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« We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Blog to Bring You a Special Report: Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed | Home | Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed: Section 3 »

Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed: Section 2

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Part 16 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Yesterday I began commenting on recent changes in the exegesis exam of the Presbyterian Church (USA). For the first time in ages, the PC(USA) will no longer require candidates taking the exegesis exam to demonstrate a knowledge of ancient biblical languages or to find the “principal meaning” of a passage. Now, candidates can pass the exegesis exam without showing that they know the original language of the text. And instead of trying to explain what that text originally meant, they need only to offer a “faithful interpretation” of the text.

What does this mean, exactly? Who’s to say whether an interpretation is faithful or not? In the end, who can say those who have injected their personal faith into a text that their interpretation is not faithful? I suppose if one defined “faithful” as “faithful to the original meaning of the text and to the use of the original language,” then we could argue about the faithfulness of an interpretation. But this is clearly not what the PCUSA means by “faithful interpretation.”

Let me offer an example of one reason why I have a problem with “faithful interpretation” as the new standard. When I was teaching New Testament Exegesis for San Francisco Theological Seminary (Southern California), I would assign a biblical passage to my students. In 15 pages or so, they were to provide an exegesis of the passage, showing their understanding of the passages’s linguistic basics, context, theology, etc. One year, I had a student from an ethnic minority write a paper that showed almost no attention to the original language, context, history of interpretation, and so forth. What he wrote was a “faithful interpretation” from his ethnic perspective. To that extent, his paper was fascinating and insightful and full of his own faith. But it had very little to do with what the text actually meant, or what the text’s author intended. When I gave this student a low grade, he was incensed. How could I suggest that his interpretation was wrong? It was, after all, his interpretation. It reflected his experience, his insights, his worldview, his feelings. The fact that he failed to deal with the experience, insights, worldview, or feelings of the original author was irrelevant, as far as he was concerned. To use the language of today’s PC(USA), his interpretation was certainly “faithful.” It reflected his faith journey and relationship with God. But it had little to do with what biblical exegesis is all about, which has to do with digging out the original meaning of the ancient text. Once one has labored to discern that “principal meaning,” then one is free to make all sorts of “faithful interpretations” in the work of teaching and preaching.

What the PC(USA) is saying, in effect, is that the original meaning of the text doesn’t matter nearly as much as one’s personal, faithful interpretation. Now I’m 100% in favor of personal, faithful interpretations. But I also believe that the principal meaning of a text matters. In fact, it is the principal meaning of a text that allows us to determine whether a purportedly faithful interpretation is, in fact, faithful to the text. For years, many Christians offered faithful interpretations of Scripture that were racist. Yet these were not faithful to the text of the Bible, when properly understood, even though they reflected the faith of the interpreters. Once we make faithful interpretation the measure of exegetical skill, we have lost the ability to critique those who get it wrong. We’re left simply with competing faithful interpretations, but no common ground upon which to discover a truthful interpretation.

The committee offers almost no rationale for their choice to jettison “principal meaning” in favor of “faithful interpretation.” They supply one comment from someone who said: “Rich passages of Scripture contain more than one ‘principal meaning’, and may lend themselves to several interpretations which are valid.” Well, that’s a theory worthy of debate, to be sure. But it’s certainly not so obviously true that it deserves to be accepted without argument. Nor is it consistent with what most Presbyterians have believed for centuries. We have traditionally affirmed that even rich passages of Scripture do contain one principal meaning, though this meaning may have many nuances and multiple applications. Moreover, we have not affirmed that biblical passages may have several valid interpretations. Several interpretations, to be sure, but not several valid ones. We have admitted that we may not be able to interpret a passage correctly. And we have realized that our best interpretations do not fully represent the text’s original meaning. But, nevertheless, we have sought to discern the original meaning as accurately as possible, using the tools of historical-critical exegesis, including knowledge of the original languages. Now the PC(USA) officially expects its pastoral candidates to come up with faithful interpretations, nothing more.

These changes in ordination exams are indicative of much larger issues in the PC(USA). They show how biblical interpretation has moved from a scholarly, relatively-objective discipline to a subjective matter of experience and feeling. They show how the original meaning of Scripture has lost its authority, since it either cannot be accessed or isn’t relevant if it can be accessed. “Faithful interpretation” is enough. The changes in the exam show precisely why the PC(USA) is in such a mess over the gay/lesbian issue. While some of us continue to believe that the Bible’s original meaning is still discernable and authoritative, others in our denomination do not feel the need to anchor their theology in the bedrock of the Bible’s original meaning. So, then, while some of are saying that the Bible reveals homosexual activity to be sinful, others are not especially moved by this claim, or even eager to engage with it. They are satisfied with their own “faithful interpretations” of Scripture, in which they take their particular faith in God and read it into the text. Their loving, accepting God would never expect gay and lesbian people to be celibate. So, in spite of what the Bible actually says about homosexual activity, they are willing to endorse gay and lesbian behavior, and to ordain those who practice it, and even to claim that their position is biblical. It is biblical if, by “biblical,” we mean “according to my own faith.”

