Where to study theology?

In the latest edition of First Things, R. R. Reno has given his thoughts on the best places to study theology. By and large, it’s a well-informed survey of theological education across North America. He does limit himself to North America, and, importantly, he limits himself to looking at the graduate doctoral programs. If you’re looking for an M.Div. program, you will likely have other considerations, especially ecclesiastical priorities, to keep in mind.

The first several paragraphs of the article are especially important, namely his emphasis on professors who teach and foster student development and his emphasis on the ecclesial context of theology:

Unlike the study of philosophy or mathematics, and more like the study of history and literature, the study of theology is given sharp outlines by the coherence and integrity of a historical community. The reality of the Church—her doctrines, her endless problems, and her alluring beauty—sets the agenda for theology. The best programs have a connection—not necessarily official, not always happy, but still fundamental—to living churches.

So, Reno is looking for institutions with a faculty that exhibits these characteristics, along with, of course, academic excellence. Duke and Notre Dame are his top two picks. Both have a fairly extensive list of impressive faculty members. Notre Dame, he notes, has not been as impressive when it comes to systematics, but “new hires in systematic theology have strengthened the Notre Dame program. John Betz, a fine young scholar of modern theology, joins the faculty this year, along with Francesca Murphy, one of the most creative and forceful theological writers of her generation.” All of us who went to Aberdeen can testify to Professor Murphy’s excellence, both as a teacher and scholar.

Along with Princeton University’s Department of Religion, Reno lists Princeton Theological Seminary next, noting, “A Protestant doctoral student will find a rich atmosphere in which classical debates continue. By my reckoning, Princeton Theological Seminary is the best place in the United States to study Protestant dogmatics.” After Princeton, the list goes: Wycliffe College (Toronto), Catholic University of America, Marquette, Boston College, Yale, Southern Methodist University, Wheaton (thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer), Ave Maria, and the University of Dayton (thanks to Matthew Levering).

As Reno recognizes, the list is subjective, accorded by his priorities and interests. So, the more liberal project of integrating social-cultural-psychological-historical variables, as it continues at the University of Chicago and Harvard Divinity School, is slighted by Reno. Likewise, the contemporary development of confessional Reformed theology, as it continues at Westminster California (masters-level) and at Calvin Seminary, is slighted.

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34 comments

  1. Great post! Of recent I have been wondering what ever happened with Theological education on the Continent. Schools like Basel, Tubingen, or even Munich. I assume that with Moltmann and Panneberg in retirement, and the language barrier for us English-speakers this hasn’t been so important to us. How good is the education there? What would be the best schools at present?

    • Yeah, the language barrier is important. I have little idea of what’s currently happening at Basel, Tubingen, and Munich or anywhere else on the continent. There isn’t much being translated today — at least, not to the extent of Brunner, Barth, Thielicke, Pannenberg, et al. during the last century. In fact, there’s scarcely any continental theologian who is routinely translated in the way that Olive Wyon did for Brunner and Bromiley did for Barth, Thielicke, and Pannenberg.

      As for the U.K., I have an obvious bias for Aberdeen, but it depends on the area of focus and which professors excel in that area. If you care about constructive dogmatics, then Aberdeen is an obvious choice, but perhaps a professor at Edinburgh or Cambridge is doing dogmatic work which is more in line with your goals or your vision of how theology should be done.

      • I am currently doing a year abroad in Tübingen (studying History), but I am seriously considering returning to study Theology. Since I am just beginning my investigation of theological studies, I can’t contribute anything in the way of outstanding Faculty or prevailing traditions here, but there is something I wanted to mention, as I consider it very interesting and relevant.

        Amongst the alumni of the Tübingen Theological Faculties are such men as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Philipp Melanchthon, Pope Benedict XVI, Miroslav Volf, and Vasilije Tomić. I know that the last two men were mentioned in R. R. Reno’s review as being outstanding theologians, and well, I don’t think we really need to talk up the others listed. Additionally, the influential philosopher Hegel also studied in Tübingen.

