Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Problem with Honorary Doctorates

I actually have no problems with honorary doctorates as such. It can be a great way to show respect for a commencement speaker, or for someone worthy of honor. However, in Christian circles, an honorary doctorate seems to be taken as a license to be called “doctor;” it is viewed as conferring a certain level of prestige or respectability. While there is nothing wrong with receiving an honorary title for a day (as many sources indicate was common), there is something wrong, in our current culture, with claiming to be a doctor in such circumstances. Not all of these points will apply equally to every person, but they do apply to most.
First, the honorary doctor is not in a position to do solid academic research. As documented yesterday, many, perhaps even most, pastors do not advance beyond the initial stages of research. The vast majority of pastors (in my tradition) do not go beyond the “Bible college” level of research. Because of this, they don’t even know what questions to ask, much less what the answers are, when it comes to current scholarship.
The second problem stems directly from the first. The honorary doctor is not in a position to be a scholar in his field. Because of not being able to do first-rate research, he will not be in a position to do first-rate scholarship, interacting with the best in his field. A true dissertation is not simply a long research paper; it is an original thesis defended by original research to bring original knowledge to whatever field in which one finds himself. Someone once told me a successful PhD ought to be one of the top scholars in the world on his or her dissertation topic.[1]
An objection presents itself: “But what about ministry! Surely that’s not the same as a PhD!” This is exactly right. The comparable doctorate is a D.Min. While this doctorate involves “less” research, it involves research nonetheless. Moreover, the research requires a command of the theoretical side of statistics, something most people lack.
The third problem is an answer to the objection often heard in these debates. “But Pastor Dave has been in the ministry so long, he’s learned the equivalent of a doctorate.” The problem is that, almost always, no, he has not. Pastoring for twenty years takes an incredible skill set and is something to be honored greatly (far above a PhD, in my opinion), but it takes a completely different skill set than a PhD. Without fail (so far), the people pushing this objection have never actually engaged in academic research at the post-graduate level (formally or otherwise).
The final problem tends to be two-fold. When those people in the church and in our society hear of a doctorate in the pulpit, they will assume he is a scholar in that field (that’s what a doctorate-earner is). When they find out he is not, either by observing his teaching or discovering the doctorate is honorary, his credibility is damaged. In turn, it damages the credibility of likeminded churches (fair or not). The second part of the problem is pride. People think we’re pretty intelligent if we are called “doctor.” It is not uncommon to have church members, staff, or even the pastor himself insist on being called “Dr. So-and so.” I once heard an anecdote about a well-known independent Baptist pastor from decades ago who ran a large conference. Someone innocently asked the man a question, addressing him as “Pastor So-and-so.” He was shouted down with the correction from the crowd, “That’s DR. So-and –so!” May it never be said among us.
That all being said, I have absolutely no problem with honors given to people by Christian colleges and seminaries. That is a completely different debate altogether. However, in this present cultural setting, it implies a distinction that has not been attained, and thus is a form of deceit. Those with honorary doctorates should avoid calling themselves “doctor.”

[1] Incidentally, some Christian colleges tend to have the view of dissertations that they are simply “really long papers,” and this dilutes the quality of doctorates they produce. In the United States, quality doctoral programs will have you engage in some legitimate coursework (not book reports), then write an original dissertation using original research for an original contribution to the field. For doctorates, anything less is a doctoral degree mill.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Defense of the PhD

Some people may already know that I plan on earning a PhD one day. Some may wonder why I should do that. After all, is a title really that important to me? Well, no. Can you not do the same research on your own? I suppose it’s possible. Then why do it? The following lists a few reasons.

  1. Because I believe it is what God would have me to do.

This is assuredly the most important reason. I believe God has equipped every believer to be of service to the church and to the world in the spreading of the Gospel. I believe he has equipped me in the area of academics and apologetics. I have a strong desire to use this as an outreach to the world.

2. For at least some of what I want to do, the credentials are necessary.

In point of fact, if I want to teach in a college or seminary setting one day on a full-time basis, then a PhD is a virtual-must. With so many PhD’s and so few job openings, not having one is a virtual guarantee for not having a job. Of course, even having one doesn’t guarantee a job; in fact, one is very unlikely to secure one. So why go through the process? A few subreasons:

  1. Personal enrichment. Someone once said of PhD students that they should do it “if they could not imagine doing anything else.”
b. To be able to engage the academic culture. Publications, debates, lectures, etc.

c. To serve the church better with respect to academic issues. It’s never bad to have more PhD’s      in the pulpit.

