Does the world need more theology/Bible professors??

I recently got this very important questions from a commenter.  This is a difficult question to answer in a brief and straightforward way.  One ‘right’ answer is NO – please choose another profession, this one is taken.  There are way too many Phd folks of higher calibre who will struggle for many, many years to find any job, let alone the one they imagined or hoped for.  So, unless you have a direct line from God telling you that this is the only path, save your families some hearthache (and a boatload of money!) and reconsider.

Having said that, I do think that the world needs some better theology/Bible profs.  Ones that:

1. Represent better the student body (and the wider people of God): a major area is more female professors and men and women ‘of color’.  I don’t think this is just to fill a quota or seem ‘diverse’ – at Gordon-Conwell, where I did my MDIV and ThM, it was a very white student body.  The students and faculty would have liked to attract more Latin American and African American students, but at the time I started, there were so few faculty of color that it would be hard to see that happening.

Keep in mind, I got beat out for jobs in some part because I am male  – my wife (who went to seminary) reminds me that when a school has chosen a woman over me, that’s one more woman professor to encourage someone like my wife who felt alone and harshly judged sometimes in seminary.

2. Can do theology (as a Bible professor), or vice versa.  Many have recognized that we have kept Biblical studies and theological interpretation in different rooms for far too long.  Can we find professors who read widely – I have committed myself to read more ‘theologians’ – particularly Miroslav Volf, Hauerwas, and some ancients like Chrysostom.  Will theology profs read Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God or Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem?

3. Are good communicators – ones who read monograph-level books, but can teach the ideas presented there at a freshman-in-college audience.  Or who think with the scholars, but can write for the church (like Christopher Wright, Gordon Fee, John Goldingay, etc…).

4. Are confident and convicted, but are irenic and have a willingness to learn and hear during debates.  I fear that too many of my own (=evangelicals) protect ‘truth’ with a sharp sword instead of a shield.  How can we be heard and also listen?  I go back to NT Wright’s mantra – reformed and always reforming.  I have learned much from the Brits about going out for a drink after a heated seminar with the very ones whom you place on the other side of the line.

5. Can live with one foot firmly in the academy (e.g., participate in SBL-like stuff) and the other in the church (regularly teaching or preaching, serving as elders, benevolence committees, missions boards, etc…).  I tend to see profs heavily leaning one way or the other.  On the one side, the reclusive professor who writes weighty books and hopes that someone will explain them to laypeople, somehow.  On the other side, the professor who moonlights as a pastor but is not interested in being sharpened academically and reading those esoteric books, some of which have powerful ideas in them.

6. Actually care for students – this is common sense to some of us, but too many professors I have known don’t bother to learn the students names, talk to them in hallways or the cafeteria (heaven forbid some should actually eat in the cafeteria!), and make them feel welcome when they interrupt the office hours that are posted but just seem like any other hours.  I admit that in seminary, I would go to a profs office hours and wait, only for them to never show up!  Ouch!  At Gordon-Conwell, I felt that most professors kept a barrier to protect their professionalism and not get too chummy with students.  I can see some sense in that, but I really desired to be discipled and to have a mentor.  Sadly, I didn’t really find one.  Part of this lack of involvement is just busyness – professors are overworked and (way) underpaid.  What can you do?  I have committed myself to having lunchtime reading groups to work through some of the books I have assigned that we will not be able to discuss in class.  This is my way of getting personal time with a smaller group who seek that out.  Also, I am going to try to have a community service project I coordinate for all of my students who can earn extra credit by putting their biblical knowledge into practice by serving others.  I will be serving shoulder-to-shoulder with them (habitat for humanity, or a soup kitchen, or fixing up an old church building, etc…).

SO – these are just some reasons why maybe the dream to become a professor is still alive.  When schools get dozens and dozens of job applications, I fear that a number of these applicants are cookie-cutter shapes – ‘I wrote this, I studied with this guy, I went to this school, I want to be a professor’.  Today, you need something else to make it to the top of the pile: you need to be a leader.  I fear that many bible profs are ‘scholars’ but not leaders.  They are ‘thinkers’ but not visionaries.  They are one-dimensional.  I don’t consider myself to be the cream of the crop or anything.  In some ways, I was fortunate enough to be at the right place (like Durham) at the right time.  But also I was willing to think outside the box.  I was bold enough to go after things because I didn’t want to be another [fill-in-the-blank].  I do see a few people out there who are pushing the envelope, in terms of serving academy and church.  Too few, though.

The bottom line – I would trade in 10 cookie-cutter profs for one discerning, humble, church-serving, think-outside-the-box scholar that works for and with students to understand theology and the Bible for the good of the modern world.  If you can step up and strive for that, I will back you up all the way.

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18 thoughts on “Does the world need more theology/Bible professors??

  1. Prophetic… and pastoral. The vision you cast here is the only reason I keep knocking on the door of this expensive and arduous path!

