On the Merits of a PhD in Church History or Historical Theology

Author’s note: This blog essay is revised from a two-part series first published in October 2011 at my personal website, Christian Thought & Tradition. I have updated it because I continue to receive emails from folks all over the world who are prayerfully considering research doctoral studies in church history and related fields. I hope some of you find it helpful.

Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman have written a very helpful article for the American Historical Association titled “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” They note that fewer schools are offering tenure-track positions for historians, a trend that has been in the making for at least a generation. They also lament the fact that most graduate programs in history urge doctoral students to aim for the academy, as if teaching and scholarship are the only legitimate vocations for someone with a Ph.D. in history. Grafton and Grossman suggest that graduate programs consider finding ways to equip students for other vocational opportunities besides the academy, but without reducing the historical rigor of doctoral programs in history.

The situation in the fields of church history and historical theology is very similar to that of our secular counterparts. Many graduate students in church history (and other theological disciplines) want to teach in colleges or seminaries, but the reality is that there are relative few jobs available. There are several reasons for this situation. It’s partly the result of a market flooded with Ph.D.’s, which is true pretty much across virtually every academic discipline. It’s also due in part to the current economic situation–many schools are replacing permanent faculty positions with adjunctive professors. Yet another factor is the reality that church history is understandably seen as less foundational to theological education than biblical studies and theology. In smaller schools especially, there is a tendency to reserve most of the full-time positions for scholars in the latter disciplines, perhaps tasking a theologian with teaching a church history survey course or two.

I’ve struggled with these questions during my own vocational pilgrimage. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in history, I wrestled for a time with what I wanted to do for graduate school. One part of me wanted to pursue the M.A. and Ph.D. in history and teach in a college or university setting, and I was encouraged by one of my professors to follow that path. Another part of me wanted to pursue the M.Div. and Ph.D. in church history and either pastor a local church or teach in a seminary or Christian college setting; a couple of other professors nudged me in that direction. In addition to talking with my professors, I emailed several evangelical scholars working in both types of contexts to seek their input. Several were gracious enough to reply, which was very encouraging.

I continued wrestling with the decision, honestly believing that either were good options. By this juncture in my life, I had already served on the staff of a number of local Baptist churches and would soon be ordained to the gospel ministry. When all was said and done, I opted for the second course of study because I thought it better reflected my calling and ministry aspirations. I earned the M.Div., taking all of my electives in historical and systematic theology. My Ph.D. is in “Theological Studies,” with emphasis in church history. I pursued these degrees because I believe they symbolized that I am first and foremost a gospel minister, though one who is currently teaching church history and historical theology in a denominational seminary because of certain gifts and opportunities. I’ve never regretted taking this path, though again, I think the other is just as valid for a Christian with my type of gifts and interests.

As I counsel students considering research doctoral studies in church history and historical theology, I try to make sure they understand what they’ll be getting into. There aren’t many jobs out there, and most schools with open positions need a scholar with a Ph.D. in Old Testament much more than they need a chap with a Ph.D. in church history. When a job does come open, many candidates will likely be competing for it. I personally know sharp brothers with doctoral degrees from solid programs that are still looking for a teaching job five to seven years after they graduated; some of them have even published their dissertation, written journal articles, and/or delivered papers at scholarly society meetings. For these reasons and more, I want prospective students to know that earning a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology, even from a prestigious university, doesn’t guarantee employment in an academic setting.

I ask students four questions as I counsel them about the possibility of pursuing doctoral studies in church history:

1. Do you have the gifts to be able to pursue advanced graduate work in church history or historical theology? This is a nuts-and-bolts kind of thing, because if a student doesn’t like to read a lot and write a lot, then research doctoral work in any field is probably not a good idea. A student with a 2.8 GPA who hates technical reading and academic writing can serve the Lord in countless ways, but he needs to do so without a Ph.D.

2. Do you care enough about an area of church history that you want to spend at least the next five or ten years reading countless books and articles and writing hundreds of pages about that topic? This is another nuts-and-bolts issue. If you are the type of person who wants to read whatever you want and write about whatever you want, then a Ph.D. in church history may not be the best thing for you, unless you want to use it to cultivate skills in research and writing that you can use on the other side of the degree.

3. Do you have a personal situation conducive to spending between three and seven more years in school? Can you manage it financially, especially if you don’t receive any financial aid? If you are married, what does your spouse think? Do you have children, and if so, how old are they? There some students who are gifted enough to earn the degree and interested enough in church history, but personal circumstances mitigate against them pursuing a Ph.D. I have some pastor friends who are in exactly this situation.

4. Can you envision yourself being happy if you earn a Ph.D., but serve as a pastor, missionary, parachuch worker, or denominational servant and never teach a single course or write a single book? I’m 100% in favor of individuals in these types of ministries earning research doctoral degrees in church history or related fields, if the Lord leads them to do so. (Here’s looking at you, Mark Dever, Sean Lucas, Bart Barber, Matt McCullough, and Jeff Robinson.) But if a student can’t envision spending all that time and money to do, well, exactly what he theoretically could have done had he not earned a Ph.D., then he probably doesn’t need to pursue research doctoral studies unless he has a clear sense from the Lord otherwise.

If you are considering a Ph.D. in church history (or just about any other field), I hope these questions are helpful to you. Doctoral studies in church history aren’t for the vast majority of people–even among those very interested in the history of Christianity. Many who earn a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology need to be prepared to serve in pastoral ministry or some other non-academic ministry context, bringing their research and writing skills to bear in whatever ways the Lord allows. There are many things you can do with a Ph.D. in church history, some of which are more important (and many of which pay more!) than teaching in a Christian college, seminary, or even a university religion department.

By the way, if your answer is “yes” to the above four questions and you think you might be interested in pursuing doctoral studies in church history or historical theology at Southeastern Seminary, shoot me an email (nfinn@sebts.edu). You can also check out the website for our Ph.D. program at SEBTS. We have a faculty of historians and theologians that can supervise students interested in topics such as Patristic history and theology, Reformation theology, British evangelical history, fundamentalism and evangelicalism, religion in the American South, the history of revival and spiritual awakenings, Baptist Studies, and 20th century evangelical theology.

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  1. Brent OTool   •  

    I am working on my bachelor degree at Liberty and graduating next spring. God has called me to work with college age people, and I have been doing this for twenty years in a mentoring role. I would ultimately love to teach college. I am considering graduate programs. Liberty offers an Mdiv, or an Ma (without Greek or Hebrew classes). Do you know which of these would be better if following on to finish my PhD at another university?

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