Theology as a discipline is conservative of its past: what theological work can be written without engagement with texts that are almost 2, years old, the New Testament, and many that are much older than that. Who is the theologian today who does not engage in creative dialogue with a part of the range of theological writing produced down the centuries? In any such situation within the humanities there will never be any single solution as to how the evidence is to be arranged for a conclusion, and consequently there will emerge a number of fixed positions, let us call them A, B, C, E, and F where each position is determined by giving particular weight to either individual items of evidence or by similar shifts regarding how items of evidence are to be viewed.
Once this territory has been gone over by the major scholars in a field there are only three courses open to PhD students. Second, rearrange the pieces in the jigsaw and produce a slightly different picture. This is, by far, the most common process, but the results are always disappointing as the thesis invariably becomes X-with-a-bit-of-Y the sprinkling of Y acting as variety. The third option is to bring new evidence, or a different set of assumptions, or relocate the debate within a new paradigm.
This is often the genuine solution to the stalemate: but it is as much the result of serendipity as it is that of labour. Alas, there may be so little to tackle, in reality, that all that happens is that a new summary is produced, an academic pirouette is performed, some trees are cut down for paper, and occasionally a doctorate is obtained.
What is the tell-tale sign of such overworked, stalemated areas? In the literature review, one finds that all the positions have been very clearly staked out not only in major works but in a host of secondary works, usually in the journals, supporting or attacking those positions. The lines are clearly drawn, sometimes they are even summarized in textbooks, and the PhD is no more than a statement of adherence to one or other camp.
However, if one wishes to be a researcher, adding to the sum of knowledge, as distinct from a cataloguer and organizer of academic opinions, then one must ask: have I anything really new to bring to this debate? In many areas of theology, but especially in Scripture studies, there is the phenomenon of the PhD that is built around a system whereby a fixed method is applied to a small batch of evidence, and the product is an exegesis that is the function of the method employed.
From the stand-point of the PhD student, it has the advantages that it trains one in formal method, teaches skills in close reading, fosters a paradigm, and virtually guarantees provided the student has acquired the appropriate skills and applied them diligently the successful outcome of the candidacy. This is a well-known model and, truth be told, is a necessary one given that many students need a PhD not because they are naturally research-active but because they are needed within their churches or communities to be teachers in colleges where ministers are trained.
The PhD in this case gives them the edge so that that they understand the problems of their students, allows them the confidence to write textbooks, and trains them to access and prepare materials on their own in the field. Each has had its enthusiastic teachers and even more enthusiastic PhD devotees.
While the main researchers have moved on from one style of exegesis to another, often their students are still turning out more and more of the same materials they learned to produce while doing their PhDs. Styles, fashions, and interests change in theology as elsewhere, and the teacher has to know how to learn new tricks.
Second, when a student has successfully finished such a work, having devoted several years of life to the project and now in possession of an impressive manuscript of 80, words, the natural desire is to share it with the academy by publication. Here the student often faces disappointment — and I write as the editor of a series — for publishers often simply do not wish to know.
However, if such a PhD does generate a couple of good articles, that is a successful outcome and should be welcomed: it is the what is left when the literature review, the discussion of method, and odd-and-ends put in to satisfy various extrinsic needs such as some pet hate of one of the examiners have been removed. Such books are never reviewed, rarely read, and often stand as monuments to youthful hopes unrealized. Many of those who put themselves forward to undertake a PhD in theology — and here our discipline in noticeably different from much of the rest of the academy — do so not simply because of a passionate engagement with the topic many researchers are passionate about their interests , but out of a desire to defend a position that they perceive being attacked, undermined, or ignored.
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They then hope that their work may provide an antidote to this problem, a refutation of those who challenge their committed position, and a defence of the faith. In short, they see themselves as apologists and the PhD as an act of apologetics. While every thesis, from its very nature, upholds one position and, by implication, challenges others, this desire to engage in explicit apologetics in the writing of a PhD fails to take account of the nature of the activity.
A PhD is a work that should demonstrate that its author has already mastered all the skills to be an academic theologian, has made a contribution to the advancement of knowledge, and can be considered a member of the academy. Its keynote is the demonstration of understanding a problem, rather than providing a defence of a position; while it should exhibit skilled and measured criticism of every position, it should not be structured around the refutation of a set of doctrines held as false.
