Do Academic Papers Matter, or Are They Pointless?

I just submitted a paper proposal for the 2012 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  In the course of doing so, and after seeing a Tweet from a friend indicating a stronger desire to preach than give a paper, I thought I would say something brief about this.

In short, academic papers matter.  Too often in evangelical circles we act as if the real action is in pastoring.  I actually do believe that the church is at the center of God’s kingdom work, and the role of the pastor is therefore incredibly important.  But does theology matter?  Does scholarship count?  Do academic papers do anything meaningful?

Yes.  Yes, they do.  If you are personally tempted to think that preaching matters a great deal and Christian scholarship doesn’t, I’d ask a counter-question: the last time you preached, what did you use?  Did you crack open a commentary?  Did you consult a biblical theology that impinged on your topic?  Did you perhaps pick up a monograph from an academic series that touched on your topic and skim it for some context?  If you did, then I think you might have acted better than you speak.

Hear me carefully: I think pastors lead the charge in the work of Christ’s cosmic dominion-taking.  The local church is set up by the Lord to be a lab for discipleship.  The Christian school is not (though it can make very meaningful contributions).  We should dial down our rhetoric, though, when it comes to Christian scholarship.  The textual commentary that unearths countless precious insights from Scripture is inestimably valuable.  The monograph (single-topic academic book) that delves into new material in a field can reorient our whole theological paradigm.  The academic paper that drops into an important doctrinal and philosophical conversation can change the way people think and teach and even live.

There’s nothing in the Bible about establishing “academies.”  There’s no scriptural bifurcation between “church” and “academy” in the way that we know today (though 2 Kings 2 may indicate something of a nascent seminary in Ancient Israel).  Modern Christian scholars who aim to bless God’s people are “teachers” in the sense that Ephesians 4:11 intends. If you’re in the “academy,” don’t think of yourself as isolated from the life of the church.  Think of yourself as a vital part of it, one who is essentially set aside to delve deeply into various disciplines to create scholarship that, whether immediately or down the line, brings spiritual transformation.

Don’t speak badly or condescendingly about “academic scholarship” or “solitary research” or “teaching.”  Reconceive it; remix it; reinterpret what professors and teachers do.  The good ones make incredibly helpful contributions to the life and faith and thought of God’s people.  Remove the work of say, textual commentators from preaching and you are looking at a wasteland.  Are Don Carson’s commentary on Matthew or Alec Motyer’s on Isaiah pointlessly speculative?  Or are these and many other resources nothing less than crucial to the formation of textured preaching?

So, my friends, academic papers matter, as far as I can see.  Yes, you can do them such that they benefit absolutely no one; but even the high-level ones can reap significant rewards for God’s local churches.  Anything that offers sound thinking and builds up the minds and hearts of truth-lovers is welcome and, it seems, pleasing to God (Luke 10:27).

  • Tyler Wittman

    Amen, brother. For that matter, when anyone uses an English Bible then they’re leaning on scholars and their sundry papers.

  • dspeaks07

    Owen, that’s a great reminder of the mutually beneficial ministries of Christian academics and the local church. I remember feeling as though I was wasting my time during periods of seminary… I should be out DOING the ministry. Well, I was a fool for that thought, as all that study has paid of tremendously in the early moments of being a pastor in a local church. I don’t think I could “rightly handle the word of God” without the work of many scholar pouring into my life (via their “academic papers”). Thanks for the good work!

  • dspeaks07

    Reblogged this on For His Name's Sake: pastoral thoughts from Dustin Speaks and commented:
    Great points from my basketball buddy Owen Strachan on the importance of Christian academia. I encourage you to check out anything he writes, because it is always encouraging and edifying.

  • owenstrachan

    Excellent point, Tyler. Congratulations, by the way. May your scholarship lead people to a deeper knowledge of Christ, a greater love for God’s church, and increased fidelity in the Spirit.

    Dustin, you are too kind by half. Appreciate you, brother. Hope to run into you sometime soon.

  • mmatala

    Owen, I first want to say I do not disagree with you. Theological works are of the utmost importance. But I think where we run into danger is elevating theological works (i.e. books, papers, degrees for that matter) above the preaching of the Word. According to your class, the main function of the church centers around the ordinances, and the preaching of the Word. The danger comes when theological works are put on par with preaching. I don’t think we can do that. Just a thought. Appreciate you!

  • BC

    Are you arguing (a) that academic papers matter, generally, or (b) that academic papers on theology matter to the work of the church? I wonder whether, in making point b, you concede point a.

  • Mike Moore M.Div., D.Min.

    The problem is not the academic societies or papers. I value them. The problem is the elitism which some scholars (who probably, in most cases, are not preaching pastors) exhibit who remind us from time to time that they are biblical scholars and some things are the concern of the “specialists.” If we are wise we all know that that is true. That is not the problem. It is that some have to remind us of that fact. Sadly, for some of these their expertise insulates them from criticism of their conclusions. “After all who do they think they are, untrained, incapable of dealing with my thought on the level of the grammar and syntax of the Hebrew or Ugaritic.” Sadly, such arrogance tends only to turn off the working pastor to scholarship, who has maybe, for providential reasons, had little formal training but is faithful to the Lord in shepherding the flock of God and preaching the blessed gospel of Christ. Scholarship, I for one love it. Let me have all the academic papers I can get my hands on. These are servants to the servants of the Word for their care for the flock of the Lord they will stand before one day. But the scholars, well, the arrogant ones are a dime a dozen. You can have them.

  • Tim Kinley

    I realy love the christian who preaches and teaches by cleaning the toilets…with joy. Let no man think of himself higher than he ought

  • Steven Hunter (@schpreacher)

    A very good post indeed. As a minister, I will be presenting my first academic paper at a journal conference in a couple of weeks. I am rather nervous, but I think the church needs more scholar-preachers. I would also agree that it should not go to one’s head, but be used as a tool to better equip the brethren.

  • Pietro Ciavarella

    Owen, What a great post. One of the reasons the Italian (conservative Evangelical) church is dying isn’t because we don’t have too many academic papers. We are no where near that point yet! Indeed, we have very few trained pastors. Would that more of our pastors and preachers would use solid commentaries for sermon prep and beyond. Kelly’s biography on Chrysostom would help any minister understand much about his own ministry situation and not merely many things about that great preacher. Many Italians read a revised version of the translation of the Bible made centuries earlier by Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649), without realizing that they are benefitting from the fruits of a great mind. Diodati taught Hebrew at Calvin’s Accadeny in Geneva. The principal you enunciate, translated into workable categories in Italy, would be a massive help to the cause of Christ hear. In fact I’ve been arguing for it for years. Solid theological training is a pillar of any healthy evangelical movement. And one of the things that professors do, for many reasons, is write papers. By the way, I was at ETS/SLB in San Francisco and heard your paper on Carl Henry, as well as a couple others in the same session. They stimulated my thinking greatly as a pastor and professor of theology–for now context in Italy.
    Thank you for your post as well as for your scholarship
    Pietro Ciavarella

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