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Meeting with Dr. Nicholson

Today I met with Dr. Michael Nicholson for brunch. Dr. Nicholson is a truly unique man: he holds the unofficial world record for the most earned college degrees, at 30 and counting. Most of his degrees are master’s degrees, all of them are from fully accredited institutions (except maybe the first one), and none was earned online. Most of his degrees are from mid-level institutions of higher learning, and many are in various educational specialties. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called him “the most credentialed person in modern history.” Dr. Nicholson and I also have two alma maters in common: Grand Valley State University and Dallas Theological Seminary.

In my conversation with Dr. Nicholson, I found him to be professional but affable. He seemed like a nice guy, if a bit eccentric. As one might expect, he leads a disciplined life. He is also an evangelical Christian with a strong faith. He gets up every morning at 4:30am (without an alarm clock!), takes a two-mile walk, reads the Bible, and prays. He says he is not exceptionally gifted academically, but he always attends classes, arrives on time, does all the assignments, turns them in on time, and studies for tests. He meets the course requirements, but does not do extra work. He does not own a television.

Dr. Nicholson earned his B.R.E. (Bachelor of Religious Education) degree in 1963 and a Th.M. (Master of Theology) degree in 1967. He originally intended to get a Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary and teach, but his life took a series of twists and turns which led him to get two more master’s degrees and an Ed.D. in order to get teaching qualifications. (He did teach high school for two years during this time and worked as a counselor.) Then physical issues prevented him from taking a job with the stress of a full time professor, which resulted in a job writing parking tickets at Western Michigan University. His wife also had a job at WMU, and Dr. Nicholson took advantage of tuition discounts to earn a number of degrees from the university. In later years, he did some substitute teaching as well, but he also continued to earn more degrees. He currently leads music at a small country church and also leads a weekly song service at a nursing home, but never has felt comfortable with the idea of taking a pastoral ministry. At the age of 73 he graduated with his 30th degree earlier this month (an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Grand Valley State University), and he is considering earning even more degrees if his health allows it.

A disclaimer: while it may be that God has called Dr. Nicholson to a special ministry of earning college degrees, this certainly is not the will of God for most seminary graduates (thankfully!). As a rule, seminary graduates should use their degrees to teach, pastor, write, and so forth. I suppose Dr. Nicholson is the extreme example of the “eager student” who loves school and wants to learn everything. While most people with “eager student syndrome” eventually want to publish books and articles and obtain a professorship, Dr. Nicholson just kept learning and getting degrees. Also unlike most eager students, Dr. Nicholson actually had the opportunity to stay in school for his entire life.

But there was a more profound takeaway from my meeting with Dr. Nicholson than merely the curiosity of meeting a man with so many degrees, or enjoying the camaraderie that comes from shared alma maters. Sometimes secular people caricature conservative evangelical Christians as anti-intellectual ignoramuses. The way you hear these people talk, you would think for sure that all of the smartest, best-educated people in the world are atheists. In fact, Dr. Nicholson has had more education than anyone else in the world, as measured by college degrees earned, and all but two of his degrees are from non-religious institutions. After going through a lifetime of university classes, Dr. Nicholson still holds to the same basic Christian beliefs that he held before he first enrolled in college. He has never read, heard, or learned anything that destroyed his Christian faith or his confidence in the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, Word of God. He told me that his education has made his faith stronger because, he said, “the whole idea of an education is to pursue the truth, and God is truth.”

Here is a lesson for Christians: the Christian faith is true, and therefore Christians do not need to fear that there will be some archeological discovery, some scientific discovery, or a philosophical argument that will destroy the Christian religion. Scholars like Dr. Nicholson and I have read vast amounts of scholarship, we have had a very broad exposure to what else is “out there,” and we have heard “the other side” present its views every which way, yet the more we hear the better the Bible looks. There is no other religion or philosophical system out there that has “the real truth”; Christianity is the real truth. There is no archeological or scientific “fact” out there that proves even a single error in the Bible; the Bible is wholly and completely true. The reason why secular scholars reject the Bible and Christianity is not because of any genuine problem with the Bible or Christianity. Belief in the Bible is eminently reasonable by any measure, and the Christian faith can be proven true in many different ways. But acceptance of the Bible and of the Christian religion involves moral and spiritual issues, not just intellectual issues, and in fact the minds of unbelievers are blinded by Satan (2 Cor 4:4) and their hearts are hardened by sin (Eph 4:18). New Christians are born again by the transforming power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, which illumines their minds and changes their way of thinking. Dr. Nicholson said about his unbelieving professors, “They think they know what they’re talking about, but they don’t know what’s going on right under their noses.”

You can read more about Dr. Nicholson here:

Here’s the list of 29 degrees (from the Kalamazoo Gazette)

Alumni with the most diplomas (from the GVSU alumni magazine)

Twenty-seven degrees and counting (from the Kalamazoo Gazette)

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