Thursday, July 12, 2007

Composition or Not?

While I attempt to figure out how to do unicoding (if this is a true word), let me talk about our most recent NT Greek course which just ended less than two weeks ago. It was my second time around teaching the course at The Master’s College for the degree completion program.

I was quite satisfied with the progress of this class. At the end of their 16th week, they were working at a level far beyond the point I was at the end of my 16th week of beginning Greek. This I attribute to the fact that going through Machen’s grammar, I challenged them to do the English to Greek composition exercises for homework each week, with special attention given to accenting. I mostly required them to translate English to Greek exercises since I felt the Greek composition exercises would trump anything they could learn by merely translating Greek into English on a weekly basis.

I am a firm believer that learning accents must be an integral part of beginning Greek and that composition cannot exist without it. Unfortunately I didn’t learn accents until the second year of seminary when I finally hit a brick wall and my learning could go no further without conquering “the beast.” I was able to get by for several years without them, but it was detrimental to my grasp of the language.

Excluding composition from beginning Greek is common place around the theological circles I’ve been in these last several years. When I was a beginning student, it wasn’t required, much less learning the accents. Mounce’s popular grammar excludes it entirely. Wherefore, future generations of theological students will not have a command of the language anywhere near as strong as their secular counterparts in classics programs, which, to my knowledge, all require composition studies.

“What’s the big deal about composition if all I want to do is translate the New Testament?” People ask this question quite often. In reply, I have a quote from Charles E. Bennett writing in The Teaching of Latin in the Secondary School. Though he addresses the importance of Latin composition, the principles apply to Greek as well:

Before making any comments upon this exercise, let us get well before us, if we can, the purpose of Latin composition. Why is it to be studied in the schools? What does it accomplish? The field may be partially cleared by stating, first, what it does not accomplish, at least in the school, namely, an ability to write continuous Latin with fluency and ease. Whatever be the purpose of the study, it cannot be that. For I am convinced no one ever does learn to write Latin of this kind in the school by any method of study yet devised, despite the occasional prescription of an ability to write simple Latin prose in the entrance requirements of our colleges. In fact, even in the college itself the ability to compose continuous Latin prose is a capacity acquired by but few, --chiefly those who specialize somewhat carefully in that classical field.

What, then, is the purpose and function of Latin composition in the secondary school? So far as reason and experience enable me to judge, the study of Latin composition is primarily intended to increase the accuracy, breadth, and certainty of the pupil’s grammatical knowledge, --more particularly his knowledge of syntax. He first learns the Subjunctive of Purpose, let us say, or the Gerundive construction, by learning to recognize these idioms when he meets them in his reading. But this is only partial knowledge. A completer knowledge of the Subjunctive of Purpose or the Gerundive construction is acquired when the pupil learns to employ these in actual phrases of his own making. He then sees these constructions from a new side, and a practical side. The act of constructing sentences which contain these, fixes his mind more intently upon the construction than ever before. His knowledge of it is fuller and surer. Hence it is primarily as contributory to a better knowledge of the grammar, that the study of Latin composition is of value.

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