A few years ago, I made a crude and impressionistic ranking of graduate programs in theology in North America. Recently, I mused in a more general way about what makes for a really good program in theology, and, in response, a couple of friends asked me if my old opinions still hold true. It’s a good question, and one I’ll try to answer.
Duke and Notre Dame remain at the top. Indeed, they are stronger than ever, in large part because the longtime Dean of Duke Divinity School, L. Gregory Jones, and the longtime chair of the Notre Dame department of theology, John Cavadini, provide steady leadership. Both men have kept their eyes on the prize: hiring intellectually exciting professors who are committed to students and care deeply about the future of a decidedly orthodox and church-oriented vocation of theological scholarship.
Duke is perhaps the stronger of the two. Stanley Hauerwas exudes intellectual excitement and theological zeal. Reinhard Hütter has a deep knowledge of modern Protestant theology, as well as modern Catholic theology—and unlike so many who teach in Catholic programs, Hütter has not deliberately ignored and forgotten the tremendous riches of the scholastic tradition. Paul Griffiths combines intellectual creativity with scholarly rigor. J. Kameron Carter, Jeremy Begbie, and Amy Laura Hall have vivid and interesting and forceful theological voices. Warren Smith treats the church fathers as living resources for contemporary theology.
There is a further reason why Duke is a remarkable place. In the mid-twentieth century, Karl Rahner pronounced the Bible off limits for theologians. Systematic theologians, he argued, should not presume upon the domain of properly “scientific” historical exegesis. To my mind, this untenable divide between theology and biblical interpretation has crippled both systematic and biblical theology. Duke’s program works against this divide. Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe, Stephen Chapman, and Ellen Davis are biblical scholars who can (and want) to talk to students about Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, Karl Barth, and even Karl Rahner. Moreover, Stanley Hauerwas has written a biblical commentary, and Reinhard Hütter and Paul Griffiths are working on commentaries as well. Duke is the ground zero for a restoration of theology to biblical exegesis, and biblical exegesis to theology.
In the past, the main problem with Duke was institutional. The PhD program is run through the Duke University department of religion, and only a couple of students a year were admitted to study theology. A few years ago, however, the Divinity School inaugurated a ThD (doctorate in Theology) program. This means there’s a larger cohort of fellow doctoral students, which enhances the program. Intellectual vitality comes from the give-and-take of smart folks pursuing a common project (and arguing vigorously about the common project), and the more the merrier.
I say that Duke is perhaps stronger, because Notre Dame can make its own claims on preeminence. For any student who wishes to pursue study in historical theology—and wants to do so for the sake of contributing to contemporary discussions and debates—Notre Dame offers some superb professors. Brian Daley and John Cavadini make the Church Fathers sing. In his work on Hegel and Gnosticism, Cyril O’Regan has developed what I think is one of the most sophisticated and insightful theological accounts of modernity. Ann Astell brings out the remarkable theological wisdom of medieval literature. Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson engages the history of theology and interpretation.
In the area of systematic theology, Notre Dame’s theology department is less interesting. The old Liberal Catholic Establishment continues to hold sway, which can lead to a narrow fixation on the old battles of the post-Vatican II generation, as well as the grotesque reduction of modern Catholic theology to the heroic figures of the mid-twentieth century: Bernard Lonergan, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and the rest. These figures are obviously worth studying, but endlessly teaching the innovators tends to produce students who have little idea of the underlying tradition that made the innovations so important.
One final dimension tilts strongly in Notre Dame’s favor. As a university context for the study of theology (or for that matter any form of Christian scholarship), Duke can’t begin to compete with Notre Dame. The sheer number of very fine faculty committed to the Christian tradition, not only in theology, but also in philosophy, history, literature, and law, is remarkable. Young graduate students should not underestimate the value of this aggregation of Christian commitment and wisdom. It makes for an exciting environment. Students can try on rather than just theorize about the queenly robes of theology.
After Duke and Notre Dame the picture gets muddy. But I’ll try to give a plausible (if very ad hoc) rationale for assessing and ranking some other programs.
My old ranking put Princeton University’s department of religion in the third slot. I’m not sure I was right. Their strengths are significant. Eric Gregory certainly offers students an opportunity to study St. Augustine and other major theological figures. Jeffrey Stout and the rest of the religion department sustain an enviable culture of support and encouragement for graduate students. That counts for a lot in my book.
