Category Archives: Academics

How to find and apply for a Ph.D. program

Deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. can be an angst-ridden process filled without doubt, financial uncertainty, and regular bouts of self-pity. At the very least, the would-be doctoral student must wrestle with the following questions:

  • Do I really want to put myself and my family through the upheaval that a doctoral program involves (e.g. moving, financial stress, etc.)?
  • Am I okay with the fact that I may well not be able to find a teaching position at the end of the day?
  • What do I want to study and do I enjoy it enough to spend that much time on it?
  • Where should I do my doctoral studies?
  • Am I even qualified for the doctoral program that I want? If so, how do I get in?
  • Should I just stay home and watch Lost on Netflix instead?

And, those are just the questions for the first week. If you get past these, you’ll run into many more down the line.

Given the number and significance of such questions, it’s no surprise that people are always looking for advice on whether/how to pursue a doctoral program. So, I’m always keeping my eye out for good resources to help with the process. And, just this morning, someone sent me a link to a very helpful post by Daniel Treier at Wheaton College on preparing for a PhD.

Treier divides his post into three sections:

  1. Discerning Whether to Apply
  2. Determining When/Where to Apply
  3. Developing an Application

He offers some pretty blunt advice in the first section that may be eye-opening. But, I particularly liked one comment that he made regarding the job market and the needs of the church:

The job market suggests that in most fields we evangelicals do not need more applicants; we need a few better-prepared ones. In the church, meanwhile, we quite likely need more intelligent and intellectually-curious pastoral staff members. Let the one who has ears, hear.

One of my arguments for the value of a Th.M. is that it’s a degree program well-suited to training “intelligent and intellectually curious” men and women for pastoral ministry in the local church. I think we have too often directed our best minds into the academy, thinking that somehow such people were “wasted” in local churches. What a tragedy. (For another take on this, read Sean Lucas’ post “Ministerial Students, Calling, and PhD Studies.”)

But, if you still want to pursue a Ph.D. after reading his post, I found the third section particularly helpful. I’ve run across other posts on the first two issues, but this is the best that I’ve seen to focus closely on what it takes to develop a quality application. (See also John Anderson’s post “To Those Applying to Ph.D. Programs…My Advice“).

And, here are some other posts that you may want to check out:


Papers from the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society

Last month, the NW region of the Evangelical Theological Society held its annual meeting at Multnomah University here in Portland. The students and faculty of Western Seminary were well represented at that meeting, with several really good papers and presentations. So, I thought I’d take some time to present some of those papers for discussion here. We’ll get started later this morning with a paper from Brian LePort on Romans 8:1-25. And, then I’ll add another one every day for the next several days.

To kick things off, here’s the beginning of the devotional that I presented to open that meeting (reposted from here).

What are we doing here?

I’m sure we could walk out this building and, within five minutes, find any number of hurting people desperately in need of care and attention, longing for a meaningful conversation, needing to hear the Gospel. People who are cold, hungry, lonely, and lost — forgotten, neglected, and abused by a sin-fractured world.

Yet here we sit, ready to spend an entire day presenting papers, hearing arguments, and discussing abstract ideas apparently far removed from the real needs of everyday people. How does discussing epistemology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, or the intricate details of ancient historiography really help people come to Jesus and begin healing their broken bodies and souls?

Read the rest.

Here are the papers that have been highlighted so far in this series:

Put the theology book down and do something that matters

[This following is the opening devotional that I presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last weekend.]

What are we doing here?

I’m sure we could walk out this building and, within five minutes, find any number of hurting people desperately in need of care and attention, longing for a meaningful conversation, needing to hear the Gospel. People who are cold, hungry, lonely, and lost — forgotten, neglected, and abused by a sin-fractured world.

Yet here we sit, ready to spend an entire day presenting papers, hearing arguments, and discussing abstract ideas apparently far removed from the real needs of everyday people. How does discussing epistemology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, or the intricate details of ancient historiography really help people come to Jesus and begin healing their broken bodies and souls?

What are we doing here?

Didn’t Jesus tell us that when the Son of Man comes in all his glory he will say to his faithful servants, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and so forth? I don’t recall him saying anything like, “I was confused about the doctrine of imputation, and you explained to me its properly judicial context,” or “I hungered for a solid epistemology and you fed me with the truth of a chastened critical realism.”

Are we the goats who failed to care for the real needs of God’s creatures so that we could stay in our academic bomb shelters, safe from the harsh realities of life?

Have we gathered here to play the role of Nero, fiddling while the world burns?

What are we doing here?


