Prospectus for Doctoral Programs in
Theology at Boston University School of Theology
(a.k.a. constantly updated, hyperlinked "Red Book")
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Qualifying Examinations in Theology
3.1. Purpose of the
Written Qualifying Examinations
Doctoral programs have built in assessment points, each of which must be passed before
progressing to the next stage. Doctoral candidates in theology take the qualifying
examinations in theology only after having successfully completed the language
requirements of their program. They must pass all of the written qualifying examinations before taking an oral
examination of the specialization in which their dissertation is to be written (in the
case of ThD Majors, qualifying examinations in the Minor discipline must also be completed
before the oral examination). They must pass the oral examination before submitting their
prospectus to the committees administering the various doctoral programs. They must obtain
approval of their dissertation prospectus from those committees before they can advance to
General competence in theology is necessary for proceeding to work in a theological
specialization. The written qualifying examinations in theology, regardless of program,
assess the general competence of theology candidates in scriptural theology, systematic
theology, fundamental theology, philosophical theology, and advocacy theology, as these
theological tasks are pursued from historical, constructive, and comparative
methodological perspectives. These types of theological activity and methods are briefly
described in "Kinds of Theological Activity" (section 1.1.6).
What it means to be competent in them is outlined in what follows.
3.1.1. Theological Modes
The qualifying examination committee looks for signs of competence in the practice of
theology using the several methods already mentioned.
- Competence in the historical mode of doing the tasks of theology shows up in the
abilities to describe, compare and assess the views of individual theological thinkers, to
discuss and assess the significance of theological movements and themes, and to evaluate
theological reflection in relation to its concrete historical contexts.
- Competence in the constructive mode of doing the tasks of theology is evident
when a candidate is able to construct sound arguments for theological positions, to state
and analyze criteria for theological adequacy, and to present and defend their own
theological point of view. ThD Majors in theology are especially expected to be able to
relate their theological expertise to the specific focus of their program in constructive
- Competence in the comparative mode of doing the tasks of theology in indicated by
the ability to discuss the specifics of various traditions in such a way as to furnish
fruitful insights for constructive and historical analyses. This ability is expected of
all PhD candidates, and especially of those in the Comparative track.
3.1.2. Theological Tasks
The qualifying examination committee also looks for signs of competence in the five
types of theological tasks already mentioned.
- Competence in scriptural theology requires the abilities to assess the nature of
sacred scriptures as a source for theology, and to use sacred scriptures as a source for
historical theology (e.g. identifying and discussing Pauls understanding of
salvation, or the Lotus Sutras conception of enlightenment), constructive theology
(e.g. discussing the nature of God with the Quran as source and dialogue partner),
and comparative theology (e.g. comparing the theological functions of sacred scriptures in
- Competence in systematic theology involves being able to discuss and evaluate the
interconnections between various parts of theological systems, to discern when and why a
theological thinker makes a systematic move that breaks from traditional patterns, and to
construct and critique arguments for theological positions in the context of a given
- Competence in fundamental theology demands the ability to describe and assess
theological methods, to identify sources for theology and discuss their function in
theological reflection, and to state and analyze epistemological assumptions guiding
claims that theological reflection yields knowledge.
- Competence in philosophical theology is evident when a candidate is able to
evaluate theological positions and methods in terms of traditional philosophical spheres
of inquiry such as metaphysics and epistemology, and to construct and evaluate theological
arguments from within a given philosophical framework.
- Competence in advocacy theology calls for the abilities to use and evaluate the
use of experience and social contexts as sources for theological reflection, to describe
and assess the distinctive methods of advocacy theologies, and to discuss and criticize
the generation of specific theological doctrines from the various perspectives of advocacy
General Description of the Written Qualifying Examinations
The examination committee reserves the right to ask questions of any kind. However,
some indications of possible styles of questions is possible.
