Recently, Dr. Jason Duesing, Provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College, invited a few faculty members to participate in a panel discussion regarding doctoral studies. I enjoyed the questions from students and wish to summarize my thoughts here.
I suggest four factors that might compel a student to pursue a PhD:
1. Content. The PhD allows students to devote their time to a specific area of interest, mastering its content. The PhD curriculum becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet. Some dishes are tasty and some will not get a second helping, but the student makes the choices and discovers the tastes for himself. And there is joy here. For the student who, after completing the Master's degree, yet finds himself wandering the library, combing the bibliographies of his favorite books, the PhD is for him.
2. Context. As a student engages the content specific to his area of research, he becomes aware that all literature – not just the Old or New Testament – has a context. In the PhD program, seminars and directed studies aim to help the student engage a content domain with a view to understanding the broad scope of that literature, i.e. why it was written, when it was written, specific authors and texts in conversation with other specific authors and texts.
Investigating the context of a specific content domain often launches the student to his dissertation issue, but can also equip the student to engage a number of issues related to that sphere of literature. For instance, my dissertation is an investigation of the background and worldview that might explain the Epistle to the Hebrews. Studying the background of Hebrews specifically required me to study the literature of the ancient world, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, generally. I learned to read through – as opposed to skipping around in – many of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Roman historians. One of the more famous historians is Suetonius and his Lives of the Caesars, biographies of twelve Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Suetonius provides much of what we know about these Roman leaders; like any good biographer, Suetonius sketches their greatness and weaknesses. This kind of background knowledge, i.e. sensitivity to the context of literature, equips the student to disarm arguments that might skew these background sources.
In How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014), Bart Ehrman suggests that Jesus's incarnation should be understood in light of ancient divine birth stories like that of Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar's nephew who succeeded him upon the throne (p. 29). Ehrman offers Suetonius as his source for Augustus's divine status. Suetonius reports that he had read that Augustus's mother had been impregnated by Apollo via a serpent as she slept in his temple. The context of Suetonius's account is vitally important. The Roman historian does not offer this account at the beginning of his record of Augustus's life, like Matthew and Luke, but 80% of the way through his account of Augustus's life (Divius Augustus, XCIV). This legend of Augustus's birth follows several pages of Augustus's attitude toward religion (superstition), a section that reads like an appendix. Here Suetonius notes that Augustus carried a seal skin with him in hopes it would protect him from lightening and thunder–of which he was severely afraid (Divius Augustus, XC). In the same section Suetonius records that when Augustus began to speak he was at his grandfather's country estate, suffering from a blight of noisy frogs. When Augustus spoke his first words the frogs were silenced "and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there" (Divius Augustus, XCIV).
This is the stuff of folklore, offered with a wink. The context of Suetonius's account of the birth of Augustus differs widely from the literary context–not to mention the logic–of the Gospel accounts of Jesus's birth.
3.Conviction. Here I speak personally. For me, engaging the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts, and Greco-Roman historians, while meditating on Hebrews in Greek, settled in my mind that the authors of the New Testament distinguished themselves from authors of other literature. They understood the answers to life's quest to have arrived in Jesus. Jesus's death and resurrection fulfilled humanity's great longing for liberation–a theme common to nearly all background texts. As God in the flesh, Jesus defeated the great enemy of humanity, the devil, and assured eternal life with God for His followers. The quest of the ages had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ
4. Confidence. In my case, Content led to Context, and Context to Conviction. And Conviction was followed by Confidence. I shared in an MBTS chapel sermon that completing the PhD made me a better pastor because I now enjoy greater confidence in the New Testament. I am able to deal more aptly with those who doubt its integrity. I can disarm the skeptics because I understand the world of the New Testament and its literary background. Because I know Content and Context I am equipped to explain the message of the New Testament. In my mind, the burden of proof has been shifted from me to those who opposed the New Testament and the message of Jesus. It is in this sense that the PhD is widely valuable. Few are the jobs to teach professionally in a Christian college or seminary. But if the PhD is done well, the student will not worry about getting a job because he will be useful in whatever capacity God has him. See MBTS PhD graduate Rusty Osborne's article for further thoughts along this line.
But there are a few factors that should give potential PhD students pause:
1. Family. If a student's spouse is not well and supportive, his marriage will take a hit. The PhD demands extra time and long hours and personal discipline that can escalate the tensions of life. If the student is a man and is not leading wife and children spirituality, then the PhD will be of little value.
2. Fellowship. Most PhD students enrolling in an Evangelical institution are serving in a church in some capacity. And the PhD curriculum will infringe upon time and energy the church might be expecting to be theirs. Thus, the student must be open with the church about his desires and help the leaders around him to understand the value the PhD will bring to the church as a whole. I do not suggest that a student begin the PhD after just a few years of service in a church, nor do I advocate completing the PhD and resigning hastily to take up a position accessible only with a PhD. Best to sell the PhD to a church and then let them enjoy the fruit of it.
3. Finances. Tuition is costly, and books and materials will need to be purchased as well. If the student is not financially sound, the bills can cause tensions on (1) and (2) above. God provides, but the student must be wise to discern the costs involved in higher education.
More could be said, but these factors provide a frame for discerning God's direction. For further consideration, the student may wish to engage resources like Adler and VanDoren's classic How to Read a Book, The Craft of Research by Booth and Colomb, et. al., and How to Get a PhD by Phillips and Pugh. A few weeks ago, upon the publication of volume one of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, President Jason Allen asked Dr. Christian George to retrace his journey with Spurgeon from his PhD studies to the present. Dr. George commented, "My doctorate was the most spiritual time of my life." May it be so for the next generation of doctoral students at MBTS or wherever God would take them.