        The reason I list these names is because I feel that there is a certain intellectual and spiritual gravitas that maintains itself in Tübingen and which is uniquely different from the intellectual communities within the United States. This is where Theology happened. That is what is truly remarkable about being here. This is where it *happened*. We in the United States are not used to the sheer weight of history that is tangible in Germany and Europe. I believe that the Spirit of God will dwell in those places where He is honored and welcomed. Although there is an obvious decline throughout the world in this type of attitude towards God, I still can’t help but believe that it lingers in those places where God has been sought for centuries.

        Lastly, I want to further attest to what Sam says further down in this comment section. Theology students are required to know Latin, Hebrew, and Greek in addition to English and often basic communicative levels of French or Spanish. I find German students to be incredibly disciplined and rigorous in their studies and frankly, the students here put my home university in California (a State school to be fair) to absolute shame. I would highly recommend that those who are serious about exploring theological programs outside of the United States consider learning a major European language and striving to understand Christian Theology in its original languages and contexts.

  2. If we’re talking Continental, then I am curious about the University of Leuven in Belgium. I am told it’s got an absolutely fabulous theology library. It’s one of the very oldest universities. My impression is the student body is very international, *and* the classes are in English.

    A long time ago I thought about going there. Back then it was fairly easy to get one’s tuition waved. Don’t suspect that’s true anymore. But I don’t know anything really about the faculty.

    No doubt perhaps Dr. Murphy could advise better on this school.

    If anyone has information / experience I would be very curious.

  3. Leuven definitely looks interesting, Mike.
    By the way, I understand some Scandinavian universities actually pay a generous allowance to doctoral students, even foreign ones. And they permit doctoral work in English. Of course, in an ideal world financial considerations wouldn’t be decisive…in an ideal world!

  4. Reno’s last list was much-maligned.

    I wonder how this one will fare. I understand why Chicago was left off the list, though. I haven’t spoken to one person yet who has recommended the school. As one widely-respected theologian put it to me recently: “That’s where fun goes to die.”

    • Reno does a much better job this time. He lays out clearly what he’s looking for — basically, post-liberal methods — and where he finds it. He does have a good idea of what’s going on in theology, and I largely agree with him about the genealogical make-up of good theology. His list is skewed a little too much toward the Catholics, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of awareness about intra-evangelical debates — which is why Ave Maria made it on his list, but Calvin College did not.

    • As for UChicago, they recently lost Kathryn Tanner, one of the best mainline theologians in America, so things are not looking good for Chicago, at least not when it comes to dogmatics. However, they still have some highly respected scholars in Religious Studies (sociology and history) and Philosophy of Religion. When Tanner was asked about leaving Chicago for Yale, she mentioned that she was looking forward to the greater theological-ecclesial atmosphere of YDS, instead of the highly scientific-objective atmosphere of Chicago.

      • I was there in May and went to the bookstore. I swear 80% of the classes had all three volumes of Tillich’s Systematic as their required reading (with little else besides).

        Make of that what you will, I thought it was sad.

      • I can think of a single class where I’ve seen one volume of Tillich’s systematics assigned, and I’ve personally never taken a class where Tillich was assigned (and the class was taught by Kevin Hector, who is a Wheaton and PTS graduate, who has also assigned David Bentley Hart for one of his classes… who isn’t, that is, a reason to be concerned about Chicago being some Tillichian stronghold intolerant to all other thought). In contrast to my lack of classroom interaction with Tillich at Chicago, I have had Barth, and Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and Augustine, and Luther, and other similar dogmatic theologians assigned in my classes.

        The scientific-objective emphasis of Chicago is certainly present, and one can take that as a helpful environment for learning or a hostile environment. There is also a strong philosophical emphasis in the program, so that you can take a course in the history of a certain period of Christian thought where you don’t actually read any theologians. But I take it as uncontroversial to say that theologians-in-training will inevitably be interested in learning philosophy that pertains to there work, so I don’t think that this sort of focus is at all a problem.

