Review of “Going Deeper with New Testament Greek”

All textbooks have flaws, and this one does too.

When I studied Koine Greek in a seminary context, the 2nd year course was given over to working our way rigourously through Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, a scary book.

In recent times two texts have appeared attempting to capture this kind of intermediate/2nd year/Greek grammar market for evangelical seminaries, Elodie Ballantine Emig and Dave Mathewson’s Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament (a book I have no personal knowledge of), and this volume, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer.

The Preface sets us firmly in what I consider a slightly odd context for a language textbook – this is a grammar textbook written for not just students of New Testament Greek, but seminary students of an evangelical persuasion looking at NT Greek. I’m very sympathetic to that group of people, but I have reservations about whether what they need is a view of Greek that’s any different from anyone else’s view of Greek. Language is not religious.

This feeds into a more general criticism I have of the book, which emerges in a few places below – while the new testament may be viewed as an authoritative religious canon, it does not follow that you can make theological arguments about linguistic principles. New Testament Greek has the unfortunate ‘history of scholarship’ that continues to isolate it from broader studies of linguistics, and even Ancient Greek itself. This reveals itself in quotations, with approval, of texts like Dana and Mantey’s 1927 grammar. Really, no better source of fundamental linguistic concepts than a 90 year old NT grammar?

Chapter 1 is devoted to an overview of a history of the Greek Language, with not very much there, though why a student interested in expanding their Koine knowledge to classical is encouraged to pick up a 1961 textbook also bewilders me (p 21). So too, collapsing everything between 2230 and Modern Greek as ‘Byzantine’ (p 23) is a disservice. The very brief note on pronunciation (p24) continues to recommend Erasmian, as favoured by “the vast majority of NT professors”; that is only the weight of an erroneous consensus.

Textual criticism deserves its section, though really a student should have recourse to a more comprehensive treatment than this half chapter. Although I don’t have any particular sympathy to the Byzantine priority position of Robinson, et al, the authors don’t do enough to undermine their own guilt-by-association of this position with the KJVonlyism they mention (even though they do specifically disassociate it, they undermine this disassociation by repeatedly associating them).

Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) is summarized briefly (p 28), which is obviously difficult, but since it is such an important development it should have perhaps been given more space (because of the difficulty in grasping what is occurring, and the way it challenges and makes problematic traditional TC practices as practiced by students).

Chapter 2 moves on to the case system, and the main practice of the book: to provide as many (and no more) labels for grammatical usages as necessary. This ‘label’ approach has its own pedagogical problems, but that is a debate for another day.

I am surprised that any space is given to outlining, even if they dismiss it, the 8-case system (p 51-2). 8 cases is arbitrary, based on notions of PIE, and not good practice, it doesn’t need even a dismissal (in my view).

Another odd feature appears in the treatment of the nominative, with the suggestion that the nominative somehow mystically emerged to specify the subject of 3rd singular verbs (p 52). Black is cited in connection to this, which is surely insufficient. It reveals a view of language in which verbs head everything, and nouns modify. Is this any more fundamental than viewing subject-nouns as fundamental and everything else as ‘predicate’? I feel like some grammatical essentialism is lurking under the bed. Citing Dana and Mantey to suggest that the Nominative as Subject is somehow Appositional does nothing to allay my concern.

Categories in general are treated reasonably well, though with much simplification from, e.g., Wallace (who honestly had too many categories). Again Dana and Mantey are cited to suggest the accusative is “probably the oldest” case (p 63). Is a 1927 grammar our best source on this? The collapse of two accusative structures (personal object + impersonal object) and (object + accusative predicate) into a category of “Double Accusative” is, I would say, confusing for the sake of simplification. Those structures are different enough that a student doesn’t gain that much pedagogically by having a single label. Meanwhile, relegating lesser-used accusatives to a footnote (p68, n69) and then including one in the practice exercises (p 72) is poor pedagogy.

