“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV).
It may be difficult to comprehend all the research, writing, editing, proofreading, and email-arm wrestling with your friendly neighborhood doctoral adviser as an act of grace or a gift to others for God. However, for those engaged in theology and religious studies, in ministry (and other humanities, too), the doctoral or master’s thesis should be an enduring gift to God and humankind. We can assert this confidently because we see the truth illustrated so powerfully in the Bible. The Apostle Paul, in his Second Epistle to Pastor Timothy, chapter 2 and verse 15, admonishes Timothy to practice diligence in scholarship. He is speaking, of course, of biblical scholarship. However, “rightly dividing the word of truth” refers to the holy Scriptures. Timothy had an example of a man who studied the classics in the apostle Paul. His training as a rabbi was nothing short of the most strenuous and comprehensive study of the humanities. The apostle Paul was able to “Creighton poets and Greek philosophers.” There is evidence in his writings of allusions to other literature as well. In his study of Scripture, the apostle Paul had studied to show himself approved. But for what? Here is the thing: the apostle Paul calls Timothy to the life of uncompromising scholarship of the highest daughter because he is to preach and minister the inherent and the infallible word of the living God.
I shall never forget when (1938-2000) visited our fledgling church plant in Overland Park, Kansas. He graciously preached at our church plant, and over 300 people came to hear the noted Bible scholar and pastor. Boice, the former editor of Christianity Today, and the speaker on the Radio Bible Study Hour, preached from the Epistle to the Romans that night.
Many of those who came were brought into the church and are still in the church in Overland Park. After the service, Dr. Boice came home with my wife, our son, and me. My wife fixed us a late supper. It just so happened that I was to be taking off the next morning for the United Kingdom. I had a month of doctoral studies ahead of me. I was halfway through my Doctor of Philosophy program at the University of Wales. Dr. Boice inquired about my studies. A graduate of the University of Basel, Switzerland (there he planted a local church even as he pursued his doctoral studies), and a Harvard and Princeton graduate, Dr. James Montgomery Boice was unsurpassed in his scholarship. His pedagogical pedigree was preeminent, and his role in the larger Church of our Lord Jesus Christ was that of an undisputed servant-leader and “a doctor of the Church.” As the evening ended, Dr. Boice looked at me as if he were sizing me up. He then said words I will never forget: “Mike, always remember that the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is worthy of the highest scholarship. There is no greater use for your Ph.D. than to translate the truth of God in his word to little children.” Whether Dr. Boice sensed some sort of academic ambition or not, his point was well taken and reverently received. So, “that which I have received from the Lord” through Dr. Boice, I say to you all: “Use your studies as a gift in the service of ‘the least of these in God’s Church.’”
The only way to ensure that your dissertation is in the service of God and others is to bring it before the bar of inquiry. Ask yourself: “Is your study and the product of your research monuments to yourself, a measure of your scholarly brilliance to academic peers, or is the great goal of your dissertation to bring glory to God and salvation in Christ to others?”
I am so proud of all those I am involved with supporting their dissertation experience. I believe that all of my students have demonstrated their love for God and others in their scholarly work. However, we know that the spirit is willing as the flesh is weak. Therefore, let us be on guard against the intrusion of ambition, self-aggrandizement, or anything which would compete with the glory of God and the value of the gift ‘for the sake of the elect.’”
Remember: Paul wrote to Timothy to study and show himself approved when he was in chains in prison and soon to be executed. The most important things are said in times like those.
God speaks to you (and others) through the Scriptures. We live in perilous days. The Church needs your scholarship to support believers making their way through a world, a strange land where everything they have known is being deconstructed and reassembled without the Creator’s blueprint. Use your studies to prepare yourself better to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. And never forget, the great goal of theological and biblical scholarship is to bring the Word of the Lord to a little child in your congregation. Study deeply to make it plain.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”