Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Jan 2017

What Happened to the Biblical Generalist?

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Each successful doctoral completion in biblical studies results in a niche scholar; that is, a scholar who knows massive amounts about a small corner of the biblical marketplace.[1] For instance, I completed my dissertation on John Frame and Vern Poythress’s Trinitarian theological method. Few could speak with me deeply about that topic, and even fewer desire to!

There are benefits as well as problems with the modern educational model. On the problematic side, I think we suffer from the lack of biblical generalists in our day. New Testament scholars are not required to understand the intricacies of the Old Testament and vice versa. Systematic theologians and church historians, for their part, are only required to know their own field. This lack of generalist knowledge prevents connections from other field of biblical studies, connections that might otherwise advance our knowledge.

Of course there are reasons for this. First, the deeper scholarship gets in each area, the harder it is to have an adequate grasp of multiple fields. The non-specialist runs the risk of missing elements specialists would not have missed. Second, few people are gifted or dedicated enough to be conversant in more than one field.

I am not proposing in this article a solution to the problem; rather, I am proposing that we not make the problem worse. Here are two ways I think we can make the problem worse.

First, we can make the problem worse by adopting the European model of PhD studies. The European model is dissertation only, and while their process proves the ability of the candidate to do extensive and intensive research, it fails to provide a well-rounded knowledge of a broad field. For instance, if I took a New Testament PhD from a European institution, I would from the beginning focus my studies on a particular slice of the broad field. The next two or three years would be spent researching only that narrow slice of the field. Having finished my dissertation, I would not be an expert in NT; rather, I would be an expert in, e.g., Paul’s view of Weakness in the Corinthian Epistles.

The American PhD, however, requires two years of general coursework in the field of study. Many of these classes will not be specific to the dissertation the student will later write. Instead, they are designed to prepare the student with a broad view of the field they desire to be a specialist within. After the coursework there is a year spent in preparation for the comprehensive exams, which are exactly what they sound like. In my case, I was tested not only in apologetics (my particular focus), but also in systematic theology and church history. If I failed those exams, I could not continue to the next phase of study—the dissertation. Finally, this dissertation gauged precisely what the European model gauged—my ability to do scholarship at a high level.

On the whole, I think there is a place for the European model. Those who have extensive experience within a field (whether through educational channels or otherwise) might benefit from moving directly to the dissertation, proving that along with their broad knowledge, they can also engage in innovative research. Nevertheless, I think if we desire to see more biblical generalists, the American system is superior.

A second way we can contribute to the lack of biblical generalists is by avoiding the Master of Divinity degree. Some, in their zeal for attaining the Ph.D., pass over the M.Div., taking a one/two year M.A. instead. Clearly the 32 credit M.A. is more attractive to some than the 96 credit M.Div., but one must ask what is being missed in those 64 credits! Unfortunately, some view the M.Div. as a “professional degree” that lacks the educational foundation of the M.A. Of course, no one who has ever attended DBTS would make such a statement! The M.Div. certainly prepares one for professional ministry, yet I am convinced it also provides the foundation for further education. Even students desiring only to teach and not to pastor should take the M.Div. This is because the scholar’s primary role is as an aid to the church.

I am not sure we will see biblical generalists like John Calvin again. Nevertheless, I believe many would benefit from having a broader education. I would be interested in hearing from our readers: do you think we have a lack of biblical generalists today? If so, any partial solutions come to mind?

[1] Incidentally, few care to buy from these marketplaces, and this is why published dissertations are usually expensive.

4 Responses

  1. Dr. Miller, I do appreciate your thoughts and background here. I recall statements by Charles Ryrie in one of his works about the need to be generalists, and not specialists. I am a recent M.A. grad with a desire to go further, but wondering what the next step should be. You have convinced me that maybe the right M.Div would be a good thing in the long term plan.

    To answer your questions, I do think that what may be lacking is generalists who actually know what they are talking about. On the local church level, I fear that a lot of the time the depth is simply not there. So while a given pastor may have accumulated a general level of knowledge, the depth is really not there and sadly it shows in his preaching. On the academic level, there can be so much pressure to really know a given area and so much personal desire to focus on that “favorite” area that others are lacking. Two recommendations I have, which I am doing myself is (1) to be committed to the need to be a generalist as a value and a duty, not just to reach the “human” accomplishment of a PhD, (2) to pursue rigorous study even when one leaves the academy–the study habits in seminary should become normative outside of seminary, and (3) to keep in view that theology is a process for each of us–and we must be committed to dealing with all the doctrines of the Bible and with all the Bible and in all the original languages. By keeping in view that it is a process, it gives a foundation, a perspective, that recognizes that we must seek ever more to . Hopefully our education choices support this–perhaps most importantly in (1) teaching the Biblical languages to support exegesis of all the Bible and (2) teaching Biblical Dispensationalism as the fabric with which to develop doctrine based on the whole Bible.

    Thank you for your post! It gave me some good food for thought.

  2. Tommi Karjalainen

    Good thoughts about the need for generalists, I fully agree. However, the article over-generalize European PhD’s… Not all are three years of narrow research and then out. I’m doing mine in Scotland, and my supervisor—an American—has tried to combine the benefits of both worlds so that the PhD would be more rounded while the research focus secures the depth of it. In Germany the PhD may be on a narrow field, but the student may already have two masters, and if one wants an academic job, he/she is required to do few years (habilitation) on a completely different area (say, a Gospel’s person would do Paul etc).

    This is to says that the systems do not necessarily produce generalists. It may be a combination of good example(s) + personal gifting + God’s calling + good advice and mentoring + educational institutions that recognize the need for generalists & contribute to their training.

    1. Tim Miller

      Tommi, thanks for the helpful comments. You are right in that I have provided too broad of a brush. If one looks in Academia, many widely studied professors graduated with a European model. But at the end of the day, I think the American model leads to more people being prepared with a wider breadth of knowledge.

  3. Tim,
    Thanks for this post. I ended up following the model you suggest, MDiv + PhD, and I’m glad that I did. I do think it rounded out my education. I received more classes in practical theology, and the professor at the time was serious about the theology part of practical theology. He was also serious about the method of moving from theology to practice. Also, it opened up space for me to take extra church history classes when in the PhD program because I had fulfilled my OT and NT requirements in the MDiv program. My current work at the Press is generalist in nature too, and I find great benefit in that. One danger of being a generalist is the difficulty in going deep, but a generalist can spiral deeper year by year.

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