In the summer of 2012, Jonathan T. Pennington, associate professor of New Testament interpretation and director of research doctoral studies at Southern Seminary, visited his friend and acquaintance Richard Pratt, founder and president of Third Millennium Ministries. Pratt’s organization provides free theological instruction to people all over the world in their native language. The two scholars discussed the future of theological education, and Pratt asked Pennington a question that helped him see the value of a traditional institution during the age of digital information: When there is so much online education available at little or no cost, what unique quality can a school like Southern provide?
“The answer he gave me has really set the course for my time here as the Ph.D. director, and that is: mentorship,” Pennington said. “Discipling, investing in the next generation through mentoring and discussing and wrestling together and guiding and leading and shaping and challenging — that kind of discipleship happens in academics as well, or it should. But it often doesn’t happen at a secular institution and it doesn’t happen when we don’t live some kind of life together.”
Pennington began teaching at Southern Seminary in 2005 after completing his own doctoral degree at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Several years in, Randy Stinson — at the time vice president of academic innovation — asked whether Pennington would be interested in doctoral administration. A passionate teacher and scholar, Pennington had never thought of himself as an administrator, but what began with reading Ph.D. prospectuses — dissertation proposals for students who have finished their coursework — quickly evolved into a more significant role. Southern Seminary has one of the largest biblical and theological doctoral programs in the world, Pennington said, and it required more care than he had anticipated.
“But the other equally important, surprising thing was that I absolutely loved it and felt like I was a fish in water,” he said. “I’ve often described it as like a part of me that was dormant — it was in there, but a part of me that was dormant — all of the sudden came alive.
“I quickly realized that it wasn’t just administration that came to mind for me, it was leadership and vision. This part of me just came alive — being an academic leader, one who is casting vision and making things beautiful.”
Recognizing that the Ph.D. program was already in excellent shape, he set out to maintain what he’d inherited and augment it with robust communal mentorship. While the Chronicle of Higher Education and the larger academic community say doctoral programs will continue to shrink, Pennington said, he believes Southern Seminary can offer something that will set its program apart.
“This part of me just came alive — being an academic leader, one who is casting vision and making things beautiful.”
He decided the heart of the Ph.D. program should be academic mentorship and began instituting elements that cultivate community and friendship among doctoral students. Three years ago, he established the 1892 Club, which brings doctoral students together from different disciplines to meet scholars from inside and outside the seminary. The Doctoral Common Room, which opened in 2014, is available to all Ph.D. students and offers a central location for them to talk, drink high-quality coffee (Pennington himself is an avid coffee roaster), and relate to one another on a regular basis.
Other opportunities for student interaction are available, Pennington said, including the annual induction ceremony, which is similar to a medical school’s “white coat ceremony,” where new students are officially welcomed into the program and charged by older students to maintain its vision. Modular doctoral students are provided chapel services, guest speakers, and meals together during the weeks they are on campus.
“I always tell Ph.D. students: ‘You spend more time with other students than you’re ever going to spend with your professor,’” Pennington said. “They’re in this journey together. They’re a pack of stallions running. There are always going to be some students who are smarter than others and more productive than others, but by being in close relationship, that raises everybody up. You learn to run with the pack.
“Nothing gives me more joy than to see a church history student and a New Testament student and an Old Testament student and a philosophy student and me all going to a chicken restaurant for lunch and talking about what we’re working on, talking about our lives, personally. There’s something that happens there that you can’t do in a seminar or a colloquium, and it’s lifelong.”
Of course, relational community in the Ph.D. program should be coupled with excellent academic work. Pennington believes high-level scholarship within a confessional understanding still carries significant value, not only in the church but also in broader culture. He observes a cultural shift toward valuing the practical skills of medical doctors more than doctors of philosophy, but says that was not the case historically.
“The religious leader, the philosopher, the priest, the thinker, the professor, is what was recognized as the most important person in society because they provided answers to the bigger questions.
“The call to philosophy is the call to be a thinker who contributes to society. As a Christian philosopher, a Christian Ph.D. — that person is still called to be one of the people in their area who is able to broadly analyze culture, analyze texts, analyze ideas, analyze arguments, and then offer a wise way forward. So, the ‘Christian philosopher’ is the ultimate role.”
The program is not for everyone, Pennington said. It requires significant sacrifices of time and money and isn’t just for good students who want to learn a little more. Invoking Charles H. Spurgeon’s famous remark for preachers that if they are content doing anything else, they should not preach, so too with the calling to doctoral work, Pennington said. A prospective Ph.D. student should count the cost and recognize the significant commitment doctoral work requires.
“We’re not running a Ph.D. program that’s just sort of an M.Div. on steroids. There’s a difference between a master’s degree and a research doctoral degree — you’re moving from being a consumer of information to being a producer of it.”
Good Christian academic work is not limited to excellence, however. In several different contexts, Pennington has discussed the image of centrifugal force — spinning objects moving away from the center. In Christian scholarship, understanding should not prompt students to turn inward, but outward into service for the church and others.
“I always want to keep before our students the vision that their goal is more than their individual knowledge, it’s their contribution to the academy and the church with that knowledge,” Pennington said. “The end goal of study is something greater than study; it’s service.”
Andrew J.W. Smith is a news writer for Southern Seminary and a Master of Divinity student.