The Genitive case gets a whole chapter (3) as it should since its usage contains the most variation and categorization is difficult. Indeed, the exercises for this chapter (p 108) had the most number where I felt the answer could be debatable. (And indeed, what on earth you get for exercise 8 when you split τοῦ ἀνθρώπου of from τοῦ υἱοῦ is particularly questionable, if not headache inducing). The dative similarly take a chapter (4), and has similarly difficult overlaps of usage (sphere vs reference vs respect?). Also, what they mean by the dative of possession being a “unique construction” (p 126) evades me – unique in relation to what? Other languages? Because that’s factually false.

When we get to verbs, it seems odd to me to start with an overview, and then turn to subjunctives and imperatives first. Perhaps they chose to do so because they have less categories. At least there is a section recognising that deponency is done and dusted, though it appears the authors rely heavily on Pennington alone, . Footnote 27 on p 197 points to Pennington’s sources, but the authors of this book do not appear to “dig deeper” themselves. One of the reasons the chapter sequence seems odd at this point is that a discussion of tense and aspect is delayed until the next chapter 7. There we get a discussion of aspect, largely informed by discussions in the NT grammatical field. The book adopts the view from Ellis and Dubis, that the perfect tense-forms are stative, and that this is “combinative”, combining perfective and imperfective. Personally I think this is problematic, because while “stative” may amount to the same thing as other ways of thinking about perfects, calling it a combination of perfective and imperfective seems to confuse the perfect tense-forms as some kind of simple combo of the other two aspects, instead of a genuine 3rd aspect.

Much of the verb chapters are taken up by identifying the “Type of Action” of indicative verbs. I suppose this is something close to Aktionsart. This leads me back to one of the main criticisms of this kind of book for 2nd year Greek students: they can’t read Greek anyway.

Most 2nd year Greek students went through a crash course of basic NT Greek grammar, learnt to parse a whole bunch of forms, and have to play “decode the verse” when they encounter Greek, helped by a good dose of English Bible knowledge. Then they get to 2nd year, and instead of being trained to read Greek, they get this whopping dose of Grammar Categories. Suddenly they’ve got a big bag of labels, and they’re told, “Okay, now (i) parse everything, (ii) label it with these fancy new categories you’ve got”. But the labels in the second box are driven by meaning – the only way you really know that an Imperfect is ‘Tendential’ (hey, what happened to Conative?) instead of ‘Inceptive’ is if you can read the Greek. Labelling doesn’t help you work out what things mean, it just lets people who understand meaning put labels on it.

To be fair, knowing what possible meanings there are for a structure does help, but that’s not what this book does, and it’s not what most NT departments are doing. I suppose it’s worth saying that this book includes “guided readings” at the end of each chapter. But these are really grammatical commentaries on NT texts. I’m not sure they rise to the level of what I’d call “training in reading”

Back to the book. Participles are in chapter 10, and it’s a disaster. There’s no discussion of participles in predicate position, even though this is surprisingly common. Instead they’re broken down into Adjectival vs. Verbal, and the main category of Verbal is Adverbial. But all the Adverbial examples I can see are nominative. So students get to the end of this chapter having no clue how to read an anarthrous participle in an oblique case.

Particles get shoved into two pages (420-421), which is a shame because learning to read particles well is a really important skill. Discourse Analysis almost gets a run – well it’s there in chapter 13, but it reads to me like, “hey, there’s this thing called DA, and it’s really cool. you should read about it, like in Runge or something” (p461).

There’s also a whole chapter devoted to word studies. My goodness, haven’t we killed them yet? I know word studies used to be a big thing, in certain circles, and I suppose that’s why there’s a chapter here. Even in Mongolia I had to deal with students doing word studies, using Strong’s usually. At least this chapter has some helpful advice on how not to overinterpret your word study conclusions.

Finally, there’s a chapter about “Continuing with Greek”, which I think every textbook ever written ought to have (mutatis mutandis). There are some good suggestions here, but oddly enough none of them are “learn to read Greek without analyzing grammar to death”, “learn some classical Greek”, or even “read outside the New Testament corpus”.

We all know I have my biases, and if you’ve made it this far in my review, you probably knew them before we started. Is this a better replacement than Wallace? Probably not. Yes, it does update the things from Wallace that need updating, but (a) its attempt to simplify categories often comes at the price of precision, and collapsing things into categories that don’t belong together, or else relegating them to difficult to find footnotes; (b) it’s not clear to me that the simplification of Wallace’s categories is a successful improvement.

