Preparing Specialists in the Bible
by S. M. Baugh
At the inauguration of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, J. Gresham Machen delivered a remarkable address where he outlined the increasing specialization of various professions and academic disciplines in his day. Yet contemporary seminaries, interestingly, were at the same time broadening out with instruction into a generic form of “religion.” He remarked, in contrast:
Let it never be forgotten that a theological seminary is a school for specialists. We are living in an age of specialization. There are specialists on eyes and specialists on noses, and throats, and stomachs, and feet, and skin; there are specialists on teeth—one set of specialists on putting teeth in, and another set of specialists on pulling teeth out…. Amid all these specialties, we at Westminster Seminary have a specialty which we think, in comparison with these others, is not so very small. Our specialty is found in the Word of God. Specialists in the Bible—that is what Westminster Seminary will endeavor to produce. (J. Gresham Machen, “Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan.”)
This focus on producing people who are experts in the Bible was clearly expressed in the seminary’s curriculum with considerable instruction in the biblical languages and a Bible focus in all of its classes and departments.
Fifty years after its founding, Westminster decided to branch out from Philadelphia to Southern California for what was originally to be a daughter campus in the West. The problems of administering a campus more than two thousand miles away, though, soon led the new school to have its own board and relative independence, but it retained a shared culture and vision shaped entirely by that of the original school. Specifically, that same vision to prepare Bible specialists was taken out West with the original Westminster Seminary California (WSC) faculty, and it continues to guide the school today.
As can be expected, the original curriculum at WSC was taken over directly from the parent school in Philadelphia when it opened its doors in 1980. Nearly all of the WSC faculty at that time had either been professors or former students of Westminster Seminary, and they were endeavoring to provide the same education on the opposite side of the country where confessional Presbyterian and Reformed communions have had relatively little impact. Let me briefly trace that original curriculum within the M.Div. degree track.
"That same vision to prepare Bible specialists was taken out West with the original WSC faculty, and it continues to guide the school today."
Students first experienced seminary in a four-semester-hour intensive Greek class in the summer before the fall semester began. This class was conducted over a four-week period meeting in class three hours per day Tuesday through Friday. (Westminster has always tried to avoid classes on Mondays due to student and faculty ministerial involvement—sometimes requiring travel over considerable distances in order to serve on Sundays in the churches.) The text for the summer class was the first half of Machen’s New Testament Greek for Beginners, originally published in 1923. The follow-up to this summer was a three-semester-hour Greek II class in the fall semester when the Machen book was finished.
Between fall and spring semesters the seminary conducts a four-week January semester. Originally, this was the time when our M.Div. students on track to finish in three years took the three-hour intensive Hebrew I course. Once passing this class, the students moved on to the spring semester of their first year with a four-semester-hour Hebrew II and a three-unit Greek III. This completed the focused Greek instruction for the degree with a total of ten semester hours of Greek and seven hours of Hebrew in the first year, while further Hebrew instruction was integrated into the four-unit Historical Books class in the fall semester of the students’ second year.
Other classes in the first year consisted primarily of introduction to the doctrine of Scripture and apologetics in the five-unit Christian Mind class, then classes in church history and introduction to pastoral theology. The spring semester offered the five-unit New Testament Introduction class, which surveys text criticism and the other various disciplines involved in exegesis of the New Testament (NT) text. The idea behind this early focus is that students do not normally have enough Greek and Hebrew to start their focused work in the Bible yet.
This all changes in the second and third years of the M.Div. curriculum when the students are now grounded enough in the biblical languages that they can start working with texts in the original. The NT classes, covering the Gospels, Acts, Pauline and the General Epistles, as well as Revelation, are all conducted from the Greek text in order to make the students more competent to interpret these texts themselves. The professors may delve deeply into sample texts, but the goal of the classes was and is always not to survey every verse to know what the professor thinks, but to bring the students themselves into the interpretive process so that they can grow as “specialists in the Bible” who are competent to preach and teach “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text”—as Derke Bergsma, the original practical theology professor, was fond of saying.