Almost 1700 years ago, a group of pastors gathered for a conference of their own. And, these were men who knew all about harsh realities. They had lived through some of the most brutal persecutions the church had ever faced. As they entered the conference, many still bore on their bodies the scars of their faithful endurance. They knew what it was like to be the “other” in society, the ones on whom society casts blame when things go wrong. They had experienced poverty, hunger, and the uncertainty of a future in a brutal world. These were not men who stayed safe in academic bomb shelters; these were men on whom the bombs had already dropped.

But, instead of staying home with their families, ministering to their congregations, and taking care of the poor and hungry, they spent months traveling to and attending a theology conference at a little town called Nicea. Why would they do that?

Why would these men who understood so well the desperate needs of the people around them waste their time on the seemingly abstract and unnecessary questions of academic theology?


I don’t know about you, but I face those kinds of questions all the time. Pretty much every time someone asks me what I did my doctoral work on or what book I’m currently reading, I brace myself for “the look.” You know the one, the looks that says, “Really? You’re wasting your time on that? When are you going to get your feet on the ground and do something that really matters?”

Something that really matters?

Unfortunately, they rarely say it out loud, so I never have the chance to respond. But, theology matters. And, it matters at the very least because we have a God who cares what we think about him.

I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t really care what some people think about me. When I shopping on and I click the button to buy a book, I know that someone has to do the work of actually filling that order. And, I care deeply that they do what they’re supposed to. I want my book. But, I don’t really care what they think about me. We don’t have that kind of relationship. As long as they do their job, I’m happy.

God could have done that with us. If he was only concerned with making sure that we did all the right things, he could have treated us just like the person from He could have given us our instructions, pointed us in the right direction, and said “get to work.” He wouldn’t have even needed to talk to us that way. He could have just sent an email.

He could have done that. But he didn’t.

God created us to know him. He made Adam and Eve in the Garden, and he revealed himself to them, walked with them, developed a relationship with them. Although he was very concerned about what they did, he wanted more. He wanted them.

And that didn’t change after sin entered the picture. Even then God didn’t stop revealing himself to his people, pursuing them, calling them to himself. Indeed, the entire Old Testament can be read as a story of God revealing himself over and over again to his people. Why? Because he cares about what his people think of him.

And, of course, when we reach the New Testament, what does he do? He reveals himself even more. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) And, “He who has seen me has seen the father” (Jn 14:9).

And, what is our hope at the end of the story – that we would know him fully: “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

God wants us to know him. That’s what this has all been about. In the end, some will come to Jesus and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?” And then Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Mt. 7:22-23). There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things. But God wants more.

Theology matters because God cares what we think about him.


So, what are we doing here? As we read these academic papers, ask our questions, and participate in these discussions, what kind of task are we involved in?

If theology is all about recognizing that God wants us to know him and cares what we think about him, taking time out of our busy lives to orient our thoughts toward God and reflect carefully on him in all his glory, then theology is a very particular kind of task.

It is worship.

We’ve gathered this morning to think carefully about who God is as he has revealed himself to us and the difference this must make in understanding who we are and how we conduct ourselves as the people of God in the world. That is worship. It may not come with the warm fuzzies and emotional afterglow that we usually associate with worship. Instead, it may come with a headache and the frustration of finding more questions than answers. But it’s still worship.

And it must be worship, or we’re not really doing theology.

Karl Barth compared the theological task to being inside a room. In that room are many interesting questions, fascinating investigations, and compelling discussions. But, as long as we remain locked inside that room, it is stuffy and stilted. So, the room also has windows that open out into the realm outside the room so that the theologian can engage the needs and concerns of the church and the surrounding world. And, that is good and necessary. The work that we do today cannot remain an in-house effort, isolated from the everyday needs and concerns of God’s people. But, Barth argued, even that is not enough. The room must also have a skylight through which the bright rays of heaven flow, illuminating the room and drawing the theologian into the worship of God himself. (Evangelical Theology, p. 161)

I think that’s why Paul routinely broke out in worship and adoration as he did theology. Just read his letters. In Ephesians 3, Paul lays out his prayer for the people in Ephesus: “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (vv. 14-19). His prayer is that the Ephesians might be empowered for good theology. And, then he immediately flows right into worship: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (vv. 20-21).

Paul knew what theology was all about. He knew that theology involved asking hard questions and trying to understand really difficult ideas. That’s why he prayed for the Ephesians to be strengthened in the task. And, I think Paul enjoyed the process. He strikes me as the kind of person who could get wrapped up in the pleasures of an intricate argument or a good discussion.

But, Paul never forgot what theology was really about. He made sure that he constantly kept his eyes on the skylight so that his room never grew stuffy or stale.

Paul knew that theology is worship.

What are we doing here?

We’re worshipping. And, worship is never a waste of time.