        Another distinguishing factor of Chicago, I think, is its strong historical emphasis. This can lead to an underemphasis on constructive work in theology, but I can assure you that the committee currently preparing to fill Tanner’s seat is interested in finding a senior theologian who is focused on constructive dogmatic work in conversation with the tradition, the same way that Tanner was.

        I would also add that there are plenty of conservative Evangelicals and Catholics who thrive at Chicago, so I don’t think that what one might call the “critical” culture here is any reason (in itself) not to go. It is a large reason, in fact, why I decided that Chicago would be the best place for me to study theology.

      • Evan,

        Thanks for the insight on Chicago. I’m really interested to see who replaces Tanner. Chicago needs a strong dogmatician again. I have a good sense of what Chicago offers in regard to Religious Studies, since half of my professors at UNC (Charlotte) got their PhD at Chicago. Interestingly, but not surprising, the only theologian we studied was Tillich, because he was deemed sufficiently secular/non-confessional for a Religious Studies program — that’s not a good commentary on Tillich, yet I still highly value his work. Also, I assume (and related to Tyler’s comment) that this has a lot to do with Chicago’s influence of propagating Tillich. Anyway, there is certainly something to be said for the hard work done in the scientific study of religion, especially for those of us (from fundamentalist and/ or evangelical backgrounds) who needed a kick in the pants.

        However, I still share Reno’s concerns about a corporate spirit (or “shared mission,” or whatever you want to call it). One of the great benefits of Aberdeen was that we were all committed to excellence in a relatively unfashionable style of theology: a theology which eschewed all concerns to orient itself to, e.g., politics, art, literature, economics, philosophy, and so on. We weren’t doing radical orthodoxy, or narrative theology, or political theology. We were doing the doctrine of God, without any correlation to another discipline. This is not to say that such correlations are bad, though they often are, but it just wasn’t what we were doing. I greatly valued that focus, that identity. Princeton, of course, has a similar identity. Duke has the ethical bent, which is fine, just different. St. Andrews has the art focus. Wheaton is in the early stages of forming a new identity, which will include both Barth and old school evangelicalism working together (with a touch of narrative and aesthetics, thanks to Vanhoozer). Union is continuing to develop and advance the Liberal tradition. This shared identity is the motivation for students who want to attend these schools, and it continues to motivate them throughout their program. Chicago, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as lacking this shared identity, except for some vague value in achieving a rigorous standard of scientific excellence.

      • Evan,

        That’s good to hear. I was kind of shocked to see so many of Tillich’s volumes on the assigned reading. I’m not sure if the section I was looking at was for undergraduate classes or not, but I saw several introduction to theology courses where Tillich was the lion’s share of the reading.

        Tanner did have a class where LaCugna, Jenson, Hart, and Barth were assigned. I always check out what schools are assigning people when I visit.

        I was speaking with one of the students, an evangelical, in the divinity school and he did say that evangelicals kind of had to come in through the back door. Any truth to that? He said basically if I didn’t want my application to be tossed in the garbage from the get-go, I needed to contact Hector first.

        Once again, I’m not assuming this is Chicago in a nutshell, but that was the extent of my interaction back in May.

  5. I’m currently studying for a year at the University of Heidelberg in the theology department. Michael Welker is the major figure here, and he’s internationally known because some of his major work (e.g. his book on the Holy Spirit) has been translated, and he gets around (he’s fluent in English, among other languages, and was a candidate for the position at Yale that Tanner got).

    I think the German situation is basically incomparable to the US due to how radically different the institutions, religious history, and cultures are. It’s still the case, however, that the standards of preparation here are much higher for theologians (Heidelberg and Tuebingen are probably are definitely among the best programs for theology) than they are in the States. The average 25 year-old German theology student knows Hebrew, Greek, Latin (by requirement) as well as English (and often French), and that correlates with a much deeper knowledge of philosophy and church history than one can reliably expect from a US students in theology doctoral programs. So there are real strengths, but they come more from having a Gymnasium education followed by the pre-doctoral requirements than from the Phd itself, which assumes all of that prior training. Thus a student coming from the US just to do a PhD won’t necessarily evince these kinds of strengths, just as students who go from the US directly into UK Phds tend to be distadvantaged by not, e.g. having course requirements and comprehensive examinations – all of which are well compensated for by how specialized a UK undergraduate degree can be, but if you lack that degree, one can earn a PhD and really be far too narrow in one’s knowledge of one’s discipline.

