Research Pro Ecclesia
Truett's commitment to intellectual rigor and robust research pursuits is helping to inform and support the church
As Baylor University strives toward preeminence as a Christian research university, the University’s 12 schools and colleges are following suit. The spotlight is on high-level research activity and production, including at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
“One of our core identity markers at Truett is that we are a seminary embedded in a research university. Not all seminaries are this way, and I think it does shape the work that we do,” said Dr. Dennis Tucker, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of Christian Scriptures. “I always stress to our faculty candidates when they interview that it does not matter how much you love the Church or how good you are in the classroom, if you cannot do top-level research, you will not get tenure and you will not stay. We hold the bar as high for research and tenure as anyone else on campus.”
But the driving force behind Baylor’s aspirations of R1 status is not simply research for the sake of research. It is research that has a transformational impact. At Truett Seminary, while that impact can take on a variety of forms, it primarily manifests itself in relation to one particular audience — the Church.
“As faculty, we carry out our research in service to the Church formed by and in conversation with the wider academic community,” Tucker said. “We are thinking about how our research either reflects the work of the Church, advances the work of the Church, informs the work of the Church, or at least fields that relate to it.”
Baylor’s affiliation with the Church runs deep. The University was established to be a servant of the Church and of society, as reflected in the motto, Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana. For Church, For Texas. At Truett, faculty from the fields of Christian Scriptures, theology, and practical theology are championing this commitment to the Church through their scholarly work, while simultaneously educating the next generation of ministers for the world.
“Every seminary you go to will say they have world-class faculty, but we really have faculty who are some of the leading people in their disciplines,” Tucker said. “Not every seminary can say that.”
The expertise of the Truett faculty ranges from sports ministry to Hebrew to Karl Barth to spiritual formation to dozens of other specialties.
“At Truett, you almost have to be bifurcated in your research,” Tucker said. “You have to demonstrate that you belong in the upper echelon of your own discipline and academics. But you also have to be able to write in a way that we call ‘missional research,’ where you’re writing for a wider audience like ministers or the Church.”
This “missional research” looks different for each seminary faculty member. For Dr. Robert Creech, the Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and director of pastoral ministries, research means examining how Baptists have historically thought about the work of pastors by reviewing 400 years of Baptist sermons, books, and other writings.
“This historical research should be useful in helping us form Baptist ministers for the future while being more in touch with our roots,” Creech said. “Theology is always done in a context with a community, and our Baptist context, our Baptist community, is how we tend to think about God and the Church.”
Creech’s research may also take on a congregational focus, like the oral history project he worked on with Dr. Angela Reed, associate professor of practical theology and director of spiritual formation. For this project, Reed and Creech interviewed 20 Texas Baptist ministers who had been in ministry for more than 20 years to learn about how they had sustained themselves in ministry over a long period of time.
His recently published book, Family Systems and Congregational Life: A Map for Ministry, brings together biblical studies, theology, and church life with psychological theory. Pulling from his own extensive experience in congregational ministry, Creech consulted with the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family in Houston and the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Georgetown.
“Research refines and clarifies truth and helps us see connections between things we may have missed up to this point. Academic research in general can get really esoteric and make you wonder, ‘What difference will that make?’” Creech said. “But I think the kind of research being done at a seminary is always pointed toward the Church and how we can better teach Scripture, understand Scripture, refine our theology, and practice our theology.”
Just down the hallway from Creech, Dr. David Wilhite, professor of Christian theology, agrees. He notes that faculty who are knowledgeable and well-trained in their own fields are better able to equip students who will be serving on the “frontlines” of ministry.
For Wilhite, research means exploring the unique features of ancient North African Christianity by using social-scientific analysis to reread ancient texts in their original languages with the goal of better understanding the context from which they come. His most recently published book, Ancient African Christianity, is an introduction to the entire history of North African Christianity, the first attempt to present North African Christianity as its own story since a French writer in 1907 who died before completing the project.
“If anyone wants to understand the development of theology then they need to understand where it came from, each step along the way,” Wilhite said. “For example, Tertullian, who I work on, is the first person to use the word ‘trinity.’ He coins the Latin word trinitas. Most of our King James, theological language is sort of an Anglicized version of Tertullian’s Latin. Tertullian is the first Christian to write in Latin, so he had to figure out a whole new vocabulary. When we use words like justification, that’s from Tertullian’s language. We need to look at what he meant by that as opposed to, centuries later, when we’ve imposed a lot of extra meanings. Anybody who wants to study what Christians believe needs to understand how we came to believe these things.”
Wilhite also emphasizes how his research influences his own ministry as a pastor — he currently serves as the interim preacher at First Baptist Taylor. The perspectives and experiences of ancient Christians, whose original writings he reads and studies, help to guide his own spiritual formation.
