Two Reasons Honorary Religious Doctorates Are (Often) Bad

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Governor of California Receives Honorary Doctorate

I find it sad and discreditable that certain crowds of Christians, we fundamental Baptists prominent among them, hand out honorary doctorates so freely. (Charismatics do it, too.) I would rather go to a Bible college with a faculty full of “Reverends” than one full of “D.D.’s.”*

Why? Two reasons:

  1. Many (most?) laypeople won’t know the difference between an honorary doctorate and a real one, so an honorary degree offers the cultural cachet of a doctorate (often) without the requisite work. The original purpose of honorary doctorates was, I take it, to honor people who accomplished a serious amount of work—the kind that merited a “doctorate.” They took 25 years to do that work instead of 3, and they matriculated to the School of Hard Knocks instead of enrolling in a regionally accredited program, but they did the work. They were like the diligent reader Charles Spurgeon, exceptions that proved the rule—namely the rule that it takes education to be an exegetically and theologically responsible minister of God’s Word. In much (not all) of my experience with honorary doctorates for preachers, that work is absent. To be perhaps a bit too frank, the preaching of these men demonstrates a clear ignorance of the basic tools of biblical studies. Now I must be delicate in advancing this element of my critique, given my own Ph.D. Am I merely trying to protect the cachet (such as it is) of my own degree by protecting the title from the forces of inflation? Maybe. (I’m not sure deserve the title—it’s a life goal.) But I think I can honestly say that a non-selfish reason is bigger for me. Namely…
  2. Honorary theological “Dr.’s” (often) haven’t done the requisite work, so laypeople don’t get the benefit of that work.  The true antidote to pride of intellect is not ignorance. The solution to pride, as to all sin, is properly ordered love. If I subsume my academic work under the goals of love for God and love for my neighbor—if my goal for all my reading and writing is to serve the church—then knowledge is not puffing me up. Is it necessarily a mark of pride that a Christian would set aside years of his life for intense theological and academic pursuits? Not if his goal is others-oriented. Ironically, then, it’s the anti-intellectual crowd which displays the greatest selfish lust for academic prominence. They’re willing to take the title “doctor” without meriting it. An others-oriented preacher would recognize that he can’t give his congregation what D.A. Carson, J. Gresham Machen, and Kevin Bauder can and would refuse to be placed in the same category with such true “doctors.” But I’ve seen multiple local church Bible conferences in which every single speaker is a “Dr.,” and yet none of them has earned the title in a school—and none of them knows a stitch of Greek or Hebrew. Sadly, with the exception of a few correspondence school Ph.D.’s (which also included no Greek or Hebrew—I checked), there are whole Bible college faculties which are full of honorary doctorates. It is dishonest to accept a title you don’t deserve; it’s false advertising to the congregations or students you’re called to serve.

Now I won’t name names, but I know an honorary religious Dr. who most certainly has done the work. He has demonstrated over the course of many years that he is a diligent reader of theological books and a careful student of the Bible. He has used his learning to serve the church over and over. He has “only” a year of grad work, but his preaching and ministry clearly go deeper than mine by far, and deeper than his academic accomplishments might have predicted.

But some men ought to repent for allowing “Dr.” to be appended to the names on their office doors.

*The D.D. means something different in Britain.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

10 thoughts on “Two Reasons Honorary Religious Doctorates Are (Often) Bad”

  1. Worthwhile thoughts, Mark.

    I think the recently released GRACE report illustrates your points well. Think of Dr. Jim Berg, who received an honorary doctorate from Rod Bell’s Tabernacle Baptist Bible College and Seminary. That fact was included in the marketing materials for his counseling materials. (For example: http://www.changedintohisimage.com/about.htm) In other words, his honorary doctorate was proffered as reason for his readers to trust his writing. In keeping with your first point, the cultural cachet of an honorary doctorate helped “Dr.” Berg sell books and gave him added authority as a counseling instructor. Indeed, I didn’t realize it wasn’t an earned doctorate until the report came out.