The Kinds of Questions Asked in the Written Qualifying Examinations
Sample questions for written qualifying examinations may be culled from
the collection of past examinations (see the QE Question Archive). The examples provided
in the following discussion assume that the qualifying examinations are focused
on Christianity theology. The principles illustrated, however, are quite general.
Candidates are likely to get a question with some degree of choice, requiring a mixture
of exposition and critique, sometimes comparison and contrast, and almost always
construction and defense of their theological point of viewperhaps similar to the
following hypothetical question for a Contemporary Period examination in the primary
tradition of Christianity:
Compare and contrast three theologiansone a feminist
theologian, one a neo-orthodox Protestant theologian, and one a post-Vatican II Roman
Catholic theologianon (1) the nature of salvation, and (2) the role of Jesus
Christ in salvation. Construct an argument for your own view by way of evaluating the
views you describe.
Such questions as this afford an opportunity to exhibit what candidates have learned
and the insight they have gained, rather than trying to find out gaps in knowledge. In
particular, for exampleand this is of special importance to PhD
studentscandidates are enabled by this question to indicate the importance and
specific impact of the Christian debate over how to understand theologically the fact that
something like what Christians call "salvation" appears to occur widely among
Other questions might test the completeness and depth of candidates knowledge
about central figures; these questions are most likely to be about the figures especially
commended to candidates attention by the Theology Faculty in the descriptions of
written qualifying examinations provided for each primary tradition. Such questions might
be similar to the following hypothetical question from a Classical Period examination in
the primary tradition of Christianity:
State Augustines understanding of the Christian Church
against the background of the political and cultural concerns that stimulated his writing
of The City of God. Carefully critique Augustines view in detail from your
own late 20th century perspective.
Among other things, this question would afford students an opportunity to connect what they have learned about
theology with particular interests and concerns they may have in relation to the
contemporary Christian church.
Other questions may give candidates an open-ended opportunity to expound their
understanding of an entire theological trajectory. It is important to be specific in
answering such questions as, for example, the following hypothetical question from a
Modern Period examination in the primary tradition of Christianity:
Describe the effect of historical criticism on the formulation of
Christian doctrines during the 18th and 19th centuries, paying
particular attention to Christology and the understanding of revelation. Be specific with
regard to key figures, their views, and their impacts. Use this exposition to state and
defend your own view of the issues involved.
Specificity, economy, and precision are virtues in qualifying examinations. Vagueness,
padding, and inaccuracy are the corresponding vices.
Note: Typically, questions are constructed to evince evidence of both historical
knowledge and competence in critical, constructive argumentation. Tacking ones own opinion on at the end of an
historically focused answer is no more satisfactory an approach to answering such
questions than mounting a large-scale argument for ones own point of view disregarding historical demands of the question. Neither the
the historical requirements should be compromised.
3.2.2. Guidelines with Regard to
The descriptions of written qualifying examinations provided later in this Prospectus
list figures and themes that the Theology Faculty judge to be especially important to
know, together with some indication of the breadth of knowledge likely to be drawn upon in
a qualifying examination. Especially with regard to central figures, regardless of how
many of their works appear in the reading list provided for each primary tradition, it is
- to be familiar with the general thrust and structure of their entire corpus;
- to be able to relate specific elements of their writing to the wider pattern of their
thought, even in questions asking only about one particular doctrine;
- to have clearly in mind their position and influence in their era and in the entire
history of theology; and
- to know how their thought interacted with other key theologians and the characteristic
concerns of their time.
Administration of the Written Qualifying Examinations
Standardized or Customized Examinations
ThD majors in theology must select between two forms of examination.
- Standardized exams use the reading lists presented later in this
document, are held in the examination week each semester, and are
- Customized exams using reading lists prepared by the student in
discussions with his or her advisor and other theology faculty members
and have many formats.
ThD minors in theology must take one of the standardized exams (the
Contemporary Theology exam by default).
