Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It’s not easy to answer, the simple question of where to study theology. Interests, backgrounds, convictions, and levels of academic preparation combine in complicated ways when choosing a graduate program in theology. Still, certain qualities always matter: intellectual climate, commitment to students, corporate personality, and the atmosphere of faith at the institution. Keeping these factors in mind, we can try—or at least I can try—to work up a rough ranking of graduate programs in theology. Let’s start with intellectual climate. Am I smart enough? Am I working hard enough? Are my standards high enough? Taken to an extreme, the pressure of such questions becomes demoralizing. But the more common danger in academic life is lassitude and self-congratulating mediocrity. All of us tend to walk when we don’t have to run—a universal human tendency made worse by a very American egalitarian ethos that prizes amiable stupidity over demanding intelligence.

Academic reputation can serve as a rough proxy for high standards. But beware programs whose big names fly in for a semester here or there. Academic culture cannot be built in airport lounges.

The same holds for professors in endowed chairs, who function as lofty aristocrats, removed from the faculty members who actually advise students and oversee dissertation research. Professors who won’t answer emails or meet with students are worse than useless. They encourage a selfish atmosphere that injures their less famous but more committed colleagues. The latent (or not so latent) rancor can make the experience of graduate school sour indeed. Like clergy of old, professorial superheroes scramble for sinecures. More than fifty years ago, Jacques Barzun correctly identified the academic flight from students: “The highest prize of the teaching profession is: no teaching. For the first time in history, apparently, scholars want no disciples.”

So, when looking for a graduate program in theology, don’t get starry-eyed over big-name schools or celebrity professors. A unified, committed group of professors at any university is far, far superior to famous professors who are rarely around. Graduate programs flourish when professors give more time and attention to graduate students than to their own careers.

In other words, assess the moral character of any graduate program you consider. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that often develops between a few superb professors and their graduate students. A culture of selfishness or conflict among faculty almost always leads to the neglect or mistreatment of graduate students.

A good graduate program in theology doesn’t just have high academic standards and a commitment to students. It needs to stand for something—neo-Thomism, or Barthianism, or postliberalism, or neoorthodoxy, or some other angle of vision. The labels never fully capture the complex interplay of faculty interests, but they do suggest a theological culture—a corporate personality capacious enough to allow for interesting arguments yet defined enough to give the arguments weight and focus.

Too often, students, faculty, and administrators—in their different ways—underestimate the importance of corporate personality. Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something. So did Claremont, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. They were alive with the urgency of the mainline Protestant project, which reflected the needs of a living community of believers negotiating the relations between modern identity and the traditional demands of faith.

The dramatic decline of the once-dominant Protestant establishment has set these programs adrift. With little sense of purpose, they tend to divvy up faculty appointments: some historical specialists, a feminist, a liberationist, somebody doing world religions, perhaps a Jewish scholar or a Muslim—even a faculty member or two who represent a moderately traditional outlook. The whole is far less than the sum of the parts. Education in its fullest sense “will never issue,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers with no mutual sympathies and no intercommunion.”

The same trend toward ungrounded diversity can be found in some Catholic programs. The liberal Catholic project, less rich and significant than the liberal Protestant project, also has become increasingly marginal. Losing touch with the reality of the Church, these theological programs are sometimes animated by a spirit of protest against magisterial authority. For the most part, however, they just drift, often becoming programs of “Religious Studies,” a title that almost always signals the death of theological seriousness.

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.

Intellectual rigor, commitment to students, a church-oriented theological personality—all these factors are important, but none more than a healthy spiritual atmosphere. You are no more likely to mature as a theologian outside an atmosphere of prayer and piety than to progress as a scientist without intimate experience with the experimental work of the laboratory.

Graduate study in any discipline always involves the formation of the intellect, a disciplining of desire, and a training of habits. Of the intellectual life in general, the Dominican A.G. Sertillanges once wrote, “We must give ourselves from the heart if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.”