    If one means by “best” pure academic quality, I think it’s clear that the Germans students I know are far more impressive than their US oounterparts in theology. But, sadly, that doesn’t matter because we monoglot Americans set the agenda – so they read us, and we can’t read them.

    That said, there’s no doubt that there has been a kind of decline in Germany just as they has been elsewhere, but Germans still preserve a strong sense of the nobility and rigors of Wissenschaft, and one still sees that in their theologians. Sadly, that too may be changing (cf. recent reforms in German university education).

    • Thanks a lot, Sam. I had heard that the continental standards were much higher when it comes to languages. That’s the area where I’m rather pitiful, and so are most of the people I know in postgraduate studies. We Americans have a hard time with the languages, and it doesn’t help that most of us do not learn any amount of a second language until we are in middle school (~12 years old) or even not until high school (~15 years old). That’s too late to really adapt to other languages. It’s rather idiotic that we don’t teach Latin or one of the romance languages during the first years of elementary school.

      • The point about languages, Kevin, is very important, for while I wouldn’t claim a relationship of causation, I think there is a strong correlation between academic cultures in which a thorough knowledge of other languages is expected and academic cultures that are generally sounder than cultures in which languages are not important: the former are more rich, more historically informed, more beneficial to study even if their positions are errant. I could point to examples of this in subfields of philosophy and theology, though I won’t do that here (if you’re interested, email me) since it’s too controversial and specifics are not my point.

        This correlation arises in part, I believe, because a seriousness about languages ancient and modern (i.e., not just knowing modern languages, but really reading extensively in them, that is, learning other scholarly traditions, or, put in another way, being in a tradition that expects you to try to read all the best work, regardless of which language it is in) is not some isolated datum, it’s connected to fundamental and profound issues about how education is structured, what we expect from our professional academics, etc.

        Regardless of what one thinks of these changes, that there have been radical revolutions in what constitutes the expectations of a scholar in, say, theology, is incontrovertible, as is the general shift in who sets the tone for what “the best” scholarship looks like (obviously for the 19 and a lot of the 20th C. this was Germany in the discipline of theology, broadly construed).

        One result of these changes is that a new generation, or a separate tradition of scholarship, simply loses basic knowledge of other traditions, and this is especially the case through the absence of languages. This has huge implications, and I wouldn’t want to overstate the difference, but American humanistic disciplines are more out of touch these days with European and classical traditions than they probably ever have been, in that in none of these disicplines is it a general requirement that one seriously know and use a language other than English.

        Indeed, if you browse through old journals chronologically (which I have done, primarily with historically famous journals in philosophy, like Mind, as well as some philological journals, etc.) one can discern some huge changes that took place (often before the Sixties, but that’s one big break, too) in how international scholarship was. The journal Mind a hundred years ago was far more international than today; it had regular articles on German philosophy that were about untranslated philosophers, updates on philosophy in Italy, France, the Netherlands, etc.

        A similar story could be told with theology, where the decline of Neoorthodoxy and post-Sixties changes in the academy (the rise of ‘isms and ‘ologies) was especially important in displacing Germans. (The Yale school was important here, but this is already too long) resulted in significant changes in what theologians were supposed to know.

        All this to say the issue of languages is never just an issue of languages; it’s not a pedantic point about reading in the originals, it’s always a much deeper question of scholary traditions, standards, etc. which involve not merely issues of form, but the deepest issues of content itself.

      • I had never really considered the issue in that much depth, but I will have to further ponder your point about content, not just form. That makes sense.

  6. Clarification:

    Heidelberg and Tuebingen are definitely among the best theology programs in Germany – as I suggested, however, making an international comparison would be very problematic.

