Saturday, February 5, 2011

Theologians Without Doctorates

Today we assume that serious, academically-minded theologians earn a doctorate. In fact, how can someone ultimately be respected without one?  However, many famous teachers of theology in the past never made it that far, and still they commanded great respect among their peers and even secured respected teaching posts in world class universities. Recently I discovered that three great theologians of the 20th century taught and wrote extensively and yet the only doctorate they had came in the form of an honorary one.  The three men are: Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and C.S.Lewis.  Now one may take issue with the last name in the list since he did not make a career in theology, but rather in teaching literature.  Nevertheless, it cannot be argued that his writings stand among the great 'classics' of apologetics. (Another name one might also add to the list could include the well-known biblical scholar F.F.Bruce.)

It seems ironic that innumerable doctoral dissertations have been written about these men who never underwent the rigor of this ritual themselves (e.g.: Dr. Steve Mueller of Concordia -Irvine did his dissertation on C.S.Lewis at the University of Durham.)  I greatly respect those who pursue doctoral studies and in no way wish to diminish their accomplishments.  That said, I also count among the teachers who have most influenced me or with whom I have great respect and admiration, men who never aspired to that level.  One of those theologians would be Kurt Marquart, who taught for many years at my alma mater Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne.  A few years before his death he was awarded an honorary doctorate; I believe from Concordia-Wisconsin.  It was long overdue.  Still, his theological brilliance was not enhanced by the honorary degree.  He had already proved himself long before. 

As I round the corner in completing my Master of Sacred Theology degree (two more classes to go!), I need to remind myself that as Luther taught us, it is oratio, meditatio and tentatio that make a theologian (literally, prayer, meditation, and trials- See the CTQ article by John W. Kleinig for more.)  Theology does not flower in the vacuum of a sterile classroom environment, but rather in the midst of the church itself.  We may learn theology in a classroom, but that knowledge must serve the church if it is worth our attention and time.  I suspect that having spent over two decades in the pastoral ministry theology will always be linked to the church for me, even if I should be given the opportunity to teach it in a more formal, academic environment.

I didn't plan to begin this post with one topic and transition to the other.  Oh, well, writing does not always follow a perfectly straight line....


Pr Mark Henderson said...

Praise the Lord for great theologians who never obtained a doctorate. I'm sure there are many more whose names are unknown to us - especially among parish pastors.

This comment comes from Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, where Pr Marquart labored in the Lord's service for some 14 years.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

Thank you for your comments, Pr. Henderson. Pr. Marquart will be among those uniquely honored theologians beloved in two countries, such as Sasse himself. Again, thank you for reading and commenting!