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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).

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