I expect that nobody on the exam committee of the PC(USA) meant to make such a monumental statement about biblical authority and interpretation. And I’m quite sure that nobody on this committee believes that their two changes to the ordination exam are contributing to the demise of the PC(USA). But, in my opinion, what we have seen is indicative of why this denomination is reeling, well on its way to oblivion. We have lost touch with the common ground of biblical truth on which the PC(USA) was founded. And we no longer have any reliable way of getting back to that common ground in a denomination filled with equally-valid faithful interpretations. The changes in the ordination exam add up to a placard that reads: PCUSA . . . the end is near!

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

21 Responses to “Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed: Section 2”

  1. michael brundeen Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 9:28 am


    I appreciate very much your comments on this issue. While I agree that it is indicative of the fundamental problem afflicting our denomination, I wish to offer a prediction of what will happen as a result of this move that comes up short of the dissolution of the denomination. (admittedly, the demise may come from a variety of other sources) First there will be overtures to reject changes. They will be defeated in every Presbytery they come from and if one makes it to GA it will fail to leave committee. What will happen is that the presbyteries that know how important this issue is will require their candidates to write a separate exegesis paper graded by them on an entirely different set of standards than the national ordination exams. I stop short of predicting that this is the end of ordination exams longterm, but that is also a possibility. Keep up the faithful work!

  2. Joseph Cejka Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 10:18 am


    Your two blogs on ordination exams are superb pieces! They are thoughtful, well-reasoned, and insightful.

  3. Brent Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Hi Mark,

    Fascinating post as I am a Presbyterian minister in South Africa. There are a couple of issues for me in this post.

    Firstly: I am not sure of what normal theological education is like in the UPCSA, but here we do not have to have the original languages as part of our training and a three year degree is considered adequate. For the most part this is due to the lack of funds and the poor basic level of education of many of our ministers. But as long as one can use original language tools I personally believe that is adequate. I always use concordances and dictionaries to understand the key words and ideas in a passage as best I am able. I am not sure how this would affect my ability to complete an exegesis exam in the UPCSA though :)

    Second comment has to do with the faithful interpretation and particularly the example from a class you taught. Much modern exegises is shallow at best - non existent at worst. I have heard some ministers (from other denominations I note! although I certainly believe some UPCSA ministers are in the same boat) preach sermons on a text that I would never have imagined possible! It is clear listening to some of these sermons that absolutely no thought, work or prayer has gone into making any attempt to understand the context and intent of the original author. It is a disease that has infected our preaching and I appreciate your concerns!

  4. J. Falconer Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Thanks again for an awesome post! Glad the vacation to California was a great success! Our computer was down for a few weeks, so the last 2 days caught up on your postings. Thanks again & wishing you & your family a nice week! God Bless

  5. Bill Goff Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Mark,
    I would be interested to see how you and your blog readers interpret the short book of Philemon. What is the principal meaning? What Greek words or phrases are important to understand in order to interpret this text? What does this brief letter tell us about the practice of slavery? What are some possible valid practical, pastoral applications which may be derived from this text?
    Bill Goff, HR (PCUSA), D.Min (Fuller Theological Seminary), BA (UCLA), IRS Revenue Agent, cellist, actor, blog reader

  6. ChipFre Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    This new change in the examination is terrible. It allows the “seeker friendly” people to come into the denomination, and make things even worse. They like to use their own personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, and tell people a different gospel.
    Second, this makes me wonder if this will allow gay ministers without us knowing they are gay into the denomination.
    This type of “faitful intepretation” is going to harm the PC-USA which has already seen a lot of people leave.


  7. Adel Thalos Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

    Little by little and step by step the de facto neoliberal theology that dominates the denomination will become officially enshrined. It was not that long ago that I heard the news of Rick Ufford-Chase preaching a sermon on the feeding of the 5000, and interpreted the text to remove all aspects of a supernatural miracle. Instead his “faithful” interpretation had all the people bringing out their lunches and sharing it.
    Why should anyone be surprised by these changes? I think it is rather refreshing that our processes and official constitution is changing to better reflect the reality of this fallen denomination.

    Having been on a CPM committee, I can fully attest that there is a preferential option for liberal, neoliberal (emerging), and neoorthodox theologies.

