Brian W. Davidson

teacher @highlandslatin,

PhD candidate @sbts,

research expert @sbtslibrary

From Framing Houses to Framing Discourse

An Ιnterview with Steve Runge

Last month, Steve Runge taught a class at SBTS on his Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. While he was in town, he shared with us a bit of his story — a story I thought you would enjoy, too.

BWDSteve, thank you so much for making the trek to Louisville and sharing your research with us. We have thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss with you your Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. You also shared with us a bit of your own personal story, and that is what I would like to ask you a few questions about here.

Before you began your journey into the world of academic biblical studies, you owned your own construction company. Is this correct?

Steve Runge (SR): Yes, I ran Academic Construction as a front to fund my two grad degrees. I worked roughly 8-9 months of the year, spending the balance of my time writing and researching. I mainly subcontracted the framing of single-family houses, occasionally venturing into siding and decks when things got slow. My BA in Speech Communication never resulted in gainful employment, so I spent 18 years doing full time what I had intended would just be my part-time summer gig for HS and college.

BWD: How does one go from framing houses to studying cognitive linguistics and writing Greek grammars? What drew you to pursue a PhD?

SR: In my view it was the only logical career switch, though some have had trouble accepting this. The skills needed for each have a fair amount of overlap. After coming to faith my freshman year in college, I decided that I would try to get some Bible training if opportunity allowed. I was very involved in middle school ministry at my church when I graduated, so I decided to try seminary part-time a few years later. I doubted that I was smart enough to survive, so I decided to stay local and commute to Trinity Western Seminary about 35 minutes away in British Columbia. Based on my academic track record, I decided it would be better to fail quietly, locally, rather than to move somewhere and potentially fail more spectacularly. I wasn't going to win any scholarships, I really had no idea what I was after other than wanting to be a skilled lay-teacher in our church. I took a job driving deliveries for a local lumber yard, working 3-10 hour days and every other Saturday. That gave me two days for classes, and at 6-9 semester credits, I could pay for it as I went. I moved back to building after completing my coursework.

After a few semesters of study, the demise of Biblical languages really began to weigh on me — what Hybels calls a "holy discontent." I saw guys who wanted to be teaching pastors have to drop out of the MDiv because they couldn't memorize. I saw others take the MRE (Masters in Religious Education) because they saw no practical ministry value in learning Greek or Hebrew. This was affirmed by the youth pastor who mentored me. He suggested I take something really useful like counseling. My wife and I spent 2 months in rural Ethiopia the summer of 1993, which only sharpened my discontent. I saw speakers of Amharic, a Semitic language, floundering learning Hebrew because it was taught via translation-English. They were using hand-me-down textbooks and learning our Western theological baggage, which had little to no relevance to their context. What was needed, in my view, was learning original languages so they could develop exegetically-relevant materials directly from Greek and Hebrew, without passing through English or the West. However, those teaching the languages specialized in Missiology or Church Planting, not Greek or Hebrew. 

I came back from that summer determined to find some way of reinvigorating interest in the languages. Whatever the solution was, it had to demonstrate the practical payoff for ministry or no one would bother with it. Schools would just continue to cut back the credits required, pastors would continue telling new students it was just a hazing ritual, and national pastors would keep learning English to learn Greek or Hebrew.

Eventually, I found a topic and a doctoral advising team that would provide the theoretical framework needed to develop practical solutions, or at least baby steps in that direction.

BWD: When and how did Logos Bible Software enter the story?

SR: I have lived in Bellingham since moving there for undergrad in 1985. Logos moved there from nearby Oak Harbor in 2002. We had some initial discussions early on, but all I had to offer was some arm-waving about some ideas, nothing concrete and no terminal degree.  By September of 2006, I had nearly completed my dissertation, nearly died of a heart attack, and pretty well prototyped a database approach which marked up discourse features in the Hebrew text. They offered me a two-year gig to turn my idea into a product, which resulted in the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, which shipped in June, 2008. Next, after much begging and negotiation, came the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, written between Memorial and Labor Days of 2008.  It was first published by Logos in 2009, then in print by Hendrickson in 2010. Both of these projects were proof-of-concept for a larger suite of materials I envisioned while framing houses.

BWD: How often do you teach classes like the one you just finished here at SBTS? Is this something you would like to continue to do?

