Theological dissertation standards?

Discussion in 'Off-Topic Discussions' started by telefax, Oct 27, 2003.

  1. telefax

    telefax Member

    In May 2002 and October 2003, we discussed a couple of theological dissertations here. I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this topic without attaching the discussion to any individual case. Hopefully, by discussing the issue in a “vacuum”, emotions will not run so high as in the past.

    So what standards should a credible school of theology enforce for doctoral level research? For starters, here are my general thoughts-

    1) The dissertation should make an original contribution of knowledge to the field

    2) The dissertation should engage the major thinkers (pro and con) in the field, and interact with their works

    3) The dissertation should show depth of research, utilizing primary sources

    4) If the dissertation relates to interpretation of a specific passage or passages of Scripture, it should utilize exegesis from the original language to determine the meaning of the passage.

    What are your thoughts and why? I withdraw now to my bomb shelter to await replies…
  2. Ed Komoszewski

    Ed Komoszewski New Member

    Nancy Jean Vymeister, author of Quality Research Papers: For Students of Theology and Religion (Zondervan, 2001), states on page 188:

    "The writing of a D.Th./Ph.D. dissertation takes for granted that the candidate has the language tools needed to do exhaustive research in the chosen area. A knowledge of biblical languages is presupposed."

    She further writes, "Normally, the candidate must pass examinations in either French and/or German. Other languages may be needed depending on the topic. For example, a study on early church fathers would demand a knowledge of Latin."

    Vymeister also notes that most doctoral dissertations in theology, biblical studies, or religion are between 250-500 pages in length.

    Catalogs from accredited--and better non-accredited--schools show these standards to be overwhelmingly enforced.

    Based on Vymeister's comments and the hundred or so catalogs I've perused, I would round out Dave's list with two more requirements: (1) interact with necessary non-biblical languages; and (2) write at least 250 pages.
  3. Guest

    Guest Guest

    If the degree is in practical theology, the use of original languages is not always mandatory. Several non-US GAAP programs (e.g., Potchefstroom, Zululand, etc.) do not require original language exegesis in their practical theology discipline.
  4. Ed Komoszewski

    Ed Komoszewski New Member

    Compare that with, say, Fuller Theological Seminary, where the prospective PhD student in practical theology must demonstrate competence in both Hebrew and Greek before entering the program. Examinations in German and French are also administered.

    Perhaps someone here will investigate multiple schools offering a terminal research doctorate in practical theology and list them according to language requirements (both ancient and modern). My hunch is that the number of schools waiving all language requirements will barely tip the scales.
  5. Guest

    Guest Guest

    The data you suggest would certainly be informative. My observation was to note that such programs are available.
  6. Ed Komoszewski

    Ed Komoszewski New Member

    Fair enough, Russell.
  7. AlnEstn

    AlnEstn New Member

    foreign language requirements

    Folks, correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like the German, French (Latin and others) requirement that is heavily enforced in North American Th.D./Ph.D.s is not nearly as important in other parts of the world. I notice that many of the South African schools do not seem to require such. I wonder about some of the UK and European schools, do you know?
    Someone once told me (whether rightly or wrongly) that the foreign language requirements would begin to dissapear in NA. Should they?
    What do you think of Baptist Bible Seminaries RA Ph.D. in Biblical Studies (
    that does not seem to require the foreign languages?
    They seem to have a quality school, program and faculty.
  8. Guest

    Guest Guest

    Re: foreign language requirements

    I believe one reason German was required and/or recommended was during the days when German theologian Johann Gottfried Eichhorn's Higher Criticism was popular. It's interesting that a proponent of Higher Criticism, Julius Wellhausen, believed the NT was originally written in Aramaic.
  9. Ed Komoszewski

    Ed Komoszewski New Member

    Re: foreign language requirements

    This is also standard in better UK programs, Alan. For example, introductory materials from London Bible College state:

    "...candidates applying for PhD registration (not MPhil) in biblical studies are expected to have acquired reading proficiency in at least French or German (the latter is more important), preferably both. (Whichever of these two languages is lacking will have to be learned at an early stage of the research programme, and this may cause unwelcome pressure, especially if you are attempting to pick up, for example, Akkadian or Hebrew and Aramaic at the same time)."

    In materials sent to those accepted into a research program, London Bible College notes that one of the program's learning outcomes is "to demonstrate competence in the languages relevant for both primary and secondary literature." This applies to all programs, not just the one in biblical studies. By the way, note the generic description. Different languages may be required for different topics.

    I think the underlying principle here is that you can't demonstrate a breadth of study or make an original contribution to knowledge unless you interact with the most authoritative works in your field. Failure to do so makes your research, by definition, incomplete. If authoritative works are in other languages, that doesn't excuse ignorance of their content.

    So, if an important article relevant to your dissertation topic is written in Icelandic, you better figure out what it says. This doesn't mean, in my opinion, that you must study Icelandic grammar, vocublary, etc. That wouldn't be good use of time. It just means you need to interact with the article in formulating your own scholarly judgments. You can pay someone to translate the article into English, buy a software program that'll do it for you, or whatever. Just extract the ideas and engage them in your writing.

    In sum, I don't think foreign language requirements are arcane or artificial. They're there to ensure genuine breadth of study. And that means they're here to stay.
  10. uncle janko

    uncle janko member

    Ed is right. Of course, some of us long for the good old days when humanities/theology doctoral dissertations had to be written in Latin and were routinely 85-110 pages in length.

    I suspect that the deemphasis on foreign languages in SA is in part an attempt to open up tertiary education more widely. Older familiars (!) can correct me on this, but I think that in the prior governmental system language requirements resembled what North Americans are accustomed to see.