What’s wrong with the church today, or why we need more pastor-theologians

Gerald Hiestand caused a bit of a stir yesterday with a post on what’s wrong with the church today (HT). Although I’m sure he would agree that there is more than one problem with the church today, his real concern is that “the theological agenda” of the church is being set by professional theologians rather than pastors. Although this won’t sound like a big deal to some people, it is. Keep reading.

Hiestand starts things off by explaining his concern:

As a pastor who cares deeply about theology, I’ve become convinced that the present bifurcation between theological scholarship and pastoral ministry accounts for much of the theological anemia facing the church today.

Specifically, he’s concerned about those who are serving as the “wider theologians” of the church today – that is, “those who are tasked with the theological care of large swaths of the Christian tradition, or even the whole of the tradition itself.” And, his concern is that although future generations entrusted that task to pastors (e.g. Athansius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc.), more recent generations have handed that task on to professional (academic) theologians.

But since the nineteenth-century (in North America, at least) the center of theological reflection has shifted from the parish to the university. The pastoral community is no longer called upon—as a matter of vocation—to construct theology for those beyond their congregations. Instead, our present context views the academy as the proper home for those with theological gifts.

And, he identifies at least three problems with this development:

  1. The social location of academic theologians causes them to ask question more relevant to the academic guild than the local church.
  2. Churches become theologically shallow as those with theological gifts seek careers in the academy rather than the parish.
  3. Theology loses its roots in the church and becomes overly abstract and technical.

So, of course, he concludes with an appeal for more pastor-theologians:

The ecclesial renewal of Christian theology will not take place apart from a concerted effort to reestablish the pastoral community as the church’s most significant body of theologians. The pastoral community must once again become serious about the duties of the theological task—study, prayer, writing, and theological dialog. The pastoral community as a whole must once again don the mantle of theological responsibility for the wider church.

My initial response to Hiestand’s argument is to conclude that he is absolutely right. Why is it that our doctoral programs are currently producing far too many academic theologians than are necessary for the available academic positions, while at the same time many churches suffer from a dearth of quality theological formation? It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that it’s because we have separated the church from the theological task and concluded that it can only be adequately accomplished in an academic setting, far removed from the distractions of everyday ministry.

What a travesty. Quality theology arises from constant engagement in the life and ministry of the church, as many contemporary theologians know full well. And, the theological shallowness of many churches today absolutely requires a renewed commitment to theological depth in the pastorate. Indeed, often encourage ministry-minded students to consider a Th.M. for precisely this reason. (Did you catch my subtle sales pitch?) We absolutely must stop viewing this kind of preparation as relevant only for those headed into the academy.

Despite my initially positive reaction, though, I do have to offer a couple of additional thoughts.

  1. Things may not be as bad as he suggests. I think there is a growing movement among younger pastors toward exactly this kind of pastor-theologian. I’m constantly encouraged by the theological vitality of the next generation of pastors and I think it bodes well for the future of the church.
  2. We need to retain a place for the academic theologian. Hiestand actually agrees with this and addresses it at one point in the article, but I would have liked to see it highlighted more. Just as the professional pastor offers training and resources not available to the average Christian, so does the professional theologian. Let’s make sure that we don’t lose an important resource as we seek to swing the pendulum the other way.
  3. We shouldn’t fault those headed into the academy. As one of those who left professional ministry for the academy, I think I can speak for many who discover that it can be really difficult to find a place to express one’s gifts and interests. I agree with Brian Fulthorp who pointed out that many churches are so pragmatically-minded that there’s no room for someone interested in developing a theological ministry.

In the end, though, I am still in complete agreement. The church needs more pastor-theologians and more theological depth in the church. I’m encouraged by what I think is a strong trend in that direction, and I pray that it continues. If you are preparing to be a pastor-theologian, please continue and let the rest of us know how we can help. If you are involved in academics, please make it a key part of your mission to develop the next generation of pastor-theologians.

New SBL Student Members Policies

I don’t know how many Th.M. students are members of the Society of Biblical Literature, but if you happen to be a student member a couple of changes were announced today:

New SBL Student Members Policies.

Need More Foucault?

Fellow Th.M. students who were in the philosophy class today: I didn’t provide hand out notes but if you want to engage the subject more, or you would just like a printed version of the discussion guide, you can find it on my blog:

Foucault: The Power of Educational Institutions.

Texting in class

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting post today on the a recent study that was done to measure how much texting takes place in university classrooms. Here are some of the findings that they reported:

  • 95 percent of students bring their phones to class every day.
  • 91 percent have used their phones to text message during class time.
  • Almost half of respondents said it was easy to text in class without instructors being aware.
  • 99 percent said they should be permitted to retain their cell phones while in class.
  • 62 percent said they should be allowed to text in class as long as they don’t disturb their classmates. (About a quarter of the students stated that texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby.)
  • 10 percent said that they have sent or received text messages during exams, and 3 percent admitted to transmitting exam information during a test.

