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How do I Earn a Theology PhD?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A theology PhD is the terminal and therefore highest degree in the academic field of theology or the study of the practice of religious faith and spirituality. The doctorate is earned after a bachelor and master’s degrees and is primarily a research degree that ends with the presentation of a thesis to a faculty adviser or committee. Candidates for a theology PhD should have a strong undergraduate background in philosophy, theology or religion as well as a master’s in any of the aforementioned areas or the Master of Divinity (MDiv). Theology PhD students train to become seminary or university professors or for service as missionaries or in ministry.

Theology PhD candidates have commonly completed degrees in religious studies, philosophy or a similar field or an MDiv with a high grade point average. The MDiv is a professional degree for those seeking to serve as pastors, ministers or priests that is typically more rigorous than most master’s programs in the United States. Many theology PhD programs may oblige applicants to meet certain requirements on the Graduate Record Examination, an exam that tests verbal and quantitative reasoning as well as analytical writing and critical thinking skills. Students who are not non native speakers of English and wish to study in the United States may also be required to take the an English test as a foreign language and pass with a minimum score.

Most doctoral programs in theology offer concentrations in major areas such as biblical studies, comparative theology, Old or New Testament, culture and worship, systematic theology and the history of Christianity. A typical theology PhD program will require at least two years of additional full-time coursework in various traditions such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Islamic, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism during which time the students can also work as a teaching or research assistant. Most theology PhD departments encourage students to experience and examine the spiritual questions raised by religious pluralism. Once coursework has been completed, the students often must pass a written or oral exam before beginning their research and thesis under the direction of a faculty member.

In addition to major areas of concentration, theology PhD students can also select a minor area that should serve as a compliment to the major. Most doctoral students will also have to gain proficiency in two additional languages such Latin, French. Italian or German. Students who are researching early Christian history may need to demonstrate proficiency in ancient languages including Greek and Hebrew. A theology PhD program should prepare students to engage in rigorous scholarship, reflect critically on religious and spiritual questions and help develop their teaching and ministry skills.

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Discussion Comments
By anon163314 — On Mar 27, 2011

A slight correction with regard to languages. Greek and Hebrew are not really optional, and usually at least either French or German are required, though there is a stronger push for German and the upper level programs will require both.

Latin is really only necessary for patristic or medieval church history and/or Roman Catholicism. Italian is only needed for highly specialized study within a certain area for which Italian would be appropriate, but is no more a requirement (realistically) than any other language in the sense that only certain areas of study would require area-specific languages.

Recently there has been a bit of a stress on learning spanish, portuguese, or one of the "Eastern" languages in Christian theology (because of the shift in location of much Church growth) and Arabic has started to become a standard for more comparative theology or anything interacting with Islam on any level.

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