20 Of The Most Influential Living Scholars of Faith

The path to a Doctor of Divinity (or Theology, or Ministry) can be a twisty, unlikely one; people begin in one place, and find themselves in a very different destination over the course of a career. A scientist may find himself a priest, or a theology professor may find himself a Friend of Darwin; a writer of fiction may find herself a leading apologist for faith, and a Catholic theologian may find herself at odds with the highest levels of the Church.

Today, online Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Theology programs are so common, a person who decides later in their life to turn to a religious vocation doesn’t even have to leave their current careers to earn a doctoral degree. Many of the men and women profiled in the Top 15 Most Influential Doctors of Divinity, however, had to make major sacrifices to pursue their mission and stand by their convictions. No matter the time or place, however, a principled, unpopular stand always requires courage.

Online PhD Programs is highlighting some of the most influential living doctors of ministry, theology, and religion in the US and elsewhere. Not every person on this list necessarily has a Doctor of Ministry, a Doctor of Theology, or a PhD in Theology; some began their careers in a different place, and have doctoral degrees in other fields. However, each of the world-renowned individuals profiled here has dedicated their lives to exploring and sharing their own unique perspectives on the divine, and that makes them Doctors Divine in our book.

1. Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926)

One of the most important Reformed theologians of the 20th century, Jürgen Moltmann is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. He received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 1952, and began his work developing a powerful “Kingdom of God” liberation theology arguing that God suffers with humanity, while also promising humanity a better future through the hope of the Resurrection. His most controversial idea, in theological terms, is the idea that God not only suffered, but died as Jesus on the cross. While Motlmann has been criticized by more conservative theologians as a non-Trinitarian, his theology is rooted in his own experienced; drafted into the German army in 1944, Moltmann surrendered to the first British soldier he met rather than fight, and spent years as a prisoner of war where he was exposed to Christian belief. As he insists, he did not find God; God found him.

2. Douglas John Hall (b. 1928)

Douglas John Hall – 90 years young – is an unlikely candidate for one of the most controversial theologians of his time, but his Reformed theology rebuking fundamentalism and oppression has been tremendously influential across denominations. Emeritus Professor of Theology at McGill University, and minister in the United Church of Canada, Hall earned his Doctor of Theology degree in 1963 from Union Theological Seminary and has written more than 24 works; these include a 3-volume systematic theology, and his most recent books, Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” (2012), and What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in “Negative” Theology (2013). Hall teaches that Christianity must reach out to both the secular world, and other faith communities to work for “peace, justice, and the integrity of creation.”

3. Martin E. Marty (b. 1928)

Martin E. Marty is not a Marvel comics character, however much his name may sound like it, but a respected Lutheran pastor and scholar. Earning his PhD from the University of Chicago, Marty served as a Lutheran pastor before returning, in 1963, to the University of Chicago as a professor in the renowned UC School of Divinity. In his theological and religious writings – a book for every year of his career – Marty has argued for pluralism and civility, arguing that a just society depends on tolerance and respect. His best-known book, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (1972), is a history of Christianity’s influence on American culture.

4. John Polkinghorne (b.1930)

One of the most important figures in 20th century Christian thought, John Polkinghorne has worked for decades to unite science and religion. Polkinghorne has been the ideal candidate, because of his expertise in both fields; earning his PhD in Physics in 1955, he began a career of more than 20 years in academia, working as a mathematical physicist before retiring from Cambridge University in 1979 to study for the Anglican priesthood. Since becoming ordained in 1982, Polkinghorne has written and spoken extensively about humankind’s ability to discover the workings of the universe, as well as the ethical and moral responsibilities that human knowledge demands. Polkinghorne has written five books on physics, and more than 25 on science and religion.

5. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)

One of the 20th century’s most significant Biblical scholars, Walter Brueggemann is a central figure in progressive Christianity, having spent his career advocating for the church’s role in fighting injustice, nationalism, and consumer culture. Brueggemann’s scholarship in Old Testament prophecy (stemming from his ThD from Union Theological Seminary, and PhD from Saint Louis University) informs his work in social justice, arguing that Biblical tradition is rooted in prophets demanding ethical treatment of the poor and oppressed. The author of more than 50 books, Brueggeman has also been a media presence in documentaries. Brueggemann has also generated controversy by arguing that support for Israel, and justice for Palestine, are compatible goals.