    I have personally experienced exclusion from a called position within a conservative church by a liberal Presbytery. A candidate or ordained pastor who expressly proclaims and defends the infallibility of scripture will experience a fullout assault by a majority of Presbytery leaders.

  8. John R Kerr Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    So we affirm that the books of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church, and that they are God’s Word to us, and when we go to define that, we’re saying that they’re as meaningful in our lives as the rules to Monopoly? At that point, we cease to be the church and we’ve become a club like the Rotary or the Kiwanis. We’re just a bunch of do-gooders who, as a clergy character from a popular series once put it, specialize in “nice.” Too bad we threw out the notion of total depravity–we just became its textbook illustration.

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

    Bill: I’m not sure a whole book has one principal meaning, even a book as short as Philemon. The exegesis exam, as you know, focuses on smaller passages. Yet, I do think the principal point of Philemon is fairly clear. Paul was asking Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, even though Onesimus had done something which, in the context of Roman law, was worthy of death, and in the context of Roman culture, was dishonoring to his master. I think any decent interpreter of Philemon can get this point and needs to get it before moving on to the much juicier questions of how Philemon speaks to the larger issues of slavery in general. On this level, there is room for numerous faithful interpretations. But these must be based on the principal meaning of the letter, which is Paul’s appeal on behalf of Onesimus to be welcomed back. Yes?

  10. KC Says:
    August 27th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    I stayed up for almost two days writing that exam while in seminary, drinking, eating, smelling, and more eating of my Bible, my greek lexicon, my Romans commentary, and a whole lot of ICED Coffee…you mean I could have waited? :):):)

  11. Pastor, what does baptizo mean in 1 Cor 10:2? | Doctrine Unites! Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 8:43 am

    […] pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in California, says the move is “indicative” of a denomination in big trouble: [W]hat we have seen is indicative of why this denomination is reeling, well on its way to […]

  12. Bill Goff Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Thanks Mark, for taking on my little challenge of interpreting Philemon. I didn’t mean it as an example of an exegesis exam. Since my exam was about 38 years ago, I have forgotten how long it was or even the content.
    I cannot disagree with your explication of the principal point of Philemon, except to say that there are strong hints in the letter than Paul wanted Onesimus to be returned to him after being reconciled wth Philemon. That aspect of the request hinges in part on the meaning of the Greek work peri which can be translated “for” or “on behalf of”.
    When I was a university student attending Hollywood Presbyterian Church, your uncle Don Williams was our college pastor. One memorable weekend he and about a dozen students had a study conference with him at Forest Home. He led us in an inductive study of the book of Philemon. It was a life changing experience. It gave us all a great sense of power to focus on the text, observing it intently and persistantly asking it questions. Sometime later I wrote a paper on Philemon for a New Testament as Literature class at UCLA. It was the first paper on which I ever received an A+. So Philemon has had a very big part in my life.
    I think any adequate interpretation of this letter has to go beyond the recitation of the facts without ever abandoning those facts to go into subjective personal interpretations.
    In my way of thinking it is responsible to ask why do we have this book? Is there extra-biblical mention of Onesimus? Who collected Paul’s writings for the church? Was it Onesimus? Do we, in fact owe to this former slave, the fact that we have many of Paul’s letters which form the bulk of the New Testament? What does it say about the power of the Gospel? Can the Gospel have an impact on cultural institutions like slavery? What does this letter say about the nature of the church? What does it say about the forgiveness, reconciliation?
    Here’s what I think: We have the book of Philemon because it was a success. Otherwise it would have been torn up and destroyed and Onesimus would have been punished and perhaps killed. The letter worked: a run-away slave was reconciled to his master. Master and slave became brothers. The Gospel does impact sinful cultural institutions like slavery: not by frontally decouncing them in a situation in which that would be suicidal, but in reconciling slave to master.
    The Good News about Jesus Christ works. It worked in the life of a run-away slave. It worked in the life of a wronged slave owner. It works in individuals and society. It impacts lives and culture. This is really thrilling, marvelous, Good News! It needs to be believed and practiced and proclaimed!
    That’s my interpretation. Now I must get back to my day job.

    Bill Goff, HR, etc.

  13. Dan Thayer Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your insightful look at the changes to the exegesis exam. I am a resent ordination exam survivor who is beginning pastoral ministry. I agree totally with your assessment of the change from “principal meaning” to “faithful interpretation.” I find that quite problematic.

    However, I welcome the removal of the biblical language element from the exegesis exam. This is not because I oppose the requirement to learn Greek and Hebrew, but because the exegesis exam failed to measure this requirement in a meaningful way, for at least three reasons:

    1) The exegesis exam is graded largely by laypeople who do not know the biblical languages. Even if they receive ample coaching and preparation, how can they truly judge whether someone demonstrates knowledge of a biblical language?