  1. Because the type of academic research on display at the PhD level is rarely achieved by those outside of formal academia.

Many laymen are under the mistaken impression that their pastor (or internet friend they know) does real, rigorous, scholarly research on theological issues because he seems to have an answer on nearly every issue--or at least, nearly every issue they’ve ever heard of. The problem? Academic research involves issues most laymen have never heard of.[1]

There are three types of research relevant to theology and doctrine. First, there is what I call the “discovery” type of research. I call it that because it usually involves discovering an answer to the question, “what do you believe about X?” X is usually those hot-button issues like Calvinism, eternal security, and whatnot, but also includes regular doctrines like the Trinity, the atonement, eschatology, and more. It involves studying different basic theology books, mostly on the popular level.[2]

 When one is able to articulate what he believes, and, to a certain extent, why he believes it, he has typically engaged in discovery research. Discovery research is very good and beneficial, but it’s only the beginning. Sad to say, many believers have not even done this. Most laymen, and even many pastors, never make it beyond this stage. While they think they are engaged in academic research, the reality is it’s simply discovery.

The second type of research is what I call “Bible college” research. Bible college research is more advanced than discovery research. Discovery finds basic reasons for positions. Bible college research tackles these issues in a manner that forms an argument or a thesis out of these research positions. So, they’re more prone not just to learn from the book, but to utilize parts of it in conjunction with other material to form a position or thesis. They also operate on an introductory level in more complex issues like textual criticism. This is a good advancement, but it is incapable of interacting with the latest scholarship found in academic journals. Many pastors (and some laymen) are at this level.

The third level is scholarly research. This research is done with the aim of critiquing or advancing arguments on a particular topic, or even a subtopic. It is done with the most recent and classic works on the subject in mind. Rather than just articulating a position or interacting with its parts, academic research actively seeks to form new understandings of these subjects. This is something that is extremely unlikely to be done in a non-academic setting. Why? First, because without academic credentials, most of the best scholarship is difficult to obtain or even not available. Second, and most importantly, without some kind of training, even knowing how to do this kind of research is a problem. Therefore, the academy is needed to help train one in this area of research. Learning from others is a huge time-saver and a help to guide one’s research.

So, to sum up, I am getting a PhD because I believe God wants me to do it, I need the credentials in order to do what I want to do, and I need the tools to engage research effectively.
1 Please understand this is not meant to be haughty at all. Most laymen are probably more spiritual than most PhD’s. Spirituality can be present in PhD’s as well as people who didn’t finish the eighth grade.

2 Popular-level books are books about subjects written for the layman to read. Typically, popular-level books do not contain footnotes or technical language; however, simply because a book has footnotes, it does not follow that it’s an academic work. Academic works are made to engage the arguments of current scholarship.

Easter, the Atonement, and Salvation

I have received a question concerning the atonement and salvation. These responses below are very specific, but they are to two main objections. First, that if one allows for a free will view of man (where man can choose to believe on Jesus Christ for salvation), then one gets to "play a role in one's own salvation." Second, that if one can choose Christ for salvation, then his exclamation of "It is finished!" on the cross is really quite premature, and cannot be said.

Most of the problems in these types of debates surround definitions of terms. There are so many, and very few (or sometimes none) of them are defined. So what often happens is they are common terms infused with meanings separate from what you or I would believe; or they are terms that take on the same meanings at first, but later change unannounced.

For instance, what does "play a role in one's salvation" mean? To the average person, this sounds like "do something to earn one's salvation" or "help God secure the payment/grace for salvation," both of which orthodox Christians everywhere would reject. But if this is what it means, it's unclear that merely choosing to accept Christ's offer of salvation *is* playing a role in one's salvation so-defined. More likely, "playing a role in one's salvation" in this context means something like "doing any action or being the primary cause in a state of affairs that functions as a necessary or sufficient cause or process to bring about salvation in one's own life." But in that case, the argument only works for those who already believe that by believing on Christ one has contributed to his own salvation (in a negative sense), and so it's flatly question-begging without the ambiguity.