    Then again, in a country with eleven recognized languages...
  11. AlnEstn

    AlnEstn New Member

    Ed and uncle janko,
    Yes, I believe you are right, and see the point.
    Now Ed, you say, "You can pay someone to translate the article into English, buy a software program that'll do it for you, or whatever." Are there highly proficient software programs out there that could work with German and French? I ask this because, if for your specific topic there was little in these languages or others (and your program did not outright require them), one's time and effort might be better served in using software or getting a translator.
    I do know there is the reasoning that one will need the foreign languages for quality research for the rest of their lives. Maybe so. I would be interested how many Ph.D. students retain a sufficient enough knowledge of these languages after some time to be able to use the adequately?
  12. Guest

    Guest Guest

    I have known many colleagues in ministry during the past 21 years with M.Div.'s and Ph.D's or Th.D's from regionally accredited or ATS accredited schools who forgot most of their Greek and Hebrew within a few years after graduating. I know I forgot a good bit of my Greek but it is coming back to me as I am taking some refresher courses. For some reason, the Latin has stayed with me. I guess it's because I regulary read the Vulgate. I remember Jimmy Carter saying he has kept up with his Spanish by reading La Biblia every night.
  13. Bill Grover

    Bill Grover New Member

    While I run the risk of disappointing some here, I must confess that my dissertation uses no German or French and just a pinch of Latin which I don't understand beyond certain terms. My topic is The Doctrine of The Relational Subordination of the Son As Taught in Conservative American Theology.

    Most of the Hebrew involved is comparing that with the Septuagint. For example, recently I used that translation to research the occurences of 'monogenes' in the OT with the Hebrew adjective employed, yahid, and also researched the occurences in the Greek of the Apocrypha as possible insight for John's usage of that term so vital to my topic.

    Greek is more thoroughly used. Presently I'm in the hymn of Philippians 2:6,7 where the principal problem is whether the Son has both the form of and is equal to God. Were the latter his as well, then relational subordination seems economic not eternal. So, I'm working through such issues as: what is morphe thou; what is isos; what is the function of the tense of huparchon; is harpagmon causative or concessive; does it require an object; what is the function of the article in the articulated infinitive phrase to einai isa theo ; does the aorist, 'egesato' indicate the subordination began in time, does emphatic heauton indicate a preincarnational self direction, and so forth. I think my research is going pretty well despite it using only the Biblical languages.

    At my stage in life, I don't intend to learn three new languages. I have my hands full with what I already know. And if that means that my product doesn't satisfy someone's standards, then let that one come forth and indicate where the deficiencies are in the conclusions I reach in my dissertation. On this topic I think I can hold my own with about anyone. As you can see, my problem really is not lack of confidence but lack of humility:D
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 29, 2003
  14. Guest

    Guest Guest

    I think your final statement is contradictory. By admitting you are not humble doesn't that make you humble? I hope I get to read your dissertation. How far along with it are you?
  15. Bill Grover

    Bill Grover New Member



    No, I'm pretty proud actually. I hope you get to too.

    The plan is for six chapters. I have three , in the rough, ie, not edited, done. I intend to finish it all by 11-04.

    You may not have read this ,though once I posted it, but my promoter is to a degree letting me "wing it." He took my statement once made that, "Sure wish I could finish by my 65th BD in 6-05," to heart and so, because of the delays in getting chapters read and approved, has put me on me a rather long leash. If I decide to change the outline or have a question, of course I contact him. He's available and helpful.

    To avoid my making some colossal blunder, I've enlisted a nearby prof ,published in the area, who is a DTS PhD grad. This one reads my chapters and provides some feedback.
  16. AlnEstn

    AlnEstn New Member


    "At my stage in life..." You make yourself sound like an old-timer! :)

    Regarding the languages, with my interest in the OT, and my current studies in Biblical archaeology, I am a lot more interested in increased proficiency in Hebrew and Greek, and learning Aramaic, Ugaritic and Akkadian than I am in learning German and French.

    However, with my youthful age, maybe I can do it all! :D
  17. Ed Komoszewski

    Ed Komoszewski New Member

    Good question, Alan. I know a handful of doctoral students who have successfully used a program called Easy Translator. Version 4 is available now, and costs just $24.95 at The program translates the following languages into English: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese.

    One downside to a program like this is that it often doesn't recognize theological jargon. For German (arguably the most important modern language for students of theology), the theological German dictionary in Helmut W. Ziefle's Modern Theological German: A Reader and Dictionary (Baker, 1997) is a lifesaver. It contains over 20,000 words not found in standard German dictionaries. The book costs around $25.

    So, for about $50, a person can get the gist of just about any theological German work.
  18. AlnEstn

    AlnEstn New Member

    Thanks for the help on the software and dictionary. This site is great for stuff like this, unlike a certain other distance ed. site that has been filled with junk of late. = NUTS (Not Unlike a Terrorist State). :D
  19. Guest

    Guest Guest

    Re: languages

    You will love Ugaritic. You will be surprised how the Ugaritic cognates make the Old Testament come alive.
  20. telefax

    telefax Member

    Thanks, Ed, for adding convincingly to the list. I am pleased to see that there are practical options for interacting with works in the modern research languages without having to develop genuine fluency.

    Well, it seems that participants here have agreed on some standards for theological dissertations, which I think most credible schools would adhere to, whether liberal or conservative. This is all to the good, but I am a little disappointed that nobody chose to defend a different set of standards.

    Earlier this year, the majority of posters roundly trashed a theological dissertation from an unaccredited school in California. Last year, a moderate majority of posters vigorously defended the quality of a theological dissertation from an established non-US school. But both dissertations clearly did not meet the standards listed above. So were generally accepted standards applied selectively, or are the standards listed here in this thread off base?


Share This Page