In my first two years of high school, a cadre of friends and I would climb into one of those yellow school buses on Saturdays in the spring and travel around West Texas to compete with other schools in a range of academic subjects. Three or four of us specialized in the slide rule—a linear mechanical device we used to make lightning-fast judgments on all sorts of increasingly complex mathematical problems. In our junior and senior years of high school, those mathematical marvels had been retired. The world of arithmetical computation was revolutionized when Radio Shack introduced a cheap version of a new contraption, the pocket calculator. And I remember debates among students, parents, and teachers about whether calculators would ever be allowed in the classroom. By the time my own kids were in high school, of course, the debate was no longer whether students could use calculators but why parents had to put up the cash for a graphing calculator, which was now not only allowed but required.
#toolsI think about those days sometimes—not so much in nostalgic remembrance of moving that slide this way, the cursor that way, to solve an elaborate problem in trigonometry. Instead, I think about the analogy to working with biblical languages. What difference should it make to the way we prepare Christian leaders for working with biblical texts that we now have shelves full of commentaries that work with Greek and Hebrew, numerous lexical aids on which to draw, and Bible software on our computers? What difference does it make that I can access many of those tools from web-supported devices that I can wear on my belt and carry into an adult education class or into the local coffee shop? In the last couple of decades, the world of biblical study has been revolutionized. Should we continue to use slide rules? Will we allow graphing calculators? Should the way we prepare students for working with Scripture change on account of the increasing availability of tools that do so much of the heavy lifting for us?
When entering the office of a pastor or teacher, I invariably survey the books. And I find myself looking for the placement of this pastor’s Greek New Testament, her copy of the Greek-English lexicon, and maybe even the companion Hebrew Bible and Hebrew-English lexicon. Most of the time, those books are present and accounted for, but they are across the room from her desk, and are older editions, versions of those texts current when she was in seminary. It is hard not to conclude that work in the original languages, required in seminary, has not been her constant companion since graduation. Can we prepare students for working with Scripture in the original languages in ways that actually make a difference long-term? Might the increased availability of language-based tools assist us in this work?
It is true, of course, that some of our students and graduates want and need advanced expertise in the biblical languages. Fuller Seminary has been and wants continually to be a school whose graduates contribute to biblical and theological scholarship at the highest level. Advanced work with the biblical languages for such people is simply a prerequisite, and Fuller Seminary will continue to provide language instruction that serves the church in this way.
It is also true that not all of our students are called to contribute to biblical and theological scholarship at the highest level. What capacity for working with Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible is needed for the community worker in San Jose, California, or the pastor in San José, Costa Rica? For such Christian leaders, we are mapping an alternative route, one that accounts for the technological advances that are changing our lives in so many ways. Rather than asking them to devote long hours to flipping endless vocabulary cards and memorizing verb charts, we show them how they might immediately access that information and then how to use that information as they work through a biblical text. The bottom line is that basic information about a term is readily available—number, case, and the like; what is needed, then, is instruction and practice around what to do, what exegetical judgments to make, once this information is in hand. Those students and graduates will be able to work easily with original language tools like Bible-study software, lexicons, and resources like the Word Biblical Commentary. And, we trust, they will continue to do so throughout their ministries.
“Should the way we prepare students for working with Scripture change on account of the increasing availability of tools that do so much of the heavy lifting for us?”
Joel B. Green has been associate dean for Fuller’s Center for Advanced Theological Studies since 2008 and professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller since 2007.