Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hebrew and Greek and Exegesis, Oh My!

Over the past few years we have been moving from a regulatory Form of Government to a Form of Government (FOG) that is called “missional.” The suggestion has been that a new FOG would be based on trust.

This year a whole rewrite of the FOG went to the GA and was turned back to a committee for rewriting. The committee was told to listen to the presbyteries as it rewrote the Form of Government.

But we had a foretaste of the FOG based on trust. An amendment to the constitution went to presbyteries a couple of years ago. It was a complete rewrite of chapter 14, the chapter on ordination. It was intended to make the chapter less regulatory and to allow more freedom to the local presbytery. Now as the committee that oversees the writing and reading of ordination exams for candidates for the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament sets new policy based on the new chapter 14 we see the results of trust and they are bitter.

Both the former chapter 14 and the current chapter 14 say the following about the responsibility of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry (COPM) about the candidate’s ability to use Hebrew and Greek:

Old G-14.0310b(3) and new G-14.0450c:

(the candidate shall)

c. presentation of a transcript from a theological institution accredited by the Association of Theological Schools acceptable to the presbytery, the transcript showing satisfactory grades, and presentation of a plan to complete the theological degree including Hebrew and Greek and exegesis of the Old and New Testaments using Hebrew and Greek texts;

So the COPM has the responsibility to make sure that a candidate is able to use Hebrew and Greek to do exegesis. The question today is whether the COPM can depend on the Ordination Exams to show that a candidate can do exegesis in the original languages. That has been a method used by the COPM. Satisfactory grades on the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam measured the candidate’s ability to use the original languages to do exegesis.

Alas the FOG no longer states what the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam will measure and how it will measure. Chapter 14 used to say this:

G-14.0311d(1) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall asses the candidate’s ability to find and state the meaning of an assigned passage of Scripture, demonstrating a working knowledge of the original language of the text and ability to understand its historical situation.

The candidate shall have access to any or all of the following:

Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries and other exegetical tools, including those which presuppose knowledge of the Biblical languages. Using these he or she shall be asked to state the meaning of the passage, show how he or she arrived at this interpretation, and suggest how this passage might be used in the contemporary life of the church.

The current chapter 14 of the FOG says the following about ordination exams:

G 14.0430 Examinations

G-14.0431 Inquirers or candidates are encouraged to take the Bible Content Examination in their first year of seminary. The other four examinations may be taken by inquirers or candidates after completion of two full years of theological education. These four examinations shall only be taken upon approval by the committee on preparation for ministry of the inquirer’s or candidate’s presbytery. The areas of examinations are:

a Bible Content.

b. Open Book Bible Exegesis.

c. Theological Competence.

d. Worship and Sacraments.

e. Church Polity.

G.14.0432 The examinations required in the five specified areas shall be graded by representatives of the presbyteries under the supervision of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates as provided in G-11.0103m. Descriptions of the examinations, the subjects, the schedule, and the procedures for their administration shall be prepared by the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee and approved by the General Assembly.

Notice that the examinations are no longer described but merely listed. Also notice that G-14.0432 says that the committee shall propose descriptions of the exams, the subjects, the schedule and the procedures for their administration. These must be approved by the General Assembly.

Now evidently the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates has proposed a new description of the Open Book Bible Exegesis exam. The Committee published the following on the GA news site. Tthe new description reads as follows:

  • The Biblical Exegesis examination will continue to offer questions which allow inquirers/ candidates to demonstrate proficiency in Greek and Hebrew. However, the demonstration of this working knowledge of the biblical languages will no longer be requirement in order to complete the exam successfully.

When the 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. It will be the responsibility of the CPM, upon review of seminary transcripts and the exegetical work and sermon presented by the candidate, to determine if the candidate’s ability to use Greek and Hebrew is sufficient to serve as a helpful tool for the understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures as required the Constitution of the PCUSA. (Book of Order G-14.0450).

  • Inquirers/candidates will be asked to offer a faithful interpretation, rather than the principal meaning of the text. In many cases, a passage of Scripture may offer several meanings or possibilities for interpretations rather than “one” correct meaning.

See for the full article by the Committee. I urge all who read this letter to read the full article.

The 2008 Committee on the Review of General Assembly Permanent Committees approved the following concerning the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam:

(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall assess the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.

“The candidate shall have access to Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries, and other exegetical tools.

This committee also approved the following amendment to the FOG:

Amend Recommendation 1, first paragraph of “(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis” as follows: [Text to be deleted is shown with a strike-through; text to be added or inserted is shown with an underline.]

“(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall assess the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical [and literary]context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.”

Both of these were approved by the General Assembly in plenary.

Since the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates conducted a study of the ordination exams and recommended changes in the description of the exam both in their manual and in the FOG I strongly urge anyone interested in this issue to read the study at:

And the two recommendations to the General Assembly at:

The core questions raised by the Cooperative Committee’s new policies are:

  1. Should the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam be a measure of the candidate’s ability to work in Hebrew or Greek; and
  2. Should the Exam require the candidate to find and describe the true meaning of the text?

