by Tavis Bohlinger
Even though a career in academia will be out of reach for most PhDs in biblical studies, (and theology, church history, etc.), there is no reason that biblical scholarship should be abandoned. Believing scholars of the Bible in any subdiscipline are extremely important for the health and life of the church.
And that’s a point that needs often to be restated; the church stands to lose much if highly trained Christian academics are discouraged from contributing their skills and knowledge to the institution they’ve been called and gifted to serve.
The Church and the Academic
The church should foster an appreciation for those individuals in the congregation who hold advanced degrees in theological and biblical studies. They may or may not hold academic posts at recognized institutions; that really shouldn’t matter. Indeed, academics can’t expect to be appreciated by laypeople except insofar as they do them direct benefit through careful, faithful, teaching and writing.
The church should also support those individuals who have demonstrated a capacity for and interest in earning a PhD for the sake of the church. Deciding to pursue a terminal degree should not immediately be interpreted as a person’s reticence at taking up the mantle of a ministry career. Indeed, that person’s capacity for ministry may be greatly enlarged through not only the skills and knowledge they acquire, but perhaps more so through the challenges inherent in earning a PhD, especially for those candidates taking their family on that journey with them. Sleepless nights, ever-present deadlines, lack of sufficient income, and constant self-doubt are par for the course both in ministry and academia. So encourage those in your church who want to go further in their education through both prayer and financial support.
For example, a friend of mine decided to continue his theological education after seminary by applying to doctoral programs in the UK. He had already been serving his church faithfully through preaching and teaching for a number of years. When he expressed his desire to move to England for three years to get another degree, there was some skepticism concerning the value of that decision. He explained the value of a PhD for his work in the ministry, and, importantly, clarified a number of ways that the congregation could support him and his family while overseas. This set the church at ease concerning his intentions, but it also rallied the people to his cause, which ultimately was their cause. While his family enjoyed financial support during the PhD years, the church benefitted from receiving back a robustly trained theologian now further equipped to preach the gospel through the spoken and written word.
The Academic and the Church
For academics in the church, you need to honestly consider your calling. Surely if you desire, you can stay the course: get your PhD and then try your hand at breaking into the academic market. But remember, in 5–10 years when the graduate school journey is over, you will have missed out on many years of professional career development elsewhere, with possibly six-figure debt to navigate. We need then to ask the question: does a PhD alone make a bona fide biblical scholar within the context of the church? Or are there other means by which to evaluate someone’s capacity for service to the church at a scholarly level? Furthermore, can one be a legitimate biblical scholar while working a non-academic job or leading a church full-time?
Let’s consider a scenario. Imagine you have a PhD already, but you still haven’t secured an academic post. You’re perhaps still working as an adjunct, the money is still really tight, and you and your family are living in your parents’ basement. Now is probably a good time to consider vocations outside of academia. This does not mean, however, leaving biblical scholarship.
Your departure from the academy should be thought of as analogous to an actor shifting career focus. You gave it a shot, you weren’t in the top 1%, so now you take all those transferable skills to a new career path with better prospects for a balanced family life and real income. Importantly, however, you keep working away on your research and writing, and you intentionally direct much of your work to serving the local church. This is especially possible if we insist that “vocation” be a part of the Christian scholar’s self-identity just as it is for Christians in any field. Only in scholarship, the relevance is greater (biblical scholars probably have knowledge and skills that pertain directly to the church more than perhaps an architect or baker, for example, although I’m open for debate on this one).
Academically Independent, Ecclesiastically Committed
Here’s a final point for Christian scholars. While the discussion over the viability of pastor-theologians continues, namely, whether a pastor or scholar can simultaneously function in the other role effectively, the truth of the matter is that “professor”-theologians are just as bi-vocational. Research and writing constitute a very small part of the daily and weekly workflow of professional scholars, Christian or not. As is also the case for pastor-theologians, something will suffer, and that “thing” is sadly often family, exercise, or social engagement (to say nothing of hobbies). So perhaps we need to reassess whether the only two options for PhDs who want to stay active as researchers and writers outside of academia proper is either teaching or pastoring. A “real” job might better serve the needs of one’s family and, if done right, could actually afford time for research. But, you might ask, without university affiliation, how can I do my research and be taken seriously as an academic?
Discipline and diligence coupled with humility and reason are perhaps the keys to such an approach, but one must certainly have access to the right tools of the trade. Although a highly educated PhD might feel like a soldier stripped of weapons, compass, and rucksack, that need not be the case in the digital era. Faithlife, the parent company of Logos Bible Software, is committed first and foremost to the church, and one way that vision is accomplished is through equipping scholars with world-class tools and resources to conduct research at the highest level (and with a hefty discount!). There is no reason any longer why an unaffiliated scholar should not be able to still produce solid research output, even without access to a university or seminary library. Thousands upon thousands of monographs, journal articles, and primary texts are available at the click of a button in Logos 7. There is an entire community of scholars debating texts and points of theology daily online, and even groups dedicated to helping members track down hard-to-find resources; if you don’t have a certain book, somebody else certainly does. All you have to do is ask, which is perhaps the most fundamental skill every biblical scholar should possess.
This is a conversation that will continue in the coming years, especially as the dynamics of the academic market continue to change. Most of all, it’s important that we keep considering—and then implementing—different ways to conceptualize scholarship. We must think outside of the normal cultural and social parameters of worth attached to doctorates, university affiliations, and tenure. There are living, breathing people to be served whose access to Christian scholars does not depend on tuition, but something deeper: a mutual hope engendered by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Tavis Bohlinger is the Managing Editor of the Logos Academic Blog and a final-year PhD candidate at Durham University.