But the Princeton program focuses on a philosophically, culturally, and historically oriented study of religion. For a student called to a vocation in theology, considering these angles is all for the best. But the problem is that theology as such is marginal in nearly all programs of religion or religious studies, which is why I don’t tend to recommend the University of Virginia or Brown or Columbia or other doctoral programs that might have one or two fine professors. The danger is that a young graduate student will find him or herself slowly socialized into the role of the tentative intellectual outsider who downplays the theological dimension in order to be in on the conversation.
There are, however, good and complicating possibilities at Princeton. (I warned that things get muddy.) In recent years, the religion department and Princeton Theological Seminary (an institution entirely distinct from Princeton University) have established connections. Graduate students at the seminary, which offers a PhD of its own, are now to some degree involved in the religion department, and PhD students in the Religion Department are more likely to be engaged with faculty at the seminary. Princeton Seminary has a roster of superb theologians, so much so that I consider the PhD program first rate on its own terms. Bruce McCormick, Ellen Charry, George Hunsinger, and a new hire, John Bowlin—one is hard pressed to find more learned and creative contemporary theological minds.
Therefore, an aspiring theologian should think of Princeton as a package and consider both programs—both in the religion department at the University and at Princeton Theological Seminary. If you already have a seminary degree, you might not feel the theological limitations of the religion department so keenly. If you are fresh out of your undergraduate studies, the Seminary PhD program might be better. The Seminary will provide you with theological formation, and then you can branch out and engage the religion department (or philosophy or history) over at the University—and do so as a theologian.
After Princeton—or perhaps on a par with Princeton—I put Wycliffe College and the larger Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. Ephraim Radner is one of the most important theologians of his generation. His book, The End of the Church, offers theological account of the modern Christian experience unparalleled in depth and insight. Radner now teaches at Wycliffe, along with Joseph Mangina, George Sumner, and Chris Seitz. The species is Anglican, but the genus is post-liberal theology, a church-committed theological vision that is clear minded about the challenges posed by contemporary culture.
Last time I ranked programs, I plugged Boston College. They have lots of money, but I think I was mistaken about the quality of the program. Like so many Jesuit theology departments, Boston College has drifted from the excitement of the post-Vatican II era to the banality of contextual theology. I’m sure a motivated graduate student can get a good education. There are certainly some good professors, such as Khaled Anatolios. But the program as a whole seems complacent. I’m afraid the same is true of Fordham and St. Louis U.
The one Jesuit exception is Marquette, which I put in the fifth slot. Michel Barnes, Alexander Golitzin, and Mickey Mattox are superb historical theologians. Susan Wood, Ralph Del Colle, and Stephen Long provide a great deal in systematic theology. Overall, Marquette seems to have avoided the narrow parochialism of the now old and often narrowly liberal Catholic theology. As a result, the Jesuit tradition of adventuresome intellectual fidelity fits nicely with a graduate program that is interested in the riches of the theological tradition.
University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard once dominated American Protestant theology. As the social reality of Liberal Protestantism declined, their rationale and coherence melted away. Today, these schools have some good people. Kathryn Tanner at University of Chicago is one of the most gifted formal thinkers currently teaching theology. Jon Levenson at Harvard has a great deal to offer. I admire the theological imagination of Miroslav Volf at Yale. And these schools are housed within world-class universities. That’s worth a lot for students who have the get up and go to make the most out of intellectual opportunities. But I keep coming back to the problem of theological vocation. At Chicago, Yale, and Harvard, orthodox Christian theology is marginal at best.
By contrast, programs at Catholic University or affiliated institutions such as the John Paul II Institute and the Dominican House of Studies exude confidence in the inherent dignity and importance of a vocation of theological scholarship in the service of faith. I often advise prospective graduate students to put some of the options at Catholic University on their lists.
Doubtless there are other schools worth thinking about. The University of Dayton recently hired Matthew Levering, and he ornaments an already attractive faculty. Perhaps the theology program there is on the rise. I’ve long been a big fan of the work of Bruce Marshall at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. Baylor has some excellent people, and their theology program might be worth investigating. Augustine Thompson and Richard Schenk at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Berkeley would make very fine mentors.
Well, I’ve covered too much ground too quickly, and no doubt too glibly. I hope, however, readers can see my overriding prejudice. Good theological training requires a program animated by a spirit of confidence in the essential truth of the Christian tradition. Theological formation requires mentors whose scholarly gifts are shaped by the task of serving the Church. The intellectual resources and graduate student stipends and academic reputation—all the rest are empty without this spirit of confidence and commitment to the Christian faith.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is a professor of theology at Creighton University.