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


Jim Yearsley said...

Dear Pastor Bob:

This is just one more example of how much like the old NL movie Animal House this denomination has become. While it is probably off-putting to lower the intellectual level of your blog to this point, the simple answer is the same one given to Flounder after the road trip: "Face it Flouder you &^&&^ up, you trusted us!"

That same feeling has become the default reaction every time we trust the "non-hierarchical" Louisville bureaucracy.

we ^%^% up, we trusted them...

Anonymous said...

Another possible side effect of putting too much of the process on the COPM of a presbytery is this: I am under care of presbytery A. I will be examined for ordination by presbytery B (as I have no real desire to serve in Presbytery A, this is a safe assumption). If A and B have widely differing understandings, where does that leave me? If as it says in G-14.0480 "Ordination for the office of minister of the Word and Sacrament is an act of the whole church carried out by the presbytery" how can differing standards be a good thing?

Anonymous said...

Our exegesis of a passage, through study and prayer should be informed primarily by scripture. The point of this is that while the ink is dry on scripture, our choice of the context for a particular scripture is not. Even the best scholars disagree on context.

Ordination exams presume we can objectively evaluate a person's exegesis. Yet, exegesis can never be completely objective. otherwise there wold be only one official commentary, (like perhaps written by a pope!). It is not possible for two or three readers to grade objectively, overriding passing grades in seminary languages. Especially when one or more of the readers have had NO Greek or Hebrew. Especially when Black candidates fare significantly worse than white folks? That is what objectivity is, I guess; a black and white issue.

How can the bible be strictly objective when it contains FOUR gospels, each which tells the Christ story in a different way. Christianity is objectively a scandalous, crazy religion. Especially in Mark, even the disciples who were on the scene did not fully believe. Therefore faith in Jesus Christ seems pretty subjective to me. That's where I'm putting my money.

Pastor Bob said...


Thanks for your input. Lo these many years ago I was an examiner for Ord. Exams. When it came to Exegesis exams I remember flunking exactly one person. This person actually found the meaning of the text. Then he/she wrote a sermon that had nothing to do with the meaning of the text. I flunked the person.

I agree that viewed from different cultural backgrounds the meaning of a text may be heard and expressed in different ways. I would suggest that there may be clusters of meanings around central meaning of the text. There are even subtexts within a passage that may be used by a pastor to speak to a particular issue in her/his congregation. But there are also things a passage simply cannot mean. For example: the Jacob/Esau narrative cannot be taken to mean that God wants you to screw over your brother with your mother's help. One could interpret it to mean that sin sometimes leads one along the path that the covenant God wants you to take. It does not mean that God approves of the sin.

As to people struggling with Greek and Hebrew, no matter what their cultural background, There are things that can be done. Seminaries can recruit students and pay them to tutor fellow students. Pastors can help a candidate with Biblical languages.

Or the denomination could decide that knowledge of original language is not necessary. The later is not what I would choose but we are already placing people as lay pastors who can do all the tasks of ministry without knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Why make seminarians learn the languages if lay pastors do not? Or for that matter why send anyone to seminary? All churches could be staffed by lay pastors!

But if we are going to have a requirement to learn Biblical Languages and an ordination exam that measures one's ability to use them then we need to have the test have meaning. Otherwise why require the test?

Anonymous said...

I passed both hebrew and greek. I enjoyed the deeper insights the languages gave me in my walk with scripture. I think seminaries should continue to teach them and the Church should require them. Yet, all those months and years of the language culminated in passing grades. All those exegesis papers got passing grades from tough professors. I have an MDiv degree which I have spent thousands of dollars and almost four years to achieve. My Presbytery voted me a candidate and gave me a standing ovation. That system is working. Why add "ordination exams," graded by a very few individuals, well meaning as they are.

There is no organic relationship between the word "Ordination" and the exams. The word adds false importance to the process. Our seminary degrees, our COPM process, the real guts of the Presbyterian Church's whole ordination process does not have that word as part of its names (though it is implicit). The word blocks honest scrutiny of the system. In reality, the emperor has no clothes.

According to its own statistics, the pass rate of first takers of all four exams is about 50%. After the next January exams, only 63% have passed all four. At the same time, folks like myself, whose call is clear, whose call has been vetted by the COPM and its Presbytery, why put this terrible brick wall in front of them? Where is the commitment to diversity? All I see is exclusivity.

We need to stop these exams altogether. The only thing they evaluate is the ability to pass them.

Book of Confessions 5.152:

"In the meantime we acknowledge that the harmless simplicity of some pastors in the primitive Church sometimes profited the Church more than the many-sided, refined and fastidious, but a little too esoteric learning of others. For this reason we do not reject even today the honest, yet by no means ignorant, simplicity of some."

Pastor Bob said...

Somewhere there are statistics that say those who go to non Presbyterian Seminaries, particularly Evangelical Seminaries, do better at the ordination exams.

I'm not quite sure what to do with this data.

In any case unless one goes to a seminary near one's presbytery it is my experience as a former member of COPM that the COPM doesn't have a sufficient relationship with candidates under care to correctly evaluate the candidate's abilities. The COPM depends on the seminary and the Ord Exams to determine if the candidate is ready.

If you are fortunate enough to be close to your presbytery and know the members of COPM, I'm glad. Given the location of seminaries in relation to candidates I think the exams are necessary - although I have toyed with the idea of having candidates taught by pastors in the presbytery.

George T. M.Div. CTS said...

Pastor Bob,
Just got the results from my Greek exegesis of 2 Peter, S. Won't know the score until November but with this exam still fresh in my mind I would offer:
A working knowledge is a reasonable standard. I am by no means proficient in Greek but with all of the resources available (including Bibleworks) I was able to address the issues raised by the questions. In all honesty I suspect that most of the people who fail the exegesis portion did not put in sufficient time in preparation.
I do believe that a faithful interpretation of the text comes out of our context and I think there should be more openness to alternative interpretations to account for the differences amoung us. When I think of "reformed and reforming" I think of an openness to new understandings of how God is speaking to us today.

Pastor Bob said...


Hope you passed! I agree that a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are essential to a pastor if for no other reason that we can drop our own interpretations into a sermon and prove how educated we are! :)

Seriously I suspect we come from different generations and see one part of what you have said in differing ways. I agree that it is impossible to read any text without bringing our own cultural and personal context to the text. But I think we can probably agree that there are a group of things a text can mean and that there are also things that a text cannot mean. For example, given what the gospels say Jesus said about divorce I think we can be pretty certain that the final editors of the gospels believed that divorce was a bad thing. We might even be willing to go behind the final edition and say that Jesus was opposed to divorce. But we cannot say that either Jesus or the final editors of the gospels thought divorce was a good thing and should be practiced at any opportunity. Sometimes the Greek or Hebrew words used and the syntax/grammar demand that the text be read within a certain circle of meaning and not outside of that circle.

I will agree that there are texts that are not so clear. Then we can argue about what the text means. And that is fun, isn't it?

I think we need to read the text as carefully as we can and then read our lives in comparison to the text.

Of course Christians from differing cultural contexts will hear the text in differing ways which is a good thing!