Dr. Bryan Fergus graduated in 2018 with the Doctorate of Ministry degree from Phoenix Seminary. In this post, he summarizes his DMin thesis and how he settled on his topic.
Most doctoral graduates likely share the common experience of being asked about their dissertation topics. When asked, most of us know that we have about sixty seconds to explain a year’s worth of research before the person asking glazes over and loses consciousness. You should see the blank stares that come from people who instantly regret asking a doctoral student about a dissertation topic. They are priceless. With that said, I’ve been asked to write a brief blog post about my recently defended dissertation. Since I have seen the blank stares of instant regret, I promise I will do my best to keep you from losing consciousness.
Let me begin by saying that I genuinely appreciate philosophical approaches to theology. I was raised on and trained in good solid systematic theology. I appreciate and rely on that training every time I serve Jesus as a pastor or professor. But since I have a faith that seeks understanding, sometimes the big questions lead me to a more philosophical approach that seeks to make sense of what the Scriptures tell us. For example, we know there is a place called Hell. Scripture and systematic approaches to theology tell us so, and we should trust them. But why would our good God create such a place or allow it to exist? Philosophical approaches to theology plumb the depths of such mysteries in an attempt to understand these issues and provide answers for the confused.
Several years ago I was exposed to philosophical theology in the analytic tradition, commonly called analytic theology. I noticed that analytic theologians use certain best practices in order to explore some of the more complex Christian doctrines. They are clear about their assumptions and rational moves when presenting their doctrinal positions. They strictly adhere to the formal rules of logic when making their theological arguments. They strive for simplicity or parsimony of expression when stating a case. They pursue precision in their choice of words, and genuinely consider potential objections to their ideas. They divide complex theological problems into manageable units, and submit their theological models to the revelation of Scripture.
When it came time to land on a dissertation topic, I chose to explore how the best practices of analytic theologians could potentially empower people with teaching ministries in the church to navigate the increasingly skeptical and hostile religious landscape of American culture. My research focused on identifying the best practices of analytic theology and locating examples of each of them in the writings of prominent analytic theologians. After this, I got busy offering potential examples of how these best practices could shape the way pastors and Christian leaders teach the complex doctrines of our faith to a skeptical culture.
Why go to all of this trouble? Because I want to help ministry practitioners reach skeptical hearers with the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. As a pastor with twenty-nine years of vocational ministry experience, I have noticed that people who attend church as well as people who don’t are less inclined to simply accept biblical doctrines at face value. Many people need these doctrines to make rational sense before they can fully embrace them. To be sure, there is plenty of mystery at work in some of the more complex doctrines of our faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity or the incarnation of Jesus. Still, if effort is made to demonstrate that these doctrines really do make sense, perhaps skeptics will give our faith a genuine hearing.
I’m not the first to think that an analytic approach to theology using both revelation and sanctified reason could help listeners connect the dots in their heads. Jonathan Edwards also thought so. Many analytic theologians think of the great Puritan preacher who was instrumental in facilitating the Great Awakening as a proto analytic theologian. His theological treatises marry revelation with reason in order to unpack Christian doctrines. Many don’t realize that Edwards’s theological treatises began as sermons. Since that is the case, I worked through some of Edwards’s sermons to determine if he used the best practices employed by contemporary analytic theologians in his preaching. I discovered that he indeed did.
This discovery showed me that the best practices of analytic theologians could be useful in catechetical or teaching ministries in the Church. It’s my hope that as the discipline of analytic theology grows in popularity, more ministry practitioners will consider using its best practices to inform the way they teach God’s Word. There are plenty of skeptics out there who need to see how our faith really does make sense. These best practices could prove to be useful tools to achieve that end. Still conscious?
Dr. Bryan Fergus is a two-time graduate of Phoenix Seminary. He received his MDiv in 2001 and his DMin in 2018. Bryan serves as an Executive Pastor at CalvaryPHX in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been a pastor for 29 years, and has taught in Christian universities and seminaries for 17 years. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Literature and Pastoral Theology at Phoenix Seminary. Bryan and his wife, Stacy, live in Phoenix with their five amazing kids.