Qualifying Examinations

The qualifying examinations in Theology must be completed before admission to candidacy. They are generally taken sequentially rather than all at once, but must be completed by the end of the third year of residence. If at all possible, students are strongly encouraged to take their first examination by the end of their second year of residence; indeed, if sufficiently prepared, they are encouraged to take their first examination during their first year of residence. Preparation for the qualifying examinations normally involves a combination of course work and supplementary individual reading courses. At a minimum the student should strive for a level of knowledge and expertise such as would be required to construct and teach a course on the subject. While the examinations are not primarily intended to test the student’s ability as a research scholar in the way course work, research papers, and the dissertation do, the student should nevertheless be familiar with the state of secondary scholarship on the figures and topics covered in each examination. Passage of the qualifying exams is one requirement demanded of all students seeking the PhD., but it is not the only requirement. Nor is it the most important; the dissertation is. Therefore, the exams should be kept within their proper proportions, and the following guidelines are designed to help with this.

The qualifying examinations in Theology consist of three field examinations and one “special” examination in a particular field of specialization.

Field Examinations


The field examinations allow the student to exhibit control of a range of literature, thinkers, and problems in three different areas:

For the field examination in modern theology, the student selects three traditional theological loci (e.g., doctrine of God, Christology, ecclesiology, doctrine of revelation, etc.) and formulates two questions for each locus. There is a required bibliography for this examination, which includes theologians from the seventeenth century until today, but, in consultation with the faculty leader of the examination and the other faculty examiners, the student may revise this standard bibliography in keeping with the particular loci chosen. Different thinkers can be included under different loci, but students are advised to cover at least one or two major figures across all three loci.

The field examination in premodern theology usually follows the same pattern as the examination in modern theology, except that the list of theologians to be discussed is drawn from periods before the seventeenth century. Three general time periods are covered–patristic, medieval, and reformation/Catholic reformation—with a required bibliography for each.

The third field examination is in extra-theological discourses and methods and may cover philosophy of religion, history of philosophy, critical and social theory, gender studies, or the history of religious thought in a tradition other than Christianity. As with the examinations in modern theology and the history of Christian thought, three topics are selected and two questions formulated for each topic. Except for the general expectation of breadth, there is no specific historical restriction limiting the range of thinkers whose views may be canvassed, and no set bibliography.


The following steps for preparing a qualifying examination should be completed the semester before an examination is to be taken:

  1. The student asks an appropriate faculty member to lead the examination committee.
  2. Cooperating with the committee leader, the student identifies two other faculty members to sit on the committee. They must be members of the theology teaching team. If a total of three appropriate faculty members cannot serve on the committee, a committee of two is permitted.
  3. The student and committee members decide on a date for the examination.
  4. The student proposes examination topics and questions for possible revision by the committee leader; and works with him or her to set the bibliography to be covered in the examination.
  5. After making revisions to themes and readings, the student circulates the examination for comment from other committee members.
  6. Based on the committee members’ comments, the student makes final revisions to the examination.
  7. The committee leader approves the examination and the student distributes its final form to the committee members.

Of the three field examinations, at least one must be exclusively oral; the others are comprised of a written examination, to be followed by an oral examination of the written materials. An exclusively oral examination lasts between one-and-a-half and two hours, and covers all questions submitted. Written examinations are eight hours, closed book and closed note. On the day of the written examination, the committee leader emails the student one question from each topic area of the exam, and these questions constitute the written examination. The student has eight hours to respond to the questions and email the completed examination to the entire committee. An oral examination, in which the student is permitted to defend and expand upon those written answers, should be scheduled within three weeks of the written examination. A written examination is not passed until the oral examination has been successfully completed.

The Special Examination

The special examination usually constitutes the first half of the dissertation colloquium at which the dissertation prospectus is discussed and approved. The special examination is usually an exclusively oral examination. It is based on a set of questions and bibliography drafted in the same way that the field examinations are drafted, with one’s dissertation advisor serving as the faculty leader of the special examination. The examination concentrates more narrowly and intensively than any field examination on a problem or figure or limited literature that is the immediate background to the proposed dissertation project. Passing the special examination is a prerequisite for discussion of the prospectus in the second half of the colloquium.