Master of Theology vs. Master of Divinity: Which Degree is Right For You?
To many lay people, a Master of Theological Studies and a Master of Divinity might sound too similar to make a distinction. However, the choice between the two can take significant consideration and self-reflection, since each degree prepares candidates for very different career paths.
If you have considered either an MTS or MDiv, you have likely been guided by faith. A calling to pursue either degree speaks to a deep curiosity and dedication to learning more about your faith, and how it can manifest in both your personal and professional life.
Theology & Divinity Defined
First, we need to be clear on what we mean by “theology” and “divinity.”
Theology is the study of God and religion, while divinity is the nature of God and all divine entities. While these words are often used in the same conversation, it’s important to acknowledge that, in academia, these words refer to two entirely different types of master’s degrees with different learning outcomes.
In a Master of Theological Studies program:
- Students learn about the history, literature, traditions, expression of worship, languages, and art of a specific religion, as well as the precise beliefs of its followers.
- Instruction and learning occur within the context of the religion being studied.
- Instructors prioritize and encourage a philosophical examination of faith.
- Questioning the divine nature and existence of God is common and even encouraged.
Meanwhile, a Master of Divinity program:
- Can explore more than one religion.
- Focuses on the ministerial arts, or the practical aspects of church leadership.
- Prepares some to enter ordained ministry in a particular faith.
- Often includes a practical or field component related to the degree candidate’s intended career path.
The choice of degree program depends entirely upon the candidate’s desired outcome.
What Is a Master of Theological Studies?
Also called a Master of Theology, a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) program is designed for those who want to explore their faith from an academic or philosophical perspective. Though courses can cover multiple religions, the program is usually delivered through the lens of one guiding religion, which informs all course content. Therefore, those who identify with the program’s guiding faith will likely feel most at home in the program.
Courses cover the study of a primary religion — from its specific beliefs, traditions, and worship practices to its art, literature, languages, and place in world history. Students are asked to consider this religion’s impact on the global community and how it manifests in the context of modern society.
Some MTS programs offer specialties like liturgy, ethics, Biblical studies, or history. Many MTS graduates go on to teaching careers, so programs will often place emphasis on students’ ability to relay the content they are learning to others. In fact, an MTS degree is usually required to teach religion at the elementary, secondary, and community college levels.
While anyone with a dedicated interest in religion can enter an MTS program, those with a background (such as a bachelor’s degree) in philosophy, history, or prior faith studies will have ideal preparation. Those with strong writing, critical thinking, and analytical skills thrive in the field of theology.
MTS programs are usually furnished by graduate schools of divinity or a university’s humanities department. An MTS typically takes two years to complete on a full-time course schedule. Graduates may continue their studies in a doctorate program, especially if they wish to teach at the university level.
What Is a Master of Divinity?
A Master of Divinity, or MDiv, is the most common academic degree held by those who practice Christian ministry in North America. With a more practical approach to religion than an MTS, an MDiv prepares graduates to enter positions of leadership in a church. Courses cover areas like Biblical interpretation, ministerial arts, spiritual counseling, and religious ethics. Furnished by seminaries or university schools of divinity, MDiv programs are almost exclusively built around the Christian faith and its denominations, though people of any faith can earn the degree.
Since it is a practical degree, students are often required to complete a supervised fieldwork component or temporary placement in a parish. Other placements include chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons, schools, faith-based nonprofits, or outreach organizations.
At three years on a full-time schedule, an MDiv takes a little longer to complete than an MTS. Applicants must show that they have an active relationship with their Church, and are encouraged to continue this relationship throughout their studies (some parishes will even help MDiv students pay for their program). Applicants also must understand that graduation does not guarantee or equal ordination, which is a separate process of approval to enter the clergy.
Upon graduation, MDiv holders can pursue ordination by their church or a doctoral degree to teach religion or theology at a university.
MDiv vs. MTS: Key Similarities
While they may lead to different careers and support different goals, there are quite a few similarities between a Master of Theological Studies and Master of Divinity.
- Programs usually focus on Christianity or one of its denominations.
- Both place strong emphasis on belief and faith commitment.
- Both programs are frequently designed around one guiding religion or charism.
- Both prepare graduates to bring an element of faith, however prominent, into their personal and professional lives.
- Courses cover the fundamentals of faith, religious ethics, liturgy, history, and sometimes ecclesiology (church structure).
- Either degree program can prepare graduates to teach at the secondary school level, though a doctorate is required to teach at the university level.
- There is some overlap in potential faith-based careers for graduates, including chaplaincy, religious education, counseling, or community ministry, as well as unlimited secular professions.
