The Ph.D. Plan (Or the Lack Thereof)

For months and months now, I’ve been praying for either (1) a breakthrough on my “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible” dissertation or (2) a clear sign that I should quit the Ph.D. Unfortunately, after countless confusing dead ends in my endeavors to put Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer into precise conversation with each other regarding specific passages of the Bible, I’ve now realized that such an approach is not going to work.

Perhaps I’ve missed something. Perhaps there’s a passage of Scripture out there that both Barth and Bonhoeffer wrote about that contains a theologically significant exegetical disagreement worth writing home about.

More likely: Barth and Bonhoeffer handled the Bible in different enough ways that comparing them as if they were two modern Bible commentators is a fool’s errand. Sure, it would have been great if, for example, they had a lengthy exegetical disagreement on whether or not Romans 7 describes the current Christian life. But I’ve been searching and searching for things like that, and I simply haven’t found them. Instead, I’ve found a cryptic student note here, a missing sermon manuscript there. This approach is simply not the dissertation that the subject matter requires. And it certainly hasn’t yielded anything constructive enough to meet Wheaton’s Ph.D. requirements!

This is the closest thing I’ve had to a breakthrough since starting the project. And, given that focusing on specific passages of Scripture was going to be the main thing that distinguished my project from other Barth and Bonhoeffer studies, this is a pretty crushing realization.

What’s more, I’ve essentially given up on using the “theological critique of religion” as a theological lens/scaffold, because getting clear on what Barth and Bonhoeffer meant by “religion” (an important step in understanding their relationship, I believe) was not helping me zero-in on particular biblical material. “Religion” is a slippery term in general, and it has many thematic tentacles, as it were, in Barth and Bonhoeffer’s writings. Construed a certain way, anything and everything that they said could be about “religion.”

So, where does that leave me?

Well, I’m convinced that something needs to change. I’m not prepared to continue sacrificing my mental, emotional, physical, and relational health on the altar of this Ph.D. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the clear sign that I should quit that I was hoping for. There are still other dissertation options within the realm of “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible.” They each have their downsides, and I’m not getting my hopes up, but they’re intriguing enough that I feel like I need to at least explore them before I call it quits.

The first step would be to revisit the secondary literature on Barth and the Bible and on Bonhoeffer and the Bible. Originally, I’d planned to briefly summarize this literature, mainly focusing on how what I was doing (examining particular Bible passages and reading them alongside Barth and Bonhoeffer) was different. That didn’t work!

So now it looks like I need to find an organic contribution to the secondary literature. I need to find some way that the particulars of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s theological exegesis goes beyond the portrait of the two theologians that’s been painted in the secondary literature. Hopefully I’ll be able to salvage some of my work on Genesis 1–3 and/or Matthew 5–7 to make an argument that goes beyond the secondary literature.

OR: I’ll realize that I have nothing of substance to contribute to this discussion, that others have done the work better than I could hope to, and I can go my not-so-merry way. In many ways, this “fail fast” option seems preferable. I doubt that either Barth or Bonhoeffer would be happy with me for spending so much time thinking and writing about their writings, instead of thinking and writing about the identity and acts of the Triune God.

This means that, instead of transitioning to full-time work with Anglican Compass ASAP, I’m planning to remain a full-time doctoral student for this fall semester. If, by the end of the year, I don’t have any more clarity on this project, then I think I’ll throw in the towel. Perhaps I’m not supposed to be the Rev. Dr. Steele. At least not yet.

Sorry for the depressing post! Prayers are much appreciated. As I prepare for my fourth year as a Ph.D. student, I’m quickly running out of ideas and motivation.

By Joshua Steele

Anglican Priest, Managing Editor of Anglican Compass, Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School.

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