Should I get a PhD in Apologetics?

The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “for almost everyone, still no.” The even longer and needlessly provocative answer is that “any PhD gained by a Christian has (or should have) Apologetics in it.”

I often get asked the title question, especially ever since Southwestern Seminary rolled out its new MA in Christian Apologetics. Christian Apologetics, by its very nature, is a multidisciplinary field of study. To be sure, there are the characteristic areas that typically comprise a study of apologetics. For example, a mainstay of the discipline is issues in Philosophy of Religion. In Phil. Religion we talk about arguments for God’s existence, the coherence of theism (including doctrines that might appear to be in tension with each other as well other problems, such as the problem of evil). This of course fits well within the scope and purpose of Apologetics. Thus, philosophy is a really important area for doing apologetics. However, doing a degree in philosophy does not adequately prepare one to be able to defend against the great variety of challenges and objections that come from other disciplines.

To do these things well, we should do an advanced degree in Christian Apologetics, right? Yes! I would recommend a Master’s degree that gives introductory and advanced courses in these very important areas. On my view, the ideal MA is one, like ours, that gives you a strong foundation in philosophy (because this will help you to think well) and then exposes you to a variety of other areas such as Resurrection studies, Scientific issues, Cultural issues, Literature, Archeology, World Religions, etc.

What about the PhD? Shouldn’t one just continue on this track on the doctoral level? My answer for this is no in almost every case (see short and longer answers above). The reason is that the PhD is for specializing in a particular area of study, for becoming an expert in a field. It used to be the case that one specialized in a variety of fields. One was rarely just a philosopher but also worked in Science, History, Mathematics, etc. However, these days one cannot reasonably be a true generalist because there is simply too much information in each discipline. You have to pick a sub-area of a discipline (and perhaps, in some cases, a sub-area of a sub-area) in which to specialize. So, on my view, if you have interests in pursuing a PhD, you should pick an area from your exposure to the various disciplines (from your MA) and then do your PhD in that area. So let’s say that in your MA in Christian Apologetics you become fascinated by the historical case for the Resurrection. To continue this academic pursuit, it seems to me that you will need to specialize in historical studies broadly and the New Testament specifically. If you do not get this broad grounding in a historical approach to the New Testament, my fear is that one will not be able to have a deep enough understanding of the subtleties in which New Testament scholars trade. One, in effect, jumps to the conclusion without sufficiently filling out the premises.

The only time that I think a PhD in Apologetics could make sense is if the area of specialization in which one is interested is a perfectly balanced blend of multiple disciplines. That is, it isn’t a project in, say, New Testament studies that involves some philosophical elements. These happen all the time in New Testament departments. Rather it is a project in both New Testament and Philosophy. Again, to pull something like this off one would probably need advanced degrees in both New Testament and Philosophy prior to PhD stage and even then the worry is still that one is spread too thin in terms of expertise.

Okay, now for the provocative claim. I understand Christianity to be a complete worldview. That is, when one comes to embrace the truth of Christianity, it changes everything. We should, for example, never see people the same way we did prior to coming to a Christian commitment. For the Christian, people are created in the image of God and He so fully loves all people that He gave His only Son for them and has charged us with the proclamation of that salvation message. This is a complete and absolute game changer, as it relates to how we view the human person no matter if they are walking past us on the street or taking up arms against us! Likewise, we should never see money or career, politics or family, health or food, etc., the same ever again! There is a way that these and all other matters should be approached Christianly.

This is the same (and perhaps even especially the case) for the Christian academic. A person who aspires to the PhD is attempting to engage in original research in some particular domain of discourse. Typically, a dissertation is incomplete unless there is significant amount of theorizing about how one should understand the results of the research. If Christianity is a complete worldview, then it follows that there should always be some way in which the Christian academic’s theorizing is informed by his or her Christian worldview, even though it can of course be more or less explicit depending on the exact nature of the project. Thus, in defending the dissertation, one would be, by implication, defending one’s Christian worldview. One is doing, in a more or less explicit way, Apologetics! For example, if a Christian is doing PhD work in Sociology, then one should bring into the study the starting point that people are all created in the image of God and therefore have inherent value. Or if one is doing theoretical work in Mathematics or the hard sciences, I think we bring into the project a robust view of a world exquisitely designed and ordered replete with Divine intentions. These things have huge theoretical implications!

On my view, one need not explicitly argue for these Christian positions in the dissertation, unless of course this is the thrust of the project. In many settings, being overly explicit (when this is not the thrust of the project) could cause the project to not get a fair hearing. Every project has a starting place and the point is that, for the Christian, it should be starting places informed by the Christian worldview. The point is that when your quality project changes the face of your discipline this actually shows that the starting points are defensible and theoretically virtuous. So this is actually evidence for the Christian worldview.

So, my overall suggestion is to do your PhD in an appropriately narrowed area. No matter what you choose to argue for in your dissertation, you should spend significant time thinking about what it looks like to be a Christian academic in your specific discipline. If it is in Resurrection studies or Philosophy of Religion, then this will have a really obvious Apologetic thrust. However, if it is in Science or History or Sociology or Archeology, then it may not be as obvious but it should still have Apologetic implications. My advice: don’t get a PhD in Apologetics since the field is just simply too broad and too interdisciplinary. I suppose one can do multiple PhDs in the paradigmatic areas of Apologetics to truly become an expert but, if this is one’s desire, then, to borrow one of Dr. Paige Patterson’s oft used quips, one should probably first have a conversation with a psychiatrist.

Travis Dickinson

Travis Dickinson

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Dickinson serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics in the School of Theology. He is married to Shari and they have four children: Kaelia, Delaney, Emery, and Kade.
Twitter: @TravDickinson
Website: www.travisdickinson.com
Travis Dickinson

Latest posts by Travis Dickinson (see all)