Briefly Noted: On the Benefits of Dissertation Defenses (Especially Ones that Involve Paige Patterson, Stanley Hauerwas, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson)

Fetching topic, no? In an article entitled, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right,” Leonard Cassuto, English professor at Fordham University, describes and defends the benefits of dissertation defenses.[1] His defense of the defense comes in the wake of a recent American trend toward doing away with the defense as a required portion of earning the Ph.D. In fact, Cassuto himself never defended his own dissertation. Rather, his two faculty readers signed a form approving it and he walked the bound manuscript to the registrar and submitted it. “That was that,” he writes.

Against this trend, Cassuto argues that American universities should retain (or in some cases, reinstitute) the dissertation defense as an integral part of doctoral programs. Building upon a 19th-century European tradition which emphasized face-to-face “disputation,” American universities traditionally have required dissertation defenses in order to test the candidates’ abilities and encourage them to make further progress. Cassuto writes, “the plan is not to roast candidates on a spit; they are instead gently warned, encouraged to elaborate on what they know.”

Detractors of the dissertation defense often argue that it is a tired old ritual that is continued merely for the sake of tradition. Cassuto counters, however, that the defense is quite practical. He offers three reasons. First, the committee gets the opportunity to reflect on the student’s work and offer insight on what might come next–publication, further research, etc. Second, defenses offer the soon-to-be doctor a formal welcome to the community of scholars. Third, the faculty gets the chance to tell the student thank you for the opportunity to share in the student’s learning. This last reason is overlooked, but one, Cassuto argues, that should be well remembered.

For what it’s worth, I’ll put my chips in with Cassuto. The dissertation defense is well-worth the three hours’ spent. I’ll never forget my own defense. At the end of my three years’ study in the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, having written a dissertation entitled, “Wittgenstein’s Impact on Anglo-American Theology: Representative Models of Response to Wittgenstein’s Later Writings,” I now found myself in a room with three professors who set forth to determine the validity of my argument.

There I sat, at the head of the table in a conference room in the Jacumin-Simpson building, with the sweated anxiety of an Amish kid at a tattoo parlor. Even though my dissertation was sternly structured, detailedly documented, and fanatically footnoted, I was still nervous. There’s nothing like a live disputation, especially if your dissertation committee consists of Paige Patterson, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson. Stanley Hauerwas was my external reader; he was unable to come to the defense but did send a four page, single spaced assessment, which had been placed neatly at his vacant chair.

In my mind, I had played and replayed worst case scenarios, in which my examiners said things like, “Mr. Ashford, after having read your dissertation, I conclude that you have an intellect rivaled only by garden tools,” or “Mr. Ashford, your ignorance is encyclopedic,” or “Mr. Ashford, you dissertation induces in me a catatonic sense of utter tedium. Every time I turned a page, I wondered if your train of thought had a caboose.” In fact, I wanted to open the dissertation defense by saying something like, “Good afternoon gentlemen. I’ve set aside this special time to humiliate myself in public, and I’m honored that you would attend and participate.”

But I digress. In fact, here is what happened: Dr. Köstenberger opened by asking me quite a few questions concerning the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. His questions were helpful because he interrogated me as one who had not only mastered the field of hermeneutics, but also had read the dissertation very carefully. Next, Dr. Nelson asked me questions which arose at the intersection of Wittgenstein and theological method. He pushed me on some of the connections I had made between Wittgenstein and the six major case studies (Lindbeck, Frei, Hauerwas, Kerr, Tracy, and Geisler). Then Dr. Patterson pushed me to evaluate Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, his view of the mind/body problem, and his epistemology. Finally, Dr. Patterson read Dr. Hauerwas’ evaluation, including the questions he would have asked me if he had been there.

In the end, I came away challenged and encouraged. My thesis had been evaluated by several seasoned scholars who helped me to recognize some of the weaker links of my argument, while at the same time pointing out the its strengths and encouraging me to push forward in my field of study. They encouraged me to publish on the topic, and suggested several publishers and venues. They formally welcomed me into the “guild,” the community of scholars who will research, write, and teach theology.

This sort of interaction is invaluable, in my opinion, not only at the PhD level, but also at the bachelor’s and master’s level. This is the reason The College at Southeastern requires our baccalaureate students to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars, our 18- and 19-year olds are forced to read books by many of the towering thinkers of time past (e.g Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kant, Marx), to write critical theses about those thinkers’ work, and then to defend their theses orally in a seminar with 14 other students and a professor. When it’s done well, these seminars are invaluable for the students’ education. Likewise, this is the reason why we offer master’s level elective seminars in the same format.

Cassuto is right. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student.


[1] Leonard Cassuto, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 2, 2012: A47).


On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 4): The Danger of Becoming a Dork

Dork: [dor’k] noun. USA pejorative slang for a quirky or socially inept person, or one who is out of touch with contemporary trends. Often confused with “nerd” and “geek,” but does not imply the same intelligence level.


