If someone would have told me just a few years ago that I would be a student at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis (CSL) right now, I might have burst into gales of disbelieving laughter. Although, I do suppose that I might have laughed even harder had you also suggested that I would be a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS). Yet, here I am. I am one of the “new guys” at WLS after being called to teach church history and homiletics in 2017. When I received the call, I had been considering how I might continue studying topics in Christian church history that had been introduced to me through WLS Summer Quarter and online learning programs. After I came here, I was invited to continue my pursuit of a “terminal” degree that could be used in service to my new calling at WLS. After doing some research, I applied to CSL’s History of Exegesis Ph.D. program and began my studies in the fall of 2018, even as I was starting to teach my first classes at WLS.
I suppose my anecdote raises the simple question, “Why?” Why would a new teacher at WLS be interested in pursuing a terminal degree? Why wouldn’t the resources that he has at WLS (including the class notes from previous professors who have taught his courses) be enough to support his ministry at WLS? Those are good questions, and I will answer them from my perspective.
First of all, a shepherd in God’s church will always be a servant who loves to learn. No one, at least anyone who plans on having a ministry of any length, goes into a new call thinking he already knows everything that will ever be necessary to carry out that new calling. Instead, every overseer comes into his new position with humility and respect for his Lord, his office, the people he has been called to serve, and the community in which they live. The willingness and humility to learn is an important aspect of his serving as a full-time worker in God’s Kingdom. He is always digging into Scripture; he is always learning how to serve his people better; he is always looking to learn the culture of his congregation and neighborhood so that he might serve them better. The examples could go on and on. The point is, when a teacher ceases also to be a student, he is not very far from not being a teacher any longer.
I suppose this might answer the question of why one must continue to learn even as he teaches at WLS, but why would he need to pursue a terminal degree in the wider academic world? For me, whatever degree might be at the end of this road of education is not the point; the learning along the way is! The simplest way to put it is, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” In other words, in the years that I have been privileged to be a student at WLS’ Summer Quarter and at CSL, I have enjoyed deeply knowledgeable teachers who are part of the academic conversation, who have spent extensive time researching the intricacies of that topic, and who, as a result, are able to give me a “guided tour” when I sit at their feet. Through such guidance, I am currently in the process of appreciating why, for example, the fracture in ecclesiastical unity that took place on Sunday, July 16, 1054 A.D. first sees its cracks developing around the year 431 A.D. or why men with names like Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, and Fulgentius of Ruspe are important names worth remembering.
For me the quest is not just for facts, but also because history is the soil in which the Christian and Lutheran confessions grew. One may grasp either Christian history or systematics without the other, but to see their intertwining relationship is to understand each better. As one does that, he is able to appreciate with deepening awe and wonder the mercy and never-failing love of God as he preserves his truth, his gospel, from one generation to the next. Then, with what I have learned and with God’s never-changing Word as the font of truth, I have the privilege of working with the next generation of WELS pastors and comparing the truths in God’s Word to the decisions and doctrines that humans have explicated in God’s name, to see them in their historical context, to see their outcomes, to learn the good and avoid the bad.
My examples so far have been about what I work with in church history. Think of all there is to grasp, dig into, and learn for the sake of becoming clearer proclaimers of the gospel message that is brought out through deeper studies in other disciplines! Targeted and ongoing study in programs that end in terminal degrees encourages deeper learning of God’s Word, of the communities that were entrusted with that Word, and the methods that God used to preserve and transmit his inerrant Word. Seminary professor Paul Wendland put it like this:
While the truth doesn’t change, recent scholarship has broadened and deepened our understanding of the ancient societies in which the prophets spoke, in which the Word became flesh, and in which the Word of the Lord grew. We would be dismissing the wise provision of our God if we would ignore these studies.
Such studies also have contemporary application. They encourage learning about the world in which we live, its varied cultures, its methods of communication, and its biblical scholarship, both positive and negative. By pursuing terminal degrees, WLS professors enter into a dialogue with the scholarly community on the particular topic they are studying. In that dialogue, we will engage with those who have presuppositions or reach conclusions with which we disagree, and having that conversation allows us to understand the different viewpoints that are held in the world around us. Professor Ken Cherney wrote this to me:
A lot has been learned (recently) about the text of Scripture, or the biblical languages, or the world in which the Bible was born, and not all of it is rationalistic and useless. Our students, and their future congregations, are better served when we’re in touch—and can put them in touch—with advancements that will help them understand their Bibles better. What’s more, in the wider world of scholarship, we might even have a contribution to make. To engage the academy on subjects we care about seems more likely to be productive, and certainly more loving, than to hide behind our confessional bunkers and lob grenades at them.
And so, trusting the effective and life-giving Word and the fellowship that the Lord has given me both at WLS and in WELS, I continue to wear my two “hats”—one as a professor at WLS and the other as a student at CSL. I do so with the goal of using the talents and opportunities that the Lord has given to me to be the very best servant of his Word for the students and the synod that he has called me to serve. May it be done for his glory so that as many as possible might be saved.
Professor Robert Wendland teaches church history and homiletics.
This article first appeared the 2020 issue of Preach the Gospel.