    And yet this is despite his lack of formal training in counseling, especially counseling abuse victims. In the GRACE report, Berg sounded slightly embarrassed when he admitted that he had only read approximately ten books on sexual abuse counseling over the entirety of his career. That gets to your second point. He hadn’t done the “requisite work” and so victims of sexual abuse at BJU did not “get the benefit of that work.”

  2. I normally don’t allow comments like this, Paul, because I don’t want my blog to be a center for criticism of BJU (the issue has only rarely come up in seven years). People who want that criticism can go to many other places on the Internet. But I’m letting this through for three reasons:

    1) For anyone who stumbles across this and doesn’t know, Paul has been a very constructive and helpful commenter on this blog for a good little while.

    2) Dr. Berg was, in my judgment, very humble, open, and self-effacing in his comments in the GRACE report—just like he is in real life. If we can focus on the issue and not the person in any discussion that develops here, I think Dr. Berg himself would agree that there is a lesson about honorary degrees (among many other valuable and difficult lessons) in this experience. I am thankful for the GRACE report and have read it very carefully. It is forcing some necessary institutional self-criticism.

    3) It so happens that Dr. Berg was the person I was referring to in my final paragraph. If he didn’t have much formal training in counseling, I had little way or reason to know that. What he did have was diligence in theological reading—and this he demonstrated to me over the years in preaching and teaching. I don’t have training in very many areas, but I know careful, theologically attuned exegesis when I hear it. Without making any comment whatsoever on the GRACE report, I can say that Dr. Jim Berg has had a marked and positive impact on my life and that of my wife.

    One more thought: BJU itself has not hired as faculty men or women with (merely) honorary doctorates, that I know of. I personally think that it is a problem—an understandable one, but a problem nonetheless—that most of our PhDs are homegrown. And I’m one of them! Nonetheless, there is a significant difference between BJU on the one hand and West Coast, Ambassador, and Crown on the other—places in which nobody on religion faculty has real, relevant, earned doctorates from anywhere.

  3. I was also struck by Dr. Berg’s regretful tone throughout the report. I’m not sure I can accurately call it “apologetic,” but “regretful” works, I think. I do hope he issues some kind of public apology down the line, not least because I think we would be edified by his working through his role in the problem. It’s rare that institutional leaders repent in public. It’s even rarer that they publicly engage in thoughtful, detailed analysis of how they ended up in that place. I hope he takes advantage of the opportunity.

    That said, you are right that the problem with honorary degrees is much, much larger than any one person, so I won’t say any more about Dr. Berg. Indeed, I had no clue that you had Berg in mind in your last paragraph.

    To move on, it seems to me that the problems you identify also apply in attenuated form to academic incest. I’m not suggesting that the problem of academic incest is identical to the problem of honorary degrees. I do think that the problems you identified overlap to some extent, especially your second point. Academics benefit from exposure to different schools of thought because that encounter stimulates the life of the mind. If all we know comes from a single school, we lose that added benefit, that humbling exposure. And they then are unable to pass the insight they would have gained from those encounters on to their students. Departments or schools that hire only their own graduates tend to have a problem with insularity. They suffer from blinkered vision and institutional blindspots.

    The GRACE Report is instructive here again. Walter Fremont borrowed a good portion of his counseling philosophy from Jay Adams and his “biblical counseling” model. For Adams, counselors spoke from Biblical authority and, thus, should adopt an air of confidence and authority in their relationship to counselees. Adams believed that mental illness and psychological struggles were almost always rooted in bad theology and sin. It was about roots and fruits; if the counselors can asking penetrating questions, they can dig down and find the root sin that is causing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, etc. You can hear the similarity between Adams’s model and that adopted by Fremont and his descendants in the counseling program at BJU.

