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.