So it seems that satisfactory grades in Hebrew and Greek and in Hebrew and Greek exegesis (G-14.0450c) are now sufficient to determine whether a candidate can do proper exegesis and use that exegesis in a church setting. The Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam will no be an instrument to measure such ability.

Given the failure rate among candidates taking the exam one has to wonder if the standards are changing because of the inability of candidates to pass the exam.

In any case, I think the Cooperative Committee’s new policies are a mistake. Certainly there are passages that can have multiple meanings. But most passages have one meaning. A Bible exegesis exam should test the ability of a candidate to find the central meaning of a text and to use that text in a congregational setting. Do we want to ordain people who choose to take a passage out of context or say that it means something different than, (to the extent that we can discover it) the intention of the author or editor? We are to examine our lives in the light of the Scripture, not decide the meaning of the Scripture in the light of our lives.

As to Hebrew and Greek, the ability to use the original languages has been a mark of ordained Presbytery clergy throughout the history of Presbyterians in America. Are we willing to abandon this requirement, at least in the Bible exegesis exam, without denomination wide discussion?

Pastor Bob

Monday, August 18, 2008


My brother Allan says that it is always a wonderful day when you walk into the mountains and walk out having learned something. Usually when you learn something in the mountains you did something stupid and if you walk out that means you survived.

Just over a week ago I went out riding my bicycle. I am still alive, no thanks to myself. I have no memory after leaving the house but it seems that I must have been going really fast down Pine Street without benefit of a helmet. That’s what the neighbors tell me, the ones who called 911 and made me sit down until the ambulance arrived.

I don’t remember much of the next two days. Sometime in there I learned I had a concussion and 6 broken ribs to say nothing of road rash. So a couple of basic lessons learned by going out bike riding and not riding home:

1. Wear that helmet! If I had had a helmet on I wouldn’t have had a concussion.
2. Slow down on hills! Wind and bugs in the teeth feel great but when you stop suddenly, (in my case by falling off, preferable to going head first into the telephone pole), it can be painful.

Now at this point I suppose I should state some basic reflections on human fallibility, (obviously I am), original sin and pain, some not so interesting theology and God and the problem of evil, but I have a few other observations about pain first.

Pain hurts! When younger, including a lot of people my age, you get up in the morning, go out and do your thing. Life just kind of goes on and you don’t even notice that you are up and walking. That’s life, right? But not only does pain hurt it also slows you down like nobody’s business! Getting out of bed is a tedious and painful process and just walking makes me dizzy. My knees hurt from the scabs when I walk.

We in the Western world, for the most part, just don’t even have a clue. We think of medicine not so much as a science than as a constant miracle. You get sick, you get pills, you get well. You have an accident like I did and even though you hurt for a while you know you’re going to get better. If you don’t get all better there are doctors and a hospital to sue because, after all, medical science is supposed to make everyone all better, isn’t it? We argue about who is going to pay the bill, not whether treatment can be done.

Most of the world has no such advantage. I’ve wondered if I was in rural India or parts of Africa or South America what would have happened to me. No scan, no x-ray, no epidural pain killers? With a concussion and all those broken ribs would I be up and walking around if I lived in rural Africa? Or would I have picked up an infection and died? And would I have vacation time, sick days etc.? We in the West complain a lot but life could be a lot worse. When I went bike riding I didn’t have to worry about catching malaria.

All of which is not to say that there aren’t theological issues involved. Why am I alive? It sure isn’t my fault! Thank the lady who called 911, thank the ambulance people, thank the great doctors, nurses, aides, etc., at the hospital and thank God! I don’t know why I’m alive but God surely has something to do with it even if you only consider the surface stuff like I live near a great trauma center.

Of course that doesn’t explain why a little girl died of cancer just a day earlier with all the medical help in the world at hand. When it comes to the whys and wherefores of who lives and who dies I wish God had chosen to heal Maggie and let me die. But I’m not in charge and make no claims to understand the will of God.

Yes, that means that I think God somehow participates in it all, doesn’t just sit on the sidelines and let things happen. No I can’t prove it. I think it’s a Biblical given, a theme. God is involved. You see God’s involvement from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. But when it comes to the whys and the wherefores we have to be content with God’s answer to Job: we just aren’t smart enough to understand.

So if you came here for profound insights into why I’m alive, I don’t have any. I certainly don’t think it’s because God loves me so much more than others. God has better taste than that. And it isn’t because I’m so much better, holier than others. God knows that’s not true!

I guess my best answer is Paul’s: to die would be better because I would be at home with Jesus. To live is to continue to serve Jesus.

And in the meantime even when it hurts to sit up I need to thank God because I can sit up and will continue in ministry.

