Theology students receive specialized training in religious studies at a university, seminary, or divinity school. Most people think of theology in terms of graduate studies, but the degree is also a professional one, preparing people for teaching or ministry. In some contexts a distinction is made between theology, which is seen as involving a personal commitment to the religious tradition being studied; and religious studies (comparative religion, history of religion, philosophy of religion), which is more of a multi-disciplinary, secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions.
Theology is traditionally defined as the study of God and of God’s relation to the world. A theology student studies the scriptures; biblical languages; the Bible’s influence on literature; the history of the church; other world religions; the relation between religion and science; the place of religion in public life; and modern day religious issues such as those that play a part in national and global events. Theology students often combine their religious major with philosophy, political science, history, or psychology. Some students pick up theology degrees because they want to understand their life or primary field of study in light of their faith.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, theology was the ultimate university subject; it was called “The Queen of the Sciences” and served as the capstone to the Trivium and Quadrivium. Theology is one of the oldest faculties at the University of Oxford, England, dating back as early as 1193. The Oxford Divinity School was one of the first major buildings on campus, begun in 1423. Ironically, the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, a zoologist and “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford, claims that theology is not a suitable subject for today’s universities because it is not scientific, even suggesting that it doesn’t have “any real content at all.”
Historically in the United States, several prominent colleges and universities were founded in order to train Christian ministers. Harvard, Georgetown University, Boston University, Yale, and Princeton all had the theological training of clergy as their primary purpose. Modern seminaries and divinity schools have continued this alliance between the academic study of theology and training for Christian ministry. There are over 200 schools in the U.S. and Canada listed in the Association of Theological Schools, and the U.S. has some of the best theological seminaries in the world. Some well-known examples include: The Catholic Theological Union; Fuller Theological Seminary; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Talbot School of Theology; and Dallas Theological Seminary. You can search for schools alphabetically, geographically or denominationally at http://www.ats.edu/MemberSchools/Pages/default.aspx.
Theological seminaries reflect a broad spectrum of doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and theological perspectives ranging from liberal to conservative. Some theological schools are tied to a particular denomination, while in others theology is pursued as an academic discipline without formal affiliation to any particular church, and without ministerial training being a central part of their purpose. Although most people assume a degree in theology is only needed to prepare for ordination as professional clergy, the majority of theological degrees do not lead to that. While many theology students go on to a career in teaching or in the church, theology studies can actually be applied to a whole range of occupations. Read on to find out more about all of the available career opportunities.
There are many ways in which a degree in theology can be used. Seminaries train people for the pastorate, for missions, music and/or education ministries. Undergraduate theology program graduates can choose to work at a church as an educational director, pastor, or youth pastor. Others enroll in a theology program so that they can pursue a specialty in sacred music or work in televangelism. Theology program students can also pursue a master’s degree in divinity and go on to become ordained as priests, ministers, or chaplains.
In the wider employment market, theology graduates can serve in a diverse range of community-based roles in hospitals, nursing homes, social services, charitable organizations, human resources, the legal profession, broadcasting and journalism, publishing, public relations, government policymaking, business and management. A person with a seminary degree can become a licensed counselor. Many theology graduates become missionaries or relief workers, and teachers or librarians at religious schools.
Famous theologians with formal degrees include:
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German Lutheran theologian and Nazi resister (University of Berlin).
- Martin Luther King, Jr. – Baptist minister and civil rights activist (Crozer Theological Seminary).
- Desmond Tutu – Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa; social rights activist (King’s College London).
- J. Vernon McGee – radio minister, founder of “Thru the Bible Radio Network” (Columbia Theological Seminary & Dallas Theological Seminary).
- D. James Kennedy – pastor, evangelist, Christian broadcaster, and founder of Coral Ridge Ministries (Columbia Theological Seminary & Chicago Graduate School of Theology).
- Charles Stanley – founder and president of In Touch Ministries; senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Atlanta, Georgia (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary & Luther Rice Seminary).
- R.C. Sproul – Calvinist theologian, philosopher, author, pastor, and founder of Ligonier Ministries (Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary & Whitefield Theological Seminary).
- Josh McDowell – Christian apologist, evangelist, and author (Talbot Theological Seminary).
If you aspire to be a religious leader you must display confidence and motivation, good communication skills, and the ability to relate to people from different cultures while living up to the moral standards set by your faith and community. For more information about theology careers, schools, and degree options, see http://theology-degrees.com. You can also download a free booklet, “What on Earth Can You Do With a Degree in Theology,” from the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford.