Email: How to Navigate a Career in Early Christian Studies as an Evangelical?

PenToday, I received an e-mail that has left me thinking all day. Honestly, I often get two kinds of related questions due to my academic interests and pursuits.

I often receive:

(1) How can you maintain an evangelical commitment while being involved in academic societies (North American Patristic Society and Society of Biblical Literature)?


(2) Given your interest in Patristic literature, how have you not recapitulated to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy?

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Here is a snippet of an e-mail that I received from a generous and eager student. I wish this student all the success they move forward. 

I wanted to reach out to you and pick your brain on how to faithfully navigate a career in Early Christian Studies as an evangelical, and what resources you have found helpful in your studies. My interests are ante-Nicene christianity and Celtic christianity, which are both areas that you have published on, and I would love any advice you might have as I pursue those interests.

Thank you so much for your work. I hope that we can connect someday in the near future. Have a blessed summer.

In Christ,

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images-1Here is how I attempted to answer such question. I’m sure there are different ways to answer as well as better ways to think through this question. Please offer any suggestion you have in the comments below:

You ask a question that I am still working through myself. Permit me to ramble for a little bit, and I hope something will be helpful. Do be mindful that I am still very very early in my career as well. Here are items I am learning along the way or have been passed along to me from other mentors.
1. Be a committed evangelical: I, for one, am not super impressed with some of the in-house battles that are currently happening. Even talking to non-evangelicals, they seem superfluous. Yet, I am a committed evangelical because Scripture means something to me and to my tradition. I, naively or informed, think that when I read the Scriptures, I am reading the voice of God for his followers. Thus, historical questions do not threaten a literary, theological, and virtue reading of the Bible.

Moreover, as one who is teaching at an undergrad, evangelical, and baptist institution, theology matters to us. Thus, I am broadly and openly committed to these larger tenets: the primacy of the Scriptures, importance of faith and conversion, Trinitarianism, and post-faith expression of baptism as a covenantal sign.

I do know, however, that a number of these items are not affirmed by all. Yet, they define my tradition — and living in the scholarly world, I have/am coming to be more okay with this.

2. Be a committed church person: This past week, in particular, I was reminded once more of what a local assembly does for a scholar. I don’t tell everyone that I meet in the church what I do, what I know, or what I don’t know. But I try to invest in meaningful relationships with them.

What this does is it permits the whole body of Christ to minister to me and I to her. Spending quality time with people in the church reminds me that theology matters, virtue matters, and people experience broad amounts of suffering. At the end of the day, my commitment to the local church helps guard all these items in my life.

We weekly recite the Apostle’s Creed as a confession of belief, sing songs that move people internally, and hear a sermon that reflects on the theology and virtuous components of the Scriptures.

3. Master the primary literature: This is one item that I cannot overemphasize enough. One of my mentors read through the ANF, NPNF 1, and NPNF 2 prior to entering their initial teaching post. Another mentor encouraged me with, “those who can master the data can truly contribute something new.”

Especially diving into early christianity and late antique studies, there are mounds and mounds of primary literature. Find some way to incorporate primary literature into your life, even despite its overt busyness as a seminary student.

For the past two years, I have given special attention to this and currently devote 7–10 hours a week to primary source intake. I read primary literature 40–90 min a day. Currently, I’m working through Judith (LXX), NT Apocrypha literature, Origen On Prayer, and selected readings of Cyril of Alexandria’s english translations during my weekly intake. I’ll be more than willing to help create a list of sources or point you to others who have done so too.

I’ve modeled my life, lecture preparation, and scholarship on a mentor who has an incredible handling of the primary sources. When we sit down for discussions, for dinner, or hear him lecture, it seems as if there is not a piece of literature he has not read.

4. Master Global discussions: Because I am an American, because I am an evangelical, and because I studied in America, I am already behind on the global meetings that take place in the UK and Germany.

If there are ways to learn the history of your discipline and the global discussions of your discipline, the better you will be in the long run. Because my discipline is NT and Early Christianity, Neill and Wright (see here), William Baird’s 3 vol (see herehere, and here), and the American storyline of Patristic Studies (see here) have been immensely helpful.

Part of this dialogue happens at NAPS and SBL — there are other societal meetings, but these are the two groups that I desire to take part in. Listen to trends, listen to methodologies, listen to how others define the discipline.

At the end of the day, it will be helpful to narrate the history of scholarship for your discipline and the global contributions.

5. Learn to navigate Ecumenical dialogue: This is by far one of the hardest and where I experience the most amount of temptation. I’m of the persuasion that the evangelical faith is not immune to the some of the difficulties raised by historical scholarship, and if carefully balanced, one may navigate this dialogue. Thus, as a confessionalist, I can still hear, listen, and contribute to the dialogue within scholarship — whether unnoticed by others or not.

Yet, part of this ecumenical dialogue is to listen willingly and learn from those that you disagree with and philosophically are at odds with. They are still people, they still have something of great great value to say, they too have devoted a life to contribution.

I’m sure there are more things to wrestle through and I’m sure others could add helpful items here. These are items that I have attempted to pursue and be shaped by. Thank you for reaching out, and please do reach out again. We can grab coffee at ETS, SBL, or NAPS.


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