SR: I get a couple weeks a year to do something that fills my tank and gives me ideas for new projects. Teaching is the best route I've found for this. Part of the reason I'm at Logos is that it's the best fit to tackle the issues raised by the decline of biblical languages. Another reason is that no school ever expressed interest in me, save one interview. So teaching intensive courses has really been my only choice, but this requires an invitation. Sam Lamerson gave me my big break in 2009 at Knox Seminary, then Dallas Seminary in 2012. I've also had the pleasure of leading workshops in the UK in conjunction with ISBL meetings in 2011 and 2013. I hope to continue doing this as there is opportunity like Southern offered this year. Mainly, I am interested in partnering with schools interested in adopting discourse grammar into their coursework.

BWD: You make a distinction between discourse grammar and discourse analysis. What is the difference?

There is an interesting difference we see in the application of linguistics to Greek versus Hebrew. In NT studies most of what we have seen has been focused on analyzing books, i.e. discourse analysis. That's the sexy area everyone wants to get in on.  Not so in Hebrew bible; there, folks have mainly focused on describing features of discourse, ostensibly based on the idea that we need to understand the basic building blocks before we move on to do higher level syntheses of these features at the book level. Longacre's Joseph is the main exception. I'm a carpenter, and there is a process to building a house. If you learn how to build a wall or frame a floor then you can work on adapting those basic skills to create what the architect has drawn. The better you get at the fundamental building blocks, the better able you'll be to handle the complexity of real life applications.

The same holds true for language. I'd say it's only been in the last two years that I've felt like I had a decent enough grasp of the fundamentals of discourse grammar to be ready to move on to analysis of books. I have published a commentary on Philippians for lay folks which is essentially my conclusions drawn from a discourse analysis of the Greek text. A handbook tracing my exegesis will be out by summer. A similar commentary on Romans is in press with a handbook following later this year.

I have always been interested in doing discourse analysis, but my inner carpenter has cautioned me to be patient. I have learned it is easier to build things correctly than to rush ahead only to tear it apart later. I got the nickname "rip-n-tear Runge" because of how good I got at disassembling things. Initially it was my own mistakes I tore apart, later it was the work of others who hadn't invested enough time in their apprenticeship mastering the fundamentals. This is why I constantly stress the importance of a sound theoretical framework and a mastery of basic discourse features. I want to understand how and why things work the way they do.

BWD: Rip-n-tear Runge! That is fantastic. One more question for you, Steve. What is the master plan? Is there any hope that we will see a discourse grammar of the Hebrew Bible?

SR: I have a vision and some hopes, but not really a complete plan. The only plan I have is to equip folks who are smarter and younger than me with what I have learned, cast a vision for the potential payoff, and get out of their way. When I've done this I feel like I end up benefiting more than the other person. These folks provide the challenge and support to keep growing and learning from what they are doing. One of those folks is Josh Westbury, my colleague at Logos. He is nearing completion of his PhD in biblical languages with my mentor Christo Van der Merwe. He will head up the Hebrew side of Logos discourse projects going forward, including a Hebrew discourse grammar along the lines of the Greek volume. We have finished marking the discourse features for Genesis-Jeremiah; Ezekiel and the Twelve should ship by Easter. The initial version of the database should be completed this summer. The plan is for Josh to work on the discourse handbooks for the Hebrew bible. If interest in these projects continues to grow, I'd like to see analyses of the DSS, LXX and AF along with at least some handbooks before I die.

There is much to do, and we are working on creative ways to get more folks involved, like the discourse internships we are offering this summer at Logos. Presently there aren't many options for pursuing a cognitive-functional approach to Greek within NT studies, but hopefully that will change. I've also had the privilege of informally advising some folks in their doctoral studies, helping them learn the fundamentals. I have tried to help them in the same way others have helped me, through directing their reading and discussing it on Skype or at conferences. Had it not been for folks like Christo, Stephen Levinsohn and Randall Buth investing in me, none of what I am doing would have been possible.

BWD: Glad to hear that you guys are almost finished with the Discourse Hebrew Bible, and I'm very excited to hear that you hope to do something similar with the DSS!

Steve, it has been such a pleasure to have you spend some time with us in Louisville. I really hope you will be able to return and teach this class again. The campus has been a buzz with conversation and excitement over it. Thank you for taking the time to share a bit more of your story with us.

Steve and Josh have bio pages at Logos where you can find more information about the projects they are working on. Steve blogs at New Testament Discourse, where you can learn more about the internships in Greek discourse grammar Logos is offering this summer.

Recommended Summer Reading

Interview with Two Editors of the Lexham English Septuagint