does exist, or that it matters even it exists and can be found. We’re satisfied only with a faithful interpretation. And this opens up a Pandora’s box of subjectivity.
I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.