On the Merits of a PhD in Church History or Historical Theology

Author’s note: This blog essay is revised from a two-part series first published in October 2011 at my personal website, Christian Thought & Tradition. I have updated it because I continue to receive emails from folks all over the world who are prayerfully considering research doctoral studies in church history and related fields. I hope some of you find it helpful.

Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman have written a very helpful article for the American Historical Association titled “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” They note that fewer schools are offering tenure-track positions for historians, a trend that has been in the making for at least a generation. They also lament the fact that most graduate programs in history urge doctoral students to aim for the academy, as if teaching and scholarship are the only legitimate vocations for someone with a Ph.D. in history. Grafton and Grossman suggest that graduate programs consider finding ways to equip students for other vocational opportunities besides the academy, but without reducing the historical rigor of doctoral programs in history.

The situation in the fields of church history and historical theology is very similar to that of our secular counterparts. Many graduate students in church history (and other theological disciplines) want to teach in colleges or seminaries, but the reality is that there are relative few jobs available. There are several reasons for this situation. It’s partly the result of a market flooded with Ph.D.’s, which is true pretty much across virtually every academic discipline. It’s also due in part to the current economic situation–many schools are replacing permanent faculty positions with adjunctive professors. Yet another factor is the reality that church history is understandably seen as less foundational to theological education than biblical studies and theology. In smaller schools especially, there is a tendency to reserve most of the full-time positions for scholars in the latter disciplines, perhaps tasking a theologian with teaching a church history survey course or two.

I’ve struggled with these questions during my own vocational pilgrimage. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in history, I wrestled for a time with what I wanted to do for graduate school. One part of me wanted to pursue the M.A. and Ph.D. in history and teach in a college or university setting, and I was encouraged by one of my professors to follow that path. Another part of me wanted to pursue the M.Div. and Ph.D. in church history and either pastor a local church or teach in a seminary or Christian college setting; a couple of other professors nudged me in that direction. In addition to talking with my professors, I emailed several evangelical scholars working in both types of contexts to seek their input. Several were gracious enough to reply, which was very encouraging.

I continued wrestling with the decision, honestly believing that either were good options. By this juncture in my life, I had already served on the staff of a number of local Baptist churches and would soon be ordained to the gospel ministry. When all was said and done, I opted for the second course of study because I thought it better reflected my calling and ministry aspirations. I earned the M.Div., taking all of my electives in historical and systematic theology. My Ph.D. is in “Theological Studies,” with emphasis in church history. I pursued these degrees because I believe they symbolized that I am first and foremost a gospel minister, though one who is currently teaching church history and historical theology in a denominational seminary because of certain gifts and opportunities. I’ve never regretted taking this path, though again, I think the other is just as valid for a Christian with my type of gifts and interests.

As I counsel students considering research doctoral studies in church history and historical theology, I try to make sure they understand what they’ll be getting into. There aren’t many jobs out there, and most schools with open positions need a scholar with a Ph.D. in Old Testament much more than they need a chap with a Ph.D. in church history. When a job does come open, many candidates will likely be competing for it. I personally know sharp brothers with doctoral degrees from solid programs that are still looking for a teaching job five to seven years after they graduated; some of them have even published their dissertation, written journal articles, and/or delivered papers at scholarly society meetings. For these reasons and more, I want prospective students to know that earning a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology, even from a prestigious university, doesn’t guarantee employment in an academic setting.

I ask students four questions as I counsel them about the possibility of pursuing doctoral studies in church history:

1. Do you have the gifts to be able to pursue advanced graduate work in church history or historical theology? This is a nuts-and-bolts kind of thing, because if a student doesn’t like to read a lot and write a lot, then research doctoral work in any field is probably not a good idea. A student with a 2.8 GPA who hates technical reading and academic writing can serve the Lord in countless ways, but he needs to do so without a Ph.D.

2. Do you care enough about an area of church history that you want to spend at least the next five or ten years reading countless books and articles and writing hundreds of pages about that topic? This is another nuts-and-bolts issue. If you are the type of person who wants to read whatever you want and write about whatever you want, then a Ph.D. in church history may not be the best thing for you, unless you want to use it to cultivate skills in research and writing that you can use on the other side of the degree.

