“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV).
It may be difficult to comprehend all the research, writing, editing, proofreading, and email-arm wrestling with your friendly neighborhood professor or doctoral adviser as an act of grace or a gift to others for God. However, for those engaged in theological and religious studies, in ministry (and other humanities, too), the doctoral dissertation or master thesis (or research paper) should be an enduring gift to God and humankind. We can assert this confidently because we see the truth illustrated so powerfully in the Bible. The Apostle Paul, in his Second Epistle to Pastor Timothy, chapter two and verse fifteen, admonishes Timothy to practice diligence in scholarship. He is speaking, of course, of biblical scholarship. However, “rightly dividing the word of truth” refers to the holy Scriptures. Timothy had an example of a man who studied the classics in the apostle Paul. His training as a rabbi was nothing short of the most strenuous and comprehensive study in the humanities. The Apostle Paul was able to quote poets and Greek philosophers. There is evidence in his writings of allusions to other literature as well. The Apostle Paul had studied to show himself approved. Paul also prioritized Christian scholarship in the lives of those who would follow him. Indeed, in 1 and 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul calls Pastor Timothy to a life of uncompromising scholarship of the highest order. Why? It is because Timothy is to preach and minister the inerrant and the infallible Word of the living God. That is the thing: We who are called to the ministry of the Gospel handle holy things. Doing so requires the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us. Thus, Christ-called and Spirit-guided ministers must transmit the glorious truths of the Gospel to their generation. This incalculable responsibility demands an extraordinary level of dedication to Christian scholarship.
I shall never forget when Dr. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) visited our fledgling church plant in Overland Park, Kansas. He graciously preached at our church plant, and over three hundred people came to hear the noted Bible scholar and pastor. Boice, the former editor of Christianity Today and the speaker on the Radio Bible Study Hour preached from the Epistle to the Romans that night. Many who came to hear Dr. Boice would subsequently come into our newly founded Christian community. After the service, Dr. Boice came home with my wife, our son, and me. My wife fixed us a late supper. It just so happened that I was taking off the next morning for the United Kingdom. I had a month of doctoral studies ahead of me. I was halfway through my Doctor of Philosophy program at the University of Wales. Dr. Boice inquired about my studies. A graduate of the University of Basel, Switzerland (where he planted a local church even as he pursued his doctoral studies) and a Harvard and Princeton graduate, Dr. James Montgomery Boice possessed unsurpassed scholarly credentials. Though Dr. Boice’s pedagogical pedigree was unrivaled, his role in the larger Church of our Lord Jesus Christ was that of an undisputed servant-leader and “a doctor of the Church,” a mantle earned without seeking and worn without trying. As the evening ended, Dr. Boice looked at me as if he were sizing me up. He then said words that not only arrested my attention but pierced my heart: “Mike, the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is where you must apply your doctoral research. There is no greater use for your Ph.D. than defending God’s truths and making them plain to little children. Never forget: the pulpit is worthy of the highest scholarship.” Whether Dr. Boice sensed some sort of academic hubris or not, his point was well-taken and reverently received. So, that which I have received from the Lord, through Dr. Boice, I say to you all: Use your studies as a gift in the service of “the least of these” in God’s Church. Use the tools of research and writing to defend and advance the Faith once delivered—not merely to academic peers in higher education—but to “Everyman.” The platform for such a lifelong pursuit is “the pulpit.” To do so will not only reach more souls with the Gospel, but help recover “the dignity of the pulpit” (D. James Kennedy) for Christianity in the West. This is scholarship for the glory of God and the good of others.
The only way to ensure that your research and your dissertation are in the service of God and others is to bring them before the bar of sacred inquiry. Ask yourself: “Is your study and the products of your research monuments to yourself, a measure of your scholarly prowess before academic peers, or is the great goal of your dissertation to bring glory to God and salvation in Christ to others?
I am so proud of all those I am involved with, supporting their dissertation and research experiences. I believe that all my students have demonstrated their love for God and others in their scholarly work. However, we know that “the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Therefore, let us be on guard against the devouring locusts of ambition, self-aggrandizement, or anything which would compete with a scholarship for the glory of God and the good of others: As Paul reminded Timothy, so must we take heed: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10 ESV).
Remember: Saint Paul wrote to Timothy to study and show himself approved as a pastoral laborer (2 Timothy 2:15) when the Apostle was in chains in prison and soon to be executed. The appearance of this charge in the life of Paul adds to its solemn substance. Isn’t it so? The most important things are often said as the seasons change or the daylight begins to fade.
Christian Shepherd, or shepherd-to-be: Our God is speaking to you. Listen with your mind and heart. We live in perilous days. The Church needs your scholarship to support believers making their way through a chaotic world, “a strange land” (Walker Percy) where everything they have known is being deconstructed and reassembled without the Creator’s blueprint. “Our People” are God’s Flock. The Almighty called you to be an under-shepherd to the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. Use your studies to better prepare yourself to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all flesh and to equip the saints to fulfill God’s mission in the world. And never forget, the great goal of theological and biblical scholarship is evaluated in your ministry when you bring the Word of the Lord to a little child in your congregation. Therefore, O beloved student in Christian ministry: Study deeply to make sure you make it plain.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Michael A. Milton (Ph.D., D.Min., M.Div., M.P.A.) is a Minister of the Gospel (PCA), Distinguished Professor at Erskine College and Seminary, and retired Chancellor-President and CEO of the Reformed Theological Seminary system. He served as the twelfth Senior Pastor in 172 years at First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee. The founding pastor of three churches (KS, GA, NC) and a Christian preparatory school (KS), Milton served thirty-two years in the active and reserve Armed Forces, retiring as a Chaplain (Colonel) US Army. He and his wife, Mae, reside in Western North Carolina at a home his wife dubbed “Milton Manor” (byline adapted from a press release by McCain & Company, Nashville).