6. John Dominic Crossan (b. 1934)

An Irish-American scholar and former priest, John Dominic Crossan earned his Doctor of Divinity in 1959 at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the Irish national seminary. A scholar of the New Testament and historian of early Christianity, Crossan’s work as a researcher and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar elicited controversy in the 1980s and 1990s, but has since proven highly influential. Crossan has long argued for a non-eschatological view of Jesus, portraying Jesus as a healer and wise man who taught a message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and liberation, and asserting that Jesus’s divinity was strictly metaphorical. Since his retirement from DePaul University in 1995, Crossan has continued to write and publish, including his most recent works, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus (2012) and How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (2015).

7. Matthew Fox (b. 1940)

An influential American priest and theologian, Matthew Fox was an early advocate for the movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality, which combines medieval mysticism with global spiritual traditions including Buddhism, Sufism, and Native American tradition. Educated in the Aquinas Institute of Philosophy and Theology, and a doctorate of spiritual theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris, Fox was forced out of the Catholic church by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) for his heretical views, such as his rejection of original sin and his feminist theology. Fox became an Episcopal priest in 1994 and founded the University of Creation Spirituality in 1996. In 2005, Fox publicly nailed a new 95 Theses to the door of the All Saint’s Church of Wittenberg, calling for a new Reformation of Christianity. Fox’s ecumenical teachings, and his emphasis on environmental and ecological responsibility, have made Fox welcome in New Age circles as well as Christian.

8. Elizabeth Johnson (b. 1941)

A feminist Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson has the distinction of being the first woman to earn a PhD in Theology (1981) from the Catholic University of America, the United States’ national Catholic university and the only one founded by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Johnson achieved national attention when that same board issued an evaluation of her book, Quest for a Living God (2007), that deemed her book theologically un-Catholic, but stopped short of a ban. Johnson has made waves in Catholicism with her advocacy for greater leadership roles for women, and considers her theology in line with the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged the Church to end sexual, racial, and cultural discrimination.

9. John F. Haught (b. 1942)

A Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University, John F. Haught has been one of the leading American proponents of science and Christianity in his influential career. Earning his PhD in Theology from the Catholic University of America in 1968, with a speciality in Catholic theology, Haught became especially prominent during the so-called Culture Wars of the 1990s, advocating for the compatibility of evolutionary science and Christian religion. Haught’s 14 books have centered on evolution, ecology, and cosmology in relation to religion. In 2005 Haught received the “Friend of Darwin” Award from the National Center for Science Education for his testimony in favor of the teaching of evolution in the infamous Harrisburg, PA, Intelligent Design Trial.

10. Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943)

American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson doesn’t have a Doctor of Divinity, or Theology, or Ministry, but in her writing she has emerged as one of the era’s most insightful and beloved apologists for Christian faith. Earning her PhD in English at the University of Washington in 1977, Robinson was a professor in the prestigious MFA program at University of Iowa and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for 25 years before retiring in 2016. Her novels set in the town of Gilead, Iowa, beginning with Gilead in 2004, have poignantly addressed faith, family, and humanity. Robinson’s essays on Christianity, including The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010), have brought her recognition as an important voice in American faith. Robinson was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012.

11. N.T. Wright (b. 1948)

One of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright is known for his idiosyncratic theology, which has brought him criticism from both conservative and progressive wings of English and American Christianity. Earning a Doctor of Divinity and DPhil from Oxford University, Wright served as Bishop of Durham for seven years. Though his work criticizes the popular idea of a literal rapture and life after death, Wright has also conflicted with the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, arguing for the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event, rather than a metaphor (as the Seminar concludes). Similarly, Wright has been praised for his egalitarian view of women in ministry, and criticized for his refusal to recognize same-sex marriage or ordination for gay priests and bishops.

12. Tony Evans (b. 1949)

Tony Evans is an author, pastor, and radio and television host, with a syndicated radio show, “The Alternative with Dr. Tony Evans,” broadcast in more than 1200 outlets. Born in Baltimore, MD, Evans was the first African American to earn a doctorate in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the most influential seminaries in the US, and went on to become the founder and president of The Urban Alternative, a national organization focused on Christian ministry. In addition to building the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship from 10 people in his home to a 9500-member church, Evans is the former chaplain for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, and the current chaplain of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

13. Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes (b. 1955)

The current dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, one of the most prestigious divinity schools in the nation, the Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes is a pioneer in womanist theology and an outspoken activist in health care and economic justice. Formerly the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African-American Religion and theology at Yale University Divinity School, Townes was only the 4th black woman to be tenured in Yale’s history. This native of Durham, NC, earned her doctorate in ministry from the University of Chicago in 1982, and her PhD from Northwestern in 1989. Townes’ books include Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, and Townes courageously continues her research on women and health in the African diaspora in Brazil and the United States.

