Every year a few students ask me my thoughts about whether they should pursue doctoral studies and I respond with what has come to be known as ‘The Speech.’ Essentially, ‘The Speech’ runs something like this: ‘Do not do it if you think you are going to find a job at the end of it; do it for the sake of doing it. There are almost no jobs going in academia these days, and humanly speaking, time and chance are what make the difference between the one who gets the big break and the one who never even makes a shortlist. For every student who finds an academic job, there are countless others who do not. I studied with people much more talented than I am who ended up selling insurance or working in a bank.’
The advice is, I believe, good. The chances of finding a job are slim; and with a PhD you actually make yourself less employable for other things. This is not to say you should not do a PhD; but you need to be realistic about what you can expect. Of course, all human beings are, to some extent, narcissists: I have never given ‘The Speech’ to anyone who did not believe that they were destined to be the one in a thousand who lands the plum job—after all, I ignored similar sage advice on similarly narcissistic grounds more than twenty years ago; but at least I try to bring a little reality to bear on the situation.
There are a couple of other things I usually say as well. If the student is a married male, I always advise him to find out what his wife thinks about the plan. If she is not fully on board, then to pursue such study is stupid: it will place strain on the marriage, breed resentment, and almost certainly end in tears. But there is one other question I usually pose, if not bluntly, then at least in some form: to whom do you intend to be accountable?
The question is crucial because any Christian studying theology, at whatever level, is not engaged in a simple mastery of technique or information. The study of theology engages heart and mind; to put it in the idiom of Calvin, true knowledge of God and true piety are inseparable. In addition, the temptations of theological study are huge.
Protestantism, by prioritizing a book, the Bible, and the written and spoken word, inevitably has an inbuilt gravitational pull towards intellectualism. Proper Protestantism is not about religious feeling or psychology; it is about truth—defined, proclaimed, believed. This is not a bad thing; indeed, I would argue that the theology of the Bible demands that it be so; and this is why the calling to scholarly study is so important for evangelicals. Indeed, when you look back at the history of orthodox Protestantism from the sixteenth century onwards, it is striking at how much premium was placed by so many on the need for a thoughtful and articulate clergy. I have on my desk at home a copy of Thomas J. Nettles’s new biography of James Petigru Boyce, founder of Southern Seminary, and a prophetic figure driven by the conviction that preachers and church leaders needed to be properly educated in the theological disciplines. Boyce’s vision lives on at Southern Seminary today, and its results can still be heard from many pulpits every Lord’s Day. Yet Boyce was typical of Protestantism at its best, not unique: John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, Carl F. H. Henry—the list of Protestant educators who were committed to the ideal of thoughtful, educated pastors is seemingly endless; and the fruit of their vision and labour is evident for all to see. In our own day, we can think of John Piper, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and others who have studied at the highest levels and have applied their learning to pulpit ministry rather than the classroom, and the church as a whole is the better for such; and there are countless others, anonymous in the annals of history, whose ministries were made possible through education made available thanks to the scholarly commitments and callings of others.
Yet Protestantism’s theologically driven orientation to the Book, to books, and to words, does mean that it has a vulnerability which can be easy to exploit. Such an intellectual and literary orientation means that sometimes the mere ability to grasp concepts and to articulate them can easily provide a fast-track to having influence. Rare is the theological student who has not felt the temptation to sit in church on Sunday and to do little more than silently critique the exegesis and theology of the pastor. Even more so will the same student find it hard not to sit in condescending judgment at the often muddled attempts of the people at the church Bible study to make sense of some passage of Scripture or other. Yet the qualifications for leadership in the church as laid out in the New Testament include far more than the ability to grasp theology. Just because one has enrolled in a PhD course or read D. A. Carson or N. T. Wright does not mean that one has the right to speak in church, and certainly does not exempt you from sitting under, and respecting, the authority of the properly established eldership of the church. Nor, incidentally, does completion of a PhD or even being hired to teach Bible at a college. I am always saddened by those who rant on and on about the ‘self-appointed people’ saying this, that, or the other, when, in fact, the targets of their rage are often office-bearers in the church while the ranters themselves have nothing but a PhD, an annual contract from some outfit somewhere, and a website. From a biblical perspective, who, one wonders, is the truly self-appointed in such contexts?
Thus, the PhD student needs to realize at the outset a number of things: their training, in and of itself, does not give them any platform from which to pontificate to the church; and their knowledge will not make them immune to falling into error, moral or intellectual. Indeed, they will remain as vulnerable to the former as anybody else, and almost certainly more prone to the latter than the typical church member. The task, therefore, is to put in place precautions against such falls. Of course, only the grace of God can ultimately save us from our inherent tendency to believe our own propaganda, but there are things which we can—indeed, should—all do to place ourselves in as strong a position as possible.
