The Texas sky threatened an ice storm. My wife and the storm radar confirmed it. However, my entrance exam for the PhD program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was scheduled early in the morning. So I reasoned that I could leave early, stay ahead of the storm, and make it to Fort Worth from College Station before it got “too bad.”
Two semi-trucks flipped over in front of me. One tried to pass another going up an ice-covered hill and I was stuck in my car for a period of about 10 hours. Although freezing, I had to turn the car off to conserve gas. I missed my interview. I was so worried and anxious in the car. “What will they think of me?” My future supervisor and the interview committee were very understanding.
While stuck in the car, I decided to read my Greek Bible, attempt to memorize some Scripture in Greek, and translate (I had plenty of free time). When I was able to reschedule my interview and entrance exam for the following day, the essay question asked me to exegete the passages I memorized. God knew what he was doing; my anxiety did not.
The reading seminars out gunned me immediately. Surrounded and overwhelmed by material, my first reading seminar asked me to summarize a portion of Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma for the class. I read this work while on a mission trip to South Africa with my students from FBC Bryan. Needless to say, I wasn’t very careful with my reading. I stumbled over my entire summary. The professor “requested” I read closer and come better-prepared next time. I thought, “I’m failing God in this task he gave me.”
Years later, I was asked by a person to help them better understand Catholicism and how to share Christ with their family member. I was able to walk them through Catholic theology and show them how to carefully share the need for a personal faith in Jesus Christ. God knew I needed a better mastery of the subject. He knew what he was doing; my feelings of failure did not.
The Latin Debacle
As a prerequisite to the PhD program, competency exams in German and Latin were required. German went well (I studied it previously in college); Latin did not. The Latin professor passed away the semester before we were to take the exam. Since Latin was a prerequisite, the school left us to learn it on our own. My friends and I taught ourselves ecclesiastical Latin.
I failed my Latin exam three times, once missing the mark by a single percentage point. I was so frustrated. So worried. “What will my supervisor think?” I lost a lot of sleep over the anxiety of failing. “I don’t fail tests,” was the mantra of pride.
Failing the Latin competency exam forced me develop a means of studying. I began by reading my Bible in Latin every day. I translated a large portion of Augustine’s Confessions for my own practice. As it turns out, my dissertation topic required an ability to read Latin well. As it turns out, my children are studying Latin in school, and I help teach them. God knew what he was doing; my pride did not.
Research Seminars had their own speed bumps. My first attempt at reading a research paper ended in a fellow student—a “friend”—declaring me a heretic in class! There is a punch to the gut! I wasn’t very careful with some of my phrasing concerning the Trinity. I was so embarrassed. My supervisor (and professor of the seminar, yikes!!) was very kind and gracious. He walked me through the process of being clearer in my thought. He challenged me to start writing theology for myself to develop concise thought.
The tools he taught me and the personal project of writing my own theology culminated in a video project called Two Minute Doctrine. The work itself has been rewarding in our church in Summerville, Georgia. God knew what he was doing; my embarrassment did not.
Oh! And the PhD comprehensive exams! What happened can only be told as a piece of theatre. Allow me to set the scene for you:
One oral exam slated after dawn,
in fair Fort Worth, Texas we lay our scene.
From forth the fatal mind of three examiners,
a young blissfully ignorant student speaks;
whose misadventured piteous overthrows
do with his incompetent answers
bury his schooling in obscurity.
Scene 1: Interior. Night. Student’s parent’s home in Denton. Only the student and the cat are present. The cat thinks the student is an intruder.
My Mom’s Cat
Do you study to offend me, sir?
No, sir, I do not study to offend you, sir.
But I do study, sir.
Do you quarrel with me, sir?
*Cat knocks study materials onto the floor*
Quarrel, sir! No, sir.
But you’re keeping me from studying, sir!
Scene 2: Interior. Night. Bedroom of Parent’s House.
My Mom’s Cat
You closed this door!
I will bang on it until it opens.
*The door opens*
My Mom’s Cat
If you fall asleep,
I will jump on your head.
Our student awoke exhausted,
the cat triumphant.
Thus, he doubled up on coffee.
