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Prospectus for Doctoral Programs in Theology at Boston University School of Theology
(a.k.a. constantly updated, hyperlinked "Red Book")

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3. Written 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 the dissertation.

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 fashion.
  • 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 Paul’s understanding of salvation, or the Lotus Sutra’s conception of enlightenment), constructive theology (e.g. discussing the nature of God with the Qur’an as source and dialogue partner), and comparative theology (e.g. comparing the theological functions of sacred scriptures in several traditions).
  • 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 systematic perspective.
  • 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 theologies.

3.2. 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.

3.2.1. 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 view—perhaps similar to the following hypothetical question for a Contemporary Period examination in the primary tradition of Christianity:

Compare and contrast three theologians—one a feminist theologian, one a neo-orthodox Protestant theologian, and one a post-Vatican II Roman Catholic theologian—on (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 example—and this is of special importance to PhD students—candidates 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 religious traditions.

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 Augustine’s 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 Augustine’s 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 one’s 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 one’s own point of view disregarding historical demands of the question. Neither the critical-constructive nor the historical requirements should be compromised.

3.2.2. Guidelines with Regard to Figures

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 important:

  • 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.

3.3. Administration of the Written Qualifying Examinations

3.3.1. 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 closed-book exams.
  • 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.

3.3.3. 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 must:

  • 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.

3.3.4. Committee and Proctor 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).

3.3.5. 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 examinations.
  • 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.

3.3.6. Procedures for Customized Examinations

Customized written examinations are 72-hour open-book exams. Students electing to take customized written examinations follow the following procedure.

  • 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 student’s 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 Theology Faculty.

3.3.8. 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.

3.4.1. Courses

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 5.1.4).

3.4.2. Bibliography

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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