Fields of Study
Theological Studies

In the Ph.D. program in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University, students may focus their work in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western religious thought, in constructive or systematic theology, in a cultural or contextual issue, or in a bridge area relating theology and some other discipline such as philosophy, literature, biblical studies, or history of religions. After fulfilling certain prerequisites (Section I. below) and completing course work, students are examined in the areas described in Section II. The program is designed to foster constructive theological thinking together with competence in modern theology and familiarity with methodological and contextual perspectives.


Students are expected to have general knowledge in the field of religion especially as it pertains to theological study. This expectation may be satisfied by course work in B.A., M.A., M.Div., or M.T.S. programs or at Vanderbilt after enrollment. Since this work is of the nature of broad and introductory (pre-Ph.D.) studies, it should not replace the expected three to four semesters of post-master's course work in the Ph.D. program. If students enter the program with a minimum (24 hours or less) of such work, they should expect the course work aspect of study to be somewhat lengthened.

The following areas of preparation mark guidelines for the general knowledge requirement:

Religion (phenomenology, critical theories, world religions) 6 hours
History of Western religious thought 9 hours
Biblical studies 12 hours
Systematic and contemporary theology 12 hours
Philosophy 9 hours


Qualifying Examinations are normally taken at the end of the second year or during the third year of residence. They should be taken at the regularly scheduled times as determined by the Department and normally extend over a period of about two weeks. At least six weeks in advance of the examinations, students should consult with the Director of Theological Studies about the selection of the Ph.D. Committee (which is appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School prior to the examinations) and prepare a prospectus for each examination that will include bibliographies, choices of themes and issues, etc. Written notice of the intent to sit for examinations must be given at least a month in advance of the examination period. Arrangements to take the examinations in the summer must be made the preceding March. The examinations fall into five main areas as indicated below.

1. Major Figures

Students will be responsible for inclusive and critical knowledge of two major thinkers in the religious, theological, and philosophical tradition, based on work in the primary sources and familiarity with the critical literature and alternative interpretations. The choice of figures will be determined by students in consultation with their advisers and must be approved by the faculty in theology. The following criteria apply in making the selections: (l) One figure must be pre-nineteenth century, while the other must be nineteenth or twentieth century. (2) The selected figures must represent different and comprehensive views of reality and knowledge. (3) At least one of the two must be a systematic or constructive theologian; the other may be a philosophical thinker whose work is relevant to theological reflection, or a thinker whose work is more broadly religious than theological. (4) The movement associated with one or both of the selected thinkers may be included in the study. (5) In the case especially of recent theology, a small group or cluster of thinkers may be selected instead of a single figure. After the selection has been approved, students will prepare a bibliography for each of the two parts of the examination.

This examination will be administered over a two-day period; the writing time for the total examination is six hours.

2. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Western Religious Thought

This is a one-day examination (writing time: four hours) that covers major figures and movements of the past two centuries. A guideline for preparation is available (see below).

Successful completion of the following two courses will satisfy this requirement in lieu of an examination:

3325. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century
3327. Contemporary Theology

Another option is to substitute an examination in History of Western Religious Thought for Nineteenth and Twentieth Century.

3. Theology, Culture, and Context

Students will select an issue relating theology to its cultural setting, context, or practice. Examples of such issues are feminist theology, African American theology, liberation theology, theology and science, theology of religions or religious pluralism, theology and hermeneutics. A guideline for preparation is attached (see below). A bibliography for the examination will be prepared in consultation with the adviser and approved by the theology faculty. This is a one-day examination (writing time: four hours).

4. Constructive Theology

In this examination, students will work constructively with problems of current theological significance, drawing upon classical and contemporary literatures, and demonstrating competence in both method and content. "Method" covers matters relating to theological knowledge and interpretation, sources, norms, and authorities, relations to other disciplines, and criteria for "constructing" theology. "Content" includes the themes of God, world, human being, christology, sin and redemption, eschatology, the religions. A guideline for preparation is attached (see below), and internal choice of methodological and thematic issues is permitted. This is a one-day examination (writing time: four hours).

5. Research Area

This is an examination in the general area of the proposed dissertation research. The topic should be formulated in such a way as to lead students toward a concrete dissertation proposal, but the examination itself will be broader. A prospectus for this examination will be formulated in consultation with the adviser and be approved by the theology faculty. Normally this requirement is satisfied in the form of a paper (25-30 pages in length) submitted at the beginning of the examination period, but it may also be done as a one-day examination (writing time: four hours).

