18 May 2010

Stupid PhDs vs. Wise PhDs

Very helpful (typically re-orienting) stuff from Piper on the value of PhDs to pastors (transcript).

A few thoughts.

1. First and last thing to be said: amen.

2. Good night, what a gift to the Church Piper is.

3. The motives that move young, ambitious seminarians to do PhDs are always mixed. They just are. The depths of self-seeking impulses run deep, and lie below even our perception of our own hearts. I believe God is calling me into some kind of pastoral/preaching/teaching ministry, and I can say two things with confidence as I wrap up a PhD in biblical theology at Wheaton: one, I had pure motives doing this degree that were genuinely wanting to exalt Christ, and two, I had selfish motives that were just as certainly wanting to exalt myself. Ugh. It is easy, so easy, to imbibe worldly standards of what matters and paint those standards with Christian language without exposing the ugly, Corinthian-like essence of that self-promoting value system. My point: Piper is right to raise questions about the value of PhDs to pastoral ministry. This is my main response to this video.

I don't think this needs to be all we say, though. A few other thoughts come to mind that might be helpful as others consider whether to do a PhD en route to the pastorate.

4. I suspect Piper's own PhD has had positive benefits that are hard to articulate always. Are there some in wider academia, for instance, who gave his critique of Wright on justification a more patient hearing knowing the author had a doctorate?

5. Dr. Piper addresses the 'what we learn' benefit of PhDs but ignores the 'how we learn' benefit. I can already see how my PhD has forced me to develop (for instance) better critical thinking skills. I was making arguments in my dissertation knowing Doug Moo would be reading it the next month and pointing out all the holes. It wasn't only what I learned but how I learned--how to write, how to argue, how to think.

6. Another question to be mindful of is how a PhD might strengthen others, not only us. I'm hoping my dissertation gets published, for two reasons. One, I'm a self-loving sinner with unmortified infatuation with my own name. Two (more cheerily), my work exposes weaknesses in the theology of James Dunn and I would love to see fewer pastors and teachers buy Dunn's commentaries in light of my dissertation. I would be happy to help Dunn's stuff go out of print a bit sooner. Not because he's 180 degrees wrong on everything. Of course not. But because he's an influential writer who fuzzies what the gospel is, confusing essence and implication, vertical and horizontal, individual and corporate, the moral and the social. But that's another post.

7. Around the middle of his response, Dr. Piper remarks that if there are PhD programs that really do help people learn and grapple with the Bible more broadly (rather than spending years amassing knowledge of what a plethora of pagan scholars think about a single verse or something), then that might make a PhD pastorally helpful. For those considering PhDs and pastoral ministry yet sobered by Piper's good words, my own experience here at Wheaton has done just that. I spent three years studying the word 'zeal' in just three different verses, but that required studying, for example, the whole OT background to zeal. I did a doctoral seminar with Greg Beale on the NT's use of the Old that was critical in helping me put the whole Bible together. I sat in on a class on Calvin's theology. I wrote under a supervisor who helped me in countless ways understand Paul and his theology, well beyond the three verses I soaked in for three years. I know the Bible better. That's why I wanted to do a PhD, and that desire was met. On top of that Wheaton is shorter than other places that also want you to learn the whole Bible well.

8. See #1!


Derek Lehr said...

Good post Dane. I liked your comment about a PhD having benefits in ways that are difficult to articulate. For myself, just listening to John Piper, or to Dr Moo, or to You inspires me as a Christian to know the Scriptures better. It's so valuable to have God's instruction right there on the tip of our tongues. If God's instructions illuminate the path we should take, then we are walking blind without them. Thanks for reminding us of that by your scholarship and dedication to the Bible.

Jason said...

As a first-semester PhD student, I find myself sometimes questioning the wisdom of this endeavor! In the end, I ultimately want to teach God's people God's word so they can move to a greater adoration of and devotion to the Lord Jesus. It's a hard road and I've just begun the journey, but I am encouraged by posts like this. It helps keep the focus where it ought to be.

And, what a joy it must to study under Moo and Beale! Beale's writings on the temple have greatly piqued my interests there, as well as the OT in the NT.

