An interview with Prof. Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews
The Roundel: Systematic & Historical Theology at St Andrews has been changing. Can you tell us about some of what’s new?
JW: Over the last few years, Systematic & Historical Theology has built closer ties with the interdisciplinary Institutes within the School of Divinity: the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and the Logos Institute. Each of these Institutes runs its own Master’s and PhD programmes, but staff work together closely on research projects, seminar series, and conferences. (The Institute for Bible, Theology and Hermeneutics is a smaller collaboration without own teaching programmes, which has traditionally organized our Scripture and Christian Theology conferences.)
These exchanges have kept the field vibrant and active during the time of transition that followed the death of Prof. John Webster, who was very much at the heart of our work in Systematic & Historical Theology.
During this time, we were also searching for someone of international stature to succeed Prof. Webster in the 1643 Chair in Divinity. I’m happier than I can easily express that Prof. Dr Christoph Schwöbel is taking up that post. I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes by saying that he is perhaps the greatest living theologian in Germany today, who holds the senior chair in Tübingen and has shaped contemporary work within the fields of Systematic and Historical Theology, within the Lutheran church and its ecumenical initiatives, and increasingly within the interdisciplinary spheres that are so important to us.
The Roundel: Yes, we PhDs are very excited about this appointment. When does Prof. Schwöbel arrive, and how much will he be involved in teaching and PhD supervision?
JW: Christoph and his wife Katrin Bosse will be with us from September 2018. Both will be involved in undergraduate teaching in theology and religious studies. But Christoph’s main focus is likely to be the graduate community. He is accepting applications for PhD supervision, and will be co-running the Theology Research Seminar. As you know, we usually read a text or group of texts together in Martinmas term, and have guest speakers in Candlemas term. Next Martinmas, we plan to read Anselm of Canterbury, on whom Christoph has done some very interesting work.
I’m especially glad that Christoph will lead our MLitt in Systematic & Historical Theology. We’ve just informally agreed the programme for next year, and to be honest, I wish I could go back to school and take it.
The Roundel: Are you able to tell us about the programme?
JW: Well, nothing is official until the course catalogue goes to print in March or so, but the plan is to offer a coherent, integrated programme that will give students a secure sense of the architecture and the development of Christian thought. We want to anchor theology in its most basic and enduring form, the reading of Scripture, by beginning with two complimentary half-semester modules: The Origins of Christian Theology (co-taught by T.J. Lang and S. Holmes), which traces the development of theological method and thought from Paul to Nicaea with close attention to primary texts; and The History of Biblical Interpretation (M. Elliott), which focuses on the ways different biblical themes were read through the centuries.
At the same time, we want to give students a rich historical sense of the development of major Christian loci. So in the second half of the first semester, students will take The Doctrine of the Trinity (C. Schwöbel), following developments of that central doctrine from Nicaea to modern times; and in the first half of the second semester, they will examine the development of Christology (C. Schwöbel), particularly in Scholastic and Reformation theology, and again up to modern times.
These thematic modules will be complemented by two modules that encourage the close reading of theological texts, and closer attention to different theological methods, by focusing on single theologians. In the first half of the second semester, students will take A Selected Medieval Theologian: Bonaventure (W. Hyland) and in the second half, A Selected Modern Theologian: C.S. Lewis (J. Wolfe).
Students will be able to substitute some of these for modules from our other programmes, if they’d like to specialize more. But this, we intend to be the standard programme.
The Roundel: C.S. Lewis isn’t often taught in theological programmes, is he?
JW: I don’t know of any other Theology department in the UK that teaches him. But I think he’s an immensely deep and rich theological thinker, and that he’ll be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most important. Although – or maybe because – my main field of research is 20th-century philosophical theology, particularly Martin Heidegger and his circle, I find in Lewis a better conversation partner than in almost any other 20th-century theologian. So I’m very much looking forward to this module. Since our Journal of Inklings Studies has its editorial office here at St Mary’s College, I’ll also be scouting for talent of course.
The Roundel: Some of our graduates are part of the editorial team, aren’t they?
JW: Yes, exactly.
The Roundel: You’ve mentioned modules, but no dissertation. There is one though, right?
JW: Yes, sorry, I got distracted by Lewis. The capstone of the programme is a dissertation of about 15,000 words – that’s 50-60 pages double-spaced – on a research topic of the student’s choice, under the supervision of a member of staff. Most of the dissertation work is done after coursework finishes, so between May and August. Of course students are encouraged to start discussing and reading things earlier.
The dissertation is intended equally for those who are applying to move up to the PhD (which, as you know, is entirely dissertation-based) and for those who take the MLitt as a free-standing degree or for professional development. Those who are preparing for PhD work can try out a topic to test its potential for a longer project – or they can get something out of their system that they don’t think they’ll want to work on again, but would like to try their hand at. Those who take the the MLitt as a standalone degree often come with particular questions or challenges, and the dissertation gives them the chance to spend a significant amount of time on that question with an academic guide and conversation partner.
The Roundel: In the Roundel, where the PhDs work, tensions usually run high in March, just before the first-years submit their probationary review papers. I remember the MLitts feeling that way in early August. It usually seems to turn out alright….
You said you wish you could take the MLitt yourself?
JW: I often think it’s a shame that we academics can’t do more coursework – in fact, to be honest, many of the conferences I organize, I intend as sort of surrogate classwork for myself. But I said it about this MLitt in particular because I think it does something that’s hard to find nowadays. Increasingly, I think, undergraduate degrees in theology and religion offer so much choice that students get a really good sense of particular themes, theories or loci, but often come out of their degree without a secure grasp of the overall coherence or interrelatedness of Christian thought, or of its complex historical development. That’s exactly what we’re hoping to provide: both the knowledge and the tools to receive, integrate and innovate. And I’d love to take classes with Christoph, or Bill, or the others.
The Roundel: That does sound great. Where can folk get more information if they’re interested?
JW: All the official information is on the University of St Andrews’ postgraduate course pages. There’s additional, more informal information on the MLitt page of Systematic & Historical Theology’s WordPress site. And of course people are welcome to email any of us staff.
The Roundel: We students are also happy to talk to folk who are interested in coming. I think all our profiles are on the WordPress site.
JW: Yes, both current PhDs and current MLitts are listed at https://theology.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/people/students/. Thanks for that offer.
The Roundel: Pleasure. Thank you very much for your time; this is all very exciting.
JW: Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about it.