10 Questions with Ken Berding

Ken Berding talks about his success teaching Greek, his love for the Apostolic Fathers, and his passion to see students learn the Bible

The biblical languages are crucial to understanding the meaning of the biblical text. However, students often struggle to learn Greek and Hebrew. You have found a creative, even exciting way to learn New Testament Greek. Would you tell us why learning Greek by song is so promising?

Music taps into sections of your brain that other memorization techniques do not.  Sing and Learn New Testament Greek uses simple tunes—actually the simplest of all possible melodies—to aid you in remembering the myriads of required Greek grammar forms.  Truth be told, once you learn these songs, your problem will not be remembering them; your problem will be getting them out of your head.  The long-term payoff of learning Greek grammar through music is also much greater.  I regularly hear from past students who contact me simply to let me know that they still know all their Greek songs and use them when they read their Greek New Testaments.

Is there any particular tip you would give to the student using your method?

You can use these songs as a supplement to any method.  Once you have learned the songs by singing them over and over again, start chanting them without singing—as fast as you can.  In my classes at Biola University, I offer a button (the most prized award at my university campus!) to anyone who can chant through all 10 grammar songs (excluding the prepositions song) in 75 seconds.  The button reads:  I Survived Berding’s 75 second Greek Challenge.  If you can train yourself to chant really quickly through the songs (without breaks, not singing), you can locate in your head and parse in seconds whatever noun, indicative verb, participle, infinitive, or whatever you encounter on the page of your Greek New Testament.

In your own life and ministry, in what ways has learning New Testament Greek proved fruitful?

The single most valuable take-away from learning Greek for me has been the joy of simply reading each morning out of the Greek New Testament.  I’ve recently finished my 10th time reading through the New Testament in Greek.  Reading in Greek forces me to slow down and notice things I would never have thought to notice when reading in English.  In addition, every time I prepare to preach on a New Testament passage, the first thing I do is diagram it in Greek.  This discipline allows me to identify what’s important in the passage, and, in particular, how various phrases relate to one another before I start my message prep.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One of the major contributions of the reformers was how much effort they put into Bible translation. Luther, for example, translated the Bible into German when he was sent into hiding at the Wartburg Castle. Tyndale was martyred for translating the Bible into English. How might the legacy of these reformers and others motivate us in our own study of the scriptures today?

The Reformers cared deeply that study of the Bible be engaged in the original languages, that is, for those who had the opportunity to learn those language, but they were also passionate about getting the Bible into the native tongues of those who did not have that opportunity.  Beyond such luminaries as Luther and Tyndale, think of all the committed Bible translators throughout history who have impacted the world: from the Septuagintal translators who rendered the Hebrew Bible into Greek and thereby paved the way for the apostles to employ Greek verses when they penned their gospels and letters, to Jerome who translated the great Latin translation that carried the church through the Middle Ages, to the thousands of dedicated modern translators currently working on hundreds of translation projects around the world.  Their sacrifice to making the Bible available in every language certainly motivates me to read my Bible!

You’ve written a very helpful book called Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book. Do we need a revival of learning the Word of God today? And how might that revival start?

Yes, we desperately need a revival of 1) learning the Word, 2) valuing the Word, 3) understanding the Word, 4) applying the Word, 5) obeying the Word, and 6) speaking the Word, as I’ve titled each of the six short chapters in this book.  Here are some thoughts on possible catalysts for a renewal of our commitment to the One Book:  1) Church leaders can begin modelling the value of the Word of God by memorizing it themselves, preaching from the actual text of Scripture, and calling the church to repentance for their lack of emphasis on God’s Word; 2) Those of us living in the West, where disengagement from the Bible is most alarming, can draw from the example of brothers and sisters in the Global South where Bible saturation is still valued; 3) We can live as personal examples by reading the Bible a lot and talking to others about what we’ve read, learned, and memorized a lot.

You have just come out with a new book on the Apostolic Fathers. Tell us, who are some of these Fathers and why do they matter so much?

Yes, I have just come out with an inviting, easy-to-read introduction to the earliest Christian authors after the time of the apostles entitled The Apostolic Fathers: A Narrative IntroductionSince this book is written as a story, it is an enjoyable entry-point into the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Papias, and others.  These writings are pretty close-to-the-ground in comparison with the philosophical/theological writings that constitute the following stage of church history (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.).  The writings of the Apostolic Fathers address real church issues, and touch upon the needs of Christians living in the first half of the second century.  In this sense, the texture of these writings is a bit more like the New Testament than later Christian writings. Engaging with the Apostolic Fathers is an easy window into the life of the church just after the time of the apostles.

Is there one Apostolic Father or writing that you are especially drawn to? If so, what is its relevance for Christians today?

One of my historical heroes is Polycarp of Smyrna.  I lived in his city for two years as a young man, my oldest daughter was born there, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the literary and theological relationship of Polycarp and Paul, and I have published a handful of academic articles about Polycarp over the years.  Honestly, it sometimes feels like I know him personally; he is one of my historical mentors (Paul being the other). 

Polycarp wrote one edifying letter to the church in Philippi early in the second century.  That letter feels a lot like reading a New Testament letter, full of pious and wise counsel.  Polycarp received a letter of exhortation from Ignatius as Ignatius was being transported to Rome for martyrdom, which allows us to see him in a different light, as the recipient of advice from an older church leader. 

Finally, and most notably, the document known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp details the events leading up to and including Polycarp’s martyrdom as an elderly man in the middle of the second century.  Every Christian should read the Martyrdom of Polycarp.  Just google it; you’ll find it easily.  My love for Polycarp is one of the reasons he figures as the central character in the narrative sections of my new book on the Apostolic Fathers.

You have been teaching at Biola University for many years now. What is rewarding about teaching university students?

I love teaching Christian university students, but especially undergraduate students.  I have often received requests to teach graduate classes, but tend to decline so I can teach undergraduates.  “Don’t you like graduate students?” you might ask.  Actually, I love graduate students!  But the sometimes dramatic transformation that I witness in the lives of undergraduate students doesn’t happen nearly so often among grad students.  The years between the ages of 18 and 22 are formative for many people.  My calling is to fan the flame of a passion for God and his Word among students, and to train them to become world changers.  Nothing gives me greater joy than to encounter one of my former students serving the Lord with faithfulness, grace, and zeal years after I’ve come to know them as university students.

For college students reading this interview, what advice would you give them as they seek to profit from attending a Christian college?

I would encourage you, dear college student, to press into your studies while at the same time leaning into Christ.  Push yourself hard academically while always seeking to stay sensitive to the Holy Spirit. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” wrote the Lamenter in a different context (Lam. 3:27)  .  These words are good; they remind us that hardship prepares us for the future.  Do everything you can to get yourself ready for service in God’s kingdom.  Read 2 Timothy 4:1-8, Paul’s final charge to Timothy before Paul’s martyrdom, and take it to heart.  Better yet, memorize that passage and speak it to yourself over and over again until it makes your bones quiver!

I imagine many will envy the fact that you live in Southern California. What do you really enjoy doing when you are not in the classroom?

I love spending time with my wife, Trudi, and my four daughters.  They are God’s most precious gift to me.  It won’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot, both because I have to in order to keep up as a professor and because I want to.  I play table tennis (we have a table on our back patio—yes, year-round…we live in Southern California after all!) and occasionally play disc golf.  My wife and I invite college students over to our house all the time.  It keeps us young.  No, even though I live in Southern California, I’ve never surfed, though I do love going to the beach with my wife!

Kenneth Berding (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament at Biola University andTalbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.