What is good scholarship?

Is academic work a kind of perfectionism? Single-minded focus certainly goes a long way in scholarship. But we must also be circumspect, not forgetting the constraints on our time and resources, our health and the need to make concessions to our audiences when communicating discoveries. All-round perfection will be an elusive goal. So what really is good scholarship, in God’s eyes?

We’re about to begin a series on this theme by looking at a whole suite of kinds of “good”. What do a good argument, a good method, a good speaker and a good deed have in common? Perhaps it’s not so easy to say. The reformational perspective that motivates FiSch relishes the challenge of pursuing different kinds of goodness together – someone has called it “the simultaneous realisation of norms”.

Now, in our academic work we sometimes bump into a thing called research ethics. Perhaps an ethics committee needs to approve your project, and this seems like a bind, concerned with extraneous ethics. But, just as the law no longer feels like constraint when it’s internalised in us, and we need have no fear of rulers if we obey the law (Rom 13), I would argue that there are many types of “good” that we’re already used to considering in our work. We know the importance of good ideas, of getting good value from limited funds and time, of using good reasoning, and of obtaining good outcomes from a project. And we’re trained to keep these “intrinsic” goods in view. Virtuous scholarship is a multifaceted challenge.

All-round goodness

You may remember how the psalmist proclaimed, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3) – and how this is echoed in Jesus’ claim, “No one is good – except God alone” (Mk 10:18), and Paul quotes it in Romans (3:12). Where does this leave that desire for excellence? This is where it’s important to distinguish different spheres of meaning. The biblical writers clearly assume that we can make valid arguments, build houses to withstand storms and care for animals well. So the bold claims cited above must be concerned with something more. Yes: they refer to righteousness in the eyes of our Creator. This is indeed not something we can just work up. If we don’t love God, good scholarship will clothe us only in filthy rags in His eyes (Is 64:6) – although it surely remains good, in His common grace, for God’s purposes in the world at large. But, conversely, the goodness granted to us when we truly know and believe in Jesus Christ is not only to our eternal benefit. Here and now it will integrate every area of our lives, growing as we work out our salvation (Php 2:12). “Be perfect,” said Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect*” (Mat 5:48).

Some of the themes of our series may surprise you.  We’ll begin with a guest post by philosopher Roy Clouser on the goodness of logic and move on to the goodness of progress.  Later we’ll reach more social (“ethical”) dimensions, and eventually end up in good faith. I hope you find the journey stimulating!


*The Greek teleios in this context suggests whole, perhaps impartial, rather than perfection as an ideal.


This looks like a splendid idea and a very “good” thing to do in a series. Your first comments here remind me immediately of the great admonition in Hebrews 5-6 about the need for believers to become mature and move beyond mere milk drinking. We eventually need solid food. And the description of such maturity is this: infants still on milk are “not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (5:13-14) There is no narrowing of the focus here to any particular task. All of human responsibilities before the fact of God—-with our whole heart—-are to seek understanding of righteousness, right living, the right way to do all that God gives us to do. And that is an ongoing training process leading to wisdom and understanding that can distinguish good from evil. And I assume, of course, that part of such maturity is to learn distinctions between good balance and bad balance among all the responsibilities that engage us.
I look forward to reading more in this series.

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