In this series of posts, I am dealing with the perils of the unique and sometimes bizarre world of seminary education. Most of the dangers of which I speak are dangers to which I have succumbed at one point another during my times as a student, teacher, or administrator. This post is no exception, as my friends can attest (and would eagerly affirm).

I would like to point out that seminary students in particular find themselves confronted with the danger of becoming dorks. That’s right. Seminaries often attract and produce pencil-necked geeks. These are guys who have lost themselves in parsings and prophecy charts, but have little awareness of their surroundings, and sometimes little or no ability to make conversation with ordinary American citizens. “No,” you opine, “I’m not one of those guys.” Really? Well, here’s a quiz. If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are a certified dork-in-training.

1. Do you know all about Cyril of Alexander and Johannes von Staupitz but are blissfully unaware of the existence of Dwight Schrute?

2. Are you able to immediately find your copy of Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor amongst the 2,643 books in your library, but have no idea how to change the oil on your lawnmower?

3. Are you upset that I mentioned The Reformed Pastor in the last question because you thought I should have spotlighted Why I Am Not a Calvinist instead?

4. Do you wear a bowtie?

5. Do you have a moustache?

6. Do you own a searsucker suit?

7. Is your name David Nelson or Nathan Finn?

But there is another, and equally potent, way to become a big dork: try just a little too hard to be culturally savvy. In order to find an example of this path to dorkdom, I need to look no further than myself. For those of you who know me now, as a coat-and-tie-wearing pencil pusher (a dork of the first type), you might be surprised to know that this wasn’t always my style. Soon after becoming a “youth evangelist” in the mid-90s, I found myself needing to be a lot “cooler.” Before long, I could be found sporting wide-leg pants, fat belts, steel-toed boots, and enough faux-silver jewelry to make Scott Stapp blush. (If you don’t understand any of the ostensive referents in the previous sentence, I’d like to refer you back to the first category of ‘dork’ above.) I was workin’ it like Geoff Moore and the Distance. I fancied that I looked like the frontman of an indie rock band, or some other type of uber-cool cultural icon. But I didn’t. I looked like a Barney Fife double who had really bad luck on his latest trip to the Goodwill store. And I’m not alone. There are others. I’m thinking of any number of Seminary Bible jockeys who came to campus wearing penny loafers and golf shirts but who all of the sudden show up on campus complete with a pierced pre-frontal cortex, faux-hawk, slim jeans, and a little dust bunny on their chins.

So what is the point? The point is that we need to be in the world, but not of it. For some of us, we need to get our head out of our books each week long enough to be aware of our surroundings. We need to meet our neighbors and have conversations with them. We should make ourselves aware of the televisions shows, movies, and music that shape the hearts and minds of the people of this country. We should take a little bit of time to become acquainted with the major moral, social, and political debates of our time. If we don’t, we’ll be unaware of the language people speak and the culture they are consuming. Further, in a sense, we neglect our own humanity. To reject culture qua culture is to reject the God who made us to be cultural (artistic and scientific and social and political) beings. The danger is cultural anorexia.

For others of us, we should be careful lest we become uncritically like the broader culture. Underlying the television shows, music, and even the fashion trends in our country are producers, writers, and designers who do their work from within a particular worldview. If these shows, music, and trends are “the very air we breathe,” then it is likely that we are also influenced by the (nihilistic, relativistic, etc.) worldviews underlying them. If we do not consciously, carefully, and consistently keep watch over ourselves, we will find ourselves being consumed by the spirit of the age. We endanger our own humanity by not allowing Christ to conform us to His image. The danger is cultural gluttony.

Of course, seminary is not the only place where one faces the perils of cultural anorexia or gluttony. But it is a place that offers ample opportunity for the former, which I suppose is what drives some seminarians towards the latter. We seek to avoid the perils on either side by (1) as my former seminary professor put it, “allowing God’s Word to be the grid through which we filter the surrounding culture;” and (2) allowing others to provide correction when we err on one side or the other.

John 17:15: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.

Acts 17:22: “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens’….”

Upcoming Conference: The Politics of Jesus

The Politics of Jesus

On October 9-10 at FBC-Durham (NC), the North Carolina Baptist State Convention will be hosting a conference The Politics of Jesus: Timeless Answers for Today’s Questions. Headlining the conference are SEBTS’ very own David Nelson and Nathan Finn, along with C. Ben Mitchell, Greg Thornbury, Andy Davis, and Ken Fentress.

Nelson, a brilliantly crotchety polymath who has spent time thinking about nearly everything, will be presenting on “Adorning our Savior’s Teaching: How the Gospel Matters for Public Life.” Finn, who has recently committed several acts of literature, including Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution, will be presenting on “The Pulpit and the Public Square: Some Observations from the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.”

The remaining plenary topics, as well as registration information and the schedule of events may be accessed at