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We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Blog to Bring You a Special Report: Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Part 15 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

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.

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

19 Responses to “We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Blog to Bring You a Special Report: Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed”

  1. Scott A. Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 9:02 am

    In the past few years, I have noticed a difference of prepositions that could easily go unnoticed, but is actually quite important.

    Go to an evangelical church and when the scriptures are read, they say, “listen to the Word of God.”

    Go to a mainline church and when the scriptures are read, they say, “listen for the Word of God.”

    One emphasizes the the text. The other emphasizes the reader.

  2. Bill Goff Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Mark, I join your lament that the direction of the PC(USA)is drifting away from an emphasis on knowing and using the languages God chose to use in revealing himself and his word. However I fail to see a useful and important distinction between the “the principal meaning” of a text and “a faithful interpretation”. Would a faithful interpretation not usually identify the principal meaning of a text? Is it always possible to identify the principal meaning of a text? In his masterful books interpreting the parables, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, resists identifying a principal meaning in each parable. Instead he identifies a cluster of important ideas. This is not because Dr. Bailey ignores the exegesis of Greek or the importance of the culture in which Jesus’ words were spoken.
    I am also very impressed with F. Dale Bruner’s massive and comprehensive two volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in which he struggles with the language of the text and various historical interpretations before offering his own interpretation. In his second edition of this wonderful commentary Dr. Bruner shares his interpretations that have changed due to further reflection.
    So I hope you are not suggesting that there is one principal meaning to every text that a candidate for ordinate must find and elucidate to prove that she or he can interpret the Bible.

  3. Jim Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Forgive my ignorance as a layperson, but according to some stuff I read on the G.A. website, this would also seem to require an amendment of the Book of Order. Thus, wouldn’t it need to be approved by the presbyteries before it could go into effect?

    “On behalf of the committee Gieser moved, and the Assembly approved, two recommendations that call for the revision of the Book of Order descriptions of the Open Book Bible Exegesis and Theological Competence ordination exams, the order in which the exams are listed, and other wording in G-14.0431.” (excerpt)

  4. Randy Jenkins Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    The exams and the entire process have been in trouble for many years. In the 1990’s I failed my first theology exam because, and I quote the exam reader, “It appears the writer of the exam believes only the elect are saved.” I knew I was in trouble right then and there!

  5. Alan Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I am in agreement with you on this brother. I might agree with Jim’s comment which seems to equate “‘the principal meaning’ of a text” and “‘a faithful interpretation’” if the second phrase spoke of a faithful application, but as it is it fails miserably IMHO.

    I am appalled at what passes for exegesis at times in many churches, PCUSA and others. Like Randy, I too failed one of my exams. One reader said I was too pastoral and didn’t deal with the problem. The other, you guessed it, said I was too clinical and didn’t come across as pastoral enough.


  6. Clay Brown Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    As someone who’s done some reading in postmodern hermeneutics, I’m concerned and appalled at this change in the rules and regs for ord exams.

    The phrase “faithful interpretation” sounds great on the surface until you ask the question, “What constitutes a faithful interpretation?” If you have a postmodern approach, then your response as the reader is primary because there are no such things as objective truth and authorial intent. Such things are far too “logocentric” (Derrida) and “realistic” (Rorty). But since there are no such things as objective truth connected to any correspondence with reality and as authorial intent, you are free to construct (or deconstruct) the meaning of the passage to your heart’s content. In short, it seems to me that “faithful interpretation” is simply weasel language to evade the issue and to obfuscate any idea of a primary meaning existing in a Biblical text.

    As for the question of it being possible always to identify the principal meaning of a Biblical text, my response is to say that it is possible to do so sufficiently without having to carry the burden of doing so completely or perfectly. Thus we can spiral in on the target, build on one another’s attempts to find the meaning, and get better at it as we go. You don’t have to claim you know the entire meaning of a Scriptural text to claim you have a sufficient grip on it so as to proclaim it faithfully. Of course we make mistakes at this. That’s why we need each other in the process. That’s why we need to exegete the passage for ourselves as much as is possible before you crack open the commentaries. If we needed complete or perfect knowledge of a passage before we preached on it, we’d never get in the pulpit. But thankfully it is possible to obtain sufficient knowledge–at least sufficient enough to allow us to preach–for every text. Otherwise, why bother?

    A final thought: it seems like the entire revelatory nature of the Christian faith presumes that 1) there is something objective to be revealed, and 2) we are capable of understanding it when it is revealed. If you cast doubt on the nature of the revelation and our ability to perceive it, then you are free to ignore it at your leisure.