3.3.2. Timing of the
Written Qualifying Examinations
All qualifying examinations, whether standardized or customized, must be
attempted in a single semester. For students electing to take the
standardized written examinations, they are offered once each semester in a
single examination week. The precise days and times of the examinations will
be announced as each examination week
approaches. Examination weeks are the first full week of November and April (that is, the
weeks containing the first Monday of November and April), unless announced otherwise.
Registering for the Written Qualifying Examinations
It is important that your theology advisor be consulted about your readiness to take
written qualifying examinations. In preparation for written qualifying examinations, you
- fill out such forms as may be required by the administrative bodies governing your
program (see "Where to Get More Information,"
section 1.3); and
- notify the chair of the Theology Faculty of your intention to
take examinations at least one month in advance so that the need for writing examinations
can be discerned by the faculty, and so that space can be reserved and copies of the
examinations made for you.
for the Written Qualifying Examinations
Each semester, the Theology Faculty appoint two of their number to compose
the standardized examinations in theology. The examination reading committee
consists of at least three faculty members, including the two examination
writers and the advisors of all students registered for exams in that
semester. Where the content of examinations makes it necessary, the Theology
Faculty examination reading committee may secure the help of outside faculty
with expertise in the relevant disciplines.
The Examination Committee arranges for a staff person from the School of
Theology to function as the Examination Administrator (a.k.a. proctor).
Procedures for Standardized Examinations
Standardized examinations are closed-book, six-hour exams, proctored by
the School of Theology's Registrar's Office during the exam week each
semester. The bibliographies for the standardized examinations are already
defined (see later in this document). Students electing to take these
examinations follow the following procedure.
- Register for the exams.
- Arrange for the advisor to submit to the examination setting
committee one question for each exam bearing on the intersection between
the major and minor specializations of their program.
- Examinations are to be hand-written or typed on a computer, at the
student's discretion, in English. If typed on a computer, the machines
used must be clean machines furnished by the university and their use
supervised by the Examination Administrator.
- After writing each examination, the Examination Administrator makes copies of the
- The examinations are returned to candidates at the end of the examination week at a time
arranged by the Examination Administrator. Candidates who wrote their
examinations by hand are required to type up the
examinations as they wrote them, expanding abbreviations and making minor corrections for
spelling and grammatical errors. Candidates who typed their examinations
using a university-provided computer may also expand abbreviations and
make minor corrections for spelling and grammatical errors. This is particularly helpful for students whose first
language is not English and those with illegible handwriting.
- Candidates then return the typed versions to the Examination Administrator on the first
Monday after the examination week.
- The typed versions are checked for consistency against the copied versions and then
handed to the Examination Committee for reading.
- The Examination Committee grades the exams within 30 days. The
results possible for each exam are described below.
Note: ThD minors in theology must take one standardized examination,
which is by default the examination in contemporary theology.
Procedures for Customized Examinations
Customized written examinations are 72-hour open-book exams. Students
electing to take customized written examinations follow the following
- Write a proposal for the customized examinations. This proposal
should be no longer than one single-spaced page. It should describe the
rationale for the examination set and specify three broad topic areas,
one for each exam. One of these topics should be methodological in
nature, one should be focused on theological content, and one should be
directed toward your anticipated dissertation research. The topics
should be broad enough to make clear that you are committing to
mastering a wide range of literature. You do not include a reading list
with your exam proposal; you work out the reading list with your advisor
(see below). You submit the proposal to the STH Registrar's Office and
to your advisor, and your advisor presents the proposal to the Theology
Faculty on your behalf.
- Once the Theology Faculty approves the proposal, the student in
consultation with his or her advisor constructs one bibliography for
each examination. Each bibliography is expected to be comparable in
scope and complexity to the bibliographies for the standardized
examinations. The bibliography must be approved by the advisor and one
other theology faculty member and then submitted to the STH Registrar's
Office to be included with the exam proposal in the student's file.
- Register for the exams.
- The customized exams will be taken on dates worked out with your
advisor, subject to the restriction that all three exams need to be
taken within a single semester.
