Of Doctorates and Eternity
Priorities. Standards. What is important to us? Where do our priorities lie? In our world today, these are questions often answered solely on the basis of such things as financial considerations or the world's standards of "success." Christians know that the Bible is plain in telling us that we are to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). We are often warned that life is short, and that only what we do for Christ will have lasting impact. "Redeeming the time" is no empty platitude. Life is short---we are just a vapor---so what we do and how we do it is vitally important.
All of these things are "givens" for us as individual Christians, yet, they should likewise be "givens" for us in the church, and in Christian education as well. The goal of Christian education must be the same as that of individual believers: the glory of God. And the standards we use should be the standards given to us not by the world around us, but by God's Word.
My Journey in Christian Education
For the conservative Christian, it is hardly a surprising observation to note that many schools that once supported God's truth and fearlessly proclaimed the Bible's message are today doing anything but. Most of the time, this degradation in schools has been closely related to the demise of the denomination that owned and operated the school. As the Word became "expendable" in the denomination, so too in the school. Many have wondered if the slide into liberalism starts in the schools or in the pulpits. Wherever it starts, the results have been observed over and over again.
Many are not familiar with the fact that most Christian schools are desperate to obtain what is known as "accreditation," the almost magical "acceptance" by a recognized "body" that allows them to attract the largest body of students. The cost of becoming "accredited" is high, often running into the millions of dollars just to be able to offer the most basic courses. Accrediting criteria are pretty much the same for all schools in the United States, whether religious or secular. These have included, for years, the size and location of the library, classroom building availability, staff qualifications, etc. Obviously, new or small schools cannot obtain accreditation very quickly, and any school that wishes to keep its tuition low either has to forgo the privilege, or receive some extremely large donations that can offset the cost.
Obtaining accreditation also allows schools to participate in government loan programs. Education is a high-competition area, and without such programs, many schools are simply unable to compete.
I was raised to believe that "accreditation" equaled "quality," so that "non-accreditation" meant "no quality." It was so much a part of the fabric of my thought that it never entered my mind to look outside the established "traditional" accredited schools as far as my own education was concerned. No, I had never really thought about what it meant that some "accrediting" body was, in the final analysis, determining how Christian education should be done. I had never been challenged to think about such things.
After completing a B.A. and an M.A., with honors, in accredited institutions, I entered into fruitful and important ministry. My ministry did not allow for a large amount of remuneration---in other words, we were, like many who seek to honor the Lord in consistently giving an answer for the hope within us, without a lot of monetary support. As I looked into doing doctoral work, I began to put more and more thought into the how's and why's of Christian education. While I had been in seminary, I had noted that many of my fellow students were tremendously confused about what they believed, why they were attending seminary, and what they were going to do after they got out. Yet, even in this state of utter confusion, they graduated, now with "degrees" telling the world that they were proficient in....what? I discovered, as any other serious student has discovered, that you get out of a program of study what you put into it. Even when I had professors who truly struggled to communicate, if I would try to understand, and put forth extra effort, I would be rewarded with understanding and growth. I also learned, as many others can testify, that I profited the most when I studied on my own, branching out from class discussions or readings. Many, many vital areas of Christian thought were not addressed at all in my core classes, despite my acquiring over 100 hours of graduate study.
As I looked around at doctoral programs, I was faced with a few realities. First and foremost, I would have to close my ministry and uproot my family. The only doctoral program in my area was at a secular university, and they made it plain that they didn't care that I already had a Master's degree that required three times the number of graduate hours to complete than their own. I would still have to do another Master's degree with them if I wanted to pursue a doctorate. Even with that possibility, it was communicated to me by many who had been there that I'd better be prepared to keep my mouth shut and "make no waves" as far as my Christian faith was concerned. Well, those who know me know that isn't going to work for me.