  7. Charlie McFarlin Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    I agree with you concerning the drift away from recognition of the authority of Scripture, and especially with Scott’s comment about “listen TO” v. “listen FOR” the Word of God. What “listen for” says to the congregation is, “There may be a word from God in this stuff I’m about to read, but I’ll be darned if I know what it is or where to find it, so good luck; you’re on your own.”
    With regard to the tests, my main heartburn is not so much with the tests as with the grading. Like Alan, grading of the exams I failed first time around was inconsistent to the point of uselessness. On my Polity exam, one grader gave me a 5 and said, “Right on! You nailed it!” The other gave me a 1 and said I was “…being too pastoral.”
    One Exegesis exam grader commented, “This is standard salvation boilerplate.” Wonder what he/she preaches? Don’t think I want to find out. Additionally, as we are wont to do in the PCUSA, these exams are graded by an equal number of ministers and elders. It is unfair to both the elders and the candidates to ask them to grade exegesis exams for which they have no language background. There HAS to be a better way.

  8. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Bill: Yes, if one defines “faithful” in the way you do, then we’re just fine. But I fear this is not the intended sense of “faithful interpretation,” because this meaning of “faithful interpretation” pretty much assumes there is a “principal meaning” of a text that can be known. Like you, I think any truly faithful interpretation must take into account the principal meaning of the text, its original words, etc.

  9. Evan Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    One need only look to the US Supreme Court to see what postmodernism can do for interpretation.

    When an “emanation of the shadow” of an explicitly enumerated right can take on the power of an explicitly enumerated right and become the law of the land, then Anything Goes.

    When one gets done working the Scriptures over, one arrives at Situational Ethics in which the Most Loving Thing that can be done in the Garden is to eat the forbidden fruit. Lovingly, of course.

  10. Chris Larimer Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    Another issue that begs to be acknowledged is just how little resembling grammatico-historical hermeneutics is taught at the denominational seminaries. Instead, it seems much more important to provide classes on certain ideological interpretive lenses than to try and build a theology from solid exegesis.

    At my own alma mater, I was embarrassed that in a class on Presbyterian Heritage only one student had even carried a Bible to class with them when the teacher needed a footnoted reference read.

  11. Paul Evans Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Mark, thanks for addressing such a critical issue, one that has largely gone unnoticed. I am a member of my presbytery’s CPM, and it was not until Monday’s meeting that I learned about the actions on the exegesis exam. I was absolutely astounded, but unfortunately the changes were lost on most of the committee. It would seem that there should be an outcry, especially from the academic community. I would hope that some PC(USA) seminary professors particularly would critically engage the changes. Thanks for bringing this situation into the open. I look forward to your follow up blog.

  12. Bob Gohlke Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 5:30 am

    Dr. Roberts:
    It seems that the Truth is not enough, doesn’t it, and is also “…foolishness to the Gentiles.”? It also seems as if we who believe in the Truth are to become “the remnant” in this coming generation, barring a massive revival? God only knows (to quote Paul Simon).

    It is such a boost for me to find someone writing for Him, and not for the one who masquerades as an “angel of light”. And someone who is doing such a concise and brilliant job of deconstructing the deconstructionists, from a “qualified interpreter”’s point of view (of course, if you’re a Presbyterian, you have to at least meet that standard).

    Your examination of the Examination just highlights, for me, the all-out assault that is being made on the authority of Jesus Christ, which is synonymous, for those of us who were not eyewitnesses to His death and resurrection, with the undermining the authority (and the Truth) of the revealed, inspired, Word of the Holy Scriptures.

    Your analysis also recalls, for me, Christ’s words: “None are so blind as those who will not see”, and evokes His words when he upbraids the Pharisees because they do not even know God (Whom they claim to know) much less who He is (the Messiah)(Whom they would know if they really believed His revealed Word, and if their hearts were turned to Him).

    Really, no relevant discussion is possible with the point of view represented by those changes, since, as you detail, the basic assumptions made from that point of view deny the very truth that Jesus Christ came to make obvious and available: He is the Messiah, the Savior.

    The Truth matters. I apologize that my response does not achieve the scholarly standards of your normal readers. Thank you, as I see you are both prolific and catholic in your interests, and bold in your pursuit of the Truth.

    I am a new reader, through Presbyweb. I am looking forward to becoming acquainted with your writing.

  13. Art Seaman Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 7:11 am

    Dear Mark

    First of all I took Hebrew in seminary and comped out of Greek. My dad was a professor of Greek and taught me from an early age. I have also been a grader of ord exams on 14 occassions.

    1. I think the requirement of taking Greek and Hebrew is important, but also recognize few students are proficient in the languages after a year of study.

    2. A few years back at a Presbytery meeting there was discussion about offering an overture to do away with the language requirement. There were many speeches about the importance of language study. I challenged any minister to show me that they could still read Greek or Hebrew and do an even passable translation. None took me up on the challenge. I maintain that anyone ten years out of seminary has little language skill left.

    3. Having read more than 50 Bible Exegesis exams when I was a reader of the exams, I found most of the exams dry and stilted. More than half failed, not because of language inability, but because of an inability to connect the text to an interpretation that made sense.