First, fess up. Have you ever texted in a class? Second, what do you think about texting in class (never, sometimes, who cares)?

I’ll get things started by admitting that I’ve texted in class. And, it was my own class. (The class had just broken into small discussion groups, and I was momentarily free.) And, I’ve sent emails while sitting in a class many times. (Is there any real difference between texting and emailing during a class?)

Durham University Releases Theses for Download

For those who are going to be writing a ThM thesis here is a list of twenty-nine theses released by Durham University to use as a model or for research:

Durham University Releases Theses for Download.

Blogging from ETS

I’m on my way to Atlanta for ETS and I’m really looking forward to next year on the conferences will be held on the right side of the country. Sadly, this will be the first year in quite a while that I haven’t stayed for IBR and SBL as well. I just couldn’t pull off that long of a trip this time around.

Nonetheless, I will do my best to keep you well informed about the proceedings at ETS by blogging while I’m there. I can’t tell you what papers I’ll be attending since, to be honest, I haven’t even bothered to look at the schedule yet. But, I hope I’ll make it to at least a few that are interesting enough to comment on. At the very lest, though, I’ll make sure that I attend the plenary sessions with N.T. Wright and Tom Schreiner, offering a definitive conclusion about who got the upper hand in that exchange. (Which, by the way, will be a stretch for me since I usually skip the plenary sessions.)

Unlike some of my fellow Western Seminary faculty members, I will not actually be presenting a paper this year. That’s mostly because I’m a lazy free-loader and didn’t want to put the effort into presenting a paper of my own. But, Andy Peloquin, one of our ThM students, will be presenting a paper there. Since I’m sure he’ll do a great job, we should be well-represented.

Cooperation with Evil

(This is part of the continuing series on Theology and Philosophy that current Th.M. students are engaged in at Western.  This post is by Renjy Abraham)

As I reflect on the topic of ethics and what we ought to do as human beings interacting in this world, it seems that in general people recognize that the one who willfully and knowingly commits an act is held responsible.  Flowing out of this, it seems reasonable to then believe that no one can be held responsible for the action of others.  On the surface that sounds sensible and right.  But are there circumstances in which we are responsible for the actions of others?  The article, “Cooperation with Evil” by Fr. William P. Saunders addresses situations in which we can join and influence others to do good or evil and therefore we can be held responsible for the actions of others.

Since we have the ability to cooperate with evil acts, to what extent are we held responsible? There are different categories of cooperation, formal and material, which help us come to an answer.

My understanding is that when an individual willingly and knowingly participates in an evil action by another it is called formal cooperation.  In formal cooperation, the cooperator and the actor share intention or purpose to commit the evil act.  In situations where intention or purpose is not shared and one assists in any way, the cooperation is called material.  Material cooperation is then broken up into two categories addressing the closeness of the cooperation.  Simply put, proximate (or immediate) material cooperation occurs when the cooperator’s actions are essential to the action of evil.  Remote (or mediate) material cooperation concerns all actions of the cooperator in which they are not essential to the act, but still aids in the evil act. The example that Saunders uses in his article is of someone getting an abortion. The doctor who performs the act (formal cooperator), the person who drives the individual to the hospital (immediate material cooperator), and even the custodian who cleans the room (mediate material cooperator) all participate to varying degrees in the act of evil.

With all of this, how does one figure out the extent to which they are responsible for the actions of others? It is clear that in formal cooperation, the cooperator should be held at a high level of responsibility. However, when it comes to material cooperation it becomes harder to understand.  Saunders puts forth this guiding question in regards to material cooperation “Is there a proportionate reason for cooperation with this evil action?” His guiding question isn’t satisfactory to me.  It is a good question in that it forces people start thinking about how their actions influence and affect others.  But how does one determine ‘proportionate reasons’?  If someone works as a computer technician at a retail company whose products were made in a sweat shop overseas, as a material cooperator does she have the responsibility to quit her job?  Or is it reasonable to say that her cooperation is so remote and she is providing for her family, that she is justified in her work.  Or for the person who gets a new movie and lets his friend borrow it, knowing that he has the ability to burn the DVD, is he responsible to try and prevent his friend from copying it?    How much should one be willing to set aside the benefits they might gain (the relationship, or the money that is earned to provide for their family) when they cooperate in an act that leads to evil?

I am not looking for a clear cut answer, but principles that better guide us in understanding our responsibility for the actions of others.   Your thoughts?