    2) The exam taker is caught between the twin perils of being failed for inadequately showing knowledge of the language on one hand and being failed for using too much technical language on the other. And each grader likely places these bars in different places.

    3) The exam is open book. Anyone could, quite within the limits of the rules, find some Hebrew or Greek analysis in a commentary, lexicon, etc. to incorporate in, without actually knowing the language.

    Among seminary students I knew, the results of the Exegesis exam had little correlation with language knowledge. Hebrew and Greek classes are still required for ordination, and I don’t think that the exegesis exam needs to evaluate something that is far better captured by a student’s performance in these classes.

    In Christ,

  14. Kathy Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    As an exam reader and pastor, I sympathize with Dan, but need to encourage him a bit about the process of reading.

    Remember, the readers are not “largely lay people,” since the pool of readers is required to be half clergy and half elders.

    Although I cannot tell you about every reading site, I can assure you that at ours the preparation was excellent, and readers who were unsure about how to grade a particular answer were encouraged to seek guidance from one of our coaches. All our comments were read by that same team of coaches, and sometimes we were asked to redo our work!

    Exams are expected to show a working knowledge of the original language, beyond what could be merely copied from language tools: not just the meanings of words, but some insight into the particular use of syntax or grammar would suffice. For readers, it was sometimes difficult to determine whether the paper displayed such “working knowledge” of the language. Perhaps some papers in the past have been graded unevenly on that point.

    As Dan knows, each exam is read by at least 2 readers. If they disagree about whether the paper passes or fails, they are assigned a 3rd reader, and the coaches are especially vigilant about overseeing the comments on that paper.

  15. Charlie McFarlin Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    “…we have lost the ability to critique those who get it wrong.” WRONG?

    Mark! Don’t you know that in the PC world we now live in it is considered hate speech to tell someone they’re WRONG? Where have you been? Faithful interpretation? All that matters is how it makes us FEEL. The world now revolves around OUR belly button. You can’t tell us that GOD is in control. That hurts OUR FEELINGS! WE want to be in control ;o)
    You may consider this comment “extraordinarily rude.” If so, please feel free to delete it it made me FEEL better just writing it (tee-hee).

  16. Jason Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:02 pm


    Your decision to remain in the PCUSA becomes more baffling with every post.

  17. Pete Says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 1:40 am

    Most of the candidates we have examined on the floor of presbytery the last few years have been quite ignorant in their understanding and application of the word, most offer opinions instead of arguments, and are completely baffled when this is pointed out. Years ago when I took my ordination exams, they were very difficult, but I saw a number of students pass the exams but didn’t believe a word they wrote down. These people were pagans, unbelievers, a disaster waiting to happen.

    So here we stand, the denomination literally going to hell, it is no mystery how we got here. A growing number of friends I graduated with have left the denomination - they are very happy now. A growing number of friends have also confided in me that their next church will be out of the PCUSA. Me, I am fed up with working alongside folks who claim to be believers but in reality are pagan through and through, and I will be joining my friends in a church other than the PCUSA where I can serve with fellow believers. God bless you, great writing.

  18. Jake Says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Hiya Hiya,

    As an elder Presbyter this article has underscored, for me, the value of a rigorous, objective, examination by Presbyters from the floor of a Presbytery meeting. We have to remember that, in the PCUSA, ordination is done by the Presbytery, so all Presbyters are in a sense responsible for those they ordain. In my opinion this is too important, in these days of theological mish-mash, to be left to CPM’s. The truth is that our constitutional documents basically have it right. The Westminster Confession and others that we have enshrined in out Book of Confessions are good and true expositions of Scriptural truth: our theology as expressed in our historic confessions is sound. We need to hold our ordination candidates accountable to to these standards. One important way to do this is to embrace our responsibility as Presbyters and conduct a vigorous oral examination, as is our right and duty.

    Jake Horner

  19. John Says:
    September 3rd, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    You know what this means. It means students from every two-bit evangelical seminary which doesn’t require Greek and Hebrew can now take the Exegesis exam. It’s a way for the right-wingers to take over the PCUSA.

  20. Ioannes Says:
    October 17th, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Re: John — Oh really? Many (not all) evangelical seminaries require 4-5 semesters of language work in both Greek and Hebrew for M. Div. candidates, then futher require that subsequent biblical exegesis courses utilize the skills learned, through translation and syntactic analysis).

    Many “mainline” seminaries do require a year of each biblical language, but there’s no ongoing translation or philological discussion except on certain issues-oriented passages. Thus it can be a mere rite of passage rather than a foundation for exegesis.

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