As to the pastor's argument, I really don't see the problem he does. For consider the problem of the subject's existence. At the time of the cross, it was the case that some believer, you, for example, did not exist. This is orthodox; belief in the pre-existence of the soul is heterodox. This is extremely important. In order for you to actually be saved, you must exist (a saved but non-existent individual is logically incoherent as non-existent things do not have properties in an ontological sense). At the time of the cross, therefore, you are not saved. So whatever solution the reformed pastor comes up with for solving this problem is available to us as well for our problem. Suppose he says, "But Christ's sacrifice is pre-causal, so that the effects of the cross carry out into the future, so there's no problem." But then there is no problem for us as well. For simply because certain conditions have not yet obtained (your existence for the pastor, and your belief for the Arminian), it does not follow Christ cannot say, truthfully, "it is finished." Thus, the pastor is forced either to drop the objection or to be heterodox in his belief concerning the existence of the soul.

"Reconciliation" is another term rife with ambiguity. It's important to note that biblical terms are not always univocal; they often have different meanings depending on the context. "Love" and "salvation" are two classic examples. To answer your question about the cross adequately would take an entire volume. To answer it succinctly: at the cross, the payment for sins was made. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God so that the ontological basis for salvation would be taken care of. That basis of salvation is often referred to as the reconciliation of God to man (note that Paul says God was "reconciling the world to himself," and there's no hint of it being a restricted group). However, this is not the same as the appropriation of salvation; salvation applied.
Consider the paradigmatic Old Testament example. Moses and the Hebrews were to kill a lamb and spread its blood over the door and on the sides (almost forming a cross, cool huh?). When the angel of death came, if he saw the blood painted across and on the sides of the door, the household (family) was spared. If he did not see the blood, the firstborn would die (no matter how old or young). The sacrificing of the lamb was a necessary condition; "without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins". Without the application of the blood, one would still be under punishment.

So it is with Christ's sacrifice. His death was a necessary condition for the imputation of righteousness and justification (legal salvation). But the imputation of righteousness only happens when the blood is applied (faith in God--cf. Romans 4), otherwise, the person is still under condemnation. What happened on the cross was the sacrifice to God the Father of God the Son. That beautiful picture is why Jesus could say "it is finished." What is finished? The full-process of salvation for every individual? No. That's nowhere to be found in context. Instead, what was finished was the greatest love known to man--the payment for our sins.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Science, Philosophy, and God

There is a major problem on the popular level with a form of scientism. It's not precisely the idea that all knowledge or truth comes from science, but rather all "important" truths are discoverable by science, and hence anything not scientific is either illusory or unimportant (or perhaps could be held tentatively). I engaged in a recent conversation in which an objector insisted that God had not been proven or disproven (and possibly could not be so) since the concept was not subject to the scientific method. As readers of my blog probably already know, the claim that "something that is not subject to the scientific method cannot be proven" is not subject to the scientific method, and so cannot be proven (regardless of its truth). In fact, he went on to claim that philosophy cannot provide any answers, only raise questions. All must be subservient to science.

These two points made me come to a realization: the popular-level mind has no real concept of what it means to be a philosopher. They think it's some pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-clouds guy who has Yoda-like backward sayings and asks questions all the time. Problem is, good philosophy is just the quest for truth! It's the study of whatever comports with reality.

This is where the first claim concerning science and the importance of truth comes in. I'm not sure why science must be considered superior. First, it's impossible to do science without philosophy. If one attempts to do science without philosophy, he won't be able to infer gravity, for example. Second, it's impossible for science to justify itself. "Now wait a minute!" my objector said (paraphrasing). "Of course science justifies itself; it does so all the time! The scientific method proves itself." Of course, this is blatantly question-begging; it assumes what it seeks to prove. To illustrate, consider that if one wanted to use science to prove science, he would already have to believe science in order to do so. Suppose the objector had continued, and responded with the idea of pragmatism ("well, it works, so it must be right!")? Regardless of the dubious nature of the claim, the bottom line is that pragmatism is a philosophy of science, not science itself.

Science is a wonderful tool, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all of truth. Simply because something cannot be shown scientifically, it does not mean that a truth must be held with any less rigor. Ed Feser said on his blog,

Scientism claims to be “reality based” but that is precisely what it is not.  It recognizes only aspects of reality, and in particular only those susceptible of study via its favored methods.   When those methods fail to capture some aspect of reality -- God, consciousness, intentionality, free will, selfhood, moral value, and so on -- scientism tends to blame reality rather than its methods, and to insist that the reality either be redefined so as to make it compatible with its methods, or eliminated entirely.[1]

In short, we need good philosophy and theology precisely because God's existence is not a scientific fact. If that is true, then it follows we are all philosophers in this respect. The only question is what type of philosopher will we be?

                [1] Edward Feser, "Noe on the Origin of Life, Etc.", accessed March 9, 2013.