I promise I won’t write about this often, but I figure my blog is the best way to let a number of people know who might be interested (and if you aren’t interested, that’s just fine).

So here’s the news that was announced at our congregational meeting on Sunday: I’m heading back to school to work on a Ph.D.

This fall I will enroll at the University of Leicester and begin part-time doctoral studies in Early Modern History. My adviser is John Coffey, not the guy from The Green Mile, but an excellent scholar in 17th and 18th century British history. Among other things, he’s written on Samuel Rutherford and co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism. He has already been extremely helpful as I put my proposal together.

My research will focus on the theology of John Witherspoon (hence, the increase in Witherspoon posts over the past few months). As the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon is better known as one of our Founding Fathers. (Reece Witherspoon also claims to be a direct descendant, but that’s another story.) I want to look at Witherspoon the theologian, more than Witherspoon the politician.

In particular, I want to examine whether his role as the transmitter of the Scottish Enlightenment has been overblown. Witherspoon emigrated from Scotland in 1768 to become the president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), so it’s common to see Witherspoon as the one who introduced Common Sense Realism into the bloodstream of Old Princeton. In wrestling with the “problem” of John Witherspoon, I hope to understand how the champion of the evangelical Popular Party in Scotland is now hailed by scholars (or lamented) as the man who mixed a good dose of Enlightenment thinking into his Orthodox Presbyterianism. I think Witherspoon was a better theologian and a more consistently Reformed in his theology than scholars give him credit for. But of course, I’m just starting out and may end up heading in a different direction.

The plan is to complete my dissertation in 3-4 years, but I realize these things can change. You’ll probably see some Witherspoon stuff here and there in the years ahead, but don’t expect me to turn the blog into a platform for academic musings. That’s not why you read this blog. And frankly, if I write a lot about Witherspoon now, I’m bound to think I know more than I really do. Better not to air all my latest ideas when so many of them could be half-baked.

Why pursue a Ph.D.? That’s a good question, one I’ve asked myself since I was in seminary. I’ve pondered this step for many years. For me, the biggest reason for going back to school is because I love to learn, love to study, and love to write. I’m very excited to be starting down this path, knowing that I will be intellectually challenged in ways I haven’t been before.

There are other reasons for taking the Ph.D. plunge. I will be sharpened and humbled as a student. My knowledge of theology and church history will grow. I will get to dip my toe in the world of genuine scholarship and interact with other Christians in the field. And when it’s all said and done (assuming everything gets said and done), a Ph.D. may afford me opportunities for adjunct teaching and to enter into certain conversations and undertake certain projects that would be otherwise closed. I’m under no illusion that getting another degree will necessarily make me a better Christian, a better pastor, or a better writer. But I think it can make me a better thinker and that can help me with the rest.

With this added time commitment, I will cut back on a lot of speaking and writing for the next few years. I have a book coming out this fall (Crazy Busy) and will attempt another one for Crossway this summer on the doctrine of Scripture. I’m already working with my elders to reduce my outside responsibilities so I can devote a good portion of this next season of my life to study, without my church or my family suffering as a result. To that end, my church has been incredibly gracious in granting me 9-12 months of study leave spread out of the next 3-4 years. I wouldn’t be able to tackle a dissertation without this time and without their encouragement.

So over the next few years, I hope to keep doing most of what I’m doing right now. But look for some longer blogging breaks in the future and fewer books and speaking engagements starting about a year from now. I will continue pastoring full-time at URC, with the aforementioned study breaks spread out over the next few years. In addition, I’ll go to the UK once a year for a fortnight.

This is an exciting step for me and I’m immensely grateful to all the friends who have helped in this process already. I’m especially thankful to my church and my family for their support.

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25 thoughts on “Back to School”

  1. faithworks says:

    A wife and 5 kids. A good reason not to pursue a Ph.D. at this time. Who cares if you get a Ph.D.? except maybe you. Title means nothing if it comes at the expense or others.

  2. David Morgan says:

    Your topic sounds like a fascinating and important one (at least to those with an interest in Presbyterianism, but hopefully to others too!).

    I work in Leicester, so if you have the time and inclination to have coffee/lunch/beer/whatever with strange blog readers you know nothing about while you’re there, feel free to contact me by e-mail.