    Adams’s model was critiqued in his own community during the 1980s and 1990s. Later generations of biblical counselors criticized his lack of a theology of sorrow, his under-emphasis on psychological brokenness as a result of the Fall, and his overly-authoritarian approach. Yet while Adams’s model was being critiqued, streamlined, and improved as a result, BJU existed in a kind of counseling silo. (Something which actually surfaces in the GRACE Report.) BJU, because of loyalty and trust issues following the Mercer “rebellion,” began hiring its own graduates whenever possible from the 1970s on. They had earned degrees, mostly, but many of those degrees came from BJU, especially in the ministerial majors. Thus BJU’s model of counseling, inherited from Adams, never received the kind of necessary critique and improvement that was happening in the broader Christian counseling community. It’s a pity that it took this mess–and the further damage to dozens or hundreds of student victim’s lives–to start to change that model. I’m hoping the President’s taskforce makes further recommendations to address that “silo”-mentality.

  4. Paul, I found your summary of the critique of Adams’ in the 1980s and 1990s really helpful. I was aware that there had been some fraternal debates within the “biblical counseling” community subsequent to Adams’ work, but I had no idea what they were about.

    I just wanted to share one thing that suggests to me that Jim Berg (and perhaps consequently the BJU counselling faculty) may already be moving toward a more carefully nuanced view of sorrow, the Fall and authority.

    I’ve had some contact with Jim Berg since I left BJU in 2011, and since then he’s been developing some new material on dealing with what he calls “profound loss.” I’ve heard him teach some of this material twice, and it seems to me that it includes a good deal of rapprochement with psychological fallenness (unless I misunderstand what you mean by that term). He bases his material in the Adamic Fall. When I was last in touch with him, I got the sense that he was developing this with a view toward another book. He mentioned that he had read what seemed (to me at least) to be some relatively advanced sources from a medical and psychological perspective in developing this material.

  5. Duncan, David Powlison’s dissertation on the history of the biblical counseling movement is available here, and I’ve been meaning to get into it (I got it on ProQuest, actually). Maybe now’s the time. I, too, am fuzzy on the intramural debates. It wasn’t my field (my wife knows more than I).

    Paul, this is the way I feel, too (especially about other schools! =):

    Academics benefit from exposure to different schools of thought because that encounter stimulates the life of the mind. If all we know comes from a single school, we lose that added benefit, that humbling exposure. And they then are unable to pass the insight they would have gained from those encounters on to their students. Departments or schools that hire only their own graduates tend to have a problem with insularity. They suffer from blinkered vision and institutional blindspots.

    The Internet has made insularity harder to maintain and easier to avoid, I’d say. But people aren’t computers; it seems to me that you necessarily take more seriously the ideas of people you rub shoulders with than the ideas of people “out there” in other institutions and online. The influence of peers in your physical location is impossible to quantify, impossible to ignore. And this is something I have both enjoyed and missed. I have profited greatly from my conversations with peers in my program, and yet I know from the few academic conferences I’ve attended that there’s more beneficial peer-interaction to be had. Kevin Bauder said as much in his series on fundamentalism and scholarship a few years back.

    I am very concerned for the value of institutional integrity, however, which is the first and most obvious response to your and my line of reasoning. And it seems to me that now is the time for people sympathetic to that concern to chime in and explain how it is that BJU can keep all babies and throw out all bath-waters if it hires Seminary profs from outside the institution—or doesn’t.

  6. Mark, I think your thread is drifting from its opening post, with which I am somewhat sympathetic. There are way too many honorary doctorates in fundamentalist circles.

    However, as to insularity and home-grown, PhDs, I think that has been a weakness for a long time. Too many are people with very little life experience and have been thrust into very responsible positions. The first generation of this (Gustafson/Panosian, et al) happened to be (in my opinion) exceptional people who created a unique institution at BJU. I would rather see more people coming into the deanships etc with twenty years of ministry experience and a fundamentalist track record. And I could care less if they had a terminal degree or not, although I don’t have a prejudice against terminal degrees.

    But now we go far away from the issue of “honorary degrees”. By and large, they aren’t helpful and should be rare.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. [Editor’s note: Dr. Talbert sent this to me privately and is posting it, a little late in the conversation, after I urged him to do so.]

    Overall, I’ve had much the same disgruntlement regarding honoraries, especially when they take up far more time and attention than earned doctorates at a graduation ceremony.