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

What a wonderfully insightful critique (?) of Piper's comments. Piper is dead on with this (and I say this as someone who has been pastoring for nearly 12 years and is finishing an M.Div. and intending to do a Ph.D...Lord willing at Wheaton). I appreciate the thoughts coming from someone who has actually walked the path I am set upon to walk. Richest blessings to you in your journey!

jeltzz said...

Thanks, these were some really helpful thoughts reflecting and expanding on Piper's comments.

Jesse Wisnewski said...

Great thoughts. My wife referred me to John Piper's thoughts on pursuing a Ph.D. because I've been contemplating the pursuit of one after completing my M.Div. at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. What you said brought much needed balance.

Cheers, Jesse Wisnewski

Unknown said...

These are great thoughts. Thank you. And I especially like what you said about learning HOW to think critically. For myself, my doctoral work benefited me in ways I can't always clearly enunciate, but there are benefits...I analyze more clearly and I summarize more neatly. I did my doctoral work at a liberal Jewish school, and every day I was bombarded by teaching from a very different perspective than I was used to (from my B.A. at CIU and M.Div. at TEDS). I had to learn to think wisely, isolate issues, speak respectfully but cogently and persuasively to the rabbis, etc. There were certainly dark times (my faith, marriage and health were all three tested), but I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the good comments everyone.

Jared Moore said...

This are some great comments. I am in the process of applying for PhD programs in Systematic Theology. My dissertation proposal is here: www.jaredmoore.exaltchrist.com. The thought of examining the extent of the atonement for 5 years appeals to me. I think that it will be beneficial to my ministry as a full time local pastor. Any thoughts about the subject or arguments would be beneficial.

Some great thoughts on dissertations and motives.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the comment Jared. The topic you mention sounds like a good one, helpful for pastoral ministry, though scholars will take the life out of anything, so you still need to be careful. A lot will also depend on where you do you doctoral work--i.e. will it be a place where a dissertation on the atonement largely interacts with the Bible. Bless you!

Corner Creature said...

I hope that this isn't part of "Degree Inflation". From my non-clerical point of view, a D.Min. seems to have become a quasi-standard for pastoring a large church. I hope that this doesn't drift into a requirement for having the PhD.

What we need are Christians who can address life-issues theologically and not merely emotionally. How many "average" presbyterian adults even try to understand the Westminster Shorter Catechism? And to think that the WSC is a simplified version for children!!!

The reality is that we live in a dumbed-down Evangelical subculture. The challenge to you PhD's will be to "share the wealth" of knowledge rather than to increase the size of the gulf. "Ordinary" Christians should be encouraged to think in categories such as "substitutionary atonement". Will their PhD-bearing pastors encourage or hinder that?

And don't ignore Carl Trueman's "Speech".

doccochran said...

Having just completed a Ph.D. from Southern, I would agree with your comments completely. I would also add that my Ph.D.--both the content and the process--has directly helped my pastoral ministry already. I am a pastor. I am much more familiar with the biblical text than I would have been without the intensity of the PhD requirements. More than this, however, the PhD has enabled me to sort through large amounts of information and zero in on the root issue, which I find lacking in much of evangelical preaching. In addition, I have learned through the process how to stay on one particular point and flesh it out thoroughly. My people have appreciated this progress in my preaching and teaching. It helps them stay focused on a single point of theology to take away from the sermon. I don't think I would have developed this ability apart from PhD research.

Jared Moore said...

my current choices are PhD work through either Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY or Highland Theological College in Scotland. Paul Helm has agreed to recommend me and be one of my advisors at Highland. He will help rip my thoughts apart both biblically and philosophically.

Unknown said...

I'm a little late on this, but one more thought might be what a pastor could do with those 3-4 years besides doing a PhD. He could gain experience as an assistant under an older pastor. He could read books that might be more pastorally helpful than what students have to hash through even in "wise PhD" programs.

Before I started a PhD, a pastor reminded me that it is tithing my life--if you have 30 to 40 years of ministry, you are taking up 10% in this undertaking. So it's worth thinking about how to best redeem the time.

Helpful post--thanks!

Dane Ortlund said...

Great point Kevin.

Robyn McCarthy said...

I totally agree that some benefits of having a PhD can be very hard to articulate. And I think the benefits can depend to people, and why did they decide to take up PhD dissertation. Anyway, it is always good to read something about PhD and its effect on one life, and how they use it. Keep us posted!