How to Become a Christian Scholar
Oliver Crisp is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Oliver teaches systematic theology, and has been a professor at Fuller since 2011. He holds a bachelor’s degree and Master of Theology from the University of Aberdeen, and a Phd from the University of London.
Before he began teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, he spent three years as the secretary to the Society for the Study of Theology, located in the UK, and he also spent time on the committee of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. Oliver has taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the University of Bristol, and Regent College in Vancouver, BC.
What is Christian studies?
Well, I'm not sure what Christian studies is. I guess it is the study of Christianity. I teach Christian theology in what is sometimes called a "confessional" context, namely, a seminary. I teach from within a particular religious tradition about the conceptual content of the beliefs held by that tradition -- in this case, Christianity. I suppose you could look at Christianity from the outside-in, so to speak. That might constitute "Christian studies." But it might also constitute the study of religion, such as you'd find in many major research universities.
What do you find most interesting about Christian studies?
Religious beliefs are very important to millions of people. They shape our societies and our communities in important respects. They form who we are as persons. What we believe about matters religious is, in an important sense, a matter of fundamental significance for many, many people. So to ask what I find most interesting about the study of Christianity is rather like asking what do you find most interesting about the most interesting things in life. It is all fascinating to me. But in particular, I am interested in the philosophical issues raised by Christian beliefs. For instance, if God is said to be a trinity, how can he be both one and also three at the same time? Or, if Jesus of Nazareth is said to be God incarnate, how can that be? How can one person be both fully human and fully divine at one and the same time?
What is your least favorite aspect of Christian studies?
Given my previous comments, I'm not sure I have an adequate answer to that. There are lots of things I like to study about Christian doctrine, some things I wish I knew more about but don't have the time to pursue, and some things that I probably should know more about. But none that I find I dislike or that are my least favorite.
Are there subfields of Christian studies that students might not be aware of?
Probably there are. As I've said, I teach Christian doctrine or theology -- what Christians believe about God, salvation, the world, the afterlife -- that sort of thing. I am also interested in philosophical theology and the philosophy of religion, where philosophy and theology meet and intersect. There is church history, which I also love, read, and write about a little. And there is practical theology (about how to be a minister), as well as Biblical studies (the study of sacred texts in the Old and New Testaments). These are the main divisions in the study of Christianity, although there are other things one could include such as social-scientific study of religion (e.g., sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, and the like) as well as things like the psychology of religion.
What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in Christian studies?
I teach at a graduate school: a seminary. Most people coming to seminary intend on some sort of service in the church, and they do an MDiv or MA degree to that end. Some intend on an academic career and end up doing a ThM or PhD. Others do theological education in order to help them think through their vocations in other fields -- and these can be very diverse, from managing fitness clubs to working on Wall Street!
Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in Christian studies, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor's degree?
In the United States, the study of theology is usually a graduate program (e.g., MDiv, MA). You can do things like a major in religion in some universities and colleges, or a major in Biblical studies. There are very few places where you can study Christian theology as an undergraduate. Often, people begin their study of theology as a graduate student, and this can be without a background in theology just as someone might go to law school with an undergraduate degree in, say, history.
What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a Christian studies program?
There are some things that are not peculiar to the study of theology that would help, such as a strong work ethic, application, focus, the ability to juggle different commitments (school, job, family) -- that sort of thing. If a "successful" student is one who ends up doing what they set out to study, then in addition a clear sense of vocation, being able to work with people of different abilities, ages, and so on (in placements) would also be vital.
What electives would you recommend that a student in a Christian studies program take?
This depends on the course of study. Some are fairly prescribed (e.g., MDiv). Some have more scope for choice (e.g., MA). In addition to a good grounding in the core subjects of Biblical studies (OT and NT), church history, systematic and philosophical theology, moral theology, and practical theology, much will depend on what the student excels at, or what they like in particular. I think theology is vital and fascinating. But others might prefer to do an in-depth study of a Biblical text or its reception, or consider a particular period in history, and so on. So much depends on the student. But if you want to major in, say, practical theology, then taking electives in that area is an obvious thing to do.
What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a Christian studies program?
Work hard. Work consistently. Accumulate resources that will help you in future work/study/career. Stay focused. Manage you time and other commitments carefully. Think about where you think you are headed and plan your next step; don't leave it to the last minute.
Do you think Christian studies is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?
You can study it online like you can study a lot of different things online these days. But I personally do not think online study is ideal. In fact, I think online study is potentially isolating and lacks important dimensions that you can only get in the classroom and in a physical community (e.g., formation of character and ministry/vocation for the future). Although I think we must embrace new technologies and integrate them into our learning environments, I do worry that the pace of change and the effects this has on learning communities does not necessarily make for a better educated, more rounded individual. Technology is a tool, nothing more. It is not a solution.
What subjects should a prospective student of Christian studies understand before entering a formal college program?
People come from a variety of different educational backgrounds and this can mean they bring a particular perspective to theological study that can be enriching and helpful. Traditionally, people have studied the arts (liberal arts) before doing theology. There are great benefits to this because such a training gives you a grounding in how to read texts, how to attend to history and tradition and language -- all things that are vital to theological study. But in a technological age, who is to say that a background in biology might not also be of great use if (say) you want to end up focusing on Christian approaches to medical ethics?
What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of Christian studies?
Advice: Look carefully into which course best suits you. The quality of the school is important. But this devolves in large part upon the quality of its resources. The two most important resources for any theology student (as far as the institution they study at goes) are the library facilities and the faculty. If the library is poor but faculty are terrific, you can probably get by if you're prepared to buy good books, but it isn't ideal. However, if you have great library facilities and average faculty, that will have a significant impact on your studies. The quality of the people who teach you is vital. You can often ascertain if they are good teachers from website or from asking current students. Ideally, you want good teachers who are also cutting-edge researchers. If the faculty are not writing very much or not writing books that are discussed, reviewed, used as texts, or published with the best publishers, you might want to look elsewhere.
For theology, you also want to consider the theological orientation of the school. This will make a big difference to your education too (if it is a confessional school).