Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attractive Nonsense

One of my favorite bloggers who happens to be a first-rate scholar--Mark Roberts--has written two articles on a change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) standardized ordination exam on exegesis (here and here). The change is rather disturbing, especially since it came not from a General Assembly action but from the routine work of an obscure committee that was elected without a moment of consideration by the General Assembly.

Where once budding preachers would be compelled to find the "principal meaning" of a sermon text--demonstrating proficiency in the original language of the text--now, the test takers must give only a "faithful interpretation" of the text. So what does that mean?

It depends on the principal meaning of "faithful" in "faithful interpretation." So what makes an interpretation "faithful"? We have at least two options:
  1. Faithful can mean full of faith, as in an interpretation that is imbued with the faith of the interpreter. The interpreter ostensibly is a person of faith and uses that faith to whatever extent to come up with a personal interpretation of the passage. Thus, according to this understanding, that would make the resultant interpretation a faithful interpretation. By this meaning, unless the interpretation were done by a raving atheist with no faith, it would necessarily be a faithful interpretation because of the faith of the interpreter.
  2. Faithful could mean instead that the interpretation keeps faith with the original meaning of the passage, that it has fidelity to the original intent. It would be like a copy of a last will and testament being a faithful reproduction of the original. It can mean that the interpretation is authentic, true, as accurate as possible a rendition of the meaning intended by the writer.

So which is it? I would hope that it would be the latter.

I would hope that relativism hasn't so weakened Presbyterian understanding of "true truth" that we've given up hope of ever determining what is the clear, obvious meaning of a text that was written to transmit meaning that God inspired and expected to be effectively transmitted through the text. I would hope that the communication-crippling nonsense of deconstructionism hasn't completely undermined Presbyterian expectations of exegesis.

But I would probably be wrong.

It appears to me that "faithful" was probably intended to denote #1 above. That means that personal impressions, biases, hobbyhorses, weaknesses, blindness, power trips, and blunders would be allowed to triumph over the discipline of exegesis, so that a passage could have a "faithful interpretation" to mean whatever anyone professing any form of faith wants it to mean.

Thus preachers who don't discard or ignore the sermon text altogether could simply transform the text into their own idiosyncratic creation through their "faith." I would argue that we need less of such troublesome practice, not more.

Who could be opposed to something as attractive sounding as "faithful interpretation"? Anyone who knows what is actually being lost and what is sadly being perpetuated when whim is allowed to replace rigor.


Blogger Doug Hagler said...

Do you have reliable evidence that "faithful" has the meaning, for the examination process, that you fear it does? Or is this your conjecture, based on your general despair for the denomination?

I for one, being someone who has recently passed my ordination exams, can vouch for the fact that I was clearly graded on #2 on my exegesis ord. But I can only speak for me. What this does indicate to me, however, is that whatever materials the graders get preparing them to evaluate exegesis ords probably didn't give them instructions to just pass me based on my biases and preconceptions rather than on my ability to interpret...(suspect thought it doubtless is in present company :)

Doug Hagler
San Anselmo

I just realized that the fact I passed my ords might be evidence, to you, of the further decay of the denomination into position #1. That would be ironic, wouldn't it? Ah well, back to work.

4:44 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Adam Copeland said...

The other site was down, so I'll just comment on your post. LIke Doug, I too recently passed ords.

I do think the changes are significant, but I favor them.

The previous "principal meaning" question always struck me as disingenuous. Any of us who have heard multiple sermons on the same passage know that the principal meaning is not something one can put in 100 words, but a contextual claim based on many changeable factors. I think it's a bad policy--both exegetically and theologically--to narrow the inspiration of Holy Spirit to one principal meaning. As C67 suggests, in different times and different places God's people will be led to different inspiration and understanding.

I appreciate your distinction between the faithful definitions, but I trust the ords grading process--and God working through it--not to worry too much. As the body of Christ, we all work together to discern a faithful way forward. That's not something definable in a dictionary sense; it's how God's people seek to move forward seeking Christ's will.

Adam Copeland
Decatur, GA

4:57 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Adam Copeland said...

