One of the saddest components of upper-level education is that budding young scholars spend a year or more in research and writing only to give birth to a strapping dissertation, which is then read by a committee of three or four professors. Over the period of adolescence and young adulthood, a few younger theologians may embark on a journey that will result in spelunking endeavors in the recesses of academia, but unless the research gives rise to a more “popular book” the greater number of worldlings are as likely to see their works as they are to be aboard the first shuttle to the Red Planet. As a result, incredible research and writing goes practically unnoticed. That includes some rather spectacular stories that produced these Herculean efforts.
For example, from the womb of the Covid virus with no opportunity for public graduation, three critically important and interesting PhD dissertations were produced at Southwestern Seminary during the past year by a trio of unlikely characters to whom we are all now indebted. Do you know all there is to know about J. Frank Norris? At age 72, O.S. Hawkins will prove you don’t! Working in the archives of Texas Christian University, Southwestern Seminary, and other libraries, Hawkins unearthed documents and letters from Norris, Truett, Scarborough, and others that have lain undiscovered for generations. And what a read! Frustrated with being a slow reader, I could scarcely wait to turn the page for the next adventure. You will not like all his discoveries, but you will get a genuine education. Hawkins says, “The same semester as my graduation 50 years ago, I entered the MDiv program at Southwestern. This is evidence that it is not too late for you to pursue training even at the highest level.” And how many young scholars do you know who had the elasticity and determination to earn a PhD at age 72?
Well, there is one—Jerry Vines—age 83! Dr. Vines had already earned one doctorate. Why did he pursue another? And who would ever be a student of preaching, looking at sacred utterance through the eyes of Aristotle and his three canons of rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos? Specifically, Dr. Vines’ dissertation highlights the way in which Jude, the half-brother of our Lord, utilized pathos in his little one chapter epistle. Reading this dissertation was just plain fun, mixing the seasoned thought of a great octogenarian with the philosophical observations of Aristotle (384-322 bc) to highlight the inspired message of Jude for his time and ours. In the process, Vines highlights the necessity of determining the pathos of the author of Scripture.
Jon Okinaga of Hawaii has a way yet to go. At only 43, his dissertation concerns the social and therapeutic impact of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous on Southern Baptist life. Without diminishing anyone assisted by these organizations, Okinaga demonstrates in his fabulous dissertation why such organizations are unhealthy for a people trusting in biblical sufficiency. Along the way, Okinaga suggests a clear path of influence on Southern Baptist thinking.
What makes Dr. Okinaga as unique as Vines and Hawkins is not that he has accumulated their years of earthly pilgrimage, but rather Okinaga, who grew up in a great Christian home in Hawaii, journeyed about as far as one can away from the Lord and into drug and alcohol addiction. When I first feasted my eyes on Okinaga, I thought the manager of the local tattoo parlor had accidently sat down at our table in a Hawaii restaurant. My wife recruited him to be a student, and I thought that she had become a candidate for a hospital ward in a mental health division. But she saw it exactly right.
The title of Vines’ dissertation is “Text-Driven Passion: Interpreting Jude’s Pathos.” Hawkins wrote his monumental treatment, “Two Kinds of Baptists: Re-Examining the Legacies of John Franklyn Norris and George Washington Truett.” Okinaga’s title is “From Sin to Disease: The Medicalization of Addiction and its Impact on How the Southern Baptist Convention Approaches Ministering to Those Who Struggle With Mind-Altering Substances.” So here is the deal. The next time the “chicken littles” of our era run past you crying that the “sky is falling,” evangelicals are hopeless, or “where is the promise of His coming?” just shout three words at that passing bird: “Vines, Hawkins, Okinaga!” God is still accomplishing the incredible among Southern Baptists. Here are three miracles in one year. God be praised for the men who guided these students on their dissertation journeys—and for Southern Baptists who supported them in their studies through the Cooperative Program.