    • Sam, I am doing graduate level work in the U.S. and am beginning to investigate doctoral programs. My goal is to work on a doctorate overseas, hopefully in a non-english setting. Germany is definitely near the top of my list. Which German universities would you recommend for N.T. studies, which professors are the best? How did you go about applying and beginning your studies in Heidelberg?

  7. I went to Leuven for a conference a few years ago and, though I didn’t actively dislike the place, I wasn’t bowled over. I met some grad students, and they seemed nice and lively. As you say, the teaching is in English. Leuven itself is beautiful, and if you love Europe it would be a very pleasant place to spend four years writing a PhD. But you’d be spending four years in a bit of a backwater. My impression is that, although of course there are still fine European theologians and dogmaticians, the Universities in which they teach have become backwaters.

    Continental theologians of all kinds, French and German, are increasingly disadvantaged by the spread of English. A generation ago, IE my teacher’s generation (eg Richard Bauckham), theologians normally read a bit of French and German and knew what was going on there. Unless one is specifically into some trend (eg, if you are RO and into continental pomoism), people don’t bother to find out what’s happening. And the thing is, in my opinion, little that is very exciting is happening (in the way that eg Jesus God and Man, or even, in its way, The Crucified God were exciting and provocative in their day).

  8. But why would you want to study theology?

    Jesus was not a theologian.
    The Bible is not a theological text.

    Nor are any of the Sacred Scriptures of any established religion, large or small. None of these Sacred Scriptures were written by theologians either.

  9. John the Divine means ‘John the theologian.’ He wrote a gospel, some letters and the book of the Apocalypse. These are in the Bible.

  10. Dear sir,
    i am delighted to study theology abroad but i have nobody to help me,though God has spoken to me directly and through many ministers that i am destined to study my pastors school at united state of America,i strongly believe God that he can use anybody to help me,
    What will i do.

    charles.

  11. Marburg is now an excellent university to study theology. In recent years, several evangelicals have received their Dr.theol.

    • I am not aware of any. I would be interested to know of any, but I am pretty sure that German is a requirement at all levels of German university education.

  12. Does anyone have any insight into the current character, for want of a better term, of the Divinity school at Aberdeen? I’m British, exploring British doctoral programs. My intended research is primarily in practical theology, but with a multidisciplinary approach including theological ethics and aspects of systematics. Any other insights into current UK universities which are strong in those areas would be most welcome. I’m also considering, for example, Durham. Thanks for any pointers from those in the know! And thanks for the blog, great reading and discussions.

    • Aberdeen is especially strong in practical and moral theology, closely connected to the study of systematics, where they are also strong. Brian Brock (et al.) has done a lot of work making Aberdeen a place for serious practical theology. In general, the Scottish divinity schools are doing excellent work in theology: Aberdeen, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh.

      • Thanks for the insight, Kevin. It certainly chimes with what I’ve read in various places. Do you happen to have any contacts there amongst postgrads? I’d love to get an opinion from someone in the theological midst of things there. Appreciate your input.

      • No, I was only there for 12 months (for an M.Th. in systematic theology), and all the guys that I knew in the Ph.D. program have graduated. But, it is definitely wise to talk with one or two of the students, as well as the faculty. And compare with St. Andrews and Edinburgh. For what it’s worth, I loved the city of Aberdeen, if not the weather!

  13. I find it both amusing and frustrating that when I Google “best theology postgraduate programs” the first links I see are links to the First Things article and your blog (not that I have anything against either!). I’m currently looking for a solid program starting in the fall of 2016, but the problem is twofold: (1) I don’t see myself at this point on a specific track and (2) the seems to be an utter lack of resources for helping determine which program would be best. Tellingly, there are no rankings for best theology/divinity programs like there are for any other conceivable area of study. This First Things article is the closest to that; as you note, it is limited to schools in the US. Ideally I’d like to study in the UK, but, again, I’m not sure where to turn for resources that would facilitate that process.

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