Good Scholar, Bad Scholar—Which One Are We?

I remembered how my Old Testament professor used to greet us at the start of class with something like “Hello, comrades” or “Hello, fellow scholars.” This occurred back in the time when I was studying towards my MTS degree. Many of us just laughed at the remark, some of us somehow looked perplexed, but for me, I felt very undeserving to be called a scholar. My idea of a scholar then was someone who is an expert in a particular field of study, and someone who has a PhD, a teaching post, a long list of publications, and an established name and track record in the scholarly world. At the time, I thought that, by that definition, I would never be considered or called a scholar, since only a small percentage of the multitude of scholars in every field of discipline will fit into that category.

This old (and wrong) perception of mine, however, has changed in the course of seemingly endless and sophisticated schoolwork and education in graduate school that I have done. And reflecting on what I have learned through all my years in education, particularly during my PhD studies, I offer some ideas of what it means to be a scholar.

libraryFirst, my old notion of a scholar, the one I mentioned above, is only one of the many dictionary definitions of the term “scholar.” According to a number of dictionary definitions, a “scholar” can be any “learned person” or “student or pupil.” The important thing to note here is that anyone who devotes their time and energy in graduate school to mastering a particular subject matter like the New Testament or sociolinguistics or linguistics, for example, can legitimately be called a scholar. In other words, the term “scholar” would more appropriately refer to what a person does (i.e., one’s job or vocation) than to one’s notoriety (i.e., one’s reputation or acclamations). The former conceptualization helps us understand the real deal (so Luke 17:10); the latter tempts us to become all puffed up. To be sure, because our life circumstances, priorities, background, etc., differ from one another, we cannot define scholarship based on what others think of us, although of course we can determine the stage of our scholarship based on our achievements as we progress—hence the nomenclature “beginning scholar,” “junior scholar,” “senior scholar,” etc.

Secondly, because I take the term “scholar” to refer to one’s job or vocation, it is inevitable for us not to talk about the idea of a good scholar and a bad scholar. I am not trying to pinpoint here who the good and the bad scholars are, and I am certainly not referring to their character or personality. But good scholarship requires a basic set of criteria for it to be considered as of high standard and good quality. Of course these criteria are only my own, and I certainly do not expect everyone to agree with me. I consider it bad scholarship when these essential criteria of good scholarship are not met in one’s scholarship. I will state these in terms of what good scholarship looks like.

  • Good scholarship does not simply reuse or revise an old or existing idea, either by rehashing what has already been said or by arguing for what has already been argued, without introducing something new to supplement an old idea or a new methodology to support an old argument.
  • Good scholarship makes arguments on the basis of a defined theoretical framework or methodological procedure and not simply on the basis of personal opinion or preference, or simply logical deduction and what might at first appear to be straightforward interpretation of the available facts or information.
  • Good scholarship suspends judgment when new arguments, facts, information, and evidence on a particular issue or subject matter are presented, and will re-evaluate its own view and position in light of them.
  • Good scholarship gives credit when credit is due and will not claim the credit for itself. This criterion naturally forces good scholars to think and assess critically a particular issue or subject they are interested in.
  • Good scholarship always feels a sense of inadequacy, understanding that scholars do not and cannot know everything, and will thus strive for continual progress and improvement.

Thirdly and lastly, I wish to share briefly from my experience in the last four or so years as a graduate student to say why I think of myself as a good scholar. I recently graduated (May 2015) with a PhD in Christian Theology (New Testament), and I therefore see myself as a beginning scholar. I love what I do (i.e., research and writing, editing, and teaching), and this is the reason why I was able to publish articles, essays, and reviews in various venues while working as a graduate assistant, teaching in an adjunct capacity, being involved in a number of extra-curricular academic activities, and completing my degree program (my publications are posted on our blog site to validate what I say here). Now that I have a teaching and editing job, I continue to love what I do. I believe that if we love what we do, this will always be (and may only be, sad to say) the chief motivation that will keep us going as a scholar—but perhaps this should be enough.

— Hughson T. Ong

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11 thoughts on “Good Scholar, Bad Scholar—Which One Are We?

  1. Hi Hughson,

    Lots of good thoughts here, to be sure. I, however, wonder how you would extend your statements to describe what good Christian scholarship looks like. To be clear, I do not mean this in the sense that Christian scholarship should be qualitatively or quantitatively different than any other kind, or in the sense that Naselli improperly critiqued Porter for recently in Themelios. But, still, how would you describe it?

