What languages for Modern Theology studies?

Discussion in 'Languages' started by SynodOfDort, May 3, 2014.

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  1. SynodOfDort

    SynodOfDort Puritan Board Freshman

    I am planning on eventually pursuing postgrad studies in Historical Theology, specifically theology in roughly the modern era (1700-Present), and was wondering what languages I should be preparing myself for now. I was guessing German and French, but Dutch was also a tempting option:think: Furthermore, to what extent would you recommend that I learn the languages? For theological studies, is there knowledge nessissary beyond being academic literature in the respective languages? Thanks in advance! :D
  2. SolaScriptura

    SolaScriptura Puritan Board Doctor

    This is sure to raise the ire of some, but here goes: In my opinion, English is the only language you need for most - but not all - studies. The only other language I'd bother learning would be Latin.
    The other languages - modern languages - are merely "box checks."
    Most PhD students learn just enough German and French to pass their language exam. Since it was only in short-term memory, they retain virtually nothing. But even if they are fluent in modern German or French, really, who cares about German and French? Unless one wants to engage with the same wacko liberal German theologians who've been refuted by countless before you, why bother? Virtually NOTHING has come out of Germany and France - in German or French - since the mid 20th Century. The German and French theologians you're probably interested in studying (or referencing) are in either Latin or have been translated into English by highly competent translators. (Before I hear someone say: Oh, but you need to know the original language or else you're not really getting at the sense of what they're saying... I say, nonsense. The amount of training it takes to be truly proficient in a language would detract from the time it takes to be proficient at theology. Do you want to be a linguist or a theologian?)

    I say, learn how to use a German and French theological dictionary (because that's what you need since theological language is highly technical and is NOT going to be in your standard language classes offered at a university), and reference them when need be.
  3. SynodOfDort

    SynodOfDort Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, Ben! Your reply is incredibly helpful, and helps me put together some of my concerns/thoughts for postgrad study. So now I am thinking that I will primarily focus on finishing Greek/Hebrew for now, and possibly crunch to pass German/French exams in the future for PhD requirements. Also, since I'm doing a Biblical Languages minor for my B.S., I think that I will possibly take some Latin in Seminary to make up for whomever isn't translated into English. :cool:
  4. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    I don't like disagreeing with Ben, but most of this is completely false. For a historical theologian working in the modern period, real proficiency in both French and German is essential. That is, if you want to do scholarship on a level that actually impacts the scholarly community. There is still quite a lot of important material not translated, and many of the translations that are available are mediocre. This can be true even of very prominent, recent theologians, such as Karl Barth. The conservative Reformed world is raving about Bavinck now, but his Reformed Dogmatics only became available in English in 2008.

    Most good scholars learn far more French and German than what is necessary to pass the exams. D. A. Carson, for instance, is fluent in both French and German. Alister McGrath writes articles in German. There are very few well-known scholars of anything other than American studies who don't demonstrate mastery in several languages.

    Now, I agree with Ben and thank him for mentioning Latin, which is too often overlooked. It can be frustrating to learn Latin as a historical theologian, since most Latin courses unfairly privilege the Roman period and don't always teach the skills necessary for reading manuscripts and older printed materials.
  5. SynodOfDort

    SynodOfDort Puritan Board Freshman

    Ah! The tables turn :) So it appears that French and German are still very important to the rigorous Modern Theology... Do you think that a single one in particular is more important than the other? Perhaps learn enough French to pass the exams, and then concentrate on German/Dutch?

    Sent from my XT1080 using Tapatalk
  6. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    Let me make one clarification. The deciding factor is whether you are going to be reading foreign languages for both primary and secondary sources, or only for secondary sources. If you only need to read the occasional article in a foreign language, then fumbling through at 3 pages per hour with a dictionary is painful but survivable. If you have to read a 200 page primary text, it isn't.

    If you want to study the roots of modern liberal theology, German is the obvious choice. If you want to study Catholic ressourcement leading to Vatican II, French it is. If you want to study the reception of Enlightenment ideas in continental theology, both are pretty equal. Dutch is something of an oddball; it matters for a particular stream of Reformed theology but not so much for anything else. Now, you can to some degree circumvent some language work if you want to work strictly in the Anglo-American context: New England Puritanism, the Tractarian controversy, modern evangelicalism, etc. But as you can see, that limits your options.
  7. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    I should add that my insistence on this point is based on my personal experience of seeing otherwise talented students not accepted into programs, not fulfilling their degree requirements, or otherwise being handicapped by an insufficient linguistic foundation.