The simple way for theological students to resist both the temptation to pontificate beyond their pay grade and the temptation to pride and the moral and intellectual problems that inevitably come in its wake-fall is to find the proper context for accountability, to find their true home; and the good news is that this true home is easy to find—simply join an orthodox, gospel-believing and proclaiming church as member, submit to the elders, attend the corporate worship services, fellowship with the saints on a regular basis, get involved in the day to day work of the local body, even if it is “only” the cleaning rota (and, hey, worshipping in a dirty church quickly reveals how important that is), and pursue a disciplined life of private devotion.
First, church involvement is absolutely critical for any healthy Christian life because it constitutes a basic reality check. Most Christians spend their weeks surrounded by people who are not Christians, being exposed to ideas, images, and values which are antithetical to Christianity which sell us myths as if they were reality, which teach us that madness is sanity and sanity is madness. Time spent with brothers and sisters in Christ on the Lord’s Day is thus time spent resetting your moral, spiritual, and intellectual bearings. Whether you are a banker being tempted to greed by life during the week or a New Testament PhD student being bombarded with scholarship that mocks God’s word in the classroom from Monday to Friday, meeting with the people of God, singing his word, hearing his word read and preached and, indeed, meeting with the Triune in the awesome context of a worship service, is vital to your well-being. You need to be there; and in nearly two decades of teaching, I have never yet met a student who messes up badly at an intellectual level who did not first mess up at an ecclesiastical level, whether through wrong choice of fellowship or no choice of fellowship at all. Put simply: if you are not involved in a church, then do not look for sympathy when your life leaves the rails and dives into a ditch.
Second, church involvement brings with it a natural accountability at a very practical level. Here I guess I show my strong preference for smaller churches. I cannot prove from Scripture that a church should never consist of more than three hundred or so people, but I would argue that a church which is so big that the pastor who preaches cannot know every member by name, and something about their daily lives, needs, and struggles, is a church where the pastor cannot easily fulfill the obligations of a biblical shepherd of God’s flock. Put bluntly, I want to be in a church where my absence on Sunday will soon be noticed and where the pastor or elders can draw alongside me and ask the pertinent questions. I want to be in a church where the eldership takes note if my behavior towards my wife or children is sub-par on a Sunday (hinting at much worse in private). I want to be in a church where I pray for the leadership and where they pray for me—not just in a generic sense of being part of the membership, but informed prayer based on real relationships. In other words, I want to be in a church where my pastor is, well, my pastor and not just that guy who is preaching over there in the distance on a Sunday morning. Put yourself in a small, faithful church, and the pastor is more than likely to hold you accountable to the basics of Christian belief and practice.
Third, and building on the last point, if you join a small church, you will find the scope for real engagement with real people and real church work will be massively enhanced. One of the most important things I do each week is assist my wife in teaching the four-year-olds Sunday School Bible class at my church. It keeps me grounded in reality, as there are few things more humbling than teaching the basics to a reluctant child, few things more delightful than seeing their Bible knowledge grow over the year, and surely few things more important than laying the foundations of the next generation’s Bible knowledge. Teaching such classes is also a pressing reminder that the vacuous pomposity that characterizes so much of the scholarly world is ultimately just a self-important smokescreen for asking and answering a myriad of frequently irrelevant questions. Your colleagues in the doctoral seminar might think you’re a genius, but, believe me, the five-year-old Sunday School pupil does not. She cares not a whit to whom you have spoken this last week, or for whom you have published this last year, or what fine and dandy initials you have after your name. She is more likely to regard you as weird, and if you cannot express yourself clearly and relevantly, she will let you know in her own unique way. Teaching such a class is like being a stand-up comedian in a New York or Glasgow club on a Saturday night: you earn your audience’s respect and attention; and they take no prisoners if you are less than you should be. Humbling indeed. But more than that, teaching such classes demands that you think through the faith not only as an intellectual exercise but also as something which needs to be practically communicated. If you are boring, irrelevant, unclear—or if you do not seem to care about the children—they will pick it up immediately and punish you for it mercilessly. That’s a form of accountability too, and crucial for those who spend their weeks in ivory towers, designing castles in the air.
Too many theological students come unstuck not because they do not master the sophisticated intricacies of their chosen fields of specialization but rather because they failed their apprenticeships in the basics, the corporate disciplines of church attendance, submission to elders, hard work for the local body, and the individual disciplines which flow from these: private prayer and Bible reading, a crying out to God for his mercy, and a burning desire to be mastered by the Word of God. Successful theological students are never the subjects in theological study; rather they are always the objects of God’s grace. And the church is the place where they will be held accountable for these things. The church, not the seminar room, provides their only true home, their best classroom, and their best form of strenuous spiritual rest. Theological study at the highest level is a high calling indeed; but just for this very reason those who pursue it need to make especially sure that they truly are humble servants of the church.
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