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  2. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for visiting our blog and for taking time to read my article. You are right–I agree with you that Christian scholarship should not be any different than that of any other academic disciplines. I think that this is the most important point that I wish to convey in my article. Paul in 2 Tim 2:15 even tells Timothy to present himself as someone who does his very best…to handle the word of God accurately. I cite this text neither to make it as my prooftext nor to engage in exegeting it. But I think that it is obvious from the text that we, as Christians, and especially as Christian scholars, need to do our best in what we do especially in handling faithfully and responsibly what has been entrusted to us–the Bible.

    I cannot say anything at this point about Naselli’s critique of Stan’s Inking the Deal and his idea of what scholarship is, as I have not read the article yet. But what I can tell you is that, personally, Christian scholarship should be conceived to be of a higher standard, especially if we want to be called good and faithful servants and stewards of God. I believe that Christ’s church is comprised of many members as Paul so clearly says in 1 Corinthians 12-14. To be sure, while some of us are called to be pastors or shepherds of God’s flock, others are called to be teachers (Eph 4:16). I cannot say this to be an absolute thing, but Christians scholars resemble more as teachers rather than as pastors (although I acknowledge the fact that perhaps many will disagree with me). As teachers, however, it is imperative, especially in our days, to keep ourselves updated and well-informed about other people’s opinions and views and arguments on specific biblical and theological issues, especially those that are related to our fields of interests; hence the necessity of Christian scholarship.

    Now you perhaps might wonder whether I have actually answered your question, that is, have I described what Christian scholarship is. But actually, I just did, because Christian scholarship should be “good scholarship” too as from what I have said in my article. Perhaps the only difference is that it needs to be even more of a higher standard especially when we bear the name of Christ in our work and when we profess in public to be his followers.

    Should there be any difference between being a good scholar and being a Christian scholar other than this?

    — Hughson T. Ong

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  3. Hi Hughson,

    Thanks for taking the time to provide me with a thoughtful response.

    You certainly touched on part of the key difference between being a good scholar who is, say, an atheist, and one who is a Christian. Thanks. I though we would agree on this point.

    We could also explain it a bit further by delineating what it means to be a good scholar in a Christian seminary, or divinity college, versus a university. Again, although the quality and quantity should not be different, their work differs, or at least it should, because one serves the church more directly while the other may simply serve the larger university, depending on their theological differences. Thus, what it means to be a teacher in the seminary setting means, as you cited from Ephesians 4, a servant of the church to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Now, the “saints” may refer to those who will lead the church. And by this I am not saying that all the teaching or scholarship one does in a seminary should be readable by everyone in the church. Rather, I am just trying to point out the larger goal of the teacher/professor in a seminary.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

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  4. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your enthusiasm on this topic. This is certainly an interesting conversation. I think that you are right in saying that the job or work of the scholar in a seminary would be different from the one in a university. This seems obvious. As scholars, Christian or non-Christian, we are all involved in different kinds of things. Of course the Christian scholar, while being involved in their seminary work, should also be part of the church community, serving Christ in their own unique ways.

    But I guess the issue I raised in my article is more narrowly focused upon good scholarship and what it means for me. It seems that being a Christian and being a good scholar are two different things. Although, of course, my position is that a Christian scholar should be a good scholar all the more because we carry the name of Christ.

    –Hughson T. Ong

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  5. Hi Hughson,

    Your most recent response concerns me that you write “being a Christian and being a good scholar are two different things.” How so? That is, if we hold a Christian worldview, then we cannot view being a Christian and being a good scholar as two different things. From a Christian worldview, good scholarship, regardless of its discipline and focus, honors Christ. That does not mean that pagans cannot produce quality scholarship, even in the theological enterprise, but it cannot be good in the same sense as Christian scholarship.

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  6. Ben,

    I would agree with Hughson, in the basic sense that one can be a Christian and, at the same time, a bad scholar or not a scholar at all. Two different categories we are dealing with. One can be a Christian and at the same time a horrible mechanic. Maybe I’m just not following what you’re saying. Can you elaborate? Thanks.

    — David I. Yoon

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  7. Hi David,

    What I am saying is that when Christians discuss good or bad scholarship, they must continue to do so in a way that concords with their Christian worldview. As Paul explains in 1 Cor 10:31, Christians are supposed to do everything for the glory of God. Whether a mechanic or a scholar, they should give glory to God in all that they do, and how they do it. You probably both agree with me on this point, right?