Perhaps my major criticism is that I simply don’t believe that this kind of grammar instruction makes better readers of Greek, NT or otherwise. Its deliberate isolationism from broader Greek, even Koine, continues a worrying trend in NT Greek books. Its presentation of aspect is reasonable, but a choice among competing views (not the worst option, though!), and leads to a new death-by-category of subjecting students to the definitely-subjective death-by-category labelling of Type of Action.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (5): Some Evangelicals in patristics end up no longer Evangelical

This is a difficult one to write about, because as I initially added in my tweets, “The causality of that is complex though, and not easily generalised.” But it remains true, that some who start off as Evangelicals end up ex-Evangelicals.

Firstly, correlation isn’t causation, and in the cases in which this occurs, every individual case is going to be a mass of factors. I don’t think you can blame “Patristics” for this, unless you are an apologist for other traditions (which I do hear from time to time, from RC and EO apologists who think “oh, good, you’re studying Patristics – you’ll realise the error of your Protestant Heresy and come back to the true Church”).

Nonetheless, for some individuals it probably is a contributory factor. And yet, even so this has a complexity to it. Studying Patristics opens a researcher up to a whole new theological field that is only dimly glimpsed for more evangelicals, even evangelical academics. To really enter into it as an historical theologian, and not a pirate marauder there to carry off translated one-liners for their systematic theology, requires a genuine attempt to deal with patristic authors on their own terms.

That demands, I would say, a broad ecumenical spirit. Not a suspension of one’s own convictions, necessarily, but a determination to treat with the past “in good faith”. And some, no doubt, come to view Protestantism as a deviation from the Early Church, and begin to find RC and EO arguments for their position persuasive.

Others, I suspect, are pushed in that direction – as they explore different “vistas” so to speak, they find themselves more and more estranged from the evangelical safe-playgrounds (which is not helped at all by the marginalisation of patristics in evangelicalism – they may indeed be pushed away because they are doing patristics), and more and more welcomed by other traditions (the pull of RC and EO, which says, “yes, we have a home for you”).

In one sense, I want to say, it’s not possible to be an evangelical and patristics researcher and remain unchanged in your evangelicalism, and that’s a good thing. If evangelical Protestantism is ever going to be more than just the rebellious teenage child of 15th century Medieval Catholicism, refracted through its short and revivalist history (and it ought to be more than both these things), it can and must have a claim, for its own sake, on Early Christian History. Otherwise evangelicalism really is a religion of but recent invention. And that past, if we truly think early theologians are genuine Christians, should shape our beliefs. Not just our patristic scholars though!

So, yes, some Evangelicals who head down the patristics path end up not-evangelical. That’s a complex problem, but part of the solution ought to be that evangelicalism doesn’t push them away, and out, ever so subtly, simply because patristics.

Brief Review: Ossa Latinitatis Sola : Encounter 1

This is the first part of however many parts. The book I’m talking about today is Ossa Latinitatis Sola: ad mentem Reginaldi rationemque (The mere bones of Latin: according to the thought and system of Reginald), by Reginaldus Thomas Foster, and Daniel Patricius McCarthy.

If you’ve never heard of Reggie Foster, you’ve been living under a rock, I presume. For a long time the Pope’s Latinist, Reggie became famous for his Latin, and particularly for his Latin summer schools, held in Rome, at which he initiated people into a vibrant, and living, language. For all sorts of reasons, Reggie now resides in the US, where he is involved with some Latin initiatives. One of which is taking his vast quantity of knowledge and ‘getting it down on paper’ so to speak. Hence this 831 page volume, envisaged as the first of five volumes to come.

One of the difficulties in approaching this book is that 154 pages in, I still haven’t worked out who or what it’s for. More on that in a second.

This first volume lays out 5 “Experiences” (series of lessons? But they’re not lessons), which represent several years’ worth of Latin for a student. Each Experience is made up of a series of “Encounters” (‘lessons’ but they are not lessons because that doesn’t fit Reggie’s pedagogical ideas). I’ve read through the first Experience, which is a student’s first set of encounters wiith Latin.

