This afternoon, I submitted my Ph.D thesis, “The Freedom of a Christian Commonwealth: Richard Hooker and the Problem of Christian Liberty.”
Vital statistics: 7 chapters; 99,999 words; 333 bibliography entries; 2 appendices.
The following text appeared in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning, and I tried to make it a slightly more engaging read than your average Acknowledgments page:
Like perhaps many other things in life, a Ph.D thesis is a disconcerting combination of, on the one hand, meticulous planning and disciplined execution, and, on the other hand, the completely unforeseen and fortuitous: the chance meeting and conversation at a conference or (more often perhaps nowadays) online, the furious footnote pursued into a treasure-trove of exciting discoveries, an offhand suggestion by your supervisor that blossoms into an important new line of inquiry, the epiphany that comes during the morning walk to your desk or over your third coffee as you muse on Rachmaninov’s Third. Unfortunately, it is only the first of these categories, by far the less consequential contribution, that the lowly writer can take credit for. For the rest, he can only say, non nobis, Domine, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam! However, it smacks suspiciously of false modesty to wax eloquent thanking God on an Acknowledgements page, a way of not-so-subtly insinuating to one’sexaminers that everything before them has God’s personal stamp of approval, being His own handiwork. Thankfully, however, God works mostly through strange and fallible secondary causes, especially those that walk on two legs, and to these it is appropriate to indulge in effusions of gratitude.
Many of these (some long dead) have made their contribution primarily through the written word, sealed up between two covers of a book; these are honored in the appropriate (though depressingly formal) way in the footnotes and bibliography that accompany this thesis, so there is little point listing them here. I will make an exception of three only. David VanDrunen, given the rather merciless beating (although with all due academic decorum) he receives in a few of the pages that follow, deserves a word of thanks here. His book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms fortuitously came my way three years ago, and set me on a quest of refutation that led me unexpectedly to this thesis (in the process of which the nature of the refutation changed dramatically, and I learned a great deal from him). He was polite enough to meet me for a beer and a somewhat confusing argument about Calvin even after I had intemperately savaged him in print—and I have no doubt he will have the graciousness to do so again next time our paths should cross. In a very different way, my debt to Torrance Kirby in various ways is evident all over the pages that follow, although he will no doubt find much to quibble with. The rich insights I have mined from his books and articles have been complemented by his patient correspondence and feedback over the past few years, during the early part of which he displayed great perseverance in trying to drill the Reformational two-kingdoms concept into my thick head. Third, of course, I must thank Richard Hooker, “of blessed memory” (as Paul Stanwood likes to always add), who has been far more to me these past two and a half years than the subject of a thesis. I hope it will not sound like sacrilege to say that his words have been a lamp for my feet, and a light unto my path in more ways than I can count, many of them well beyond the scope of this research.
For introducing me to Hooker (or re-introducing, as I had made a passing though passionate acquaintance with him during a summer study at Oxford some years ago), I must thank of course my supervisor Oliver O’Donovan, who has throughout this process guided me with a gentle but judicious hand. His suggestions have been few but carefully-chosen, and have usually yielded abundant fruit—none more so than his absurd insistence that I spend my Christmas break two and a half years ago toiling through the eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity, which had, I thought, little bearing on my anticipated thesis topic. His wife Joan has proved an extraordinary (though again, an unforeseen) secondary supervisor, meticulously flagging the least grammatical transgression or conceptual ambiguity throughout the process. Perhaps just as important as this formal supervision has been the quirky but unfailing advice of my friend and mentor, Peter Escalante. I have had the uncanny experience, ever since stumbling upon the topic and argument of this thesis, that I was simply unfolding an idea that he had mysteriously “incepted” into my mind sometime in autumn 2010. Of this thesis it might truly be said “Peter planted, Hooker watered, and God gave the growth.” I appreciate also Peter’s willingness to read over each chapter draft as it appeared, reassuring me that yes, it was coherent enough to pass on to my supervisors for their scrutiny.
Many other friends (some of them friends formed along the way) helped by their suggestions, conversations, feedback on drafts, and penetrating questions. Steven Wedgeworth and Jordan Ballor, in particular, gave me many helpful ideas and put a number of key resources in my path; the opportunity to work with Jordan on a project on 16th-century Calvinist church discipline was especially fruitful. Andrew Fulford read over several bits of the thesis at the crucial revising stage, helping me ensure that they were polished and comprehensible enough. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my old and brilliant friend Davey Henreckson, who will no doubt be the secure occupant of a professorial chair at Yale Divinity while I’m still trying to jerry-rig my own personal theological-paedagogical revolution from my parents’ basement a few years hence. Throughout the Ph.D process, he has asked many annoying but penetrating questions, and made a number of suggestions, many of which turned out to be very useful indeed—putting me onto John Perry’s Pretenses of Loyalty, for instance. And of course my faithful friend Brad Belschner has always been there to chat things through when we have the chance to catch up every few months.
Even the rare reader inquisitive enough to read through an Acknowledgements section is likely to skip along when he encounters the section thanking family, as it is sure to be sentimental, and almost entirely unrelated to the matter of the thesis. And yet for the writer of the Acknowledgments, no section could be more important. In particular, the bit where the author thanks his wife for her extraordinary patience and longsuffering over years of penniless and seemingly pointless toil (often in a foreign land, no less), can seem quite perfunctory, and yet it is anything but. To my wife, Rachel, I am indescribably and eternally grateful for her unfailing support at every stage of the way. It may sound trivial, clichéd, or maybe even sexist to single out for gratitude the extraordinarily fine dinners that I could look forward to at the end of a day of study and writing, but few things contributed so much to the relative ease and efficiency of my work. “An army can’t move except on its stomach,” said Napoleon, and the same is true of an academic. My four-year-old son Soren has been a source of frustration as well as delight along the way, but even the former has been invaluable in keeping me grounded—such as his resort to the blunt expedient of slamming my laptop shut and saying “Don’t work!” when it was high time to call it a day. My eight-month-old angel Pippa has provided constant joy and inspiration on the crucial last leg of the thesis (and to think I was afraid she would slow it down with sleepless nights!). To thank one’s mother may seem acceptable at a high school graduation speech, but frankly embarrasing in a Ph.D thesis Acknowledgements page. And yet I must thank her once more for teaching me to write—to write essays clearly, quickly, and effectively, from a young age. Too many writers must labor simultaneously with forming their ideas and forming their words; I have been fortunate enough to be able to focus on the former and let the latter take care of themselves, thanks in large part to that training many years ago. My dad too has provided an ever-ready ear, to chat about things thesis-related, or not-so-related, throughout my Ph.D work, keeping my morale up with his humor and his uncanny willingness to agree with me.
Finally, I will thank God directly—not for the content of the thesis, but for the joy it has brought me. For too many Ph.D students, it seems, a thesis has become stale and lukewarm by the date of submission, and they are only too happy to do to it what God wanted to do to the Laodiceans. I am happy to say it is not so for me, and it is with a fond farewell that I send this thesis forth upon its voyage of examination.