    But, what you two seem to be saying that what one does as a scholar is disconnected from who one is as a Christian. And that’s concerning; am I understanding you correctly? Yes, we are talking about two different categories, but the larger category of what it means to be a Christian covers everything in our lives. Thus, when we talk about what a good scholar does, we, as professing Christians, have to understand that as part of being a Christian. That is, the reason why a Christian scholar gives credit where it is due instead of committing plagiarism is because they believe in Christian categories of right and wrong, not just so they don’t lose their job or fail to get published. Therefore, when speak of good versus bad scholarship, or scholars, there are theological overtones attached to what it means to be good or bad.

    Certainly, there is another sense in which we can discuss whether or not scholarly work in any given field is good or not, whether we know that person to be a Christian or not—just like we can discuss whether or not someone is a good mechanic. But, as I originally asked in my first response, how would you tie these comments in with a Christian worldview? As it stands, your description seems like someone can wear a scholar hat six days a week and then on Sunday wear their Christian hat—as if the two are entirely unrelated. I hope that’s not what you’re saying, but the more I read your comments, I keep getting that perception.

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  8. Ben, I think you and Hughson are hitting on slightly different things here. While he is recognizing that one’s faith and one’s scholarly occupation are categorically different, he’s not saying that they do not influence each other (although I do agree that the theological ramifications of approaching biblical scholarship from a Christian worldview definitely need to be teased out quite a bit more). In fact, quite the opposite–he says one’s Christian identity should make them into an even better scholar. At least, that’s how I read the earlier posts–am I correct on that, Hughson?

    On a different note, Ben, I really liked your question about the day-to-day work of a Christian scholar teaching in a seminary. A few things come to mind which I would like to offer, if I may. (1) Seminary professors must teach for the purposes of forming/transforming students going into ministry, not only for the sake of knowledge acquisition (one thinks of David Kelsey’s distinction between “Athens” and “Berlin” models of theological education). (2) This requires that seminary professors possess spiritual depth, a heart-felt love of students, and a genuine commitment to the local church–all in addition to the requisite academic acumen. (3) Publications, while important for the advancement of scholarship, are most likely not going to be the things which transform students. This, of course, is certainly not to say that seminary professors should not try to keep an active research profile–they absolutely should. However, one’s CV is never a substitute for being a professor who cares, and who is in tune with the lives and needs of his/her students.

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  9. Hi Ben, Phil, and Dave,

    Thanks for the interaction. I always like to dialogue, and I can see the various perspectives being thrown into this discussion about being a good scholar or good scholarship.

    I agree with all of Phil’s points. I think that Phil is right. In a seminary setting professors need to strive for equipping people for the ministry and service of the church, especially when teaching professional degree courses. But I personally think that this is only one major part of the professor’s job. And this is different from one’s engagement in scholarship and publication. I acknowledge the fact that there are many ways to explain what I mean by this, but the main thing that I wish to point out here is that teaching and scholarship are both included in the “job description” of a seminary professor. One may emphasize more on the teaching side, another may enjoy publishing more. Additionally, a seminary professor should ideally also be involved in the ministry of the church (but isn’t the seminary a church ministry already?). We can even add to the list that a seminary professor should also be responsible spouses, parents, and citizens. This list could go on.

    But, having said this, I think that one cannot say, much more adjudicate, what all Christian scholars should look like. We are all unique, and we all have different vocational calling. This is just what God’s church is, and this is just what reality is. Our genuineness and faithfulness for being a child of God will be determined at a future time when God can indeed call us “my good and faithful servant.” Most importantly, this issue is not what my article is all about.

    So I wish to say this again for one last time that the content of my article is more narrowly focused on what good scholarship–Christian or non-Christian–means and entails for me. My intention is to share what I have observed from the past several years I have been in graduate school and engaged in scholarship and publication.

    As to publication, here are some of my thoughts on it. I have not published much yet, and so I cannot really speak on behalf of those well-published scholars as to what they think of scholarly publishing in the Christian context. But I do think that scholarly publication has its own place in the ministry of the church. I think that there would not have been a PhD program in Christian Theology and all its related and sub-disciplines today if not for all the academic monographs and articles that are out there. Personally, I owe much of what I know today and even the PhD that I earned to scholars who have published their works. I also think that many pastors and lay leaders in the church are greatly benefiting from the excellent academic books and commentaries that they used for their sermons and teaching.