    For example, I am currently making a killing on the side translating German articles for scholars who need to read certain articles in order to be taken seriously but who don't have the skills to do so.

    Perhaps even more serious, when I was interviewing at Notre Dame, the head of the PhD studies program told me that one of the first things they look at on the application is the candidate's language proficiency.
  8. SynodOfDort

    SynodOfDort Puritan Board Freshman

    One of the first things that they look at!? Wow! I guess it really is important for postgrad study! :)
  9. Hamalas

    Hamalas whippersnapper

    Jacob, do you have a subject/focus in mind as far as what you want to study in Historical Theology? As Charlie has already pointed out, that will help to answer this question as much as anything.
  10. SynodOfDort

    SynodOfDort Puritan Board Freshman

    My primary focus/interest at this point is the progression of conservative, evangelical theology from about 1700 to the present. Examination of the roots of modern denominations, sects, et. al. Perhaps even a look at evangelicalism in Germany (Adolf Stoecker, Martin Kähler, Adolf Schlatter, and Christoph Blumhardt?) :think: Specific dutch theologians such as Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkouwer, Klaas Runia, Klaas Schilder, and A. de Bondt also look interesting, but I was hoping to be able to find translations of their major works in French/German ;)
  11. HoldFast

    HoldFast Puritan Board Freshman

    I also dislike disagreeing with Ben, but he gets it wrong here.

    I work in a theological library at a seminary with multiple PhD programs. All the students in academic programs use French and/or German regularly. Learning French and/or German is a must for entering into a serious theology doctoral program. You will need the languages for both the present doctoral studies and also future scholarship.

    Learn Greek, Hebrew, French, and German. If studying OT learn German and Modern Hebrew as your modern languages.
  12. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    The experts have spoken. My only :2cents: are I was afraid of languages years ago to my regret now. I wish I would have started language training as a freshman in college and not a junior. My career path would have been most different. Only too late did I realize that it does get easier. You don't start from scratch with each language. Your French and Latin will help each other. Dutch competence is not a long major struggle for a person with German(and English for that matter) under his belt.
    Last edited: May 4, 2014
  13. SolaScriptura

    SolaScriptura Puritan Board Doctor

    Like I said, I knew I'd raise the ire of some.

    Maybe I'm just bitter because I'm going to be living about 30 minutes from Tubingen but can't attend there since I don't have conversational proficiency in German. (Though I'm learning!)

    ... Or maybe I just know that
    1) it is a FACT that in the same way most MDiv students graduate and rarely ever look at Greek or Hebrew, most PhD students are even "worse" when it comes to continued use of German and French.
    2) Yes, the academy still requires the languages as box check/discriminators/hurdles, etc., but their continued relevance for most studies is pretty much nonexistent.
    3) Armed with Google Translate and a theological dictionary, anyone can access primary sources and use the German/French books in the academic libraries.

    So unless you aim to be a specialist in a specific German or French theologian, I say learn the language well enough to pass the exam, and then move on to your area of focus. Otherwise, by the time you've become proficient (fluent?) in German or French... well, your brain will be full and you won't have room to learn theology. (Ok, that last part was a joke...)
    Last edited: May 4, 2014
  14. SolaScriptura

    SolaScriptura Puritan Board Doctor

    I just noticed this. So, they became scholars yet they aren't proficient in German. Hmm. I think your example lends to my point. And their act of paying you to translate for them? A great example of working smarter, not harder!
  15. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    Pastor Ben,

    I am not writing of you in these comments.

    Could the problem be moral rather than practical? In order to do careful, precise scholarship shouldn't one be more enthusiastic about a command of the original languages and the relevant modern languages used in scholarship about the subject? Furthermore, I find the idea of Mdiv graduates, TEs to boot, deliberately letting their Greek and Hebrew fade because they don't think "they need it" most troubling.

    Our pediatrician has remarked on various occasions about the latest research on topics related to our daughter's well being. If he expressed indifference to modern research we would fire him immediately despite the fact that he is a deacon in our church and a personal friend of the family.
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