Your Guide to Degrees in Christian Theology at the Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral Levels

Theology degrees students studying together

What is Theology? Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief. Christian theology explores the interpretation of Scriptural data and philosophical reasoning that underlies the faith and doctrine of the Church today.

Theology has a long and rich history that goes back far beyond the foundations of Christianity. The word itself is rooted in the Greek theologia, coined by no less a scholar and philosopher than Plato. Aristotle did important work in expanding the field, categorizing it as one of the three fundamental aspects of all philosophical discourse.

The field is a broad one because it can embrace study of any kind of religion or spiritual belief system. Even a degree teaching Christian theology will include coursework that involves connections and comparisons between the world’s great religions. Tracing the roots and branches of the Abrahamic religions is vital to understanding the emergence and importance of Christianity as a global religion.

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Theological studies take you under the hood of discipleship and liturgy, examining the ineffable Spirit and exploring how it finds expression through human belief and worship. The pursuit of answers in Christian study is the most intellectual aspect of ministry. It’s a perfect fit for anyone seeking quiet contemplation and personal satisfaction through ministry.

What a Degree in Theology Offers to Christian Pastors and Evangelists

Theology comes from the basic sense of curiosity that God has placed into each and every one of us. We are a learning species because He made us that way, and despite our faith and belief, questions of religion and spirituality are natural.

These are all questions that are actively studied, and often answered, by students and researchers of theology.

Theological studies deconstruct the roots of belief and the rituals of liturgical worship.

Your classes will cover many of the same subjects as any degree in ministry, but often with a unique perspective. A course covering the Eucharist will not only look at the ritual of the offering, but explore the history of the sacramental rite through church history and the different doctrine it represents in different denominations of Christianity. The course might go even further, drawing on similar rituals from other belief systems entirely, and comparing and contrasting the expressions and fundamental ideas involved.

What Can You Do with a Theology Degree?

Man reading bible near river's edgeAs you look through theology programs at various levels, you’ll find a few different degree titles—sometimes at the same schools. You’ll find options such as:

  • Bachelor of Theology (BTh) versus Bachelor of Arts in Theology (BAT, or BATS, for Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies)
  • Master of Theology (MTh) versus Master of Theological Studies (MTS)
  • Doctor of Theology (ThD) versus Doctor of Theology (PhD)

There can be genuine differences between different types of programs of study in theology. Typically, degrees without an arts or sciences designation are more vocationally oriented. They may not include as much liberal arts coursework and have more theological studies. You would expect a BTh to have more coursework in ministry and pastoral subjects than a BATS. Similarly, an MTh is almost always a post-graduate degree designed for working ministers who already hold a Master of Divinity or similar.

Naturally, if your vocation is that of the ministry, then you may find BTh/MTh/ThD programs a better fit for your educational needs. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue a ministry career with the knowledge and training from more general programs. It’s more a matter of emphasis than a restriction.

Theological Studies – From Introductory Associate Degrees to Advanced Graduate Programs

Degrees in theology are available at every level. That’s an open invitation for just about anyone to study this subject, from undergrads right out of high school to experienced theologians interested in plumbing the depths of this area even further. Whether you are looking for a ground-level introduction or you’re ready to further advance your high-level of religious thought and knowledge, you’ll find options on the table designed specifically for your situation.

Theology Associate Degree Online

An associate degree in theology builds a basic foundation for deeper theological exploration through a two-year course of study that blends religious coursework with some essential liberal arts training. General studies requirements in math, English, and social studies come together with classes in Old and New Testament scripture and biblical hermeneutics, the ethics of Christianity, and the history of the church.

The search for answers starts with associate degrees.

Associate degrees usually cost less per credit to earn than higher level degrees, and are easier to enroll in. On the other hand, an associate degree does not offer much qualifications for positions in ministry. Entry-level jobs or volunteer opportunities in churches or faith-based non-profits may be available.

Associate programs are also sometimes called transfer degrees, because in many cases the classes mirror the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program in theology. Assuming you plan to go on to earn a bachelor’s, the associate degree offers a way to break that education up into a more affordable, shorter first chunk. As long as you choose a college for your bachelor’s degree that accepts the credits from your associate program, you can apply those to your four-year program.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Theology: BTh/ThB and BA/BS Programs in Theology

ReverenceA bachelor's degree is a four-year course of study that goes far beyond your major in scope and purpose. Approximately half your studies are likely to land in required courses common to any sort of liberal arts education: English, history and social studies, sciences, philosophy and reasoning. There's a reason why the bachelor's degree has become the preferred degree to enter almost any kind of professional career in the United States today, and those classes are it. The general knowledge, critical thinking, and basic communications skills you need are part of the package.