Outside of my local area, I could name a number of seminaries that attracted me. But, none had any programs to work with me where I was. Besides this, the cost of any such program was incredible. I recently added up the tuition costs to do a B.A., M.A., and then Ph.D. program through a local Christian college and then a major conservative seminary: $92,000 to $98,000 in tuition alone. That adds up to nearly three years of the total operating budget of my entire ministry. I started to wonder again about how this related to Christian education, especially of ministers in the church. How can a man get such an education and then go out and pastor a small church with such indebtedness over his head? It didn't (and still doesn't) make sense.
Of course, I knew how lots of guys were "doing it." I had already "missed the boat" as far as this was concerned. You see, if you are wise, you get your Master's degree, then take a year to go over to England or Scotland and do a "dissertation only" Ph.D. Rather than going through the expensive extra classes required in most programs in the United States ("accreditation" being a very much American concept, the Europeans have a very different mindset), this is the "fast track" to the doctoral level. European Ph.D.'s are accepted as "accredited" back in the States. Hence, you spend one year, get to see some of the world, write your dissertation, and return, ready to enter into teaching or ministry. There is nothing wrong with doing this. It just again requires a potential minister to leave ministry to "get the needed education."
Such a road was not open to me, and I had to wonder a bit about it anyway. I began writing books in 1990, and some of my books, like The King James Only Controversy, are being used as textbooks all across the nation. I was told by the head of the local branch of a fully accredited seminary that I should try to find someone to accept that book as my dissertation and be done with it. But I didn't do so. I began to see that doing scholarship might just be a lot more important than the name on the school you went to, or whether that school could, or could not, get federal funds or loans. I knew a number of Ph.D.'s who had never written a book that was read by more than a dozen people in their life---yet they were "scholars" and I wasn't? Something wasn't making sense. I began ordering doctoral dissertations for use in some of my writing projects and debates, and I discovered that most of these works, which had been accepted in fully accredited schools, were far shorter, and far less involved, than many of the books I was engaged in writing and publishing on a national level.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that if I was going to invest so much time and energy in another degree program, I wanted it to count for something in eternity. Possibly this came from my work as a hospital chaplain for a few years, possibly just from the process of "growing up" and realizing how short (and precious) life is. Most dissertations sit in a dusty closet or on a shelf somewhere, never read by anyone outside the review committee, never making a difference in anyone's life. I began to realize that this attitude did not come from within the Christian community, but from outside of it. That is, especially in this area, Christian education should part ways with secular education in recognizing that the work done in seminary should benefit the church at large, and the church in the local setting. Instead, we have adopted the standards of the world, rather than looking to the standards of the Scriptures. We want to be "accepted" by the world's system of thought, and the result has been somewhat predictable. If I was going to do more work, it would have to be in such a way as to allow me to combine that work with ministry, so that the result would be the edification of the Church, not just the enrichment of an institution. I have come to a firm conclusion: I am opposed to "Christian scholarship" simply for the sake of "Christian scholarship." If your scholarship isn't being used to glorify God and edify the Church, find another line of work! That is, if you are gifted by God with intellectual capacity, you should use that capacity to God's glory, and be open in thanking Him for it!
That is where Columbia Evangelical Seminary comes in. Formerly Faraston Theological Seminary, Columbia is a non-traditional school. It operates very much like the European "mentoring" method, where you design a program and work with an individual scholar on achieving your goals. It does not have a campus or all the attendant trappings (and costs), hence, the tuition is about 1/10th to 1/5th of the traditional schools (not free, or even cheap, but affordable to someone involved in ministry). It requires you to do a very large amount of work (many who "sign up" never finish, simply because the workload is so tough). Most importantly for me, I was able to design a program around my writing projects, making classes out of entire books. Of course, when I look back, I realize that I did far more work for my own program than I would have had to do in any secular setting, but that's OK. Everything I did ended up helping others, which made it seem, to me anyway, like a truly Christian experience of education.