  2. Such an insightful and challenging article…Thanks..

    I am currently studying at Regent College and have been blessed to be sitting under pastor-scholar profs that challenge and shepherd us. Such a great, exemplary environment to study bible and theology.

  3. As a graduate from GCTS in 1994, your assessment of the situation is accurate. I encountered this same “barrier”, when I asked a prof to mentor me during my thesis. His reply was no. If you would like to discuss this further, use my email.

  4. “The bottom line – I would trade in 10 cookie-cutter profs for one discerning, humble, church-serving, think-outside-the-box scholar that works for and with students to understand theology and the Bible for the good of the modern world. If you can step up and strive for that, I will back you up all the way.”

    What is needed, however, are institutions willing to “strive for that.” As long as professorships are as institutionally molded as they are (i.e., tenure criteria, publish or perish, serving the perpetuation of academia, [pick your similarly minded phrase]), they will continue to be one-dimensional. “Pushing the envelope” will be the exception and not the rule.

  5. Nijay,

    I’ve had a really great experience here at Talbot from the profs… very professional but at the same time they do really care deeply about personal relationships. Anyway, I think you really do raise great points, and I wonder if just years and years of teaching contributed to such a jaded attitude…?

  6. This is a very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to right it (which is actually a way of acting out what you wrote about). I studied theology in undergrad for two years but stopped going because I couldn’t pay for it. I noticed that though some professors made themselves available as you mention, there were others who we wish were more open to our silent pleas for a mentor and confident.

    The thought of being a bible/theology professor plagues me repeatedly, however the funds for such endeavor do not exist. Thus one can either plan for the future or choose another path. Part of my motivation for wanting to become an Old Testament prof. was because of a friendly OT professor that I had the privillage of meeting.

  7. I agree with your post Nijay. It reminds me that I am blessed to be at a place like Truett Seminary (Baylor), where professors are also pastors, where they are not merely teachers but mentors and friends.

    I think the new wave of pedagogy will have to move beyond what can regurgitated in a classroom and how many articles can be published in order to make tenure. However, the key element to change this is the hiring body and those financially supplying the positions. It will take a shift in world view to see the validity in what you’re proposing, especially when many see only dollar signs and reputations of their schools.

    Will the hiring body of first and second tier schools turn down academic prowess for a mediocre professor with a heart for both academia and for the church?

    I believe it can be done, but once again I believe there will have to be a shift in world view to do this.

    Thanks for posting Nijay,

    Chris Kuhl

  8. Nijay,

    As always, an insightful post! I have an added suggestion. You address the question, “Does the world need more…” but then answer it in relation only to the American (and presumably European) settings. The president of the International Institute for Christian Studies (an evangelical organization that places Christian Ph.D.’s in non-Christian universities in countries other than America…the only organization of its kind) says that he can place 100’s of qualified professors tomorrow around the world (even in high ranking institutions). So, perhaps Christians with Ph.D.’s in the flooded field of American biblical/theological studies should consider thinking about their degrees missionally while leaving people like yourself (who is specifically gifted at what you do…and I’m grateful for it!) to teach in the highly competitive American market. Of course, the pay, prestige, etc. of teaching in, say, China, is much lower than teaching in America, while the sacrifices are significantly higher. I’m simply saying that on the world scene, there is a high demand for Christians with Ph.D.’s to teach biblical studies (and related fields). So, again, in light of the enormous numbers of Ph.D.’s floating around in American, maybe some should consider becoming academic missionaries abroad. Maybe America needs less Ph.D.’s, but (parts of the) world still needs them badly!

    Keith Campbell

    • As someone who received a PhD in the West (Wheaton) but now teaches in the Majority World (Singapore Bible College), let me echo Keith’s assertion that PhD’s in biblical studies are desperately needed in this part of the world. Not only does the school where I teach urgently need more lecturers, our current faculty is strapped by needing to volunteer our time during weekends and holidays to travel all over Asia to supplement the training at our partner seminaries. These schools lack PhD’s as lecturers but need them.

  9. Say, Nijay,
    Would you be interested in doing a follow-up post centered on using your PhD as a lecturer overseas? I’ve really enjoyed your work on grad school/PhD posts (not to mention all your other posts too)!

  10. Not a bad post, but I don’t think it addresses the need for teachers outside of the U.S. Do we really compete with others for jobs where the Christians are in dire need of the basic theological foundations of our faith?

    If you are really intent upon teaching as a calling of God, I think you should ask yourself: “will I teach for free, because they cannot pay me?” The world is in need of good profs outside the U.S. more than inside. Be willing to follow the need, not the ease and security of the U.S. academic system and it’s promise of a salary.

  11. Great post! I am hoping I can embody each of these traits when I begin teaching. It’s a lot of extra work than is “necessary” but I believe it’s worth it.

  12. Wow such an inspiration to me I’m am start my 1st year theology next year and this is what I’m aiming for. I’m being called by God to study his word but I don’t see myself as a pastor. But more teacher such as a prof with Godly views. Being spirit led in a secular institute. To bring glory to Gods kingdom

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