A theology degree builds on all of that training, however. You'll use those critical thinking skills to assess doctrinal decisions made by synods and councils through the ages. Your history and social studies classes will offer cultural perspectives on the influence and presence of the church in society.

This level of theological studies won't qualify you for any senior-level jobs or positions as an ordained minister. But in some denominations, it may set you on the path to associate or assistant minister jobs, and it's a basic qualification for many other entry-level Christian jobs.

A bachelor's degree is also a necessary step on the path to a master's-level education, whether you choose to pursue that in more theological studies or to branch off into pastoral studies or another field of Christian education.

Master’s Degree in Theology: MTh/ThM, and MA/MS Programs in Theology

The master’s level is where theology degrees really start to fulfill the potential of the field. Master’s programs are highly focused programs taught at an advanced level that allows you to start to perform original research and explore new ideas at the leading edge of theological thought. About three years in length, a master’s program has much less in the way of general coursework. It really offers the ability to drill down into theological subjects with almost every credit.

Most master’s degrees also offer concentrations, or are specialized themselves to focus on specific areas of Christian theology, such as:

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Some master’s in theology programs are actually designed as postgraduate programs—they require that you already hold a master’s degree in a related field, typically a Master of Divinity, degree to enroll. They build on and extend the basic theological knowledge and research skills that candidates have already attained in their first master’s program. These are aimed at already ordained and serving ministers who want to improve their theological training to better practice their profession.

A Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MAT or MATS), is typically a standard graduate program… a Master of Theology (ThM or MTh), on the other hand, is more likely to be a postgraduate program that requires you to already hold a master’s degree.

A master’s in theology serves as the minimum degree required by some denominations in order to qualify for ordination. A master’s is great qualification for educators in religious subjects. It can develop your communication and leadership skills, preparing you to take on senior positions in non-profit ministry organizations or foundations. It’s also usually a required step on the way to a doctoral program, preparing you to take your theology studies to the top of the mountain.

Doctoral Degrees in Christian Theology: DTh and PhD Programs in Theology

Doctoral students in theology are at the pinnacle of modern Christian thought and analysis. Their training offers a position from which to engage in critical reflection of Christian practice and in-depth explorations of belief and spirituality in all religions.

A ThD is an academically rigorous program that may take anywhere from three to five years of study and research, culminating in a doctoral dissertation of 100 pages or more. This written expression of your original thinking and results of your research serves as the capstone of your academic pursuits. It will wrap up all of your knowledge and learning and serve as your introduction in scholarly circles for years to come. Defending it in front of a committee of professors and other experts will help you hone it to a publication-quality piece of work.

Doctoral studies offer even more possibilities for focus than at the master’s level. Nearly every doctoral program is unique because your course of study is in part self-designed. You will work with professors and engage in seminar-style courses, but you will do so in a sort of partnership with your instructors rather than just as a student. You’ll receive guidance, but ultimately be responsible for charting your own course.

As you might expect, a ThD is something you would most often earn in pursuit of a career in academia. If you advance to this level of study, it’s likely you are already in or heading for work in research or teaching.

Coursework Found in a Theology Degree Program

Man praying and looking up to heavensCoursework in any theology degree program will depend in part on the level of study you are at. Obviously doctoral students get a lot more complex and detailed picture of Biblical hermeneutics than you find in associate programs.

But the general areas of study are fairly similar at every level. More specialization as you get to higher degrees may focus in on only one or a handful of these. But each area has classes available for any theology student to take.

Common classes for theology degrees include:

Systematic Theology - The Bible didn’t come with an index. Many important topics of faith and instruction are scattered throughout Scripture, discussed from different perspectives, and sometimes appear contradictory. Systematic theology is the discipline that sorts through and provides an organized and rational accounting of Christian doctrines, building not just on Scripture but also church history and philosophy.

Moral, Pastoral, and Spiritual Theology - Many theological studies are theoretical, operating in the realm of pure logic and divine inspiration. But pastors have to translate those findings into real-world missives and advice. That’s the world that moral, pastoral, and spiritual courses in theology explore.