Better to be juiced and ready to go, right?
The exam went pretty well, at first.
Until the Dean of the School of Theology
started throwing softballs.
Scene 3. Interior. Morning. PhD oral exam room, second floor of Fleming Hall. Across the table from left to right of Student, the Major supervisor, The Dean, the Minor Supervisor sit.
Define the aseity of God.
Our PhD hopeful just finished as an assistant
teachers for the Dean’s online Systematic Theology class.
He answered this question for the Dean’s own online students.
He knew the Dean would ask this question.
He prepared for this question.
He wrote down an answer with quotes.
He memorized his answer before the exam.
Slide reads: *footage of student’s definition of aseity not found*
Would you like to try again?
I mean, that was the definition, right?
You tell us.
Our floundering PhD student’s minor
is in American Church History.
He loves studying American church history.
Can you name one evangelical American theologian
in the twentieth century?
Surely, you know one.
How about Carl Henry?
Can you tell us about him?
Now, Carl Henry is one of most
famous American theologians
of the twentieth century.
Our student’s friend wrote
a dissertation on Henry.
Our student discussed several chapters
of said dissertation with his friend.
Our student recommends
Henry’s “Christian Personal Ethics” to you.
No… um… I mean… Who?
I don’t know that name.
No, if you are blissfully unaware,
is the wrong answer,
for someone trying to prove they are an expert.
To understand our student’s failure,
you may imagine the following
conversation with your own doctor
Can you tell me what a virus is?”
No… um… I mean… I don’t know any viruses?
GET… A… NEW… DOCTOR!
At this point in the exam, I’ve proven either my incompetence or laziness. When incompetence is the better of two monikers, you’re not doing well. A recommendation for you reader, don’t put your supervisor in the position of apologizing to his superior for your complete ineptitude, by blaming nerves and coffee.
The results of the comprehensive exam? The committee thought I might need a second opportunity. They assigned me to write a brief comprehensive systematic theology.
About a year after the exam, my own son was struggling with a test. He was learning math for the first time. He wanted to do perfectly. His exam didn’t go well. He was very upset. We sat together and talked about how dad likes to do well too, that it is frustrating to work hard and fail. He was shocked to hear how often his own dad failed. Together we decided that failure, whether it is our fault or not, is inevitable. That ultimately, we are fully reliant on the grace of God for our entire lives. The best we can do as his creatures is learn, adapt, and keep working hard. Whenever my son is frustrated, fails, or go through trials, he and I have a question and response time. It goes like this:
Who has failed the most in this house?
And who will keep working to the glory of God?
God thought my four sons needed an object lesson in humility and perseverance. Here I am Lord, send me.
My first thesis was trash. My second thesis: rejected. My third thesis needed revision. The final thesis accepted. In 2019 I was ready, so ready, to hammer out my dissertation and finish. Then the pandemic hit. During the pandemic of 2020, I got a viral pneumonia; it completely wiped me out. For about a month, I couldn’t upkeep most of my spiritual disciplines. My ministry boiled down to bedridden praying for my flock.
What ought to have taken about a year took two.
But I found I was far less anxious and worried. God not only saw me through every phase of the PhD process, he also was faithful to use every experience to his glory.
What did I learn? At the beginning, I was very concerned with my own glory. Even if I verbally and mentally denied it, pride ran in the background of all my programing. Yes, my desire was to learn, know Christ better, glorify God. But I also wanted to prove myself to God, to my supervisor, to myself. I wanted to no longer feel imposter syndrome. To echo Eberhard Jüngel, I was ruled by the imperious ego.
Early on in the PhD program my supervisor wrote me an email. He concluded, “God can humble you too, boy.” His pastoral words were prophetic and, in a word, necessary.
Shouldn’t you desire to prove yourself? You’re created in the image of God! You have nothing to prove. God proved your worth by sending his Son. Often the male quest to test one’s own tenacity is little more than an idolatrous question, “Can I do this on my own?”
No, you cannot.
With my defense scheduled for some time February/March and (Lord willing) graduation in May, all I can say is that what began with an ice storm ended with a pandemic. And in it all, God was glorified.
Christ must become greater; I must become less.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of five, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU