Theology masters programs help curious and driven students try to understand the nature of the divine—or, at least, to understand religious teaching, scholarship, and theories about it. Theology masters programs combine metaphysics and religious philosophy with church teaching, research, and criticism. Potentially offered in applied or academic forms, masters in theology programs may help prepare students for a wide range of professional roles in academic and faith communities. They may also be offered online or in campus-based programs, helping to accommodate a broader range of student schedules, lifestyles, and learning preferences.
Theology is the study of the divine. Masters in theology programs act as a forum for novice or experienced theologians to try to figure out what exactly that means. While it’s true that some masters in theology programs are practice-oriented—meaning they’re designed to help students learn to use their theology expertise to help people in the field—as a subject, it tends to be a little more esoteric. As a result, theology programs tend to be classroom-based (digital or in-person), and centered on helping students become fluent with religious scholarship. To a lesser degree, these programs might also touch on how theological concepts inform religious beliefs and practices. Some may also hone leadership or education skills, which could help to prepare theology students for potential roles as religion teachers, professors, or other church leaders.
So what exactly is the difference between theology and other faith-based master's programs? It mostly has to do with the angle they each take with respect to religious-oriented study. Religious studies masters programs focus on understanding belief systems in themselves, their practices, values, and cultural contexts. Ministry programs look more at the practical skills and knowledge one might use to guide a faith community in a professional capacity. Earning a theology masters degree, meanwhile, involves things like metaphysical and religious philosophy, sacred texts, and other authoritative teachings on the nature of god and the soul. In other words, rather than looking at the structures and systems build up around the idea of god, masters in theology programs prioritize understanding the idea in itself.
In many cases, theology masters programs are associated with specific faith traditions and are offered by religious-affiliated schools. Often, there’s a presupposition of belief that goes along with that. So, for example, if you earn your masters in theology from a program affiliated with a Catholic university, the way your classes approach the concepts is likely to be directly informed by that Catholic perspective. But while many are, they’re not necessarily all Catholic, or even Christian. A wide variety of faith-specific theology programs may be available, across various faith traditions.
Then there’s the level of presumed experience. Some masters in theology programs may be designed primarily for students with a relevant academic or professional background. That could include religious workers, clergy, and those who earned their bachelors degrees in theology or a related field. Programs like that may tend to assume a greater degree of fluency in the general subject area, and as a result spend less time on the basics.
But if that’s not you, don’t worry. Other theology masters programs may be designed for students with bachelors degrees and experience in other unrelated areas. These kinds of programs are likely to spend more time establishing foundational knowledge, while still pursuing masters-level expertise.
Overall, it may be helpful to select a program aligned with your experience level and general familiarity with the subject. If you’re not sure where you fall or the type of student a particular program is designed to help, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.
Several different types of masters in theology programs may be available. Each degree type may indicate a unique approach to the subject or objective in studying it. Below are some of the options you might be considering. Bear in mind that each school might handle these a little differently, so not all programs may match the descriptions below in every way. If you have questions about any of these, reach out to the program in question for more details.
Master of Arts in Theological Studies programs, sometimes abbreviated as MATS programs, address a broad range of academic and professional interests. As such, they vary considerably on a case by case basis. Often, this may depend on the preferences and goals of the school offering the program in question.
In many cases, students enrolling in a program like this might have one of two objectives in mind:
MATS Programs are sometimes considered introductory-level graduate programs. That means that they’re typically open to students with little or no graduate education experience. As such, the prerequisites could vary considerably, ranging from programs aimed at practicing ministers with some expertise, to ones intended to serve lay people with little or no experience or relevant prior education.
Master of Divinity Programs, sometimes abbreviated as M.Div., tend to be offered by seminaries and divinity schools. While individual programs may vary, many Master of Divinity Programs require more courses than MATS programs and therefore take longer to complete. In some Christian denominations, earning a master of divinity may even be a prerequisite to serving as a pastor, being ordained to priesthood, or to serving in other similar capacities. However, that is likely to vary between churches, faiths and traditions, so follow up with your church or seminary for more details if you think this might apply to you.
In most cases, master of divinity programs are professional degrees. That means that they’re practice-oriented, with the goal of using theology expertise to guide others in matters regarding faith and religious practice. As such, some MDiv programs may touch on topics outside the more scholarly aspects of theology. That could include education, liturgical studies, ecclesiology, canon law, and biblical studies.
Because this is a professional degree, the culminating project in MDiv programs may vary. In some cases, students might need to complete a capstone (which may combine intellectual rigor and research skills with practical application), whereas in other programs, there may not be a final project at all.
Master of Theological Studies programs (often abbreviated as MTS programs) are generally academic in nature. That means that they are likely to focus on examining and discussing theology scholarship, performing research, and contributing to the larger body of theological thought. Often, these programs are designed as a platform upon which to launch further study. This may be accomplished by doing a few different things: becoming fluent with influential theological research, teaching and scholarship; and fostering the research skills you’d need in a research-based doctoral program.
Because of the academic nature of this degree, it’s likely that, in order to complete an MTS program, you may need to compose a master’s thesis. A master’s thesis combines the research skills and general subject area knowledge you may have accumulated over the course of the degree program. This project often takes the form of a research paper and/or presentation, and demonstrates your writing abilities and ability to understand and draw conclusions from theological scholarship.
A Master of Theology or ThM is often treated as a post-masters degree. As a result, some programs may require a theology related masters degree (often an MDiv) as a prerequisite to enroll. Students might have a few different reasons for pursing a Master of Theology.
Master of Theology programs emphasize academia and research practice, meaning that students might spend considerable time and energy performing and composing theology research, in addition to discussing it in class. In most cases, Master of Theology programs will also include a thesis component as a prerequisite to graduation.
Depending on the program and how it’s designed, some ThM programs are treated as terminal. At some seminaries and divinity schools, earning a ThM may be the minimum credential required to teach.
Like the Master of Theology, a Master of Sacred Theology or STM program is typically offered in a post-masters capacity, and may either be a bridge between a masters and a doctorate, or a terminal degree. STM Programs are often offered by Roman Catholic universities; however, they may also be found in other Christian traditions. (Within Catholic universities, however, make sure not to confuse it with the honorary STM title bestowed within the Dominican order!)
Like the Master of Theology, STM programs are typically research-focused, and often incorporate a thesis project. This is one reason STM programs may act as a supportive pathway to doctoral programs for some students whose introductory masters programs were less research-heavy.
With multiple potential degree types, and a range of traditions, approaches, and levels of experience, there’s no question that masters in theology programs are diverse. Well, so are the students! Whether you’re already a practicing minister or religion teacher, work full time in another field, or want to dedicate all your time and attention to your studies, your educational needs are unique. That’s why different programs may offer a range of scheduling options and program formats. Below are the two most common options.
In addition to the above, each school offering a theology program may organize it in a unique way, blending some of the qualities of each basic format. For example, theology schools may incorporate online learning and flexible scheduling, and online programs may have campus requirements or allow students to opt into campus study. If you need to know more about how your schools of choice organize their programs and the level of flexibility they offer, reach out to your admissions counselor.
Start searching for masters in theology programs right here. If you already know what format you’d like to attend (online or campus), use the menu to select that option to narrow down your choices. Then review the sponsored program listings. Once you find one that you think might be a solid fit, click on its name to read more and get in touch. Then request more information, schedule a visit, and apply. Good luck!