PhD Studies

PhD students Gabe Fluhrer (MDiv, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary), Carlton Wynne (MDiv RTS, Charlotte) and Nate Shannon (ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary) share what led them to PhD studies, how their seminary experience prepared them, and how their studies have impacted their ministry.

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Philosophy for Theologians aims to look critically at the problems of philosophy by considering everything in light of God's revelation. The program not only wants to address philosophical questions but also to equip you with a way to think about these questions. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

Camden Bucey

10 years ago

The audio is a bit glitchy because of some PC issues we had while trying to do live switched video and multitrack audio recording on the same machine. I cleaned it up as much as I could, but the audio jitters a bit. I apologize. We won’t be attempting this much activity on one machine in the future!

Tim H.

10 years ago

This was better than I anticipated. Thanks for the great discussion guys. I especially appreciate the bits on youth ministry. God bless you all on your studies!


10 years ago

Great discussion. I remain somewhat skeptical, however. You mentioned that many of the “freshmen” at WTS come in hoping, unrealistically, to become professors. Does everyone in the PhD program(s) at WTS go on to ministry work? Most seminary professors have degrees from Oxford, Princeton, St. Andrews, etc., and there’s a good reason for that. WTS exists primarily to train pastors, even with their PhD students. So I’m assuming that everyone in this episode is going to move on to ministry work after their degrees.

All of you, therefore, are pastor-academics, and it does show with how often each of you digresses into the “practical” value of your PhD. You can write lay-people presuppositional philosophy works, and reduce reformed epistemology and a critique of foundationalism to a Bible-study or youth group level. In a sense, then, pastor-academics are academic-popularizers, not purely academics. Even Oliphint repeatedly says he is not a philosopher, not interacting with academic philosophers at their level.

Of course, I think there is a much needed place for such pastor-academics, but this episode, as I heard it, did not seem to leave a place for pure academics. Maybe you can reduce reformed epistemology, in its bare-bones, to a popular level, but most of what goes on in academic philosophy (say) cannot be simplified, nor should it be. What place, then, does a Reformed believer have in pure academics? (Incidentally, I find lay-people in Reformed churches are generally far more skeptical or dismissive of pure academics than they are of pastor-academics, say. The attitude often is, if it cannot be explained at my current level of knowledge, it is probably not worth pursuing.)

Finally, I’m wondering what the funding options are at WTS for PhD studies. Presumably they don’t have TAships, and few, if any, fellowships. Are all of you working or taking out loans, or supported by a church? That would be another significant difference between doing PhD work at WTS as opposed to work in academic philosophy, or even a not-so-pastoral theology program like Notre Dame’s, where most of the PhD students are TAs if I’m correct.


10 years ago

I should clarify that I don’t at all doubt that WTS is incredibly rigorous and produces many scholars (as witnessed by the fact that some WTS grads do end up becoming professors, not to mention the published work many of them produce), and I am sure the same could be said for many other Reformed seminaries. So in general I’m wondering (and a bit skeptical of) how much PhD students at a seminary like WTS have to straddle a fence between practicality and esoteric academics, always having to keep in view how the PhD can be applied in a setting like the local church.

Nate Shannon

10 years ago

I enjoyed this discussion very much, I’m glad the listeners are enjoying it too. Patrick, I am having some difficultly catching what you mean here. I think that maybe what I’m detecting is a dichotomy between scholarship and the practical demands of ministry at the popular level. I think of things differently. A lot of rigorous academic work focuses on stuff which is not likely to be relevant to the average person, I guess, but I think this is not the case for most doctoral level folks at Westminster. I’m not doing my PhD at WTS, but between myself, Carlton and Gabe, we’re all interested in topics which are urgently relevant. I think one of the main points on which the three of us agreed, and which we were trying to get across, was that American Evangelicalism desperately needs educated men in the pulpits, well-read pastors available to folks, an apologetic readiness and preparation, anticipation of the assaults with which the secular world will trouble our young ones in the schools and elsewhere.. (I taught a course at a school here in Philly, a course on religion: I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like “I grew up in the church, but no one seemed to be able to answer my questions…”) Incidentally I think it is important to remember that the very toughest attacks on the faith come also from the heart of every sinner, even from saved sinners, believers, struggling with this and that – evil and suffering, death, intellectual struggles and faith struggles. This is important so that we don’t confuse categories and too easily associate the world beyond the walls of the church and the Christian sub-culture with sinfulness. This is not biblical, and leads to pride and retreat, and the kind of anti-intellectualism and anti-culture which American churches have struggled with. Anyway, I think if your heart is ‘set’ on ministering to people and on the needs of the church, wouldn’t you be led by that fact to academic research which serves that end?

