A Community of Scholars
Princeton Educates Doctors for the Church
by Hope Andersen
ne of the most interesting and least known stories about the Ph.D. program at Princeton Seminary is how the degree got its current name. On the wall of the Ph.D. Studies Office hangs a copy of a "catalogue" used shortly after the Th.D. program was introduced in May 1944, a single page outlining the requirements for acceptance to the degree of Doctor of Theology. Why was the initial degree called a Doctor of Theology? At what point did the nomenclature change?
According to Bill Harris, Princeton's librarian for archives and special collections, the Doctor of Theology degree, or Th.D., is rooted in medieval European tradition. Historically, the Th.D. was preferred over the corresponding Ph.D. degree that scholars, particularly German and Swiss scholars, perceived as being secular and less rigorous than the Th.D.
In the late 1930s, Dr. Otto Piper and his Jewish wife were forced to flee Germany and relocate in the United States. Piper, who was invited to join Princeton's faculty by then-president John Mackay, was instrumental in establishing the program and, because of his background, was partial to the more prestigious Th.D. nomenclature over the corresponding Ph.D. degree.
From 1944 through 1972, the essentially German designation was used, and 216 graduates were awarded the Th.D. degree. As Harris points out, however, "You had to be pretty sophisticated to know that this was an 'uppity' degree."
ost people assumed that the Th.D. was inferior to the Ph.D. Thus, when graduates went out to get jobs, they encountered problems that arose out of ignorance of the tradition behind the Th.D.
For this reason, the Board of Trustees voted in 1972 to change the name of the degree to Ph.D., while allowing students already enrolled in the program to choose either a Th.D. or a Ph.D., though according to the Board minutes from May 30, 1972, and January 30, 1973, little distinction was made between the degrees. Alumni/ae who had been granted the Th.D. were permitted to exchange their degree for the Ph.D.
The nomenclature is not the only thing that has changed over the program's fifty-three-year history. In 1972, women were awarded the degree for the first time in the history of the degree program. The first two women who received the Th.D. were Joyce H. E. Bailey, a native of Jamaica, and Elizabeth Gordon Edwards, who is presently on the Seminary faculty teaching in the area of New Testament.
Since the inception of Princeton's doctoral program in 1944, sixty-one of the 512 degrees have gone to women.
Another area of change in the program is in pre-admission requirements. Students who apply for admission to the doctoral program are no longer required to have "pass[ed] comprehensive examinations in the various theological disciplines ... [or to] satisfy the committee on graduate study that [they have] a working knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, and one other modern language in addition to English ..." as was outlined in the one-page "catalogue" of the program in 1945.
Current applicants need only hold a B.A. from an approved college or university and have completed either an M.Div. or two years of graduate study in religion. Except for the areas of Bible and certain fields of church history, there are no pre-admission requirements in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Only one modern foreign language (German or French) is required prior to matriculation; the second may be learned during the first year of Ph.D. work.
Nonetheless, candidates for the Ph.D. make a serious commitment that impacts both their lives and the lives of those around them for a considerable time. Normally, doctoral candidates complete a two-year residential study program, then pass comprehensive exams and obtain approval for dissertation topics in the third year, and work toward a first draft of their dissertation by the end of the fourth year. In 1945, the maximum time allowed for completion of the degree was six years; today only about 60 percent of Ph.D. candidates complete all degree requirements within six years of entering the program. Doctoral students are now given up to nine years - three one-year extensions may be granted one year at a time beyond the six-year mark - to complete their requirements.
A significant difference between 1945 and 1997 is reflected in the cost of attending the Seminary. The tuition that was, in the 1940s, a mere $50 is now $7,000! And that before fees, housing, and meals. Fortunately, Princeton has a very competitive scholarship program and is able to provide scholarship aid to all doctoral candidates. Each year, up to ten merit-based grants of $11,000 plus tuition are awarded, as well as other merit tuition scholarships and need-based grants. If someone wants to attend Princeton (and is offered a place in the program), the Seminary generally has the resources to make that possible.