    4. In the year since I retired, I have visited more than 30 churches. I have yet to hear a single sermon that mentioned the language of the original text. My sense is that few people in the pews are interested in the original text. I have also heard some really mediocre sermons.

    5. The real issue about language, is whether the preacher/student understands the text, and can make some sense out of the text and preach an interesting and relevant sermon. The Bible Exegesis exam did not adequately judge that.

    Art Seaman
    Kittanning, PA

  14. Dion Houston Sr Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Well, I do not (yet) know biblical Hebrew or Greek, but I have gone to the military language school twice for Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, additionally studied French, Japanese and German, am married to a Filipina who’s taught me some Tagalog, and hold a BA in Linguistics with some graduate work in syntax.

    It has been over 10 years since I last took a foreign language, and although I am no where near proficient in Chinese, neither do I believe I have completely forgotten it. Were I to go back to the text (as I do on rare occasion), I’d feel pretty confident that I could identify parts of speech, little nuances of meaning, etc. I suspect, that even though translation may be out of the question, for many pastors, they can and do look at greek and/or Hebrew words and this knowledge helps them in their sermons. Here in Afghanistan, I know my roomate, a chaplain, does so for his sermons.

    But I don’t believe that’s entirely the issue. Historically Presbyterians have been on the forefront of pastoral education. We are _known_ for our tougher ordination standards. To move in this direction… Well, I wonder what’s next. Are we going to move away from a year each of biblical languages to a single survey course? Almost certainly, if there’s no objective standard to enforce a certain level of proficiency with the languages, our pastors will not have a common ground of understanding the very scriptures themselves. We all know that translations are always a give and take process.

    Sigh… :)


  15. Bill Goff Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    In response to Art Seaman, HR: I graduated from seminary 38 years ago where I learned Hebrew and Greek. I am not proficient (certainly not fluent) in either language and I could not produce a passable translation of a Hebrew or Greek text. Yet in my preaching days I often made use of the biblical languages in sermon preparation though I did not often mention Hebrew or Greek in my sermons. (Like the children of Lake Wobegone, all my sermons were better than average.)
    I still enjoy using both Hebrew and Greek. I have recently been reading through the new Books of the Bible with a plan to complete the Bible in a year. Two days ago I was reading a section in Exodus which mentioned the Ten Commandments. I wanted tocheck to see if the word translated commandments was the Hebrew word for “words” since I had seen this (mis)translation before. I was able to look it up in my Hebrew Bible. Sure enough the Hebrew word translated “commandments” was the word “words”.
    Back story: while I was living in Israel and learning a bit of Jewish theology, I discovered that many Jews refer to “The Ten Commandments” as “The Ten Words”. And they count this as the first word: “I am the LORD your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.” So as Jews see it, the first word is a word of grace, not law, an indicative, not an imperative. (They still end up with ten because they combine the admonition regarding not having any other god with the command about not making an idol.)
    Bill Goff, HR
    Laguna Niguel, California

  16. Mark Roberts Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Art: Thanks for your comments. It seems to me we need to solve the problems you raise without giving up on the expectations that pastors be strong interpreters of the biblical text who can also communicate it’s meaning with power.

    The computer GREATLY helps folks who have studied biblical languages keep up a workable knowledge of them. There was a time when it was just too hard to use Greek and Hebrew unless one had taken many classes in them. But now one can take a year or so of a language and still remain proficient in that language to the extent that such is helpful for exegesis. A pastor doesn’t need to be able to translate from Greek or Hebrew. It is enough for that person to know how the language works, and to be able to click about a computer screen intelligently.

  17. Robbie Castleman Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    I teach NT Hermeneutics at John Brown University and just read this blog after my introductory lecture on foundational nature of exegesis, historical context, (and etc!)to the work of hermeneutics. JBU is a non-affiliated evangelical school and I have to work hard to help students STUDY the Scripture they sincerely believe in, but continues to be highly neglected in many evangelical faith communities. Denominational “mainliners” often like to distinguish themselves from “those evangelicals” even within the denomination. This change certainly blur’s that, don’t you think? Unthinking liberalism is the fraternal twin to unthinking conservatism. Both fail to make disciples. I’m married to a PC(USA) pastor who has been disciplining me every week for 37 years through the careful, prayerful and warm exegetical preaching of biblical texts.
    Keep crying in the wilderness. It matters to God even if it falls on the deaf ears of Louisville.

  18. Peggy Says:
    March 23rd, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Mr. Seaman raises interesting points. As one who just learned that I have failed my exegesis exam, but have received A’s for both Hebrew and Greek exegesis in seminary, I have to question the grading, not the need for the testing. It seems that we are trying to remedy the wrong issue. It also occurs to me that the lowering of expectations on the exams is just another alarming testimony to the lowering of standards in general of the PCUSA.

  19. Zashkaser Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 8:43 am

    I wanted to ask, is there any chance for a modified version of the directory listing script, with an iphone-stylish like design?


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