Each (mostly) of the encounters introduces some piece of elementary grammar, in a discursive style. There are no tables, but there is an emphasis on strict learning with precision. This is one of the things I find pedagogically confusing in Reggie’s method – one must, obviously, learn the endings (say), but the book studiously and repeatedly rejects tables, charts, memorisation, or the like. Actually, I half understand the rationale, but a table probably wouldn’t have done a student any harm.

Some of the presentations are pedagogically interesting. Reggie groups all 1st/2nd declensions together as “Block 1” and 3rd declension as “Block 2”. I can see the advantages of that. On cases, though, he insists on calling them by functional names: to-for-from for dative, by-with-from-in for ablative. Again, there is some good reason for this, but the relentless avoidance of traditional terminology is sometimes taken to extremes. This is most clearly seen in calling the tenses T1-6. Now a student must learn what T2 stands for, and what T4 stands for, without any labelling at all.

There are no lessons here though. How does one go from the narrative description of grammatical items, to the language itself? Through the “reading sheets” – that is, in every encounter Reggie states something along the lines of “No it is up to the teacher to look around and find in any source or any monument of Latin literature examples of these things which are very frequent and which will allow the students to master this idea immediately.” and directs both student and teacher to look at Latin texts. Some of which are included in the book, and with great variety. But without any attempt to moderate difficulty at all.

So, this brings me back to the question of who this book is for. Not for a student, well not an auto-didact, because there isn’t enough here to learn Latin from. You will not acquire the content of the encounters, if you pick up random and indecipherable texts. No, Latin texts require being-made-comprehensible if they are to be comprehended and if a learner is to learn Latin from them! So a teacher is necessary for this book. But this is not, in itself, a book you could teach from, unless you’d learnt from Reggie yourself perhaps. Every encounter would require a lesson to be prepared from that material, and reading sheets of Latin selected, and prepared by the teacher to demonstrate the content of those encounters. While this is certainly possible, is it feasible.

Scattered throughout are Reggie’s oddities. Linguistic fallacies abound, e.g. “rather careless modern languages” (p. 28), “the influence of modern faulty English” (p. 38). But among those, there are equally useful gems. Chief among these, is Reggie’s observations of patterns, and use of these to lay down precepts. The 80/20 rule applied to 3rd declension nouns in terms of ablatives in i/e reversed for adjectives. Some neat tricks for explaining and learning verb patterns.

At the end of the first encounter is 44 pages of reading sheets – a selection of interesting Latin well beyond any Latin reader/learner without a good deal of help, I would think. Or a good deal of time to work through them painstakingly, which is perhaps the intention.

So far, I think OLS is a phenomenal book, but of questionable utility. It may be that that question will be resolved, for me or in general, in due course. There are certainly many things here I could use and adapt. I remain grateful to see mens Reginaldi ratioque in print. But this certainly is ossa sola, and a great deal of enfleshment remains.

More thoughts on this volume, and subsequent volumes (!), in due course.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (4): The mainstream of Evangelical scholarship thinks patristics is marginal, and correspondingly marginalises patristic researchers

In many ways, this reason is related to reasons three and four, and so I have correspondingly less to say about it.

Evangelicals involved in academic pursuits, theology in particular, tend to clump their interests around biblical studies, systemics, and practical areas of ministry training. And the first two among these tend to garner the most interest (for obvious reasons, perhaps). Historical interests tend to limit themselves to the Reformation period, because it is identity-forming for Protestantism, and denominational interests. Again, there are totally understandable reasons for these things. It also helps explain the hiring practices I discussed in my third post. However, it also means that Patristics is a marginal field for evangelicals in theological academics.

This de-emphasis is regrettable, for all sorts of reasons. It skews evangelicals’ broad ability to construct a plausible historical narrative of church history in general, and of themselves in particular. To the extent that evangelicalism wants to situate itself as a historic and confessional Christianity, and to ‘claim’ the doctrinal legacy of the early church (at least in part) for itself, it cannot naively neglect and mischaracterise that past.

