Posted in Academia

The Task of a Biblical Scholar? 

While reading through John Barclay’s article Pure grace? Paul’s distinctive Jewish theology of gift (Studia Theologica, 2014 Vol. 68, Issue 1, 4–20) in preparation for his visit to our NT seminar here at the University of Aberdeen, I ran across this great quote that pretty much sums up the task of a Biblical/Pauline scholar.

“If we can disencumber Paul of some of the accretions to his theology of grace – some of the additional perfections that now might obscure rather than illuminate its original purpose – and if we can recover and restate its primary significance, both thoroughly Jewish and thoroughly distinctive, we might find ourselves in possession of a valuable tool for social critique.” (17)

I found the phrase “some of the additional perfections” interesting as if seems (based on his argument that has led up to this statement) to really get the the heart of the methodological difference between Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology, at least the modern incarnation of these two disciplines.

The discipline of Systematic Theology, especially its evangelical strain, seems to place a high value on theological concepts that have developed over time within the Church context as guided by the Holy Spirt. The discipline of Biblical Studies, especially its evangelical strain, seeks to look at the biblical text in its historical and sociological context, attempting to understand the author’s original intent behind the words to his audience. Neither discipline, as far as I am concerned, should be content with these introductory tasks or what could be held as stringent methodological constraints. In short, neither one is more “right” or “scholarly.”

Sadly, there appears to be a distinct methodological arrogance on both sides, the very antithesis of the setting in which discussion between these two disciplines should be taking place, the university. The solution, or a least an introduction to the solution, should be interdisciplinary communication, a communication that strives to value the seemingly opposite methodological approach. Who knows, we may even be pleasantly surprised and find out that we have more in common than we originally thought!

Posted in Academia

Questions about Overseas PhD

I was asked by a friend a few questions about the process I went through coming to Aberdeen to work on a PhD in New Testament. Below are my answers. They are candid and a little cheeky. Enjoy!

  • How did you go about narrowing down your research proposal. For example, did you narrow it down to a simple question and then expand upon the intertwining issues associated with it?

My first research proposal was insanely broad and would have taken about 15 years to just write the Literature review. One of the most important things I have found out in the last three years here is that, as you continue in a research based PhD program, your topic gets narrower and narrower. No one has any idea of what they are doing when writing their proposal for acceptance to a program. It is like writing a research paper with no resolution. Basically you are saying “I don’t know much about this topic but I am really interested in it and I’d like to study something along these lines full time for a period of my life.”

What you need to demonstrate in your proposal is the ability to think of good questions. Also you need to show the topic you want to study is relevant to current scholarship. It also needs to be something that your supervisor is interested in. I was in conversation with a few scholars in my field about certain topics relating to Pauline studies. When I changed my topic after talking to the individual that would become my current supervisor and approached the others with something similar in mind, interest on their part dried up. I understand why, in most instances the topic drives the relationship.

So to answer your question, expansion was never the issue. PhD theses are notoriously narrow. So much so that the joke is that only 5 people will ever read you thesis: You, your supervisor, your examiners (internal and external) and your mom.

  • What things did you do before applying to establish a relationship with the professor you wanted to work with? Was it primarily over email, did you fly over there, meet up somewhere else, skype, etc?

I met my supervisor at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. It was there, after a cup of coffee, that I decided he was the individual that I wanted to study with. From that point on, we stayed in contact through email. He looked over my proposal and was helpful with a few questions I had about Aberdeen. From what I understand about how the UK system mainly works, once your potential supervisor considers you a worthy candidate and wants to work with you, you have a huge chance to be accepted to the program you are applying to. The one caveat to this would be if you didn’t fit the minimum qualifications that are required for the program.

  • Do you feel like you are getting a broad understanding of theology at Aberdeen or more focused on a specific issue?

The nature of the overseas PhD work is very self-driven towards your niche topic. You can take part in several intense seminars that are offered in the different disciplines. For instance, I am working on PhD on Philo of Alexandria and Paul’s understanding of early Jewish paideia (cultural instruction). This is in the biblical studies department and under a certain supervisor. Since I have been here, in the biblical studies department alone, there have been semester long seminars in the areas of Philo of Alexandria, Paul and the Law, Josephus, and 1st Corinthians. The other departments also have semester long seminars, sometimes in conjunction with each other (i.e. the OT and Systematics joined together to put on a Schleiermacher seminar a little while ago). There are also lots of chances to take undergrad level and grad level courses. I haven’t done this because of time constraints but I know several people that have.

There are mixed reviews on about how broad an education you can get in an overseas program. Since it mostly self-driven, a lot relies on you and your own effort. The fact of the matter is that the PhD thesis is of an immensely better quality. It should be since you are devoting three to four years of your life, blood, sweat, tears, and any other weird clichés one can think of to associate with full-time writing. US based programs will typically involve a lot of course work, comprehensive exams, and a shorter thesis.

I would probably say that coming overseas would give an individual a lot broader view of the theological differences that are associated with different approaches to theology and culture. Where else can you have an officemate from Ireland that was trained in a Catholic seminary and is studying for a Presbyterian pastorate? Or play football with a Pentecostal hipster with a penchant chiasms in Luke? Or even have tea with a Romanian Orthodox studying iconic imagery of Christ in the church. Sure, I don’t agree with some things these individuals have incorporated into their theological outlook on life, but I am still challenged by them daily. It has made me a better scholar and hopefully a better pastor.

Well, I hope I have answered some of your questions. After partaking in an intense round of scholarly writing it sure is nice to just type some off the cuff remarks about my time here in this blog!