3. Do you have a personal situation conducive to spending between three and seven more years in school? Can you manage it financially, especially if you don’t receive any financial aid? If you are married, what does your spouse think? Do you have children, and if so, how old are they? There some students who are gifted enough to earn the degree and interested enough in church history, but personal circumstances mitigate against them pursuing a Ph.D. I have some pastor friends who are in exactly this situation.

4. Can you envision yourself being happy if you earn a Ph.D., but serve as a pastor, missionary, parachuch worker, or denominational servant and never teach a single course or write a single book? I’m 100% in favor of individuals in these types of ministries earning research doctoral degrees in church history or related fields, if the Lord leads them to do so. (Here’s looking at you, Mark Dever, Sean Lucas, Bart Barber, Matt McCullough, and Jeff Robinson.) But if a student can’t envision spending all that time and money to do, well, exactly what he theoretically could have done had he not earned a Ph.D., then he probably doesn’t need to pursue research doctoral studies unless he has a clear sense from the Lord otherwise.

If you are considering a Ph.D. in church history (or just about any other field), I hope these questions are helpful to you. Doctoral studies in church history aren’t for the vast majority of people–even among those very interested in the history of Christianity. Many who earn a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology need to be prepared to serve in pastoral ministry or some other non-academic ministry context, bringing their research and writing skills to bear in whatever ways the Lord allows. There are many things you can do with a Ph.D. in church history, some of which are more important (and many of which pay more!) than teaching in a Christian college, seminary, or even a university religion department.

By the way, if your answer is “yes” to the above four questions and you think you might be interested in pursuing doctoral studies in church history or historical theology at Southeastern Seminary, shoot me an email (nfinn@sebts.edu). You can also check out the website for our Ph.D. program at SEBTS. We have a faculty of historians and theologians that can supervise students interested in topics such as Patristic history and theology, Reformation theology, British evangelical history, fundamentalism and evangelicalism, religion in the American South, the history of revival and spiritual awakenings, Baptist Studies, and 20th century evangelical theology.

Recent Trends in Andrew Fuller Studies, Part Three

This is the third post in a three-part blog series on recent trends in Andrew Fuller Studies. My first post focused on important works from the twentieth century. Yesterday’s post was dedicated to key scholarly writings published since the turn of the twenty-first century. In today’s post, I will discuss other aspects of the renaissance of Fuller Studies that is currently underway.

Reprinted primary sources have made Fuller’s writings very accessible to scholars and other readers. In 1988, Sprinkle Publications reprinted a three-volume edition of The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, which had been first published by the American Baptist Publication Society in 1845. Tom Nettles wrote an introduction to the first volume. The “Sprinkle Edition” was both a fruit of the renewed interest in Fuller Studies and a catalyst for introducing many scholars and thoughtful pastors to Fuller and his legacy. In 2007, Banner of Truth reprinted a one-volume edition of  The Works of Andrew Fuller (see right), which covered the same material as the more expensive Sprinkle Edition. The “Banner Edition” included a short introduction by Michael Haykin. Solid Ground Christian Books also reprinted several individual works written by Fuller, including his Memoir of Samuel Pearce (2005), The Backslider (2005), and Expository Discourses on the Book of Genesis (2009).

Several semi-scholarly or popular works related to Fuller have been published in recent years. In 2001, Haykin compiled and edited a helpful introduction to Fuller’s spirituality. In 2007, John Piper gave a biographical talk on Fuller at the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference. Piper’s talk was subsequently published as an e-book in 2012 titled I Will God Down If You Will Hold the Rope (Desiring God, 2012). Numerous blogs and primary source websites include material related to Fuller. Though currently dormant, The Elephant of Kettering was a multi-author blog dedicated to Fuller Studies. Several of the contributors were established scholars in Fuller Studies or went on to write dissertations related to Fuller.

Since 2007, The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies (AFCBS) at Southern Seminary has generated  much of the interest in Fuller Studies, particularly in North America. The AFCBS hosts an annual conference, several of which have been dedicated to Fuller Studies. The proceedings of the conferences are due to be published beginning in 2013. Several of those collections of essays will include material related to Fuller, some exclusively so. Forthcoming volumes that will include one or more chapters related to Fuller include Andrew Fuller: The Reader (2007 conference), Baptists and the Cross (2010 conference), Baptists and War (2011 conference), and Andrew Fuller and His Friends (2012 conference). The 2013 AFCBS conference will focus on the topic of Fuller and Theological Controversy.