The Bridge Area Option

Students have the option of bridging the study of theology with another discipline (not a problem or a segment of a discipline). The other discipline may be another area of religious studies (e.g., history of religions, the study of another religion, biblical studies, ethics, psychology of religion, history of theology and church) or another department of the university (e.g., philosophy, literature, history and philosophy of science). If this option is selected, 15 graduate hours should be taken in the bridge area, and an examination in this area will substitute for the examination in Theology, Culture, and Context

Minor Area

Competence in the minor area will be established by either: (a) utilizing resources from study in the minor area on the examination in Theology, Culture, and Context; (b) writing an examination on the minor area in lieu of the examination in Theology, Culture and Context; or (c) selecting the Bridge Area Option.


A number of contemporary movements and dialogues in theology have taken their primary agendas and ways of understanding the very nature of theology from specific contexts--for example, the poor, the situation of minorities, third-world cultures, women, ecology, relations between religions, relations between science and religion. Students will select one of these movements as a subject for this Qualifying Examination. Study for the examination should be done with at least three types of questions in mind.

1. How does this movement or dialogue embody a distinctive way of understanding the nature of theology itself and what is going on, or should go on, in theological work? In what way is this movement a distinctive hermeneutics, a way of understanding as such? What are the important concepts or images that constitute such? What are the important concepts or images that constitute theological work from the perspective of this movement or are at work in exploring the relation to science or religions?

2. What are major themes, insights, theological proposals, etc., propounded by representative texts or figures of the movement or dialogue (e.g., the critique of the sovereignty metaphor in feminist theology, or the theology of nature in ecologically oriented theology)?

3. How would a representative of the movement approach one of the motifs or problems of the theological tradition (e.g., theodicy, the nature of the church, the authority of Scripture)?

4. Preparation for the exam should include reading and reflection in a number of issues that relate theology to context, practice, and culture (e.g., theory and practice, human interests, contextuality, language and hermeneutics, theories of power, human hope, relativity, Religions," world views and world pictures).

Responses to these questions should be both expository and constructive, i.e., should include critical assessments of what is being expounded.


In this examination, students will work constructively with problems of current theological significance, drawing upon classical and contemporary literatures and demonstrating competence in both method and content. The examination will test both knowledge of pertinent theological literature and the capacity to do theological criticism and construction, i.e., to make theological judgments.

I. The Subject Matter of the Examination

A. Theological Method

Students should be able to discuss issues in any one of three major areas of theological method and should have a more thorough grasp of one of these areas:

1. Theological knowledge and interpretation: The nature of religious and theological knowledge in relation to broader issues of interpretation or hermeneutic theory; the character of religious language or discourse; the cognitivity or non-cognitivity of faith and its relation to revelation; recent philosophical analyses of religious knowledge (analytic, phenomenological, reconstructive, etc.).

2. Theological authority: Sources, norms, and authorities; the role of scripture, tradition, experience, history of culture and religions, other disciplines.

3. Theological construction: Issues involved in constructing and reconstructing theological "systems"; the question of foundations (fundamental theology), organizing principles, challenges, diversity and inclusiveness, etc.

B. Theological Doctrines

Students should be prepared to answer questions in at least three of the following areas:

1. God, including the knowledge and being of God (proofs of the existence of God, models. of God, the trinity, etc.), and the relationship of God and world (creation, providence, nature, history, evil, etc.).

2. Human beings, including constitutive relationships, distinctive features (as disclosed by, e.g., feminist or minority critiques), destructive distortions (sin, evil, oppression).

3. Christology, including the question of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, alternative types of christology, recent challenges to christology, christology and ecclesiology, interreligious dialogue.

4. Eschatology and cosmology, including the meaning and end of history, ecological and environmental issues, etc.

II. The Literary Scope of the Examination

In preparing for this examination, students will benefit from work in the following kinds of sources:

1. Two or three classical or modern theological systems, which permit comparative evaluations and offer comprehensive worldviews.

2. The historical development and current state of discussion of major methodological issues and doctrinal themes.


Students concentrating in the Theological Studies area must demonstrate proficiency in two languages of research, as indicated in the general guidelines for the Graduate Department of Religion. In the area of Theological Studies, these languages are normally chosen from among German, French or Spanish. Should the student's area of intended research warrant it, he or she may petition the area faculty to count Latin or Greek as one of the two languages. Those students whose native language is not English may petition the area faculty to count their native language as one of the two languages.

NOTE: This description of requirements supplements The Bulletin of Vanderbilt University Graduate School and "The Guidelines of the Graduate Department of Religion." Students are expected to meet all of the common requirements of the graduate program as described in those publications.

Students in Theological Studies are eligible for fellowships in Theology and Practice.


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