I remember Dr.C.Davis emphasizing the fact that Luther’s confrontation with Rome began, and was motivated, by his – notice – pastoral concerns, his deep and heart-felt concerns for his ‘flock’, as they say. He was really gutted to think that the Rome not only denied the church goer assurance of salvation, but capitalized on their desperation and helplessness.

The other side of the coin: I heard some one say – it may have been Dr.Tipton during the course on Barth, during Modern Theology – something about the danger of a theologian losing touch with the church. He said something about keeping a careful eye on those ivory tower types who have neglected the church or ministry or whatever (I’m paraphrasing). This is a keen observation, one which resonates with your concern about the relationship of academics to ministry.

I doubt, honestly, that you really could do a PhD at Westminster and not come out of it better prepared to serve the church (and I sort of hope you couldn’t): I see no distinction between the kind of scholarship (rigorous, let me tell you) which WTS expects of its students, and practicality. Not all scholarship is esoteric – no such fence at WTS, I submit.

Anyway, I don’t plan to go into ministry. I hope to teach, God willing. So – how do I envision the Reformed role in scholarship/academia? First, the same way I envision the Christian role in lawn care or scuba diving: to the glory and enjoyment of God. But more specifically, every subject matter offers a different set of challenges and opportunities. In any field – the sciences, the humanities, the arts – you’ll find people dead set on using and abusing God’s truth; and in every field, there will be an abundance of opportunities to bring glory to God, to answer those challenges, and to edify the church by the enjoyment and exploration of your particular corner of God’s massive truth. In that sense, being an academic I think is rightly thought of as ministry.

I likely missed the whole point of your comments, Patrick. If so, my apologies.



10 years ago

“pastor-academics are academic-popularizers, not purely academics…” What a great thought, well put! For what it’s worth, I know that I am not called to the pastorate and focus mainly on academics, but I’m the only one in that camp among the RF crew (even Nate is in youth ministry, although he will one day do us all a great service by teaching).

Your comment is completely valid and points out that we can’t say everything at once and usually what we want to say is intended for a somewhat broader audience than you would probably find yourself in. You may have heard an emphasis or element in this episode that seemed to communicate that even an academic program like the PhD at a seminary has to be at least somewhat “practical.” It depends on what one means by that, but I would say that we have plenty of students who do not feel a call to pulpit ministry but academics and use that degree accordingly. But the degree itself is flexible enough that it can be practically or academically applied based on one’s career field.

Funding-wise, WTS has PhD scholarships that are determined by the faculty based on the committee’s decision on who the best candidates are for each respective field. Some students are a TA, but you’re right, those are very hard to get. Worth pursuing, though! (With fully understanding that I had my Admissions hat on in this final paragraph.) 🙂


7 years ago

Disclaimer: This might be gravely ignorant of me given my level of acquaintance with theology (I’ve studied philosophy and anthropology and have a beginning, recreational interest in theology).

There seems to be something wrong with the assessment that philosophy is something to be wary of. Very wrong. If your belief is strong (I know ‘strong’ needs to be defined), there should be no information in the world that threatens that strength. It should be able to reply to (and be enriched by) every challenge – from philosophy, from psychology, from critical theory, from history, from science, from the views of your friends. If there is a type of inquiry that is threatening to your beliefs, then that indicates that your beliefs are on shaky ground and need to be reexamined and made more robust (if possible). There is a difference between charitably considering other views and writing them off wholesale because they call into question, or do not address at all, some aspect of your belief. I think the correct attitude would be ‘philosophy x proceeds from a premise that I do not agree with or think is in error (and here’s why) but this is not to say that it has nothing to offer me’. If nothing else, it has offered you a new mirror in which to see your existing beliefs.

From what little I can glean, you reject much of philosophy because it is built upon a foundation of reason. Not all philosophers give primacy to reason. The role emotion plays in reason is very much a topic in philosophy and psychology. Actually it is my current supposition that religiosity is an emotional orientation (and this is by no means reductionist or an insult).

On the personal nature of religion: if religious belief is personal – something come to via lengthy, serious introspection – what role does teaching children about it play, if not indoctrination? What space is there for making a personal revelation or personal relationship with a deity, applicable to other people at all? The only space I can see is for a non-didactic, informal one, which involves sharing your relationship to that deity with people, so that their perspectives may perhaps be opened and so they may be inspired to search in their own way, on their own path.

My aims is to try and bridge the gap between believers and non-believers, to open up communication. Both sides are put off by dogmatism, jargon and obstinance. It is important to realise as a religious person, that saying things like ‘Oh you would understand if you just opened your heart to the Holy Spirit’ are unhelpful. To a non-believer, or someone simply unacquainted with the jargon, that is a statement entirely devoid of content. It will only make them even more skeptical about your position.

I have A LOT to read yet but I thought I’d try and get some quick responses to these concerns of mine. Like I said, I am a novice, so I appreciate any authors you can direct me to who could shed some light on the above issues for me.


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