One thing that distinguished and continues to distinguish the seminary’s curriculum from other schools, however, was a prerequisite for the biblical languages not only for upper-level biblical classes but for the main systematic theology and preaching classes as well (covering the doctrines of God, of Christ, Christian ethics, preaching from various types of texts, etc.). The reason for this is one of the most attractive features of Westminster instruction: students learn systematic theology not from isolated Scripture proof texts in translation but from classroom examination in detail of extended passages in the Bible in their original languages. The result for the students is deeper conviction of the truths of Scripture articulated in its system of doctrine. As you can imagine, the faculty believes that those who are expert in biblical doctrines must arrive there by first being experts in the Bible, since that is the only infallible source of all our teachings. From the student side, this comes clear not only from their experience going over biblical passages in depth in class, but in their final exams where only the Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic Bible is allowed, forcing them to grapple with various biblical texts in their original forms with great care and to develop their biblical expertise further. Equally important is that practical theology classes on preaching produces student sermons derived from examination of the biblical texts in their original languages as well.
"Practical theology classes on preaching produces student sermons derived from examination of the biblical texts in their original languages."
That was the WSC curriculum at the beginning, but what about now? The biggest change to the curriculum was demanded by one of our accrediting agencies, which thought that the total hours of required classroom instruction was excessive for masters degrees. As a result, the seminary was forced to trim the total required hours by about ten percent. To adapt to this situation, it would have been easy to start with trimming our Greek and Hebrew language requirements. Certainly, there would have been good precedent for this from other schools where instruction and requirements in Greek and/or Hebrew is sometimes minimal or optional, and not only systematic and practical but biblical classes are conducted without biblical language requirements.
Our solution, however, was to duly trim the course hour requirements for all but the Greek and Hebrew classes. Furthermore, we changed the sequence of the classes and fixed the imbalance between Greek and Hebrew instruction. In the old structure, the student who took Greek II in the fall semester then jumped immediately in January to an intensive Hebrew class only to resume Greek III in the spring, which created real trouble with continuity of Greek; students grew in their abilities with Greek up until the early part of December only to put it on hold until early February. Through no fault of their own, students tended to have a significant setback during this break from Greek at a critical stage in their learning. Hence, the first several weeks of Greek III under the old curriculum tended to be remedial to get students back to the basics of Greek with which they were understandably quite rusty.
To deal with this situation, WSC changed its scope and sequence in language instruction to what it is now: four-unit Greek I over a five-week period in the summer (or the same class offered in the spring semester) that covers the equivalent of Machen’s beginning Greek book using a book written by one of our professors designed specifically for this class. Then in the fall semester, the three-year M.Div. student takes a three-unit Greek II class covering some of what used to be provided in the old spring semester class and begins Hebrew with a three-unit Hebrew I class. January now has both Hebrew II (one unit) and Greek III (one unit), so that students do not have that big lull in Greek exposure in particular during this period. The first year finishes with a two-hour Greek IV class and a four-hour Hebrew III class in the spring semester, while two units of Hebrew IV are conducted in the fall of the second year. As you can see, both Greek instruction continues as before with ten total semester hours of classes, and Hebrew also now has ten hours; instruction in both languages is just distributed a little differently and, we think, more effectively.
What is equally important to the amount of language instruction is that the biblical language requirements for required upper-level biblical, preaching, and systematics courses remain unchanged as before, because the classes are still conducted in the classic, effective way to focus on making specialists in the Bible through focused attention on biblical texts in their original languages.
"Students learn systematic theology not from isolated Scripture proof texts in translation but from classroom examination in detail of extended passages in the Bible in their original languages."
This brings us to two important points that are worth stressing as we have looked at our past and look forward. The first is that entering students often say that they chose to come to WSC because of our academic rigor and sometimes specifically mention our biblical language requirements. One of the happiest results of this for the professors is that students coming to us are prepared to work very hard in their classes, and they sincerely give their language studies their best effort, even if they have little or no prior exposure to foreign language study. Yet, what is sometimes surprising to students when they get here is that we do not teach the languages for their own sakes—as attractive as that might be. No, our single-minded goal is to help them to delve into the Scripture with greater confidence and competence so that they themselves can master “the whole council of God” (as written in Greek on the school’s seal) as expert workers in the divine Word. The faculty of WSC remains committed to that goal in our course-work.
A second and final point to stress as we go forward is perhaps subtler but no less important. We have always attracted international students to our school. If we can make students experts in the Word of God, they will not be dependent on English translations for their teaching, but on the Bible directly from its original languages. Christianity does not belong only to the West! Our desire is for these students from other lands to translate, preach, and teach directly from the original, which is always our main goal for our students no matter from where they come. The world all around us needs more specialists in the Bible!
Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of UPDATE Magazine
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