Memorizing Versus Understanding

By Caleb Keith

Last week, I started what will be my last semester as an undergraduate student, and boy does it feel sweet. As week two begins, I am feeling the hurt as the work begins to stack up. For my last semester, I decided to torture myself by taking three classical languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Primarily taking language classes is nice because there are no research papers due at the end of the semester. However, the time and energy I gain from not writing papers is quickly sapped away by memory work. Vocab cards need flipping, paradigm charts need filling, and I could use a drink. Memory work is vital to language study, but it isn’t the whole picture. Memory work can’t be blind; it must have a purpose or goal for it to be worthwhile. When I study, I do not do so with the intention to have a bunch of random words and charts in my head. I do it with the goal to better understand my world. Memorization is far from understanding, and memorization that never reaches a level of any understanding is hardly worth the time. This is not true only concerning language but concerning everything we put to memory.

Last week, one of my professors told us about a class in seminary in which the students were required to memorize the entire Small Catechism with questions and answers. After pausing for a second, he asked what was wrong with that picture. I would ask the same question of blindly memorizing Scripture. There are versus that every Christian should know, but even more valuable is the questions they prompt, the context they are within, and the truth which they proclaim. Simply putting things to memory is a good way to have the right answer at the wrong time. In this way, being able to paraphrase and yet understand and work with large sections of Scripture is better than having a handful of verses perfectly committed to memory. As Christians, it is vital that we know the difference between memorizing and understanding. When we study the Scriptures, the catechism, or even the Biblical languages, we should do so not just to have the answer but to better understand the Gospel and proclaim it to miserable sinners like us.