P.S. "Obscure committee" is a bit misleading. The committee is in charge of the entire ord exam process, which seems pretty essential and up front to me. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but the changes went before both a GA committee and to the floor.

5:01 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


I have twice read ords, so I know the care invested in the process. I also wonder about the qualifications of some of the readers. Would I be qualified to read a bar exam? I think there is a lot of variability in ability of the readers, not to mention all the quirks we all bring about tone, content, weltanschaung, and all.

Of far greater concern to me, however, is the general tenor of theological education. But that's another subject altogether.

The wording changes we are talking about were NOT approved by General Assembly. GA did handle some ords business and wording, but not this particular and significant change. It appears to have come about AFTER GA and with no warning, to the best of my knowledge.

The committee is obscure for several reasons:

1) Of the people who closely follow national Presbyterian issues (which is a tiny minority of Presbyterians), how many would have readily named that committee as a permanent GA committee? I'll bet a milkshake that not one in ten thousand Presbyterians knows or ever knew that the committee exists.

2) No one knows when the meetings are held. No coverage of the meetings is done by the press. We may get some announcement after the meeting is over, but it's not news as the meeting is going on. This "obscure" committee meets by itself with no fanfare or observers or press and makes decisions that affect us all greatly.

3) On top of that, imagine if you were to draw a representative sample of the commissioners at the last General Assembly and ask them "To what committees did you elect members?" Now, if one in a hundred could off the top of his or her head name this committee, I would be shocked. If you asked them to say who they voted for and why, they would, to a person, say something to the effect that "I don't know. There was probably a list of names somewhere, and I voted for them because I thought somebody must have checked them out. Heavens, I don't know squat about any one of them!"

That's obscure!

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

6:31 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Chalk up my concern to informed conjecture. I've been around and seen the inroads of relativism and post-modern thinking. The new definition fits it like a glove, as Mark Roberts so well described.

My suspicion cannot be a product of "despair for the denomination," because, as much as I rue many things happening in my beloved denomination, I do not despair.

Now then, your passing the ords--THAT could be a cause for despair! [big grin] I assume you refrained from giving the readers your little illustration of Jesus dramatically talking to you directly and then you telling him he's all wrong, you personally know better than he, and you no longer believe in him? That little masterpiece of hubris might not have served you well!

I am glad to know that definition #2 for "faithful" was probably used on your ord grading. I suspect, however, that your grading took place under the old rubrics, and so your anecdotal evidence may not count for anything in this discussion. What will happen from here on out would be more germaine.

Congrats on passing the exams, by the way.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

6:55 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Adam Copeland said...

Thanks for that distinction, Jim.

I guess the assembly voted on word changes to the BOO on the description of the exams, but that the exam instructions themselves are left to the PCC.

Seems sensible to me, as a group of 800 people or whatever is probably not the best suited for writing the directions and questions for ords:)

As to the make up and meetings of the PCC, I have no knowledge whatsoever :) (your point, exactly). Certainly, the work of the ord exam committee needs to be quiet for the sake of fairness. I don't think I want my profs or fellow students knowing which ones of us helped write the questions for this year's exam. Seems like dangerous info to me.

I'd love to hear some proposals for positive ways forward and real change to the ord exam process. In my humble opinion, the current process is really biased towards one's speed-writing and exam taking skills rather than actual ministry preparedness.

And we still only offer the Bible Context Exam twice a year, and via scantran rather than online!

Adam Copeland
Decatur, GA

8:42 PM, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Bob said...


I had a few things to say about this change too. You can find it at:

I think the change comes in part from the rewrite of chapter 14 of the FOG. The original detailed description of the Exegesis Exam was reduced to the name. Now a new amendment would provide some definition but not enough.

People say our FOG is regulatory and it inhibits our being a missional church. It seems to me that this change by a committee suggests why we need a regulatory FOG. Without the regulation small groups of people can make changes without first consulting the rest of us. I know that the change was made after consulting some people (see the description of the survey in the GA minutes) but the rest of us are more than a bit surprised and upset.

What would have been wrong with asking everyone what we thought?

I don't like the change but clearly I don't get a vote. Neither, evidently, did the commissioners to GA.

Robert Campbell
Sharon Hill, PA

6:52 PM, August 29, 2008  

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