Despite changes in application requirements and tuition and fees, the primary purpose of the program remains unchanged. Princeton Seminary is committed to educating the future teachers of preachers and pastors. At a recent gathering of directors of Ph.D. programs in religion, Princeton was recognized as being among the top five Ph.D. programs that produce teachers involved in theological education.
ccording to Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, director of Ph.D. Studies and the W. A. Eisenberger Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis, 75 to 80 percent of Princeton Ph.D. graduates either teach or have taught. Two-thirds of those graduates have gone on to teach at the undergraduate level, while the remaining third teach or have taught in seminaries, divinity schools, or university Ph.D. programs. Consider the following examples: Ralph W. Quere ('70D) is a professor of historical theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa; Renita Weems ('83B, '89D) is a professor of Old Testament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; and ten Ph.D. program alumni/ae, in addition to Edwards, are on the current Seminary faculty.
"Only a few mainline, free-standing seminaries in the United States offer doctoral programs; of these, Princeton has the largest, and possibly the strongest, program," says Sakenfeld. "Princeton's programs generally compare favorably with schools such as Harvard, Yale, Emory, Chicago, Claremont, and Duke."
Fourth-year doctoral candidate Richard Burnett, who received his S.T.M. from Yale in 1993, asserts that Princeton surpasses such schools because "in terms of getting a Ph.D. from a recognized place, Princeton is [one of] the last places where you can get a Ph.D. within a specific tradition." That tradition, the Reformed theological tradition, is clearly articulated in the Seminary's mission statement: Princeton is a "professional and graduate school of the Presbyterian Church (USA)...that stands within the Reformed tradition.... This tradition shapes the instruction, research, practical training, and continuing education provided by the Seminary, as well as the theological scholarship it promotes." Princeton provides opportunity for serious theological scholarship for the sake of the church within the context of the church and seeks to "prepare women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries marked by faith, integrity, scholarship, competence, compassion, and joy...."
Burnett believes that Princeton is rare in the theological academic world because "there are faculty who have paid their dues in parish work. You don't find people like Diogenes Allen, Bruce McCormack, and David Willis - people who have parish experience and know what it is like to be a minister - elsewhere." The majority of the faculty are ordained and have pastoral experience.
"Our mission is to prepare doctors for the church," says Sakenfeld. "This sets us apart in terms of intentionality even from many other schools historically related to the church. We see ourselves as part of the church's mission, not just as a place for academic studies." Thus, it is not surprising that many Ph.D. graduates pursue pastoral work in their own countries and abroad.
A part of the mission of the Seminary in general and the Ph.D. program specifically is to assist the global church. Of the 183 doctoral candidates who have graduated since 1980, fifty have been international students. Of those, thirty-six (72 percent) returned to their home countries or to some other foreign country to teach or to serve in churches. Fourteen (28 percent) have stayed in the United States.
Those who remain in the United States often have compelling reasons to do so. One of the graduates who stayed in the United States was handicapped as a result of childhood illness; since handicapped people are shunned in his home country, he was unemployable there. Another graduate tried to return home but found that her American husband was unemployable there due to cultural disapproval of the marriage. Yet another stayed because of the serious shortage of jobs in his field at home. A graduate from an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country is unemployable in her homeland because she is Protestant.
There are those for whom Princeton's church affiliation and mission are not as important as the calibre of scholarship. Bart Ehrman ('81B, '85D) applied to Princeton in the late 1970s and was not familiar with the mission of the Seminary. What drew him to Princeton was the desire to study the New Testament with Bruce Metzger, who was at that time the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature. Ehrman says that he "got very strong linguistic and philological training" that prepared him for his teaching career. He also acknowledges that his coincidental ministerial training in homiletics, pedagogy, and counseling has helped his communication skills. However, Ehrman is concerned that the Seminary as a whole make a rigorous effort to maintain its scholarly focus and not shift to an atmosphere of professional training.
Paul Rorem, the Seminary's Benjamin B. Warfield Professor of Medieval History, is not concerned about such a shift and would argue that the strengths of the Ph.D. program have not changed. Princeton continues to "offer a general overview aimed at the church for the sake of teaching in the church," says Rorem. "It is the best denominational seminary in the United States." Certainly it is one of the most sought after. Each year the Ph.D. Studies Office receives more than two hundred applications for only twenty places. Those statistics support the claim that Princeton "maintain(s) a Ph.D. program highly respected in theological circles around the world."
For general information about the Ph.D. program and how to apply, please visit
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