It also has a pragmatic effect on evangelicals involved in patristics. Because the discipline is marginalised, research and scholars in it also feel marginalised. This doesn’t have to be so, but I suspect it is broadly so. Patristics is seen as a marginal area, and so not merely its relevance to core evangelical concerns, but its status/prestige/esteem in general is diminished, and those of its practitioners also. And since academia in general, and ecclesial academia in its own peculiar and particular ways, is very much a prestige-game, this marginalises and devalues patristic researchers themselves.

So why go into a field when there are no jobs and no respect and no real place for you in evangelical polite society except as an oddity?

Teaching in Mongolia, some reflections almost 2 year on

I don’t like to be the kind of person who starts every conversation with, “Well, when I was in Mongolia….” It gets tired, fast, and it’s not like I’m an expert or have any special insights or anything. Nonetheless, it’s an important and formative factor of my experience, and that’s what I’m writing out of today.

For background, I was in Mongolia 2012-14 and a little bit in 15. Not very long really. In 2013, I started teaching in an interdenominational, evangelical seminary. Initially I taught a half-load (two subjects) for the semester, before teaching a full-load (four subjects) for the next three. They were almost always new-preps, and at least half were for a Masters level degree. In 2015, I returned twice and taught intensive courses. I was also trying to write a doctoral dissertation part-time during this whole period.

Mongolia is a high-power-distance culture, and I come from Australia, where I would say the power-distance is about as low as possible. To illustrate just on the “how you address your professor” front, in Australia I would always refer to them by first name, it would be socially awkward not to. In contrast, in Mongolia I was referred to as “Teacher” (bagsh, багш). Sometimes, to distinguish, “Seumas-Teacher”.

The teacher-student dynamic in Mongolia is one of respect, it tends to override other social relationships, and it’s lifelong. For example, I had some students who were older than me, pastors, and who in any other setting I would use a formal “you” form in speech (Mongolian has a T-V distinction, but it’s almost entirely age based). However, as their teacher, I had to speak to them with the informal/younger person pronoun.

In terms of lifelong, once you’ve entered into a teacher-student relationship with someone, even after that situation ends, they are still your teacher, and you will keep referring to them as teacher. So, even today I receive messages from students addressing me as teacher. In my own case, I always refer to my language teachers by the same title.

The high-power-distance was both easy and difficult to navigate. On the one hand, I appreciated that teachers were highly respected, and my students would go to considerable lengths to do things for me, take care of me, and even prevent me from doing certain things for myself. On the other hand, this was highly uncomfortable for me. Especially when students simply did not let me do certain things because they considered them too menial – this violates a deeply ingrained Australian cultural norm. At other times, I knew that the cost to them was significant, whereas as a foreigner I could well afford not to have them do/perform certain expectations. In some of these situations, the best approach for me was to circumvent the issue. It was never in my interests to try and alter/subvert their cultural paradigms. Indeed, I would consider that a cultural imperialism out of line with my role.

One of the particular benefits of my teaching situation was that I had very small classes, particularly for the Master’s program. Ten or so was my maximum class size, and I taught those students around half their program, as well as being something like a “form teacher” for them. So, the bond we developed was quite close, though it was, and is, always as teacher-to-students. I did form connections with other students, including the undergraduate year-cohort which I accompanied on a mission trip to rural Mongolia. Forming connections with other faculty was much more difficult for me, for a few different reasons.

There were other dynamics to teaching in Mongolia. The educational system my students were raised in, in state schools, was highly weighted towards rote-learning, and cheating was rife and normalised. They were studying now in a Christian context, in a curriculum and model set up upon Western lines. Plagiarism was sometimes a problem, though I think I somewhat circumvented that by assessments that were resistant to such issues. Critical thinking, though, is a hard skill to foster when you haven’t developed (for x many years) in an educational system that fosters it.

I don’t think I ever could, or would want to, try to replicate the Mongolia teacher-student dynamic in a different setting, but there are some things that I think are invaluable about it. Firstly, there is, in my view, a great value in seeing the teacher-student relationship as lifelong, and in embedding that in our language of respect. It engendered not only respect, but also responsibility – I was and remain ‘responsible’ for my students. Our relationship was not merely transactional, or worse commercial.