14. Greg Boyd (b. 1957)

The Senior Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN, Greg Boyd is one of the most respected leaders of the neo-Anabaptists, a Christian pacifist movement rooted in the historical resistance of the Anabaptist denomination. Boy earned an MDiv from Yale Divinity School in 1982, and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, spending 16 years as a professor at Bethel University. After resigning his professorship over a dispute concerning the idea of “open theism,” which he advocated (the idea, essentially, that God is does not exert complete control over the universe), Boyd founded the Woodland Hills Church. His best-known books, Letters from a Skeptic (1994) and The Myth of a Christian Nation (2007), has endeared him to progressive Christianity, and earned him a 2006 New York Times cover story about battling fundamentalism.

15. Diana Butler Bass (b. 1959)

One of the most prominent voices in progressive Christianity, including the Sojourners organization and the Red Letter Christian movement, Diana Butler Bass earned a PhD in religious studies from Duke University in 1991. Butler served for many years as a college professor, including UC Santa Barbara, Rhodes College, and Virginia Theological Seminary, before becoming an independent scholar. Bass has become one of the best-known popular commentators on American religion, including the God’s Politics blog at Beliefnet (with Sojourners founder Jim Wallis) and numerous books. Her spiritual memoir, Strength for the Journey (2004), records her growing dissatisfaction with conservative evangelical religion through profiles of 8 congregations she joined over 20 years. She is now a member of the Episcopal Church.

16. Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll (b. 1970)

The Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll has made his name in recent years as one of the foremost proponents of Christian environmentalism. A native of Oakland, CA, Carroll earned his MDiv from the Morehouse School of Religion and his Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary. A noted pastor, Carroll has received national attention for his Renewal Worship Center, the first “green” church in America, and for his Green the Church campaign. Drawing on the African-American heritage of diaspora and husbandry, and the current crises of food security and environmental justice in black communities, Carroll calls for African-American churches to lead the way in caring for God’s creation, and for the health of their people and communities. Carroll has been a contributor to publications like the Huffington Post.

17. Lauren Winner (b.1976)

An American historian, author, and lecturer, Lauren Winner has a unique and complex perspective on American Christianity. An Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School, Winner earned a PhD from Columbia University in 2006 and an MDiv from Duke in 2007, and has written numerous books on American religion and her own religious journey. Born to a Jewish father and Baptist mother, Winner converted to Orthodox Judaism in college, then to Christianity in graduate school, and was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2011. Two memoirs, Girl Meets God (2002) and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (2012) have documented faith in her life, while other books have discussed unconventional approaches to spiritual life.

18. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Ph.D. (b. 1977)

Activist-scholar Robyn Henderson-Espinoza has become one of the most respected leaders of the Christian social justice movement and a prominent public theologian, ethicist, and conscience. Identifying as a non-binary, transgender Latinx, Henderson-Espinoza earned their PhD in Constructive Philosophical Theology from the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology. Their work is focused on uniting social justice movements, academic theology, and churches to work together for racial, economic, and gender justice. Henderson-Espinoza is the public theologian in residence at the Faith Matters Network, and rose to national prominence with their ministry after the Charlottesville riots. Raising their voice against the normalization of white nationalism, Henderson-Espinoza has become an inspiration to a new generation of Christian world-changers.

19. Jemar Tisby

One of the most prominent new voices in the cultural conversation, Jemar Tisby isn’t a doctor yet – he’s currently earning his PhD in History from the University of Mississippi. His list of accomplishments, however, is already long, and growing: graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he also worked in campus ministry; co-founder the Reformed African American Network (RAAN); president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective; co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. Tisby has already established a national reputation for speaking and writing truth to power, covering race, religion, and culture with eloquence and authority. In addition to posts on his personal blog, Tisby’s writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and more. His Twitter game is on point, too.

20. Dorothee Steffensky-Sölle (1929-2003)

Dorothee Steffensky-Sölle is not included in the main list simply because she is not an influential living doctor, having passed in 2003. She is, however, well worth mentioning, since her career was the model of the modern activist religious teacher. Sölle studied theology, philosophy, and literature at the University of Cologne, where she earned a doctorate with a thesis on the connections between theology and poetry. She taught briefly other places before returning to Cologne as a university lecturer, developing her unique brand of liberation theology; among other accomplishments, Sölle coined the term “Christofascism” to describe the totalitarian impulses she observe in contemporary Christianity. As a political activist, Sölle spoke out against the Vietnam War, the arms race of the Cold War and the injustices in the developing world.

Some of Sölle’s provocative statements remain relevant, and could be seen as controversial, even today, a decade and a half after her passing:

“The Third World is a permanent Auschwitz.”
“Every theological statement must be a political statement as well.”
“God has no hands except from our hands.”
“We should eat more at the Eucharist and we should pray more when eating.”