    Again, thanks for your comments and interaction with my article.

    — Hughson T. Ong

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  10. This is a good discussion that I think we who are involved, or aspiring to be involved, in higher education should (continue to) have.

    First, Ben, I would just point out that while I agree with most of what Hughson said, his views are not completely my own. I think I’m just pointing that out because you seemed to lump us together (and maybe that’s just for brevity’s sake). But second, as for myself, I do not bifurcate between being a scholar and a Christian, no more than I do bifurcate being a pastor and Christian, or a server (when I did work at a restaurant) and a Christian. And while I do agree that everything we do is to God’s glory, I don’t think we really have a clear idea on how that plays out in real life. Ben, how would you envision how Christian scholarship differs from scholarship in general?

    The other thing I wanted to mention is that there seems to be a tendency to bifurcate scholarship and teaching. Sometimes it’s manifested in our language, institutions “requiring both” teaching and writing on the side. But as I tried to communicate in my blog post before this, I think these two should go hand-in-hand and really feed each other. I think that scholarship feeds teaching, and teaching feeds scholarship. Maybe an example of what I envision would help. Let’s say I’m teaching a course on Paul or Pauline Theology, and maybe I’m spending a majority of the course on the New Perspective. Well, let’s say I’m working on an article on some aspect of the NPP, so I give my students a rough draft of it, for them to read, and then assign them to find at least 3 critical flaws in my logic or argument. And let’s say we devote one class session to discussing my article. Maybe they will find only minor errors in the article (such as typos, incorrect grammar, etc). Or maybe they see a glaring inconsistency (or two) in my argument. Then, I go back, take their comments (maybe during the summer or winter break) and edit my essay, and then (after maybe a few more readings by colleagues and friends) I submit it for publication. It’s not about me and my article per se, but students learn from the interaction, and so do I. I personally have benefited from this type of learning, where there is class interaction, versus the “lecture.” I envision that kind of engagement is merely one example of how scholarship feeds teaching and vice versa.

    One could object and say the same outcome can be had with interacting with an article not written by me. But I don’t think it’s either or. I think both can be had, and if the students sees his/her professor engaged directly in scholarship, they see that the professor is not just merely “talking” but “doing.”

    — David I. Yoon

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  11. Hey Hughson,

    Not to belabor the point, but I couldn’t get these lines out of my head…

    “In a seminary setting professors need to strive for equipping people for the ministry and service of the church, especially when teaching professional degree courses. But I personally think that this is only one major part of the professor’s job….Additionally, a seminary professor should ideally also be involved in the ministry of the church (but isn’t the seminary a church ministry already?)….But, having said this, I think that one cannot say, much more adjudicate, what all Christian scholars should look like. We are all unique, and we all have different vocational calling. This is just what God’s church is, and this is just what reality is.”

    While seminaries exist to serve as a ministry to the church, I would not say that a seminary is a church ministry. From its inception, the seminary has been seen as an institution closely affiliated with the church, but not as a surrogate to it. One of the recurring criticisms from seminary students with whom I have worked over the years is that some well-meaning professors have spent too much time in their ivory towers and not enough time in the trenches of ministry. As someone who has worked both in church ministry and in Christian higher education, I have to say that I believe this criticism has some validity to it. Again, this is not to discount that Christian scholars should be active in research; nor am I remotely suggesting that research can’t be helpful to people inside the church. But seminaries don’t exist to be solely, or even primarily, research institutions either. They exist to train people for ministry in the church. So, I’m not convinced that teaching and formation of students can be considered “only one major part of the professor’s job,” as if it were one thing on a checklist of to-do items. Teaching, for seminaries anyway, is and should be the chief priority in the hierarchy of educational values (again, Kelsey’s model of “Athens” comes to mind). Also, I definitely resonate with your desire not to try and squeeze all Christian scholars into a certain mould–God does create and gift people in various ways, certainly, and that should be respected. However, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect that, regardless of their proclivities, professors who teach in Christian higher education settings should all have a deep commitment to forming/transforming students for ministry, and that this should stem from their own deep commitment to the life of the local church.

    Anyways, good thoughts, Hughson. Thank you for your post.

    Phil

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