In theology the spirit of devotion is all the more important, for theological wisdom is rooted in an act of intellectual submission to God’s revelation in Christ. As St. Bonaventure warned, we must ground our life of study in prayer, setting aside the illusion “that it suffices to read without unction, speculate without devotion, investigate without wonder, examine without exultation, work without piety, know without love, understand without humility, be zealous without divine grace, see without wisdom divinely inspired.”

Not every professor and graduate student must be Christian. Not all scholarship has to crackle with the ardor of faith. Committed Jewish or Muslim or Hindu scholars can contribute to a spirit of faithful inquiry at a Christian school. In fact, their witness in our contemporary academic culture of antinomianism and unbelief can be far more powerful than the example of a Christian scholar who bows to the latest academic fashions.

A program in theology is worth undertaking only if it includes the possibility of a spiritual formation that complements intellectual formation. That spiritual formation may, perhaps, be only latent, perhaps only partial, perhaps emerging from fellow students rather than from official goals. But it must be a real possibility.

And what about specific programs? Here is my crib sheet—a necessarily imperfect and idiosyncratic ranking of graduate programs. I’ll begin by cheating. I’ve ranked two schools in the number-one spot: Duke and Notre Dame. They have different strengths. Duke projects a stronger corporate personality, while Notre Dame offers an overall academic environment more profoundly and extensively sympathetic to the intellectual significance of Christian faith.

A Methodist institution, Duke features some of the bright lights of Protestant theology: Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, Jeremy Begbie, Amy Laura Hall, and J. Cameron Carter. Reinhard Hütter is a Lutheran turned Catholic, and his work moves in a strongly Scholastic direction. Paul Griffiths, another Catholic professor, is a polymath who combines a remarkable plasticity of mind with a vigorous defense of orthodoxy.

These folks do not agree about everything, but, taken together, most are committed to the postliberal project. Understood broadly, postliberalism means taking seriously the venerable liberal project in Protestantism: Contemporary Christians need to come to terms with the intellectual, moral, and spiritual challenges of the modern world. Yet, unlike the liberal project, which looked for philosophical or sociological concepts to mediate or soften the clashes between classical Christian faith and modernity, postliberalism returns to the specific language and practice of Christianity—the Bible, the Nicene tradition, and the liturgy—for solutions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Duke is the best place for someone who wants to integrate theology with biblical studies. Richard Hays, now acting dean, has consistently broken down artificial barriers between historical study of the Bible and theological analysis. Kavin Rowe, Stephen Chapman, and Ellen Davis encourage their graduate students to be formed in theology as well as biblical studies. Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths have written substantial commentaries on books of the Bible, and Reinhard Hütter plans to do so as well.

The main problem with Duke is, well, Duke. The Ph.D. program is run through the university’s department of religion, not the divinity school, and this has tended to restrict artificially the number of students admitted. A few years ago, however, the divinity school inaugurated a Th.D. program, thereby allowing more students to be trained at the doctoral level.

This institutional adjustment cannot overcome the larger fact that Duke is a typically secular elite university. The intellectual firepower of the professors of history, literature, philosophy, and classics—all disciplines that a good program in theology should draw on to some degree or other—remains largely alien and unsympathetic, a reminder that theology has an eccentric place in the intellectual culture of late modernity.

Where Duke is weak, Notre Dame is strong—very strong. As the flagship Catholic university in America, Notre Dame attracts a great deal of attention, not all of it positive. Many—and I include myself—gripe that Our Lady’s university doesn’t do as much as it could, or that it compromises unnecessarily with the academic status quo. But, such criticisms duly noted, Notre Dame still has a remarkable array of Christian scholars in many different disciplines. The upshot: A theological student can get a real sense of theology as the queen of the sciences.

The department of theology itself is huge and, although uneven, nonetheless contains many superb professors. Graduate students sing the praises of Cyril O’Regan, as generous with his time as he is brilliant. Brian Daley is one of the most influential figures in Catholic theological education, not only because his scholarly work commands the respect of his peers but also because he mentors students and builds a community of theological scholarship. John Cavadini, the longtime chair, is one of the best contemporary interpreters of St. Augustine and another professor who cares about students. Ann Astell provides a unique theological and literary expertise. Gary Anderson unites theological study with the modern tradition of historical study of the Bible.

