Many students finish seminary with a semblance of familiarity with critical methods, and a few memorable anecdotes to tell about their OT profs, who, by all accounts, are cooler than their NT colleagues, but with no thorough knowledge of, or “chapter by chapter” and “verse by verse” familiarity with, the contents of biblical literature.
Seminaries that have kept language requirements in place, a laudable policy, are nevertheless failing to raise up priests and pastors with a love of biblical learning in the original languages. The vast majority of students, upon graduation and ordination, place their Nestle-Aland and BHS on a bookshelf of their study, where they collect dust forever and ever, amen.
Which way forward?
Seminaries and theological schools which train Christian ministers could learn a thing or two from rabbinical seminaries, where wannabe rabbis actually master Hebrew and Aramaic, not just dabble in said languages, as is the norm among Gentiles. But the comparison, for the sociologically aware, sends up a number of red flags. Hebrew and Aramaic are more than the languages of Judaism’s canonical texts. Both are also languages of liturgy (the Tanakh, the Kaddish, the Siddur) and study (Talmud). Hebrew, furthermore, is the language of Israel, a home away from home in the eyes of many Diaspora Jews.
I went to seminary in Italy and Germany, so my experience tells me there is another way. Here are some key differences, based on personal experience:
(1) Incoming students at the Waldensian seminary in Rome arrive, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to their first day of class, with a strong background in Greek, Latin, the classics, and western philosophy (if one asks them something about Kant or Hegel, e.g., they will spout off something fairly accurate).
(2) That’s because they’re coming off an education in a liceo classico, where those subjects are seriously taught. They are only 18 or 19 years old when they start seminary, because seminary does not require a previous degree. It takes six or seven years to finish seminary, which includes an obligatory year abroad at a seminary elsewhere (Germany and the US are top choices), and a concluding thesis that sometimes differs not at all from a doctoral dissertation (mine was accepted for publication, and that is not a unique case).
(3) Papers written for seminars (very different from lecture courses, a discussion of which would take me too far off subject) during the course of seminary training have to be of very high quality. This is true in Germany as well, to judge from my year at the Kirchliche Hochschule Bethel.
(4) With Greek and Latin under their belt already, it’s possible for students to do exegesis from the get go in the original languages, and refer to a body of exegesis extending from the Fathers to the Reformation.
(5) Hebrew still gets the short end of the stick. But, final exams before graduation include a grecone and a ebraicone. That is, you have to walk into a room filled with your professors and translate and comment on a passage on sight from anywhere within a subset of the NT (about half) and a subset of the OT (about 60 chapters, if I remember correctly).
(6) All exams are oral, an Italian tradition, which, of course, is why Italians are excellent b-essers. (This skill comes in handy as a pastor, let me tell you.) An oral exam before a board of profs is an exquisite rite of passage, subject, of course, to manipulation. I’ll never forget how some of my fellow students of the opposite sex dressed on exam day, for the spiritual benefit, I suppose, of their examining professors.
(7) In Germany, students move around from university to university to hear the lectures of the best profs going at any particular point in time. The level of intellectual curiosity tends to be much higher among students than it is this side of the pond. Once again, this depends a lot on the emphases of the prior schooling many of the students have had.
(8) Pre-graduation exams are comprehensive. That means you have to review and remember topics and fields of study you had a lecture course or seminar on two, three, or more years back. Students take copious notes and keep them for years, sometimes forever. It is also not uncommon to study for said exams months and months on end. The experience can be, though not always is, life transforming in the positive sense.
Obviously, a contributing factor to the success of European seminaries in equipping students with Bibelkunde (“chapter by chapter” and “verse by verse” familiarity with the contents of biblical literature, sorely lacking this side of the pond) and exegetical capability in the original languages is that, in the case of Greek and Latin, students come to seminary with a strong background in those languages.
Is there a way to furnish pre-sem students with a background in the original languages in the North American setting? I think there is. I’m experimenting with an idea in my own parish. More on that in a future post.
I realize my ruminations are out of synch entirely with the way deans and profs in North American theological schools think today. For some idea of their concerns, go here and here. With all due respect, I think they have their heads in the sand.
SECOND UPDATE: Tyler Williams chimes in, with insights of his own.