In addition to the annual conferences and related books, The Fuller Center also publishes a scholarly journal. The former journal, Eusebia, published several Fuller-related articles and dedicated one entire issue to the theologian. The Fuller Center’s current journal, The Andrew Fuller Review, will soon transition into a refereed scholarly journal focused on Fuller Studies and related topics.

By far the most important development in Fuller Studies is the forthcoming scholarly edition of the Works of Andrew Fuller. This multi-volume project is sponsored by the AFCBS and will be published by Walter de Gruyter. Each volume will include a critical edition of one or more of Fuller’s writings, critical annotations, extensive indices, and a substantial scholarly introductory essay. The model for the project is the Yale University Press edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards. Haykin serves as the general editor of the Works of Andrew Fuller. Volume editors include Haykin, Tom Nettles, Robert Oliver, Ryan West, Nathan Finn, Chris Chun, Steve Weaver, Stephen Holmes, and Michael McMullen, among others. Lord willing, the first volumes will begin appearing in late 2013 or early 2014.

Recent Trends in Andrew Fuller Studies, Part Two

In yesterday’s post, I looked at Andrew Fuller Studies during the twentieth century. I also argued that a renaissance in Andrew Fuller Studies began around 1980 and was marked by a number of dissertations, book chapters, and journal articles. In this post, I hope to demonstrate that Fuller Studies entered into the next stage of scholarship around the turn of the twenty-first century. While scholars continue to write helpful dissertations and essays, recent years have also witnessed the publication of scholarly monographs and collections of essays.

Several significant monographs have been published, all of which were revised from theses and dissertations. Peter Morden’s Offering Christ to the World: Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and the Revival of Eighteenth Century Particular Baptist Life (Paternoster, 2003) has been widely heralded as the best introduction to Fuller’s life and thought. It has become the starting place for those interested in Fuller Studies. Paul Brewster’s Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian (B&H Academic, 2010) is the best introduction for those interested in Fuller as an ecclesial theologian. I assigned Brewster’s book in my course on Fuller’s theology this past semester (I heavily emphasized the importance of pastor-theologians in the course). Most of the students also read Morden’s study.

Chad Mauldin’s Fullerism as Opposed to Calvinism: A Historical and Theological Comparison of the Missiology of Andrew Fuller and John Calvin (Wipf and Stock, 2010) compares and contrasts the two theologians’ respective views on missions. Mauldin contends that Calvinistic Baptists should identify with Fuller more than Calvin. Chris Chun’s masterful The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in the Theology of Andrew Fuller (Brill, 2012) is the most substantial work of scholarship yet published on Fuller. Chun demonstrates where and how Fuller interacted with Edwards and later Edwardsians such as the New Divinity men. In addition to these monographs, an important collection of scholarly essays on Fuller’s apologetical writings was edited by Michael Haykin ( Paternoster Press, 2004).

Numerous recent scholarly book chapters and journal article have focused upon Fuller Studies and closely related themes. Authors include Haykin, Alan Sell, Chun, Tom Nettles, Morden, Brewster, Jeffrey Jue, Carl Trueman, Jeremy Pittsley, Nigel Wheeler, Peter Beck, Bruce Hindmarsh, Clive Jarvis, Gerald Priest, Keith Grant, and Nathan Finn. Fuller also received careful consideration in the important studies of Baptist historical theology written by William Brackney and James Leo Garrett, respectively. Scholars such as Roger Hayden, Crawford Gribben, Paul Fiddes, Robert Oliver, Stephen Holmes, Kenneth Dix, and Peter Naylor also interact with Fuller’s thought and legacy in some of their writings.

The number of Fuller-related dissertations continues to grow. In addition to the aforementioned studies that have been revised and published, several noteworthy unpublished works have been written in the past few years. Aaron Jason Timmons wrote on the anti-Socinian writings of several Baptist theologians, including Fuller (2008). Bart Box wrote a study of Fuller’s theology of the atonement (2009). Fuller factors into several dissertations written on other thinkers or themes of his era, including  John Parnell (2005), Michael Sciretti (2009), Jonathan Anthony White (2010), and John Gill (2012–no, not that John Gill). Keith Grant wrote a useful masters thesis on Fuller’s influence on evangelical pastoral theology (2007). There are no doubt others of which I’m unaware. Please leave a comment and let me know if you’re currently writing a thesis or dissertation on Fuller or a closely related topic.