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).


Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (1): The Most Exciting Endeavor of All

I will never forget my first day of Systematic Theology. (The year was 1996. Think Billy Ray Cyrus. America Online. Super Nintendo. Doc Martens. Et, as they say, cetera). I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, Micah Patisall, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher, and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, however, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constructivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

Since that day, many things have changed. I lived and served in Central Asia for two years, came back to the States to work on a Ph.D. in Theology, worked in student ministry as an itinerant preacher, was hired to teach intellectual history at The College at Southeastern, transferred over to the mission department, got married to Lauren and had two little girls, became a pastor/elder at The Summit Church, and finally now split my time between the theology and missiology departments at Southeastern. Throughout all of these changes, however, one of the things that did not change was the desire to do theology-the desire to know and love God, and participate with him on his mission. There is nothing more important, more rewarding, more practical, or more exciting than “doing theology.” And, in fact, every Christian is called to be a theologian (although most will not be professional theologians or systematic theologians, per se) precisely because theology is all about knowing and loving God, and joining him in his mission.

Now, I find myself teaching theology at Southeastern, and trying to explain to first and second year students how one goes about the task of theology. I have not found this to be an easy endeavor (and I’ve got a long way to go until I can do it well) but it has been a rewarding journey and fruitful in many ways.

The present blog installment is the first in an ongoing series, “Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus,” which will deal with the task of theology, including questions such as: What is the purpose of theology? What is the relationship of theology to worship, discipleship, and mission? Why do we have confidence that we can know anything at all about God? Should our theology be affected by such things as reason, culture, experience, and church tradition? What is the relationship between theology and philosophy? Between theology and science? Between faith and learning? Who is our primary audience when we do theology? These are deep and powerful questions and, unfortunately, our treatment of them will have to be concise and in most cases surface-level. But hopefully the series somehow will be helpful in sustaining an ongoing conversation on the most exciting endeavor in all of God’s good creation: doing theology as a servant of Jesus.

Missions and Seminary Education (2): Seminaries Must Cast a Missional Vision “Top Down”

Recently, I corresponded with a friend who is a theological educator. Our phone exchanges and letters centered on the topic of missions and seminary education. As I penned the latest letter in that exchange, I realized that some of the contents of that letter might be helpful for a broader public. I’ve modified the letter and broken it into sections, with each section representing a way in which we theological educators can foster a missionally healthy environment, one that produces students who are spiritually vibrant, theologically sound, and missiologically savvy.

Seminaries must continually find a way to cast a missional vision from the top down.

The first factor is leadership. A seminary and its students tend to take the shape of their leadership. Whatever is emphasized by the seminary president and deans likely will be emphasized by the students. Whatever is neglected, brushed to the side, or treated as inferior will likely be neglected, brushed aside, or treated as inferior by the majority of students. I know three seminary presidents personally, so I will offer each of them as examples.

My president, Danny Akin, has always been known as a theologian and a preaching professor. As a faculty member at Criswell College, Southeastern Seminary, and Southern Seminary, he taught theology and preaching. Since becoming the president of Southeastern, however, he has increasingly become best known as a missions catalyst. Over a period of seven years now, he has focused his energies on catalyzing young men and women to take the gospel to the nations (including this nation, the USA). He has demonstrated that theology leads inexorably to mission, and that mission is centrally about the proclamation of the gospel. His roles as theologian and preaching professor are inextricably mingled with his role as a Great Commission seminary president. Southeastern really and truly is a “Great Commission seminary.”

Second, I offer Al Mohler as exemplary. For the past thirty years, Dr. Mohler has focused his energies like a laser beam on the “truth” question. He has been a formidable opponent of postmodern infelicities and a proponent of biblical truth. Of recent, however, he has placed considerable emphasis on international missions, as evidenced by his some of his recent convention speeches, blogs, and sermons. Just as he has been a proponent of speaking God’s Word to our American cultural context, he is now catalyzing his students to speak God’s Word to the global context.

Finally, Paige Patterson stands out as exemplary. Having been the president of three different entities (Criswell College, Southeastern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary), he has always found a way to make missions central. Like Akin and Mohler, however, he was never a missionary and is not a missions professor. He has taught theology for decades now, and is perhaps best known for his role in the Conservative Resurgence, and yet his students have always known him as a proponent of world mission. For Patterson, any theology that is not evangelistic and mission-minded is fatally flawed.

In conclusion, seminaries take the shape of their presidents and deans. Whatever the seminary’s leadership emphasizes, the majority of students will likely soon emphasize. May our seminaries and other entities continually call presidents and deans who recognize the priority of taking the gospel to the nations.