But in systematic theology proper—Cyril O’Regan aside—Notre Dame has remained bland, hobbled by the legacy of the liberal project in post—Vatican II Catholic theology. This important movement in modern Catholic theology has intellectual integrity, but, too often, figures such as Richard McBrien think of theology almost entirely in light of contemporary Church politics.

Turning theology into an instrument of church politics remains a problem for many Catholic programs in theology. Fordham provides a sad case in point. As the old agenda of the 1970s calcifies, it becomes more a list of talking points than a living theological project. “Theology must take history seriously!” The first time I heard the slogan I yawned; the hundredth time, I sighed.

Fortunately, 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.

After Duke and Notre Dame the rankings get murky and I have to cheat a bit more, identifying the odd and strictly unofficial hybrid of the Princeton department of religion and Princeton Theological Seminary as the third-best place to study. The seminary, founded in 1812, has always been independent of the university. They are, however, contiguous, and in recent years a spirit of cooperation has developed. As a consequence, doctoral students at the university can draw on the very intense and sophisticated theological atmosphere of the seminary, while graduate students at the seminary can participate in the supportive department of religion and the first-rate intellectual environment of the university.

Princeton Theological Seminary has a very strong corporate personality. George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormick are world-renowned interpreters of Karl Barth. But one doesn’t get all Barth all the time. Ellen Charry provides an alternative voice, and John Bowlin brings St. Thomas to the Calvinists. 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.

The Princeton University department of religion may be the Ivy League program that has remained truest to the liberal Protestant ethos that long dominated private East Coast institutions. Jeffrey Stout, the presiding presence, is preoccupied with the social and cultural influence of Christianity in American democratic culture. Eric Gregory advances similar concerns, working closely with such classical Christian theologians as St. Augustine and St. Thomas.

Other professors are good as well. Leora Batnitsky can help students see the ways in which modern Judaism has negotiated the conflicts between tradition and modernity. But more important, perhaps, is the reputation that the Princeton department of religion has for lavishing love and attention on graduate students. I’ve read many recommendations for recent Ph.D.s looking for jobs in theology. The slapdash, almost bored letters graduate professors write often shock me. Not so those from the faculty of the Princeton department of religion.

If you are a young Catholic, neither the seminary nor the department of religion at Princeton will provide anything approaching the depth and breadth of Catholic theology available at Notre Dame. Yet the accidents of history have made Princeton spiritually congenial. An intellectually engaged Opus Dei house in town provides a healthy spiritual center of gravity. If your interests run in the direction of social ethics or the classic Vatican II question of the role of the Church in the modern world, Princeton might be for you.

Fourth on my list is Wycliffe College, an Anglican institution that is part of the Toronto School of Theology, a consortium of programs affiliated with the University of Toronto. Developed under the leadership of George Sumner, Wycliffe shares with Duke a strong postliberal corporate personality. Joseph Mangina is an astute interpreter of Karl Barth, and Ephraim Radner has articulated one of the most compelling and richly theological accounts of the Christian experience of modernity. Chris Seitz approaches biblical scholarship with theological depth and penetration.

You need not be Anglican to study at Wycliffe. In fact, many of the doctoral students are evangelicals of various stripes. Yet I think it is fair to say that graduate study at Wycliffe has a churchy, pious atmosphere. It’s a place where St. Bonaventure’s warning is heeded.

In the fifth and sixth slots I put two Catholic institutions: the Catholic University of America and Marquette University.

Catholic University proper offers degrees through the School of Theology and Religious Studies. It’s an uninspired program limited by inadequate resources, a clerical past that no longer corresponds to reality, and a tendency to teach post—Vatican II theology as if it were 1970. But there are other options: the John Paul II Institute and the Dominican House of Studies. David Schindler, Michael Hanby, Nicholas Healy, and others at the John Paul II Institute introduce graduate students to the enduring achievements of twentieth-century Catholic theology. At the Dominican House of Studies, students can find several fine professors devoted to reformulating a Thomistic synthesis for twenty-first-century Catholicism.

