Class with Dr. Wallace

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“The teachers that were hard, the ones that made things difficult and forced you to learn and improve, those are the ones that you will remember. Not the easy ones who tried to make things as easy as possible so that you felt good about yourself.”

Or so said one of my high school teachers. At the time I thought it was a ridiculous saying. If I remembered such teachers at all it would be because of all the pain they inflicted and the homework they made me do. I didn’t think I would ever be grateful for such a challenging experience.

Dr. Wallace was a hard teacher. And I say that with gratitude and thankfulness. It was this “toughness” that was instrumental in restoring my love for the Greek New Testament. I know that not everyone who had Dr. Wallace will feel the same, but that was my experience.

Finding the right amount of challenge to put someone up against is a difficult thing. As a gamer I can tell you that video game developers spend a lot of time trying to find the right amount challenge to present to players. Too much and players will get frustrated and quit playing the game. Too little and players will get bored and quit the game. Find the right amount of challenge and you will keep players interested and they will keep playing. Your failures in the game let you know that this is not something that is easy or straightforward. When you finally succeed after failing you learn that you are capable of doing difficult things and just because something might seem impossible at first doesn’t mean that it won’t one day be overcome. This confidence motivates you to keep playing and to seek out further and more difficult challenges.

A lot of my schooling, especially high school, was on the “not challenging enough” side of the spectrum. I found myself bored many times because the challenge just wasn’t there. Even in subjects that I actually had an interest in the lack of challenge still left me bored. And when you’re bored you don’t pay attention, and if you don’t pay attention then you don’t learn as well as you are able. I often found myself using my calculator for games instead of doing actual calculations. I learned a lot about how to play Tetris and Pac-Man and Galaga, but not so much about Calculus or The Scarlet Letter or Shakespeare. My grades were fine (academics has never been an issue for me), but I found nothing that was particularly exciting or inspiring that I wanted to pursue as a career. I went into IT mainly because I liked playing video games and wanted to know more about how computers worked.

Fast forward to seminary and there is plenty of interest on my part and certainly no lack of challenge. In many classes (especially Bible and Theology classes) the challenge came in the form of massive amounts of reading and paper writing. This certainly made for some labor intensive classes, but it was work that I loved doing.

Language classes however were a completely different animal. Concepts and ideas, like theology or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage or book I can grasp pretty quickly just from reading about them. Writing a paper on them allowed me to think deeper about those concepts and further refine them as well as work out my own ideas on the matter. When it comes to learning a language though reading and writing about it will not help you learn it.

Language is the main way that we express our thoughts and ideas and communicate day in and day out. We can do this very well in our native language because we have been using it all our lives. We learn new words, expressions, metaphors, idioms, and all sorts of other things about our native language because we are immersed in it everyday. Even if we go a day or more without using it we still process our thoughts in it.

Thus, language learning requires daily work. Even a dead language like Biblical Greek (it is not equivalent to modern Greek) requires daily work. For the language courses at DTS (Dallas Theological Seminary) this meant learning vocabulary and doing parsing and translation exercises almost daily. Additionally, we were also learning the semantics and syntax of the language (how the words are joined together to express ideas) alongside all the vocabulary, translation, and parsing. If you don’t go after it hard and make at least a little progress daily in your learning then you will never really learn that language. The DTS language courses ensure that you will always have plenty of work to do to help you learn that language.

When it came to take my 5th and final Greek course I was worn out by the attrition of the previous 4 courses. This was due in part to the workload required of a full-time student at DTS and in part due to some health issues I was having at the time. So when it came time for my final Greek course I was not super excited about it and was looking for an easy course. Having heard that Dr. Wallace’s class was pretty tough taking him was not something that I was interested in doing. And when I saw that his class was scheduled to start at 7:45am I was even less interested. However, the way scheduling worked out that semester Dr. Wallace’s class was really the only option I had, so I took him.

I ended up having one of the best experiences of my time in seminary. He was absolutely tough, but not overbearing. He didn’t treat everyone the same, but he did treat everyone fairly. He knew his students and knew what they were capable of and would challenge them to grow in accordance with their capabilities. If he knew that you were advanced (e.g. you took his Greek 1 Honors course) he challenged you based on your advanced knowledge and capabilities. If English was your 3rd language he took into account the challenges involved in learning a new language in your non-native language. For me personally he took into account the health issues that I was having.

A typical day started with Dr. Wallace walking in with a heat activated mug full of coffee (or some other hot beverage) that revealed (I think, not sure) Wittenberg Cathedral. He would then begin class by asking us to read, translate, and parse verses and words from a passage of Romans that had been previously assigned. All we were allowed to use was our Greek New Testament. No Lexicons. No Reader’s Edition with glosses. Just the text and our brains. If we did a good job and got through all his questions before his coffee went cold (and the picture disappeared) we could use “helps” on the next quiz. If we didn’t do a good job then no helps were allowed on the next quiz. This was certainly challenging, but it was not undoable. It did require you to read the passage and translate it and learn a few new vocabulary words, but that is not too much to ask of a Greek 5 student in my opinion. And, as mentioned above, the questions you were asked were inline with your capabilities and knowledge. The more capable and knowledgeable you were the tougher the questions were.

As I prepared throughout the semester for this challenge (you never knew when Dr. Wallace might call on you) I found that my love for Greek (that had been missing for the previous calendar year) was returning. I was forced to spend time in the text in order to nail down the vocabulary, my translation, and whatever interesting syntactical or exegetical “problems” might be in the assigned passage. The more time that I spent working in the text the more I began to realize the value of working in the Greek text. This purely academic exercise soon began to have immense spiritual benefits.

I know for many people, even pastors, biblical or theological academic work is not viewed as spiritually beneficial. For me though, as I first learned in Dr. Wallace’s class, academic work is one of the most spiritually beneficial things that I can do. My thought process is very detailed. Every loose end must be tied up. Every detail must fit together in a logical order. If I care about a particular topic then I must know everything about it. Fortunately for me theology isn’t a topic that you can ever learn everything about, so there will always be something for me to investigate. And since the Bible is the foundational book for Christian theology being able to understand the original languages is essential, I think, to being a good theologian.

It was through Dr. Wallace’s class that I developed enough proficiency in Greek that understanding it became relatively easy instead of some laborious chore. Now don’t get me wrong, my previous 4 Greek classes were essential in getting me to that point and were beneficial also. But it was in Dr. Wallace’s class that I was finally able to put all this knowledge together and use it in a spiritually beneficial manner.

To this day the love for the Greek New Testament I regained in Dr. Wallace’s class remains. I’ve read through the Greek NT the past several years and I am doing so again this year.

I can say all this because I was presented with the right amount of challenge at the right time. The things that Dr. Wallace asked me to do were not impossible, but they were challenging. I had never done them before, but I had all the skills that I needed to be able to do them. The resulting confidence has motivated me to continue studying the biblical languages ever since.

So, I am glad that Dr. Wallace did things the way he did in his class. The benefits of it have been great. I am not sure where I would be without it.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary