My Path to the Ph.D.

I have come to the end of my Ph.D. studies.  I recently put the finishing touches on my dissertation, completed my last research language class, successfully completed my oral defense, and received my hood two months ago.  Through the entire process, the Lord has shown his kindness to me and to my family in precious, concrete ways.  We are overflowing with thankfulness to Christ for his provision.

During my doctoral studies, many have asked me why I chose to pursue a Ph.D.  I have answered that question in some detail here.  In this article I want to consider more specifically what factors influenced my decision to work toward a terminal research degree.  By recounting my experience, I hope to offer some insight to others who are considering post-graduate studies.

When I began my M.Div. work in 2007, I did not have any intention of pursuing a Ph.D.  Indeed, I was resolutely against the idea!  A few of the assigned books in my graduate classes had exposed me to a brand of scholarship that was overwhelmingly technical and spiritually stale, offered by men who had little to no reverence for Christ nor any awareness of the church.  “If that’s what Ph.D. work looks like,” I would grumble cynically, “count me out.”  It didn’t take long, however, to learn that there was a kind of scholarship that combined academic rigor with heartfelt worship and a genuine concern for God’s people. There were men who labored passionately and joyfully for the spiritual benefit of other Christians and for the pastors who led them.

I was catching a vision for scholarship conducted for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.

As the Lord began correcting some of the assumptions I had about Christian scholarship, I found myself dreaming of new ways I could be a part of equipping God’s people.  Given my pre-seminary experience in full time ministry, pastoral work was the obvious answer; I was becoming increasingly convinced, however, that there was more I could do.  Thoughts of an accredited Bible institute for lay people started to grip my mind. Visions of a church-driven seminary for aspiring pastors started to break upon the not-so-distant horizon.  Soon I started to realize that a Ph.D. would afford me the opportunity to serve both the church and the academy, delivering valuable insights to one as I labored in the other.

I also took time to examine my own heart and life in order to determine if I would be up to the rigor that post-graduate study would require.  I found that my desire to continue studying Scripture and theology was still very strong; I did not feel burnt out by the previous three years of full-time graduate work.  I was thrilled at the prospect of further reading, writing, and interacting with brothers over important questions of theology and biblical interpretation.  I looked forward to large-scale research projects and honing my ability to convey substantive, persuasive arguments that were grounded in truth and characterized by academic integrity.

My desires for doctoral work grew steadily as I pursued my graduate studies and as I sought the counsel of professors, pastors, family, and friends.  It was becoming clear that a Ph.D. was the next step; the next question was where I would seek a terminal degree.

As I considered the many options for where I might pursue post-graduate work, I narrowed the list of potential schools by taking into account several factors.  First, my desired area of study limited my choices. I wanted to study systematic theology with a view to writing on the doctrine of inerrancy.  Because I planned to approach the doctrine of inerrancy as a proponent, it became obvious rather quickly that only a few schools would even accept my proposal or consider me as a candidate.

Second, I wanted to make sure that the strain upon my wife and (soon to be) son would be bearable.  Given that I was about to enter into a degree program that was more rigorous than the one I was about to complete, the decision to leave a well established job, remove ourselves from our church family, and travel a long distance to an unfamiliar area could not be entertained lightly.

Third, I wanted to be reasonably certain that I could complete my degree in a realistic amount of time.  This factor was also related to my wife and son, for I did not want them to become embittered or disillusioned because my education appeared to be continuing indefinitely.  Thus, my decision to enter into doctoral work would depend upon another vital factor: money.

In order to complete my degree in four years, I would need adequate time to devote to my studies.  I had already learned during my master’s degree that time spent studying was time spent not earning money.  Could I, given our current financial resources and my work status, make enough money while still giving due attention to my studies, or would the burden be too much for my family to bear?

With each of these factors in mind, I concluded that it would be unwise to move to another school in another state in hopes of finding another job in order to complete another (more difficult) degree. Although I desired to diversify my education (I had found it spiritually and intellectually profitable to pursue my graduate degree at an institution different than where I received my undergraduate education), I trusted that God would find me the right job after I completed my theological education.  Southern Seminary would be the place.

Now, after seven years (three years for the M.Div., four years for the Ph.D.), I am still convinced that Southern Seminary is the place.  It is nearly impossible to calculate the worth of the education I received there.  I have been challenged, instructed, encouraged, and loved in very specific ways by my professors; I have found what I anticipate to be life-long friendships with dear brothers in Christ; I have grown in my ability to interpret, teach, and apply Scripture; and I have been spiritually and intellectually enriched by a broad study of theology, church history, philosophy, biblical languages, and hermeneutics.  I wouldn’t trade my education at Southern for the world.

Your path to the Ph.D. may look very different; I suspect it will.  That’s fine.  What matters is that you are confident that by seeking a terminal degree, you are stewarding your time, energy, and money well, prioritizing the spiritual and physical well being of your family, and pursuing further theological education for the good of your soul and the benefit of God’s people.  If any of these factors are missing, your time in seminary will lead to spiritual barrenness, if not disaster.  And then it won’t really matter how you got there.

Image: Joseph Spurgeon

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