Breaking Through the Language Barrier in Global Theological Education

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Browsing job boards for the biblical studies and theology fields can be a thoroughly demoralizing experience. The dwindling number of economically viable seminaries, divinity schools, and church-affiliated universities post meager and infrequent openings. Tersely worded clauses often mandate adherence to specific ideological or denominational agendas, discriminate against scholars who fall within certain demographic categories, require an implausible breadth of specialization and depth of experience, or simply list the limitations of contract jobs. Even worse, some “employment” opportunities carry the euphemistic label “self-funded.”

In the face of dismal professional prospects, what should aspiring biblical and theological scholars do? How can the church benefit from the gifting of the great majority of academics for whom no teaching post is available? One logical answer to these questions in contemporary discourse seems to be that these underutilized PhDs should become pastor-theologians.1 To be sure, empty pulpits pepper the landscape of North America. Yet while there is certainly a pressing need to undertake such a noble calling, the pastorate is not for everyone. Indeed, accepting the mantle of spiritual leadership absent the biblical qualifications and divine summons to do so devalues the office and is an invitation to disaster.

I suggest an alternate path, a less-chosen avenue of service that nonetheless precisely fits the calling, aptitudes, and qualifications of academics. I propose that biblical and theological scholars leave North America and learn a new language, then teach in their fields through the medium of that new language.

I acknowledge the audacity of this proposal. The gravitational pull of the North American way of life locks natives like me (and others whom it captures) into a tight orbit. Only a few societal outliers like that breed of professional Christians dubbed “missionaries” seem able to achieve escape velocity. Yet however unimaginable uprooting and moving to far-flung lands may seem, the sheer magnitude of the challenge inherent in learning a new language is ineffable by comparison.2.

Now, I should pause for a moment to note that there are certainly opportunities overseas to teach in English, either indirectly through a translator or directly to non-native English speakers.3 Not at all do I mean to criticize those whom God calls to employ these methods in faithful service to the church worldwide. Furthermore, by no means do I wish to sideline or deprecate the heroic efforts of world Christians who teach in native settings after earning doctorates in biblical and theological studies through English, despite English not being their mother tongue. After all, I pray for the blessing of the church through my most promising students as God leads them in precisely that direction.

No, I simply wish to invite a change of heart among North American academics toward language learning for the sake of cross-cultural teaching. Although at present English is indisputably the one truly international language and thus serves as the preferred medium for global communication in both academy and church, it simply does not follow that the English language should stand as a “narrow gate” through which Christians around the world must pass in order to receive basic grounding in the Bible and theology.4 Instead, a forward-leaning Great Commission perspective should actively impel more Western academics to do the hard work of crossing cultural and linguistic divides to invest in leadership training in the sizable non-English-speaking parts of the global church.

Biblical studies and theology professors are particularly well-suited to language learning. After all, they have likely studied the biblical languages Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and perhaps other ancient languages such as Ugaritic or Latin. They have also attained proficiency in modern languages such as German and French for research purposes. Therefore, when professors begin studying some other modern language for communicative use, these impressive previous learning experiences will serve them well. Even so, professors should cultivate a healthy sense of humility about their previous language learning. This is because their reading competence in these research languages is corpus-limited in the case of ancient languages and probably significantly vocabulary-constrained in the case of modern ones. Furthermore, the crucial second-language skills of speaking, listening, and writing most likely have lain fallow due to the primary goal of achieving reading competence. Analyzing the syntactical features of a fixed Hebrew text, however confidently performed, is imperfect preparation for the revealing moment when someone merely asks a question that the professor has never heard before.

In truth, learning a language in a cross-cultural setting provides regular opportunities to refine one’s character. Memorable brushes with outright failure in communication test the mettle of the formerly self-confident expert in his or her field, who in the throes of second language learning discovers anew the need for radical dependence upon God. If the grammar and syntax of the new language is substantially different from one’s native tongue, full-time study for several years will be necessary before beginning teaching.

So is it all worth it? 

This is not a question about money, as even those who teach in North America must be aware. No one gets rich as a professional theologian. No, this is a question about obedience to calling within the brief span of life God grants. Is learning a second language in order to teach biblical and theological studies within a new cultural context worth the enormous investment of life required even to begin doing so? This is a critical consideration for anyone who has already expended many years—and tears—to earn a research doctorate.

I can only share a brief testimony. Following three years of Chinese study at a university in East Asia, I began full-time teaching at Baptist Theological Seminary, Singapore. I occasionally teach for the seminary’s English track that serves students from countries throughout Southeast Asia. However, my chief responsibility is to teach Hebrew and Old Testament courses through the medium of Chinese.

My first class was a two-credit course on the book of Ruth. I had painstakingly prepared multimedia presentations and a script of about one hundred and fifty pages, all carefully vetted by native Chinese speakers. Yet if I had waited until feeling fully ready to teach, I never would have begun. My lectures must have made for painful listening. My delivery was likely awful. However, those students have since repeatedly told me that working through the eighty-five verses of Ruth over the course of that semester was an intensely spiritual experience.

This leads me to the key point I wish to emphasize. In the three years since I first stood to recite my Ruth class script, I have received an immeasurable gift. I have witnessed God work powerfully in the lives of students through my use of Chinese. Naturally, my language ability has improved over time. My colleagues say so, at least. I lecture, I preach, and lately have even begun writing worship music in Chinese.5 Yet I harbor no pretensions of eloquence. Absolutely everything that God should choose to do through my non-native Chinese is the work of the Holy Spirit. 

As a sinful human being, I dare not hold up my obedience to God’s calling to cross-cultural teaching as a model for others. However, I do urge colleagues across the range of theological disciplines to consider what God might do both through them and in them if they are willing to teach through a second language for his glory. 

Scott N. Callaham’s areas of research and writing include Biblical Hebrew grammar and syntax, linguistics, and Old Testament theology.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of Didaktikos: The Journal for Theological Education. Subscribe today.

  1. Gerald Hiestand, “A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian: Why PhD Students Should Consider the Pastorate as the Context for Their Theological Scholarship,” ExpTim 124 (2013): 261–71.
  2. Surprisingly, language learning typically receives limited attention in missiological treatments of cross-cultural communication. See, for example, A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 196–97. See also the appeal to evangelical scholars to teach overseas in D. Keith Campbell, “The American Evangelical Academy and the World: A Challenge to Practice More Globally,” JETS 56 (2013): 337–53. The formidable task of learning a language for the sake of teaching merits less than a half-sentence mention on p. 348.
  3. For helpful guidelines on speaking in a religious context through translation, see Pat Gustin, “How Not to Get Lost in Translation,” JACL 4 (2010): 126–30. For an insightful study on native English speakers delivering academic lectures to second-language English speakers without translation, see John Flowerdew and Lindsay Miller, “Lecturer Perceptions, Problems and Strategies in Second Language Lectures,” RELC Journal 27 (1996): 23–46.
  4. Even in settings like international scholarly meetings in which the use of English as a common language would seem most reasonable, non-native English speakers perceive undercurrents of linguistic imperialism. See Namsoon Kang, “Envisioning Postcolonial Theological Education: Dilemmas and Possibilities,” in Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity: Theological Perspectives – Regional Surveys – Ecumenical Trends, ed. Dietrich Werner et al. (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2010), 36–39.
  5. Scott N. Callaham, “Sing to the Lord a New Song (in Chinese)! An L2 Songwriting Experience at the Intersection of Faith and Scholarship,” Artistic Theologian 7 (2019): 61–87.
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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