  3. Ivan Mesa says:

    Congrats, brother!

  4. Ryan Dembeck says:

    Kevin–

    From my early college days at Northwestern College (IA) to the present, your writings, teachings, and blogs have impacted my faith and challenged me to grow in ways I am immensely grateful for. I am excited for this new journey of learning ahead of you and your family, and cannot wait to see the faithfulness of God to you through you passing what you’ve learned to the rest of us.

    Blessings

  5. Brian Habig says:

    Kudos, Kevin – you will write a smashing dissertation. (Was that British-sounding enough?)

  6. Excited to hear your news! Thanks for obediently, humbly, and joyfully serving the Lord through scholarship.

  7. First, Congratulations on being accepted. Second, Kudos to you for pursuing a higher ed degree. Third, WELCOME to the exclusive Permanent Head Damage club of which I too shall soon be a member. Seriously though, as a fellow lover of learning I encourage you to read your major resources at the beginning of your dissertation…oh, and be prepared that the Lord might just redirect your topic. Again, congrats and will be praying

  8. Congrats, Kevin! One of the challenges will be wanting to talk about a whole lot of things you’ll learn with not a lot of people around with the same interest/knowledge, so I hope you’re provided some great opportunities to interact with some good folks. Looking forward to seeing how the Lord uses this.

  9. Congrats! We’ll miss your contributions to the blogging world, but more knowledge is a good thing.

  10. Erin M. says:

    Buy your wife some flowers. :)

    Good wishes for you in this season of school again.

  11. Nathan Finn says:

    Good for you, Kevin. And great choice deciding to study church history & historical theology, especially w/ a great scholar like Coffey. Best wishes with your studies.

  12. faithworks says:

    Could a person who flaunts the fact that they are “crazy busy” represent a prideful, arrogant, self-righteous, bragging, look at me kind of sinful behavior?

  13. hoperests says:

    @faithworks- Could a person who conceals the fact that they are “sensibly idle” represent a prideful, arrogant, self-righteous, bragging, look at me kind of sinful behavior?

  14. Ron Maness says:

    @faithworks. Anything we choose to do comes at the expense of something else that could have been done. And anyone in ministry knows the costs that all faithful ministry entails. I think that Kevin’s decision is praiseworthy and a cause of celebration, and I look forward to periodic updates of his progress. Didn’t Jesus’ own family issue advice to Him which sounds similar to yours?

  15. faithworks says:

    All im saying is that we want to make sure we are not going on some kind of ego trip here, even if we declare we are trying to being humble. Kevin seems to raise his flag frequently.

  16. ATB says:

    @faithworks… Whatever may be motivating your comments on this post, they’re inappropriate, judgmental and, frankly, in poor taste. A substantive critique of KDY’s positions is perfectly in order. This kind of catty nitpicking is cheap and useless. Find a more productive way to spend your time and put your words to better use.

  17. Ross says:

    Very cool, Kevin! Blessings in this new adventure.

  18. Daniel Radke says:

    Hi Kevin. Not sure if you already know about his work, but for your research you should consider looking at the work of Paul Kjoss Helseth, particularly his book Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal. In it he critically analyzes the consensus view on the influence of Scottish common sense realism on the Old Princetonians, heirs of Witherspoon. Furthermore, Helseth incisively analyzes the significance of this debate on contemporary evangelicalism.

  19. Nathanael says:

    Sounds like an interesting dissertation topic. I’ll be interested to see what you find out. Just don’t be one of those people who writes a book about the effects of common sense philosophy on the theology of x without actually bothering to read Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson. Hope it goes well!

  20. David Pierce says:

    Hi, Kevin,

    Denise graduates today–she finished her DMA! While researching and writing, she observed precisely what you have so eloquently expressed, namely, that one learns to THINK better. Truly a blessing! Thank you for sharing. Blessings, David.

  21. Jason Nicholls says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Wow, this is big news and a big endeavor for you and your family! It happens that I wrote on Nathanael William Taylor (19thc Yale prof in the Edwardsian tradition) and worked a bit on the Scottish Common Sense angle with him. Seems like ages ago, now that I’m in the pastoral trenches and more concerned with pastor stuff than Scottish stuff. I’ll actually be attending Begg’s conference next week, maybe we get introduced. Blessings on this pursuit,
    Jason

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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