A Jot of My Thoughts on My Dissertation, a Decade On

by Oct 3, 2021Dissertation, Personal, Theology2 comments

I basically finished my dissertation a decade ago. Paul’s Positive Religious Affections. It’s available on Kindle and print-on-demand just in case anyone wants it. In it I basically argued that Paul is meant to be a model in his affections and not just in his theology or his actions. The Spirit inspired Paul to tell us to mimic him, to follow him as he followed Christ. And what he loved and rejoiced in and hoped for and gave thanks for are, in general, things we should love and rejoice in and hope for and give thanks for.

In order to make this point, I felt I had to clear away some theological and linguistic dead wood, and build a more biblical structure in their place. I was not even close to the first to do this, but I took special aim at the idea that the Greek word ἀγάπη named some special kind of love, an unconditional love that created value in its objects rather than responding to that value, a self-sacrificial and non-emotional love that springs only from God. As often with bad ideas, there was some truth in this one. We should love the unlovely; love should lead to self-sacrifice; Christian love is special; God is love. But elaborate “definitions” of ἀγάπη were often mixed up with philosophical models of the human person in which I found other problems, I felt someone had to step in and pull together some biblical teaching on anthropology, the doctrine of man. I leaned very heavily on key theologians; I didn’t say anything new in that area. Jonathan Edwards’ major book, Religious Affections, was in my dissertation title. John Frame and, ultimately, Augustine, were two other theologians I relied on heavily.

I enjoyed my study. I felt it contributed to the work my team at BJU Press, the Biblical Worldview team, was doing. I have good reason to believe that it is still contributing there. But I haven’t done much with my dissertation since I completed it.

One reason I haven’t done a lot with with it is that, frankly, I tried and failed. I sent off a chapter or two as journal articles, and I was rejected, then accepted, then rejected. I’ve long felt a burden to do something in the world of scholarship, but my heart lies in popularization, not in the advancing of the discipline(s) I find myself in. I do find, however, that without some serious effort at advancing my discipline(s), I end up having less to give to pastors and other Bible nerds, my main popular audience, I think. These are the people I love, the people who respond to me with some gratitude for services rendered, the people who gravitate toward listening to me. Scholars simply do not listen to me. Or hardly ever. And I don’t blame them. I’m not sure I’m gifted to speak to them—or hardly ever. So I haven’t spun my dissertation into further scholarly projects.

But there’s a more profound reason that I haven’t done much with my dissertation. It’s that I feel far more confident about the linguistics in it than about the theology. My dissertation advisor and doktorvater Randy Leedy, now of NTGreekGuy.com, a man who had a profoundly positive impact on me, once said to me that it would take a lifetime to understand love, if even then. That wasn’t exactly encouraging at the moment, given that I was writing a dissertation kind of on love. But I heard him. And I felt he was probably right. I have come to think over the years that he was even righter than I could grasp then. I think getting to the heart of love means wrapping one’s mind around a pole whose girth is too big—sort of like trying to get a zip tie around a Redwood. I’m not smart enough to be a theologian of love. I am a dilettante. Good theology is hard, hard mental work. I don’t have the gifts or the drive.

But I’ve got to live and preach, and I’ve got to advise my children and my wife and my own soul. So, ten years on, let me tell you a few ideas that have stuck with me—that have proven their utility in my life while, to the best of my knowledge, demonstrating far more importantly that they are at least consistent with Bible teaching.

I take John Frame’s conception of man as a body-soul unity—as one writer put it, a “psychosomatic” unity. If our Bibles are to direct us here as they should, I do abidingly find it persuasive what Frame said, that God never commands my emotion, he never commands my will, he never commands my mind; no, he commands me. I follow Jonathan Edwards still, too, who in his own Augustinian way both tends to “divide” man into two faculties, understanding and inclination, and (as multiple other Edwards students I couldn’t now name have said, I’m pretty sure) unite man so that those two faculties are more like Frame’s perspectives than they are like separate forces. That was a thick sentence. Let me try again: Frame says that we cannot and should not think of mind, will, and emotion like little beings fighting, Inside-Out-style, over the control rods within us that guide our actions. It isn’t right, then, to say that your reason should rule your emotions, or vice versa. Both are fallen; neither is wholly reliable—and the two aren’t finally divisible, any more than your body and soul finally are. Remember: your body and soul may be split at death, but they will be reunited for all eternity. Resurrection, not disembodied existence, is the Christian hope.

One thing that gives me pause in my view is the remarkable stability of the bifurcation of man into cognitive and affective portions. I expect erroneous models to destabilize over time, to generate traditions that are obviously wrong. And I do think the head-over-heart model that I still see everywhere—the “priority of intellect” view—has created countless troubles. But even I still find utility in saying sometimes, “Don’t act on your feelings right now but on what you know is true.” Our very ability to name “emotions” (joy, hope, fear) and aspects of “reasoning” (arguments, logic, postulates, premises) suggests that it is at least useful to divvy up the human experience into different “aspects.” But then I know I can find cognitive elements in every emotion and affective elements in every bit of logic. So I land again with Frame and Edwards and Augustine. And I kind of shut my mouth—even though the whole point of this post is to open it a bit. I admit that I’ve not been able to go beyond my dissertation in my understanding. As I peer into the human soul through the lens of the Word, I find I’m looking into the eternity God has placed in our hearts. I can’t see the bottom.

So back to my dissertation… I don’t know that I made a contribution in the theological portions. They were necessary; they were helpful learning times for me. But they didn’t add anything new to the world, and ten years on I certainly don’t feel like an eternity expert.

I do feel, however, that I made a contribution with the linguistics portion of my dissertation. I demonstrated how very ridiculous it is to discover secret support for splitting man into mind, will, and emotion in the grammar and the usage of ancient Koine Greek words. It’s really silly when you step outside of it. Άγαπάω (agapao) is found in the imperative; φιλέω (phileo) is not, so the former is more volitional than the latter? Ἀγάπη (agape) is an “action verb” kind of love because 1 Corinthians 13 contains a lot of verbs? This kind of reasoning is as common as it is ridiculous, and I had good fun probing the linguistic issues. I especially enjoyed trying to apply faulty linguistic reasoning to other words to see what silliness resulted, all as a means of demonstrating that the reasoning was, in fact, faulty. That’s where I’ve found the most value in my own work: it has helped refine my sense of smell for linguistic silliness put to use for (usually inadvertently) nefarious theological ends.

I do hope and pray that my affections are more aligned with those of Paul, whose affections were aligned with those of Jesus. But I gravitate toward languages over theology while insisting that both are important. Just because I find the former easier doesn’t mean the latter isn’t worth my time. It means I just need to be humble.

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  1. Dr. Priscilla Turner

    You might like to look at this v. old paper of mine: Neighbour: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-neighbour-yourself-luke-1027-dr-priscilla-turner-1/ You will see that all those years ago I did not expect anything but lifelong learning about the nature of love to be my destiny; and at 83 I’m still expecting the same.

    My definition, that love for neighbour is essentially to do the will of God with respect to him/her, is as I read recently the same as that of Aquinas. So encouraging!

    • Mark Ward

      And one day Christians will see he who is love face to face. Then we will know even as also we are known!