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“Divinity School,” “School of Divinity,” and American Confusion

November 25, 2016

In a session at the recent SBL annual meeting in which I served as a panel-reviewer of a recently published book, the discussion descended into speculations about how the views of panellists were shaped by whether they taught in a public university or a “Divinity School” (i.e., theological seminary preparing individuals for Christian ministry).  And it became clear that the other panellists thought that I was attached to the latter type of institution, which meant that I was supposedly working from some different set of presumptions than the other panellist.  So, some clarification is needed.

First, as for me, I last taught in a theological college with a faith-commitment in 1978.  Thereafter, I taught for 18 years in the University of Manitoba, Department of Religion (the major public university of Manitoba).  Then, from 1996 to 2011 I was Professor in the University of Edinburgh, a public-funded British university, not a church-related university.

Second, the “School of Divinity” of the University of Edinburgh isn’t a “Divinity School” in the American sense.  It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit, so I’ll explain things.  All major units of the University of Edinburgh are “Schools.”  And “Divinity” is the old Scottish term equivalent to “Theology.”  Out of a sense of tradition, the term has been retained for our “School.”  (I guess this is another example of the old quip that the USA and Britain are two societies divided by a common language!)

But there is no confessional test for academic staff or students, and our main teaching “business” is about 300 undergraduate students (“majors” in the American sense), making us one of the largest units for the academic study of religions in the UK.  (These include maybe 30 or so who are taking courses for academic preparation for church ministry.)  In addition, with about 80-90 PhD students and about 40-50 masters degree students, we’re one of the largest postgraduate centres in religion study in the UK.

Our academic staff (about 30) have a diversity of individual stances on matters religious:  some are various kinds of Christians, others no religious affiliation, and others Muslim and Jewish.  Our courses likewise involve the study of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, aboriginal, and other religious traditions and phenomena.  So, you should really think of the “School of Divinity” here as a massive department for the study of religions, with a small “nested” degree programme for academic preparation for ministry, and a large postgraduate population too.

Also, brushing off someone’s arguments on the basis of the kind of institution they work in is, in my view, pretty silly.  In any case, I’m retired since 2011, so I don’t work for any institution!   But, to repeat the point to ensure clarity, the “School of Divinity” here isn’t a “Divinity School.”

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  1. Tim permalink

    In my estimation, this is analogous to the trend in recent decades toward “identity politics,” only it is being manifested in the academic world. Those in so-called “secular” institutions can tend to view those in other groups (e.g., confessional institutions) as if they form a single monolith, while those in “secular” institutions are free to think as they please and lead “wherever the evidence leads them.” And, yes, I have heard this sentiment expressed explicitly on multiple occasions. While it may hold true in some cases, it is irresponsible to rely on such a stereotype in order to dismiss the arguments of anyone.

  2. RobO permalink

    Seems silly to me!


    On Fri, Nov 25, 2016 at 5:35 AM, Larry Hurtado’s Blog wrote:

    > larryhurtado posted: “In a session at the recent SBL annual meeting in > which I served as a panel-reviewer of a recently published book, the > discussion descended into speculations about how the views of panellists > were shaped by whether they taught in a public university or a “” >

  3. Shoobridge permalink

    Prof Hurtado…I would have thought that (i) your eminence in the academic study of Christian Origins, and (ii) the minor fact that, being retired, you are no longer attached directly to any institution, should make such questions very much beside the point.

    But the none-too-subtle implication: that academic study within a “confessional environment” might have less integrity or rigor than that conducted in a secular university is nonsense, as the output of many front rank evangelical scholars attests.

    I suspect that it’s a long held prejudice, but to have it expressed at something like an SBL event, (where the participants really ought to know better), appears a disturbing development for the guild of biblical studies.

  4. Another confusion between British and US academic institutions arises when Americans assume that someone with the title ‘dean’ must be the head of the institution, or at least the person in charge of students. This is not usually the case in Britain. I have know one or two (British) deans who have been slightly slow to disabuse their American colleagues of this misconception!

    • It’s actually more complicated. In Oxford and Cambridge colleges, a Dean is the person in charge of the college chapel (like a Dean in a Cathedral). In other universities such as Edinburgh, a Dean is an administrative officer, as a Dean of Postgraduate Studies in our College of Humanities & Social Science.

  5. After the election of Mr. Trump the publisher of one of the Augsburg newspapers, we didn’t catch which one, was talking on Radio Berlin-Brandenburg about American politics. He made the point that in his view old fashioned reporting and scholarship had been replaced by “discourse.” He is right because Biblical Studies is not the only affected field. You have analagous problems in anthropology, history and many other disciplines where committment to a cause has replaced committment to scholarship in the traditional sense.

  6. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    Your latest fascinating blog raises at least one intrinsically-linked issue which must be discussed. It is this: surely the staff in many university faculties of biblical studies/theology/philosophy often do in fact reflect one world-view rather than another, and their student body will often be drawn from applicants who have a pre-formed preference for that world-view, and perhaps some knowledge of the written works of the teaching staff. It is possible that a new student, knowingly or unknowingly, will select courses or select to sit at the feet of teaching staff which/who will give a possibly one-sided view of a topic. How does a given faculty ensure that both (or all) sides of a question are disinterestedly given?
    I illustrate this by referring to a section of the excellent work ‘The Jesus Legend’ by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, who (pp. 24,25) distinguish four levels of scholarly disbelief/belief in dealing with ‘the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition’ (the authors’ subtitle), naming names for each, starting with the most sceptical: and ending with the full believers: 1. Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews, G.A. Wells; 2.Rudolph Bultmann and Bruno Mack; 3. Robert Funk and J.D. Crossan; 4. N. T. Wright and John Meier, and of course our co-authors here.

    • Yes, but you can’t generalize from a few instances. My point is that each scholar’s work should be considered on its own merits, and not pre-judged or dismissed based on where he draws a salary.

  7. Thomas F Johnson permalink

    Commit to the truth no matter where the search leads you. It doesn’t matter where you work or worked, or even if you are working. The academy is in sad shape: cheap shots substituting for critical thinking.

  8. Marshall permalink

    I personally find it valuable that you approach from an academic non-confessional stance, that is, without begging the question. I suppose that distinction is lost on many.

  9. Dr. H.,
    I continue to be amazed at the level of arrogance that is displayed within the academic community. When did the type of institution, degree or affiliation become the basis for determining ones viewpoint, as opposed to the work product presented, or in your case the vast collection of published articles and books?

    I did appreciate the clarity on the differences between U.S. and European Divinity school designations. Having lived ‘across the pond’ for 5 years, I still laugh at all the Americanisms I brought with me.


  10. Herman van de Berg permalink

    Of course, even some US Divinity Schools aren’t “Divinity Schools” (in the confessional sense). Exhibit A: Chicago.

  11. This kind of thing (university verses divinity school) can so easily become scholarly narcissism: “I’m better than you because I teach at…” This is the very thing scholarship is meant to eschew.

  12. A. J. Boggis permalink

    They are only confused who do not take care not to be. There was no excuse for this confusion in the world of academia and theology and biblical studies (especially in the USA). Your patience is exemplary. I am in my 70th year and am appalled at some of the ignorance in the younger generation of academics -specialising in less and less and ignorant of more and more.

  13. Brushing off someone’s viewpoints because they work at a “Divinity School” isn’t simply silly, it is prejudice. Joel Marcus is employed at a Divinity School and he is one of the best in the world. He is only one of many scholars we could name who work at a Divinity School and maintain the highest level of scholarship.

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