Many theologians have to engage in apologetics, but this should be seen as separate or subsequent to the PhD process, and not as an activity that can be assimilated to it. But in the PhD, it is the clear possession of those skills and of a high level of understanding that is in question: that is the fundamental fact that must be communicated, or the thesis will fail.
Many students turn to studies from engagement in mission or ministry precisely because they are fearful of the attacks that are being made upon either Christianity or their particular positions on aspects of Christianity and hope that by writing their PhD they will perform a direct service to the Church. In the face of such ardour it is often difficult to say that while, ideally, every PhD should become a book, not every book should become a PhD.
Having a PhD may make them better equipped to the act as apologists later on, but that should not be their aim at the outset. So the starting point should be focussed on encompassing and assimilating the ways of the scholar by acting as a scholar in the basic mode of scholarship; then later the doctor can turn to more specialist activities.
Some, however, cannot wait till then to set off as knights errant — they lack that curious anatomical feature that German academics call Sitzfleisch — and it is better that they depart sooner rather than later from a PhD programme. The ancient rhetoricians referred to it as the causa scribendi : the explanation for why you are picking up your pen.
Take this article: my causa scribendi is set out in the opening paragraph. I have been going back over bundles of papers and noticed a continuity of comments, and want to share these insights with others. While this can be an effective stylistic device that can give a welcome lift to dreary prose, it must be used very sparingly. Otherwise, it can become the a basic motive of a thesis whereby the reader is left in no doubt about what all the wrong positions are, but it is not at all clear what the author herself wants to state.
The PhD must add positively to knowledge, while this will almost inevitably involve the correction of the idea of others, but this does not mean that one should set oneself up as judge and jury on the surrounding scholars. However, certain students are naturally pugnacious: the idiocy of the proponents of false notions must be simultaneously exposed with the false ideas!
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While I personally detest this identification of people with ideas — people seem multi-dimensional, ideas can often be barely two-dimensional — there are those for whom the fray is the spice of life. Most theologians would reject this as a wicked caricature of their endeavours for understanding, insight, and wisdom. But be that as it may, this is the way we are viewed both by other members of the academy and by many of the public at large. Sadly, too often PhD proposals are built around a core aim of pursuing an old enemy and repeating ancient slogans, while casually ignoring the fact of historical change: a real dispute of the early-5th century or of the 16th century may now be a matter whose chief importance lies in explaining how we came to be what we are.
To repeat the battles of yesterday does not advance understanding for it fails to situate those battles in context and then view them historically. The PhD must aim at the subtlety that is needed for the understanding of complex situations, rather than engage shouting matches, especially if the shouts are simply repetitions from societies and times very different to our own. In an age when religion is being blamed for discord, it is the task of every act of scholarship to promote discourse. Discourse is facilitated by seeking to understand the whole nexus of positions with which one disagrees; by developing sympathy so that one can look at opinions and actions without allergic reactions; and by developing the moral discipline that can distinguish between a person and an idea.
Any PhD that does not promote discourse in our world is a missed opportunity; while any PhD that contributes to discord ultimately negates the values of the Christian societies that value such possessions as doctorates. One feature of theses in theology — I am told that it virtually never happens in other areas where academics are under greater pressures to publish or perish — is the frequency with which unpublished theses are cited in other doctoral theses.
Moreover, I forbid the students I am supervising from using such materials. Today, it is just a few clicks of a mouse. So the question arises why has this thesis not being published either as a book or as an article or a suite of articles? First, although many theses may succeed in obtaining for their writers the degree of doctor, which does not necessarily mean that the scholarship meets the best standards of academia. So what weight can you put on any particular part of its findings? Why has this not happened? But it may be that the student was only half-hearted and completed the PhD as a chore, and in that case while it may be technically acceptable as a thesis, it may be uncreative and defective as a piece of scholarship.
It may be that the work is so riddled with holes that no publisher will touch it!
Master of Theological Studies (MTS) | Graduate Studies Academic Calendar | University of Waterloo
So the ideas have not been put into the common arena where they can be sifted by the criticism of other, more mature scholars. Yet, it is this essentially private and untried material that you, as a PhD student are willing to use as part of the foundation of your own edifice!
Those in this track, in addition to what is required of all MA Theology and Christian Ministry students, will:. Those who complete a thesis will do so in the last semester of course work. For more information contact Franciscan Online in our Graduate Admissions Office at or at online franciscan.
Students must apply for admission to the Research Intensive Track. Want to Talk it Over?