    But I did have two thoughts:

    (1) Regarding Paul’s comment, I’m puzzled by the critique that the website he links clarifies that his degree is honorary. How many people do that? Paul sees this as evidence that they’re using his honorary doctorate to sell books. But surely no one sees an honorary doctorate from a little and little-known school as a big selling point. To me, it looks like nothing more than honest, full disclosure so that people aren’t misled. Granted, my interpretation may be colored by the fact that I know him; but that, it seems, gives my interpretation more weight, not less. Jim’s books have sold well because they’re solid, substantive, thoughtful, God-centered, biblically-informed books, not because he’s called “Dr.” Berg (a title studiously avoided on his books from what I can see).

    (2) Regarding Mark’s comment that homegrown PhDs are a problem, I used to agree with that. You may say my opinion has changed out of pure self-interest if you wish. But if you will allow me a modicum of objectivity and observation, I would argue that it is one of our seminary’s unique strengths. Even a cursory glance at the history of multiple seminaries shows rapid declines from their original orthodoxy in less time than we have existed. It might be different if our men were exposed to and schooled in only the narrowest interpretational fields, but you are exposed to a wide range of views—and not just to critiques of them. No one faults a church for choosing its elders and deacons and teachers from its own flock. Objection: “But BJU is not a church; it is a liberal arts institution of higher learning.” Indeed it is; and the liberal arts faculty are pulled from many different institutions. Not so the Seminary. Because the Seminary’s obligation is to preserve, protect, and perpetuate the apostolic faith once delivered to the saints. But ourSeminary’s obligation goes further, because we are devoted to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating, in addition, a specific cultural worldview known as Fundamentalism—not just orthodoxy but, if you will, orthopraxy … at least as best we understand it. And the pool for such faculty is a pretty small one. But it has helped the Seminary faithfully perpetuate that heritage for a very long time. Are there weaknesses inherent in having mostly our own graduates as Seminary faculty? Certainly. Given our mission, however, I would say there are more and greater weaknesses inherent in diversifying the faculty just for the sake of … diversifying. I don’t think the continuity has caused any degree of theological stagnation or intellectual infertility; on the contrary, I’ve seen substantial evidence over the years of just the opposite, along with considerable growth and maturity—the willingness to “embrace appropriate change” while still adhering to our core. Would I like to see more Seminary faculty from other institutions? I’d love to, provided it would not dilute the spiritual heritage we seek to pass on. (Part of the problem, I think, has always been that men who train at other institutions often end up having little sympathy with or passion for that heritage—meaning, they’re not interested in teaching here.) But do I think the lack of it is a systemic weakness of the Seminary? Not anymore.

  8. I don’t have an easy answer to that question, Mark. On the one hand, it’s kind of an insulting question, if you think about it; after all, the question tacitly suggests that graduates of BJU aren’t capable of handling the tests and trials of a sometimes hostile graduate education. Is our orthodoxy so fragile that we can never leave the “hothouse” (to use a favored institutional analogy)? Or is God’s sovereignty so weak?

    It’s worth noting that most of our great, modern Christian theologians spent time in unorthodox schools and were the better for it. For example, do you think Gresham Machen would have had the chops to produce Christianity and Liberalism if he hadn’t studied liberalism?

    Anyways, that’s a first stab.

  9. A fair reply, Paul. I’m not sure if we’re making any progress yet, however, over private discussions we’ve probably both had forever. The empirical point that guys who go off to other institutions don’t tend to want to come back is either a sign that we’re wrong or that they are—but it’s understandable that, given the history of “defections” as I know it, BJU would be reticent to send its guys off. I’m not sure that means our orthodoxy is fragile, but I do feel the weight of your point. I personally would like to study elsewhere for post-grad work if the Lord provides the opportunity.

  10. All… One of you kindly offered to let me delete a comment he’d just made (and I obliged), because he remembered we were supposed to focus on the issue and not Dr. Jim Berg. I will delete any comment that references him—positively or negatively—from now on. I jealously guard the courteous forum of exchange that sometimes develops here on the blog. It’s a rarity on the Internet.

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