Five Distinctives of Christian Scholarship

The goal of the Th.M. program at Western Seminary is to build Christian scholars. But what is Christian Scholarship?

By my way of thinking, scholarship is the quest for truth with a paper trail. To unpack that further, scholarship is the chronicled quest for truth, knowledge gained through study, the investigation and research of compelling questions, the offering up of truth claims coupled with the necessary interplay with those who agree and, more importantly, disagree. All of that is standard fare when it comes to defining scholarship. So it is really the adjective Christian that is of importance to us.

Is there a difference between Christian scholarship and other kinds of scholarship? That is, is there anything about being a Christian that is to make our scholarship qualitatively different from other kinds?

I believe that the answer to these questions is an unqualified yes.

The “Christian” in Christian scholarship gives our scholarship an audience, a primary source, a standard, a rule, and a behavioral guide.

The Audience of Christian Scholarship is the Lord and it is performed to serve His church.

The Christian scholar, as in all areas of life, is to render academic service “as to the Lord” (Eph 6:7). This means that the primary audience for the Christian scholar is the Lord Jesus Christ. The scholar is not to pursue the praise of the academy, first and foremost, but the praise of God. Chasing the adulation of the academy has always seemed to me a fool’s errand for the evangelical. The academy at large does not share the same presuppositions, particularly regarding inspiration and providence. Therefore as long as we privilege the Bible and expect that God will supernaturally act in this world, we will never be respected, not ultimately. Now, rejection by the academy does not excuse bad scholarship. Rather it raises the bar. If the academy is to reject the evangelical’s work, may the reason rest solely at the presuppositional level. Let the excellence of our work be our protest because our ears are trained to hear the praise of the One who matters most.

The Primary Source of Christian Scholarship is Holy Scripture.

The Bible is the Word of God and is the source of authority and governing content of all Christian scholarship. How could it be any other way? The Lord has spoken and intends to be understood. He has given us all the divine words that we need to live faithfully before Him. But the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture do not entail that investigation into Scripture is superfluous or unnecessary. On the contrary, the Creator-creature distinction requires that we diligently study the Word of God, seeking to understand what God means by what He says. All truth is God’s truth, but the Lord has spoken most clearly in His Word. Therefore, diligent study of Scripture also gives us an authoritative standard by which we measure all other truth claims.

The Standard of Christian Scholarship is Excellence.

If the primary audience of Christian scholarship is the Lord then excellence is the only acceptable standard. This is so for two reasons: First, if the Christian is to do everything as to the Lord, then only the best will do. “Good enough” is never good enough for God. He has given us His best in his Son. We must do likewise. Second, the Word of God gives us a standard of truth that is uncompromised in its purity and the perfection of its ideas. Consider the glorious truths of the gospel and the affirmations of the majesty of our triune God. How could we treat them with anything less than a standard of excellence?

The Rule for Christian Scholarship is Honesty.

If scholarship is a record of the quest for truth then the incompatibility of dishonesty in Christian academic work is apparent. There is no room for fudging the data, ignoring facts that do not support our desired conclusions, or plagiarism. The Christian scholar serves the God whose word is truth so appropriate citation and credit must be given to those from whom we have learned. Truth is on our side, so we need not fear any academic inquiry. There is no point in attempting to serve the eternal God who judges the thoughts and motives of the heart by cooking the books or neglecting the tough questions. Honesty in all things must be our rule.

The Guide for Christian Scholarship is Charity.

One would not expect it, but the most important biblical guide to scholarship might be 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. From it we learn that we can never separate character from our academic pursuits. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). In this simple, yet seemingly impossible admonition, we learn that that we must consider our arguments and be convinced that they are fair. We must go the extra mile to ensure that we are accurately reflecting the ideas of those with whom we disagree. We must consider the totality of one another’s writings. Strawman arguments are completely off the table. And we must give the benefit of the doubt, particularly to our interlocutors. In short, we are to obey Jesus’ golden rule and treat others the same way that we would like to be treated – even in, especially in, our academic pursuits. Scholarship that is truly Christian can have no other guide but love.

About Todd Miles

Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).