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.

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