“The ancient Christians saw the whole Christian life through the lens of martyrdom. 'We know we signed up to die. We signed up to take up our cross, and we literally might be marched into the Colosseum someday.' That kind of commitment level is different than that of a Christian today, and it impacts the way I think about Christianity”
Pioneering New Initiatives
These are just two illustrations of the prolific work of the Truett faculty as they maintain their expertise in various theological disciplines in service to their students and the Church. Outside of individual faculty projects, a number of new initiatives are significantly bolstering the research activities of Truett Seminary.
For example, the PhD in Preaching — the Seminary’s first research degree — launches this fall with one residential and three distance-learning students. As part of this program, these students will each complete a doctoral dissertation as well as write both for peer-reviewed journals and popular articles to aid the Church. PhD in Preaching candidates seek to become either preaching professors or scholar preachers.
“Scholar preachers are thought leaders in the Church, in the denomination, and in their discipline,” said Dr. Scott M. Gibson, professor of preaching, Holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching, and director of the PhD in Preaching Program. “It is really a helpful way to provide fulfillment for someone who is stimulated intellectually but also has a practical application for the degree. Their studies will have an impact in the life of the local church and beyond.”
In addition to the coursework and required writing, the current and future residential PhD students will also be heavily involved in research projects through the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching. Recent Homiletical Thought is one such project and involves compiling a database of articles, books, and dissertations on preaching, spanning decades of publication, to create an annotated bibliography for research in the field of preaching. The residential PhD student will be assisting Dr. Chris Rappazini, the program’s first post-doctoral researcher, on this project.
“We plan to have a post-doc come in yearly to be engaged in research, helping us contribute to R1 status,” Gibson said. “It is important to help people think through the issues of the day and to address concerns in a thoughtful way. These initiatives lend to that. It is for the benefit of the Church. It may not be as readily detectible right away, but it has significant capacity to influence and seep into everyday pulsating church life as well as some of the highly debated kinds of theological concerns that have an effect on the life and health of the Church.”
In addition to expanded research-based programming within disciplines, Truett faculty are also participating in a number of interdisciplinary projects, such as exploring the relationship of theology and science.
The Bernard Ramm Scholars Program, directed by Dr. Chris Rios, associate dean of the Baylor Graduate School, was created to encourage and support students who are interested in the engagement between Christianity and science. Baylor doctorate STEM students and Truett Master of Divinity students apply to participate in the program, during which they meet monthly for a dinner and discussion on assigned readings. Dr. Kimlyn Bender, professor of Christian theology, and Dr. Rebecca Sheesley, associate professor of environmental science, serve as faculty advisors for the Ramm Scholars. “There’s a kind of popular belief that science and religion are at odds with one another, but if one looks back historically, it is actually the case that much of the origin of science came about through people who were deeply religious,” Bender said. “Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were all deeply religious persons. While some people think that science and religion have forever been at odds, that’s actually not true to the history of both religion and science.”
Bender, who enjoys a long-standing interest in discussions on theology and science, along with Dr. Roger Olson, the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics, recently applied for a grant through the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, & Religion (DoSER). As a result, Truett was selected as one of nine seminaries to participate in the Science for Seminaries program, which will support the seminary’s efforts to address the relationship of theology and science in a number of ways.
First, beginning this fall, science will be integrated into three core courses of the Master of Divinity curriculum. Christian Texts and Traditions 3 will explore the history of science, particularly the rise of modern science, the impact of the Galileo affair on cosmology, and the challenges posed by Darwin, biology, and geology. Constructive Theology will examine the interplay between method in theology and science and the relation of the doctrine of creation to current understandings in physics and cosmology. Introduction to Pastoral Care will consider the relationship of mental health, psychology, and neuroscience and a pastor’s spiritual and emotional life.
In addition, the Seminary hopes to fund students to attend science and theology conferences and will be hosting its own conference next February, the Faith and Science Symposium. The conference will be focused on helping seminarians and pastors consider how to talk about science and what to know about science as they serve in ministry.
“Many people in our churches are involved in science in one way or another — in science education, or they may themselves be scientists, they may be doctors,” Bender said. “It is important for pastors to have an understanding of that world, and how science actually works, how to speak to young people in constructive ways about science, as well as how to help people who are discerning vocations in their churches and are thinking about going into different natural and social sciences.”
For the Church
As Truett Seminary continues to build upon new initiatives like the Science for Seminaries program, introduce new degree programs like the PhD in Preaching, and celebrate faculty scholarship like that of Creech and Wilhite, the focus of the Seminary remains on the Church.
“The research we’re doing at Truett is, we hope, not only quality but the kind of research that has an impact,” Tucker said. “We produce research that is visible, particularly for the Church.”
Baylor’s Truett Seminary aspires to be a leader in the training of thoughtful, faithful Christian ministers for a 21st century Church and world. Within that vision is a commitment to innovative thinking that will better equip pastors for ministry, to scholarship that will aid churches in the challenges they face, and to transformative research in the midst of theological education.