Pastor Bob

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Many of my more conservative brothers and sisters, whom I love and respect, left San Jose angry, frustrated, and disappointed — sure that we Presbyterians have lost our biblical and theological souls. And I hurt because they hurt. But I am convinced that the main power player at this assembly was the Holy Spirit, laying waste to the best-laid strategies of most of the affinity groups. The heart of our faith is the absolute conviction that God calls us to die to the old, so that we can rise to the new. And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s.
Susan Andrews, General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery
And former Moderator of the General Assembly
In Presbyterian Outlook, Monday, 04 August 2008

Following PCUSA General Assemblies those who win tend to claim that the Holy Spirit was at work in what happened. I suggest that such a claim is dangerous.

I disagree with the Rev. Andrews for a variety of reasons, not the least that I am certain we disagree on the meaning of Scripture surrounding the actions of the General Assembly on homosex behavior. But that is not my point. When anyone claims that a human body has acted in accord with the intentions of the Holy Spirit I think some hubris is involved.

Presbyterians are people who hold our beliefs in tension. While we call on all who serve in the governing bodies of the denomination to listen for the Holy Spirit as we deliberate and vote we must admit that the intentions of the Spirit are not always clear. We claim that the Spirit operates through the governing bodies of the denomination but we also admit that “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.” (Book of Confessions, the Westminster Confession, 6.175)

The time between the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD is instructive. There were at least 15 councils during that time, many of which held that Arius was correct, that the Son was not fully divine. There were attempted compromises suggesting that the Son was of like being with the Father (homoiousious) not of the same being with the Father (homoousious). In the end, at Constantinople the decision of Nicaea was affirmed, after both Arius and Athanasius (his opponent) were dead. The doctrine of the Trinity was proclaimed as a central truth of the Church and has been so held by the main stream of the Church since then.

So today we would confess that the Holy Spirit was at work at Nicaea and Constantinople but not at any council at which the Arians or Semi-Arians won the day. In other words it is difficult to see the work of the Spirit in the present. In the present, in the midst of disagreements major and minor we often claim that the Spirit is on our side because we must be correct and those who disagree with us must be wrong! Only looking back in history (and then only with great humility) can we say there the Spirit was at work.

One of my concerns with some Charismatics that I met back in my college days was their utter assurance that the Spirit had spoken to them or through them. Some claimed that the Spirit had healed them with no proof that is no physical evidence that healing had taken place. I believe that the Spirit can and does heal miraculously but I think one should make sure s/he now has 20/20 vision before s/he goes off to drive a car. But of greater concern are those who claim that the Spirit has told them to do something or believe something without any substantiation.

The great test of a claim that the Spirit has spoken has always been the Scripture. Where the Scripture speaks there the Spirit also speaks. The Spirit does not speak against Scripture because the Spirit speaks in Scripture. To say that the Spirit speaks against Scripture is to say that the Spirit disagrees with the Spirit an utter impossibility. The Spirit is not human, making one decision one day and a couple millennia later saying the opposite. The human task is to determine what the Spirit says today by comparing human claims to Scriptural text. Of course that is not as easy as it sounds or we would not debate over its meaning.

Frankly this is one of my great concerns about GA 218. There was no great debate about what the Scripture says and how to apply the Scripture today. Yes we have had those debates in the past and they have not yielded unity. But from those who attended GA I hear that there was no debate over the meaning of Scripture that in fact there was little or no debate at all over the various decisions about homosex behavior. And that, alas, is a mistake.

Part of the problem is time. In the modern age time is of the essence. The Council of Nicaea lasted for over two months. The bishops took the time to get it right. I am sure there were no two minute limits on any bishop’s speech. Because the General Assembly must finish its work in a specific period of time we Presbyterians do not take the time to get it right, to have the full conversation. Instead we ask a small group, a Task Force to study the issue, give the commissioners the work of the Task Force, have a committee study the work of the Task Force, (along with a myriad of other matters) and then ask the Plenary, (the full General Assembly) to make a decision in a limited period of time. I suggest that this is a poor way to determine the intent of the Holy Spirit.

So did the Holy Spirit speak on the issue of homosex behavior at GA 218? I think no. Susan Andrews clearly thinks yes. We cannot both be right. What worries me the most is that we both went into the week of General Assembly and out the other side with our minds already made up.

Maybe the Holy Spirit will speak through the presbyteries. Maybe not. But unless we do the hard work of studying the Scripture together: translating, exegeting, and hermeneuting, how will we ever know?

Pastor Bob

P.S. I did not deal with the main theme of the Rev. Andrews article: Dying to the Old and rising to the New. All old is not bad and all new is not good. Again, only the Spirit can tell us what is good and what is bad. As I am sure the Rev. Andrews would agree, the heart of the faith is not dying to the old and rising to the new; the heart of the faith is dying to the old which is sin and rising to the new which is Christ. There is one sentence in the article that is definitely true: "And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s." I pray that we will die not to the old but to the wrong, to anything that opposes the work of Christ in the Spirit and rise again to serve Christ according to the will of the Spirit.