Secondly, that respect/responsibility dynamic also put onus on teachers for students’ learning. If a student fails to learn, that is much more my problem than theirs. I don’t think that’s an absolute, but I think the weighting should be much more to the teacher side of the equation than many Western paradigms in which teachers seem to provide material and students are responsible to learn or drown.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (3): Evangelical seminary curricula usually have one Early Church History course, and it’s intro level, so they overwhelmingly get a non-specialist to teach it.

(Parts 1, 2)

Patristics is, I confess, a research-oriented field for most of us. It’s not the most directly relevant to all aspects of training future ministers and missionaries, so it’s not a surprise that in Evangelical seminaries, focused for the main part on training people for those works, Patristics doesn’t have a high teaching profile.

Nonetheless, the structure of programs in Evangelical seminaries is also a factor in the dearth of Evangelical scholars in this field, because scholars require jobs to pay their bills, and most scholarship takes place in the context of combined research-teaching posts. No jobs, no research.

And the typical structure of a lot of Evangelical seminaries looks something like this:

Early church history is one subject, at best. It’s an overview subject, covering 4-5-6 hundred years, and it’s taught at an entry-level. That’s at best, at worst it’s wrapped up in an even broader survey course of 1500, or 2000 years, of church history.

Then you’ve got, probably, a Reformation history subject (so pity the Medievalists among us, who will never get a job in an evangelical seminary), and perhaps a Modern/Denominational-focused subject.

Even those three subjects are an ‘at-best’ for evangelical seminaries in general. Occasionally, if you are truly blessed, you’ll get an upper-level or Masters subject that looks at Patristic thought.

This means that, in terms of teaching load and job design, a Patristics scholar is looking at 1 subject in their specialty. No one is hiring people for a 1-0 load. Not that a Patristics scholar couldn’t teach other things, necessarily. The faculty make-up of evangelical seminaries doesn’t ‘run’ in that direction though. Just go and pick a seminary, and look through their faculty pages, and their course allocations, and the vast majority of positions are OT and NT faculty, and some theology. And who teaches their Early Church History? Nine times out of ten it’s a reformation or denominational history person. Who teaches their Greek? A NT professor. Rarely do you find a patristics person teaching in the other direction, even though they are as qualified to teach, say, reformation history as the reformation history prof is to teach Patristics.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this, and there are evangelical seminaries, and perhaps more significantly, universities, with Evangelicals doing patristics. Which is great. But this doesn’t change the fact that the curricula design and faculty distributions of evangelical seminaries leave little space, and less hope, for evangelicals in patristics. And scholarship doesn’t happen without money, because scholars need to eat too.

Upcoming ‘brief reviews’ and why it’s so hard to review language textbooks anyway.

I have an inordinate affection for language textbooks. They always promise so much. And, having worked with more than a few, both as a learner and a tutor, the more you get to know them, the more you get to know their ins and outs.

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to fairly review a language textbook. In theory, two types of people would be ideally suited to reviewing them. Firstly, a review by someone who used the textbook all the way through starting with no knowledge of the language. But, those people are hard to find for every book, and once you’ve started on a language, you’re no longer a candidate for that category. Secondly, a full review would ideally be done by someone with a lot of experience in the language, who taught someone else using the textbook. This, of course, requires a great deal of time, and an appropriate setting.

This is why I don’t really offer “full reviews” of textbooks – to really know the strengths and weaknesses of a textbook in its minutiae, I think you need to teach with it or work through it to a fair degree. You need a fair amount of in-the-trenches time with it.

I do have some upcoming brief reviews, and my aim with them is really to introduce a book, to give a sense of what it has, what it does, what it’s apparent strengths and weaknesses may be. For two of them, they are going to be the first of multiple brief reviews, because they are long, long books. I have in mind to write some thoughts on Ossa Latinitatis Sola, by Foster et alii, having now read pleasantly through the “First Encounter”. Likewise, having spent a little bit of time getting acquainted with the rather lengthy Italian Athenaze, I have some first impressions to offer. And then, some thought on other textbooks to follow.

My reviews tend to skew to the Greek side, if only because I have worked with and dealt with more textbooks! For Latin, I was taught with in-house notes from my lecturer, and have only really dealt with Lingua Latina, which I eternally recommend, and the Oxford and Cambridge series, which are ubiquitous. But perhaps I’ll start reviewing some other Latin things in the future.