Christian History and Foundations - Much of theology today has been a predictable evolution of the theology of yesterday. Understanding why the church operates as it does today, why the Bible contains the books that it does, and how traditions got to be what they are requires examining the historical record of the Christian church through thousands of years of practice. These classes may also draw in various cultural histories at various points, exploring how the church and society have influenced and shaped one another over the years.

Scripture - Courses in Scripture take you through both Old and New Testaments, but the focus will be less on learning the rote structure of the Word and more on analysis and interpretation. You will learn about the complex process by which today’s Bible was assembled, the various theories on authorship by various prophets, and issues in interpretation. In higher level degrees, you’re very likely to study Hebrew and Greek exegesis, in order to appreciate the text as it was originally written.

Comparative Religions - Christianity is only one formal expression of a nearly universal spiritual impulse. One path to understanding how your faith works is by comparing it to others. So you will almost always have some coursework in global religions, explaining the systems and traditions of Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam to understand relationships and differences with Christianity. Particularly in more advanced theological studies you will find courses exploring even more exotic religions, such as folk religions or belief systems that exist at the boundaries of myth and divinity.

Most theology degrees also include coursework from more secular areas of study that are also invaluable for understanding religion and human behavior. These include classes in:

These offer theology students some powerful tools from the arts and sciences to use in their studies of spirituality.

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Deepen Your Understanding of Christianity through a Comparison of the World’s Great Religions

Man holding holy bible at sideTheology is not always pursued from a Christian worldview. It’s often a broader study of the spiritual impulse and world religions, and it can be approached from the perspective of other faiths… Buddhist theology and Jewish theology are both thriving areas of practice.

For that reason, not all schools that offer theology degrees are Christian schools. You will often find MATS programs offered by secular universities.

While these degrees will cover a lot of the same ground that you would in a Christian theology degree, the perspective will be quite different. Secular theological studies explore systems of belief without holding any belief themselves. Divine inspiration and faith are approached as issues of psychology rather than spirituality.

A theology degree from a secular school can be an excellent education, but it will not offer qualifications toward work in the ministry, or expand your grasp of personal faith and belief in Christ.

Accreditation Helps You Identify Serious Theology Degree Programs

Holy bible gatewayNo matter where you pursue a theology degree, making sure you are getting it from a fully accredited school is important. Accreditors recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education make sure that schools offer a rigor and quality in education that your congregation will expect.

At lower levels, a general accreditation like most American universities hold is probably adequate for theological studies. As you study at higher levels, however, you may want to seek out schools accredited by specialty accreditors such as the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) or the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

With a solid grasp of what religious studies should be, those agencies are trusted by most denominations when it comes to accepting degrees for ordination as a minister.

Online Theology Degrees – Many Christian Colleges are Now Taking Theological Studies Online

As with every other kind of college study in the modern world, Christian theology degrees have kept up with the times by moving increasingly online.

Online programs offer a lot of advantages to students focused on theology at any degree level:

  • Not having to move to be near a college can significantly lower your cost of living while studying
  • Choosing from programs across the country increases your odds of finding one that offers the right fit for your calling
  • Asynchronous classes that can be taken at any time of day leave your lifestyle flexible enough to meet work or family commitments
  • Flexible course loads that can be ratcheted up or down each semester leave you the option of either accelerating or slowing down your studies to match your availability

With modern streaming, learning management platforms, and mobile device support, you can get the same quality of education, or even better, that a traditional classroom might offer you.

How You Can Serve His Glory With a Degree in Christian Theology

The path to enlightenment and true faith requires belief, but also understanding. And understanding is what you get with a degree in Christian theology.

The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.

Theological studies are primarily academic in nature. At the associate and bachelor’s levels, the primary role of a theology degree is to prepare you for going on to pursue more advanced studies. A solid footing for the rigorous demands of a master’s degree in divinity or pastoral studies comes with a four-year program in theology. Or you can go further up the ladder in theology itself, pursuing a master’s degree in the field.

Your options open up with those master’s degrees. In some denominations, they may qualify you to pursue ordination, the process of becoming sanctified as a minister for your church. In other cases, they may build on the training and ordination you have already achieved, broadening your skills and capabilities as a pastor.

Or you can use either doctoral or master’s studies in theology to become an educator or researcher. Sharing your knowledge to help spread the Word and bring Him glory are always a good use of your education.

Personal satisfaction also flows from the deeper understanding that a degree in theology brings you. Whatever role you choose to apply that knowledge to, you’ll have the inner peace that comes through a better comprehension of His plan for you and for all of us.

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