When attending a doctoral defense and hearing the liberating words from the jury that the doctoral candidate may now call himself/herself “doctor”, I cannot help but wondering whether it was worth all the efforts that went into the doctoral project. Last Wednesday it was no different, when I attended the ceremony for my friend Wim Altink, who successfully defended his thesis in the Faculte Universitaire de Theologie Protestante (FUTP) in Brussels (Belgium). His thesis dealt with aspects of the status of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Revelation. I have great admiration for the fact that Wim was able to complete his doctoral work while holding a full-time job and in spite of experiencing major challenges in his personal life.
I must admit that from time to time I have wondered whether my own ambition to get a PhD was worth it. It was not an easy process. And, to be honest, I did not really need it, as I was not in an academic position and was not planning to move into full-time academics. What practical use did it have to become a doctor in theology? Looking back, I must admit that the practical use of my title has been limited.
Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to encourage others to follow people like Wim and myself and aim for a doctoral degree. The very process is extremely worthwhile. Apart from increasing one’s knowledge about the topic of the dissertation it has significant value. It demands rigorous thinking, and being extremely well organized. It develops critical thinking and tests one’s perseverance. Going through that process is an enrichment and gives great satisfaction, even if few people will ever read the dissertation.
Quite a few Christians (Adventists not excluded) express doubt about the usefulness of obtaining a doctorate in theology. Does it make the new doctor a better preacher? A better shepherd of the flock? Is there not the possibility (or even the likelihood) that all this study leads to a loss of faith rather than a strengthening of one’s personal faith? These questions are certainly relevant. But I want to briefly emphasize another aspect.
A denomination must have a good, balanced and dynamic theology. This also applies to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Theologians are servants of the church and play an important role in formulating and critically developing the church’s doctrinal understanding. The church must not depend on just a few theologians of a certain kind, but on a wide range of theologians who approach their theological task from different perspectives. They nourish the theological thinking in the church by their dialogue, their lectures and publications, and in their interaction with the church at large. In other words: they must help the members of the church to think theologically in a sound way and to grow in their understanding of the implications of their faith.
Currently, the Adventist Church faces a number of serious problems. One of the core issues the church presently struggles with is that the administrators of the church feel that they must be the protectors of “correct” theology. If they seek advice in theological matters, they look for that advice in a small circle of theologians who are known to be conservative. This process is in the way of responsible theological developments. Theology is a project of the entire church, led by theologians who represent the entire (Adventist) theological spectrum.
The church needs capable administrators. But the church needs just as much (or even more) dedicated theological minds that will guide and encourage all church members (including administrators) on their pilgrimage toward an ever better understanding of who and what God is, how He relates to us and how we may better serve Him. Therefore: We continue to need more theological specialists. It is good to see that Wim decided to join the theological brother- and sisterhood. May many more women and men follow on that path!