Overall, inadequate funding for graduate students and the fragmentation of faculty into distinct institutes and programs can make Catholic University a difficult environment for graduate students. But the university’s problems largely reflect the reality of the Catholic Church, which lacks a clear theological consensus; thus, paradoxically, the raggedy-edge atmosphere has a genuine ecclesial integrity. And at Catholic University the discipline of theology remains utterly central, and the role of Church doctrine as the foundation of the discipline is presumed and debated.

Alone among Jesuit doctoral programs, the theology department at Marquette has as its greatest strength the fact that it is not hobbled by the increasingly superannuated agenda of liberal Catholic theology. The faculty in historical theology and systematic theology don’t necessarily jell into a corporate personality, but professors such as Ralph Del Colle and Susan Wood are pushing forward, trying to discern the possibilities for Catholic theology in North America after the collapse of the short-lived but once ruthlessly dominant Rahnerian consensus. Some of the avatars of the declining Rahnerian approach still teach at Marquette, but the theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar and St. Thomas are also well represented.

Marquette’s biggest liability is Marquette. It’s a fine institution, but it lacks the overall atmosphere of academic excellence that one finds at most elite universities, and this invariably holds back the theology department as well.

Two problem children rank seventh and eighth: Boston College and Yale University. Both schools have ample resources and many fine professors, but both lack robust theological cultures.

Boston College has a large faculty, made even larger by the recent absorption of the Jesuit faculty of the nearby Weston School of Theology. There are plenty of professors who are fine scholars, and among them Khaled Anatolios shines the brightest. His approach to the Church Fathers trains aspiring graduate students to think theologically.

The corporate personality at Boston College isn’t always congenial. Since the 1970s the Society of Jesus has thrown most of its weight behind the liberal Catholic project in theology, and the programs at Boston College suffer from the soft authoritarianism that has arisen to prevent a younger generation from deviating. Don’t be deterred, however. I know some very fine young theologians who have emerged from Boston College, suggesting that the vast resources of the school can be mobilized to support good work.

Yale has some fine professors as well. Miroslav Volf and the recently hired Kathryn Tanner make an excellent pair. Volf has a vivid phenomenological imagination guided by liberal evangelical sensibilities, while Tanner has an almost purely conceptual mind put to the task of preserving as much of classical orthodoxy as possible for twenty-first-century liberal Protestantism.

But, as an institution, Yale lacks a corporate personality. Only a few students are accepted for doctoral study in theology in the department of religious studies. Meanwhile, the Yale Divinity School has been demoralized by the decline of mainline Protestantism. A lack of contact with a living church has led to the almost unconscious but complete alienation of biblical studies from the classical traditions of theological analysis. The resources of Yale provide many opportunities, but the aspiring theologian will need to find a mentor and colleagues to anchor a theological vocation.

In the ninth slot I put Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Once a hotbed of an intellectually formidable process theology, Perkins now suffers from liberal Protestant political correctness. But Bruce Marshall, one of the most important Catholic theologians currently training doctoral students in North America, teaches there, as does William Abraham, a vital Protestant voice in contemporary theology. They make an otherwise uninteresting program a potentially exciting place.

The tenth and final school? Perhaps it’s better to consider up-and-coming programs. Wheaton College, for example, recently launched a doctoral program in theology, hiring Kevin Vanhoozer, perhaps the most interesting contemporary evangelical theologian today. Ave Maria University has a fine faculty and a clear corporate personality as a theology program loyal to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. The University of Dayton recently hired Matthew Levering, thereby strengthening a group of younger scholars who won’t bore smart graduate students with the usual liberal Catholic pieties.

I hope my prejudices are clear. The people under whom and with whom we study do far more to shape our theological vocations than systems such as Barthianism or Thomism and certainly more than the grand reputations of places such as Harvard, Yale, or Berkeley. Good theological formation requires peers and professors who encourage our trust in the essential truth of the Christian tradition. A big library, generous graduate-student stipends, the name recognition of a schoolall are empty without this spirit of confidence and commitment.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift