restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Advice to Prospective Doctoral Students

 David Alan Black  

This week I am scheduled to meet with a couple of potential Ph.D. students. I will tell them, as I tell anyone who considers asking me to be their major advisor in our doctoral program, that I am not necessarily looking for more doctoral students. In fact, to show you how selective I am: the seminary has its application form, and I have mine!

What, then, do I look for in potential students? Men and women mature enough to know what they want -- godly, humble, gifted, ambitious, versatile, restless, willing to think independently. Above all -- and this will sound egotistical but it really isn't -- I am looking for students who for one reason or another have deceived themselves into thinking that studying with Dave Black might have some benefit to them.

When I was looking into doctoral programs back in the late 1970s, I well remember meeting students who told me they went to Aberdeen because of Marshall, or to Manchester for Bruce, or to Princeton for Metzger. To me, that seemed the only sensible thing to do. Many years ago in Germany students were constantly migrating from one university to another in order to profit from some course being taught that year by a famous scholar. There is, I think, much wisdom in that method.

Here's something else I tell prospective students. All other things being equal, you will want a university doctorate rather than a seminary doctorate. I am not saying that seminaries do not offer excellent Ph.D.s, and I am certainly not saying that students should not earn their doctorates from SEBTS. But, I think, mature students fare less well in the typical seminary curriculum than in the more research-oriented program in most universities. The irony is that your favorite professor might very well teach in a seminary, in which case it will be obvious where you ought to study! When I ended up in Basel it was largely because I didn't want to suffer through the busy work of the typical U.S. seminary Ph.D. program, and I most certainly did not want to get my theological education second hand. I was not disappointed on either count. Basel was for researchers who could work independently.

University degrees can, of course, be overrated. I recall reading, a month or so ago, how one New Testament scholar in his blog referred to his university as the "Rolls Royce" of theological education in North America. I had never before heard automobile models used as metaphors for educational excellence. I suppose for some teachers this is a useful fiction -- something like Santa Claus. However, I dislike such self-aggrandizement intensely, and hope never to elevate my own institution's status through such hype.

Basel may have been no Rolls Royse, but it certainly was an excellent place to study. We had no required lectures, though during my first semester I took 20 hours of weekly lectures, and 15 during my second. The New Testament courses were taught by men like Markus Barth and Heinrich Baltensweiler (an expert in Pauline theology), who tragically died of a heart attack though he was a relatively young man. I was naturally partial to courses taught by my Doktorvater, Bo Reicke. His public reputation, then at its height, had been won in the field of New Testament exegesis, but his wide-ranging intellectual interests were known to all. To me it was an immensely stimulating time -- which brings me back to where I began this essay. Doctoral studies should be an exciting time. Absolute frankness and devotion to truth are formidable virtues to have if one is to benefit from a doctoral program. I recall sitting under my professors and hailing their latest publications with all of the rapture with which graduate students of today extol Tom Wright or Jimmy Dunn. What happiness to study under great scholars! It stole the hearts of crude young Doktoranden to watch professors teach as those having authority, and not as the scribes.

This, then, is my advice to prospective doctoral students. Anyone can study books, but books cannot guarantee wisdom. Perhaps the Greatest Teacher of all said it best: "When students are fully taught, they will be just like their teachers." No one can furnish a perfect definition of teaching, but that one comes about as close as I think we will ever get.

November 29, 2010

David Alan Black is the editor of

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