The greatest example of this came in my dissertation. Thousands, Lord willing, will read my doctoral dissertation, as it will be published by a major Christian publisher. The work is on the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than being the "traditional" dissertation, wherein I have to come up with something "new" to write on, we did something truly novel: we decided to write a book that actually defines, and defends, the Trinity for the person in the pew! I say this is novel, since there are hardly any such works in existence, but also because of the fact that (again due to secular influence) it has become vogue in Christian seminaries to write only dissertations that touch upon something "new" from some "unusual angle." No one can argue the result of this viewpoint: how many reading this article have ever read a doctoral dissertation? How many have ever been enriched by such a document? I can thankfully say that I already know of individuals who have come to know Christ as Savior through works that I wrote as part of my Columbia work. In the same way, I know of people who have been kept from great confusion and deception by those same works. Life is short, so why invest time in education that won't have such results?
That is not to say that my dissertation is unscholarly. Instead, I'd suggest that it takes more scholarship to take a complex subject like the Trinity, eschew technical jargon, and instead explain the doctrine in a fashion helpful to the non-specialist. The work contains a great deal of scholarship in its endnotes, but it makes that scholarship relevant to the individual believer. I believe that Christian scholarship, if it is to be honoring to God, must be directed toward His glory, and the edification of His Church. That's what I tried to do with my dissertation.
There was no "skating by" with Columbia Seminary, and as a result, I'll pile up the work that I submitted to Columbia against any person who has a comparable degree from anywhere, with full confidence that no programs require more than Columbia did.
Th.D. or Ph.D.?
I chose the Doctor of Theology program (Th.M./Th.D.) versus the Doctor of Philosophy degree. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with getting a Ph.D. as a Christian. I chose to pursue the Th.D. so that there would be nothing ambiguous about my course of studies. It was a specific and conscious choice on my part. As I looked around, I discovered that many instructors in the seminaries were actually getting their Ph.D.'s from secular schools, and then moving into Christian education. The Th.D. was becoming an endangered species. Why? For some, it is due to the desire to be able to "cross over" into secular education. A Th.D. isn't going to get you hired a the local State University, but a Ph.D. can. While there is nothing wrong with pursuing the Ph.D., I would say that there is everything wrong with Christian education seeking to "cross over" and find acceptance within the secular world. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the ultimate goals of God-centered education and man-centered education, and the more faithful we are to taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ in our lives, the more "out of phase" we will be with the world around us.
If I do another doctoral program (and I am considering doing one), it would be a D.Min., Doctor of Ministry, and that for the same reason. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with anyone who has a Ph.D. I just chose the Th.D. to "make a statement" regarding the nature of my studies and scholarship. I would encourage anyone who has the choice between the Th.D. and Ph.D. (a rare enough choice these days) to go with the Th.D., simply as a statement of the reason behind your work.
I recognized, when I enrolled with Columbia, that given the nature of my work in apologetics, I'd undoubtedly hear attacks upon my school and my scholarship because Columbia is too young to be "accredited." Such ad-hominem argumentation is the norm for many of those with whom I have dealings. It wouldn't matter where I go, or what school I attend, that kind of attack will follow. I have experience teaching in accredited schools, and a Master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. That hasn't stopped such folks from using ad-hominem argumentation against me. And any person that would be impressed by such argumentation isn't going to be giving me a fair hearing anyway, and I can't worry about that. Instead, the person I'm concerned about is the person who will understand the following statement: A person's scholarship is not determined by the name of the school he or she attended, but by the quality of that person's writing, speaking, and teaching. Anyone who thinks that just because you went to Yale you must be a real scholar hasn't put much thought into the subject. I ask only one thing: look at what I have written, all that I have written, and ask yourself one question: does the nature of the writing, the depth of the research, and the understanding of the subject, indicate a doctoral level of education? As I said above, anyone who wishes to question my degree need only stack up his or her published works against mine and demonstrate that I just haven't done the work. If they can't, they are reduced to saying that scholarship is determined by how much you spend in tuition. And anyone who believes that isn't going to be listening very carefully to what I say anyway.
In the near future I will add a discussion of the criteria used for accreditation in our schools today, and how at this time there is a strong resistance to the change that is being forced upon us by the advent of CD-ROM technology and the Internet. Why is there such a resistance?
James White, Th.D.