Options among Questions on the Ords

by Timothy Cargal

greek_and_hebrew(PNS) In my previous post I addressed a number of changes that the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) is introducing this summer as it begins offering the senior ordination exams quarterly. The change that has drawn the most attention—both in response to the blog and as I have made visits to a number of presbyteries and seminaries over the past few weeks—has been the PCC’s decision to eliminate the opportunity to choose between an “A or B” option in a section of the exams and between Old Testament or New Testament passages on the Exegesis exam.

As I acknowledged before, these changes were prompted by pragmatic concerns. Increasing the opportunity to take the examinations brings with it the responsibility for the PCC to develop more examination questions and the related resources for readers to prepare them to evaluate the candidates’ responses. Even under the twice-a-year schedule, PCC members generally gave the equivalent of a month or more of full-time work to attending meetings of the PCC, overseeing exam reading periods, and developing exam questions and resources. Responding to the desire of both candidates and presbyteries to decrease the amount of time before a candidate might repeat an examination area necessarily meant increasing the number of exams. Maintaining the quality of the exams and the resources that support them required changes that would not correspondingly double the workload of PCC members.

Had the exams not been moving to quarterly administration, it is not likely that these changes would have been made at this time. Nevertheless, the PCC did give serious consideration to the impacts these changes would have on candidates and the integrity of the examinations process. They fully understand that decisions must be based on whether they accomplish the purposes of the exams in the preparation process, not facilitate convenience for the PCC.

In that regard, this change needs to be seen in the overall context of the changes in the exams. Certainly removing an element of personal preference to which questions a candidate chooses to respond increases the demands of the exam. But the PCC is also now allowing candidates to use whatever resources are available to them (other than consultation with other persons) in all subject areas so long as those resources are properly cited. More rigor, then, is balanced by more access to resources following a pattern long used in the Exegesis exams.

But what about eliminating the longstanding practice of allowing candidates to choose between Old Testament and New Testament passages? The PCC discussed the fact that the constitutional standards require “a course of study including Hebrew and Greek, [and] exegesis of the Old and New Testament using Hebrew and Greek” (G-2.0607c). They also noted that candidates will be expected to be competent interpreters of texts from all of the Christian scriptures by congregations and other ministry settings where they may eventually serve as teaching elders. While the structure of the exam is changing, the expectation of competency to work with both languages and both testaments has always been the standard of preparation.

There have been expressions of concern about how this change might affect the anxiety level of those taking the exams. Being able to choose between Hebrew or Greek is seen as helping to reduce their anxiety about the test. But I would suggest there is another way to lessen anxiety in this regard, namely by understanding what the Exegesis exam actually assesses with regard to the ability to use knowledge of the biblical languages in interpreting texts.

I began formal and direct work on the Exegesis exam several years before coming to my current position in 2009. I was elected to the PCC by the General Assembly in 2006 and was assigned to its Bible Task Group. At that time the standards of evaluating the Exegesis exam required each reader to make a determination as to whether the responses “demonstrate a working knowledge” of the biblical language of the assigned passage. If the reader did not conclude she could respond “Yes” to that question—even if the issue was not problems with what was stated in the answers but instead that there was not enough evidence on which to base a determination—then the exam had to be evaluated as not satisfying the requirement even if it exceeded expectations in all other respects. Based upon my experience of almost two decades as both a pastor and a professor of biblical studies and languages in university and seminary settings, I argued to both the PCC and ultimately the General Assembly that you would need a different kind of exam and different evaluators to actually provide a person with an opportunity to “demonstrate a working knowledge” of either Greek or Hebrew. In 2008, the General Assembly eliminated that standard from the evaluation of the Exegesis exam.

Yet the General Assembly also maintained the requirement that questions used on the Exegesis exam must address issues related to the Hebrew or Greek text of the passage. Here is the official description of the Exegesis exam as adopted by the General Assembly in 2008:

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. The candidate shall have access to Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries, and other exegetical tools.(emphases added)

The Exegesis exam presents questions that do require “attention to the original language” and the use of “Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries, and other exegetical tools” such as lexicons and grammars that treat the biblical languages. However, the questions are not a test of Hebrew or Greek proficiency but of the ability to refer to the original language of the passage and to use resources related to the biblical languages in developing an interpretation and application accessible to persons who have not studied those languages.

Certainly there is anxiety surrounding all these exams for our candidates, as there is for all those who must take exams as part of their professional preparation and certification. A proper understanding of both what is and what is not being assessed is one way to lower that anxiety.