- The examination is set by your advisor working with one other
theology faculty member. For each exam, you will be supplied with up to
three questions on which you are to write on one or two, at the sole
discretion of the examination writers. The Theology Faculty may approve
other arrangements for the examination as exceptions. Students do not
see the questions prior to the exam. Students must agree not to use any
material written prior to the examination window.
- The Examination Administrator will deliver the questions to you via
email at a prearranged time and the student will acknowledge receipt. 72
hours later the student will submit polished answers via email to the
Examination Administrator who will acknowledge receipt. Late submissions
fail the exam.
- The Examination Administrator distributes examination answers to the
examination reading committee in place for that semester and evaluated
within 30 days. Each student's advisor is always one of the exam
readers. The results possible for each exam are the same as for the
closed-book exam format (see below).
3.3.7. Results of
the Written Qualifying Examinations
For each written qualifying examination in theology, the Examination Committee can
return a number of results:
- Pass, based on a simple majority vote.
- Fail, based on a simple majority vote: candidates failing a written qualifying
examination are sometimes permitted to retake the examination. If so permitted, they may
repeat the examination only once, and must retake the examination the very next
semester. No candidate may take any examination more than twice.
Before deciding whether a candidate has passed or failed a Qualifying Examination,
in rare circumstances, the
Examination Committee may also require supplementary written and oral examination of the
material covered by the written examinations. These examinations are in addition to those
required in the Qualifying Examination sequence. This procedure does not affect a
students right to retake the Qualifying Examinations should they be judged finally
to have failed.
In the case of Qualifying Examinations of exceptional quality, the Examination
Committee may recommend to the professors conducting the Oral Qualifying Examination that,
so far as the written Qualifying Examinations are concerned, a grade of "pass with
distinction" would be in order. (See "Results of the Oral Qualifying
Examination," section 4.2.4.)
A final assessment of whether to award this honor is made by the Oral
Examination committee, subject to the condition that the written examination
committee must first recommend it.
Once qualifying examination results have been determined, the Examination
Administrator notifies students, copying the advisor and the chair of the
Criteria and Standards for the Written Qualifying Examinations
At the most basic level, passing examinations are expected to exhibit accuracy and
nuance in the description of positions; clear and fluent writing; logical and forceful
construction of arguments; and a depth and breadth of knowledge commensurate with doctoral
studies. This is a minimal statement of criteria; the nature of the qualifying
examinations, and the guidelines for breadth and depth included in their descriptions, are
further indications of passing standards.
ThD Minors in theology take only one of the three written qualifying examinations (by
default the standardized examination on the Contemporary Period). They are
held to the same standards as ThD Majors as regards accuracy and argumentation on that one
examination. However, expectations of ThD Minors in Theology with regard to
overall theological insight are commensurate with their limited investment
of time and energy in the study of theology as compared with ThD Majors in Theology.
3.4. Preparing for
the Written Qualifying Examinations
There are a number of ways for candidates to form their expectations of, and to prepare
for, qualifying examinations in theology.
Candidates should discuss with their advisors the best courses to take in preparation
for the qualifying examinations in theology. Specific suggestions are made for each
primary tradition, later in this Prospectus (for example, if Christianity is tradition of
interest, see "Preparing for Qualifying Examinations through Courses," section
The Theology Faculty maintains a bibliography intended to indicate some of the major
figures and works covered in the written qualifying examinations (see, for example,
"Examinations and Bibliographies: Christianity Track," section 5).
The scope of a given written qualifying examination will not correspond to the that of the
bibliography, but the bibliography provides a basic guide to the content of, and
preparation for, written qualifying examinations in theology. The purpose of the
bibliographies is described in detail when they are introduced.
3.4.3. Past Examinations
Archives of previous examinations are stored
here. Candidates may consult these past examinations to gain an idea of what to expect, but
examiners reserve to examine students however they see fit.
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