About five months ago I began my doctoral coursework at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Approximately three months prior, I graduated with an M.Div. from the same institution. Lord willing, I will complete the program in three to four years. The question some have asked—the question I asked myself repeatedly as I approached important deadlines: application, field essays, faculty interviews—is “why?” Why a Ph.D.?
This is an important question—post-graduate studies should not to be entered into lightly. The increased intensity of the academic requirements, the unrelenting demand on one’s family, time and financial resources, and the postponement (in many cases) of entrance into one’s life-work necessitate that a person thoroughly “count the cost” of such a project long before he begins. Perhaps you are in the “contemplation stage” of the process: You have given some thought to the idea of Ph.D. studies, but you are unsure whether to forge ahead to the next step. Whatever the case, I hope these few thoughts might help you as you ponder the next step in your education.
1. To Deepen My Understanding of Scripture and of Evangelical Theology. Granted, such an endeavor will be life-long and could be accomplished without pursuing post-graduate studies, but I think there is value in being formally challenged to devote oneself to this kind of study with serious rigor. Why do people get personal trainers? Because they know that being challenged by another person pushes them well beyond what they could accomplish on their own. Why pursue a Ph.D.? Because I look forward to being challenged—by professors and fellow students—to grow broadly in my theological knowledge, to present opposing views accurately and honestly, to write with clarity and depth, and to think more thoroughly. Again, these things can be accomplished in some measure without doctoral seminars and colloquia, but I know myself well enough to realize how much I need such things to push me beyond my self-imposed limits.
2. To grow in my ability to research and write for the good of Christ’s Church. I praise God for books! Clear, well-written, thoughtful, carefully-researched, biblically-saturated books have been one of the primary means by which God has grown and strengthened my walk with Christ. I want to serve the church—in some small way—by providing God’s people with theologically-sound, edifying literature. Writing is one of the primary components of the Ph.D.—a major research paper is required for every seminar, and a dissertation (a 150-300 page research project) is required to complete the degree. Research papers are typically subjected to critique by other students attending and the professor conducting a given seminar. The dissertation is under the constant scrutiny of your adviser and, upon its completion, must make its way successfully through a gauntlet of seasoned professors. This kind of accountability tends to encourage one to research with greater care and integrity and to write with increasing clarity and precision.
3. To provide opportunities to teach theology at a undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level. As I sought wisdom from others as to whether or not I should pursue a Ph.D., I noted a common thread of counsel among pastors and professors with whom I spoke: If I desire to teach in a college or seminary, a Ph.D. is essential. Again, this does not mean that those without a Ph.D cannot, under any circumstance, teach at a collegiate level—some do. But as schools consider accreditation requirements and other related issues, populating the faculty with those who have terminal degrees becomes a priority.
4. To provide opportunities to train pastors in areas overseas where the need is great. There are churches overseas that long for the kind of theological resources we have in America. I have heard stories of pastors in struggling, poverty-stricken countries who have only a few pages of a Bible or no Bible at all, much less any extensive theological training. Equipping pastors in schools overseas is an area of massive need in the church today and I would count it a high honor to serve fellow ministers of the gospel in this way.
5. I enjoy the work. The transition from M.Div. studies to Ph.D. studies was not difficult. Not because the application process was easy or because the actual work has been easy. The initial process was intimidating and the work itself has been challenging, rigorous and, at times, painful. But I found that as I considered the opportunity for continued studies, I wasn’t repelled by the thought of more classes, more studying, more reading, and more writing. And I didn’t view the Ph.D. process as a mere perfunctory routine—a necessary yet fruitless procedure only to be endured for the sake of professional advantages it would later yield. Not at all! I was looking forward to more of this kind of theological labor and interaction with Scripture for its own sake if for any other reason—an edifying season of spiritual nourishment if nothing else. To me, the unconstrained desire for more study was a good indication that I should keep pursuing my theological education.
Bottom line: I want to be well-equipped for a lifetime of ministry
Lord willing, I will minister the Word of God to Christ’s people for the rest of my life. I want to be one who rightly handles the truth (II Timothy 2:15)—one who wields the Scripture, not as a butcher, hacking ignorantly and indiscriminately at lost and hurting people, but as a physician, carefully and skillfully applying the scalpel of God’s Word to the souls of men and women in desperate need of the gospel. I trust the rigors of a Ph.D. will aid me, by God’s grace, in this endeavor.