- Depending on the school or program objective, courses for either degree can encompass doctrinal, historical, or textual content.
- Both include a terminal project requirement for graduation: a capstone project for an MDiv and a thesis for an MTS.
During the application process, both programs require:
- Letters of recommendation that speak to the applicant’s faith commitment.
- An essay component that explains the applicant’s “why” and demonstrates their writing and communication skills.
- Proof of a bachelor’s degree, preferably in philosophy, religious studies, or similar.
MDiv vs. MTS: Key Differences
It’s important that applicants know the differences between an MTS and an MDiv, especially if they don’t intend to enter the clergy or religious life.
These differences may not apply to all programs or schools, so applicants should always research the programs that interest them to make sure they meet their preferences.
Degree Comparison: Master of Theological Studies vs. Master of Divinity
See the chart below for a side-by-side summary of the characteristics of both programs.
Selecting a Degree: 8 Questions to Consider
If you are drawn to a degree that requires a deep examination of religion, chances are you have spent considerable time meditating on your own relationship to faith. Wherever you are in your faith journey, it’s important to reflect on a number of questions that can impact your overall decision.
Questions can range from practical…
- What do I want to do after I earn this degree?
- What am I naturally good at?
- Which program requirements apply to me?
- How much time and money can I commit to a degree program?
- Do I have a vocational calling? (i.e. to religious life, marriage, the priesthood, etc.)
- Do my studies need to align with my personal beliefs?
- Am I prepared to have my beliefs challenged?
- What kind of difference do I want to make in my community or the world?
Spiritual alignment aside, be sure to examine the following aspects of each program, seminary, or graduate school you consider:
- The quality and experience of faculty members
- Faculty availability and investment in students’ success
- Alumni experiences and testimonials
- School and program standing as compared to similar programs
- The school’s accreditation status
- The school’s history
- Class accessibility — is there a format or schedule that will work best for you? (i.e. online, part-time, full-time, on campus)
- Available curriculum specializations
FAQs About Theology & Divinity Degrees
What’s the difference between a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theological Studies?
While there are many similarities, a Master of Divinity is the most common degree sought by those who wish to enter active ministry, while the Master of Theological Studies is a purely academic degree. Graduates with an MDiv may seek ordination to enter the clergy, while MTS graduates often go on to teach or commit to further study.
Should I get a degree in divinity or theology?
It all depends on your career or personal goals. If you intend to seek ordination and join the clergy, you will need a Master of Divinity. If you are interested in examining faith from an intellectual, historical, or philosophical perspective but don’t necessarily desire a career in church leadership, a Master of Theological Studies may be more appropriate.
How long does a Master of Divinity program take to complete?
A Master of Divinity typically takes three years to complete on a full-time schedule. This timeline can vary based on the school, program specializations, or class schedules.
I’ve made my decision between an MDiv and MTS. What’s next?
Now it’s time to compare schools and programs that align with your values and will help you achieve your goals. Consider the quality, experience, and availability of the faculty; the faith tradition in which the program or school is based; where alumni are now; class format flexibility; any professional or religious networks the school may be affiliated with; and the overall cost of the program.
What is ATS accreditation?
The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is the accrediting body for North American theology schools. Schools apply for membership through ATS, after which the ATS Commission on Accrediting will determine whether the school’s curriculum meets the standard academic requirements.
Can lay people earn a Master of Divinity?
Yes, lay people — those who do not intend to seek ordination — can earn an MDiv, though it is much less common than an MTS. MDiv programs last an additional year and place much more practical emphasis on religious and church leadership. It’s important that lay men and women have clarity on their goals and limitations in an MDiv program, and understand the required commitments.
Do I need to learn other languages for a Master of Theology?
In many MTS programs, there is a foreign language requirement. Students may be asked to read and translate Scripture in ancient or dead languages, including Classical Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. There is no standard language requirement to earn an MDiv.
What prior experience do I need for a Master of Divinity program?
While people enter MDiv programs from all walks of life, those who have an academic foundation in religion or philosophy will have ideal preparation. Likewise, an active and healthy relationship with their church will give MDiv students a firm context for their studies.
Tuition and fees vary based on the school and program format, but a Master of Divinity degree can cost anywhere from just under $6,000 a year (Luther Rice College & Seminary, Liberty University) to over $35,000 (Harvard Divinity School).
Additional Degrees to Consider
If you don’t feel as though an MTS or MDiv quite match your goals, there is a range of other programs that offer a deep exploration of faith:
- Master of Arts: Also called a Master of Ministry or Master of Ministerial Arts, this type of program takes a broad, academic approach to subjects including theology, Bible study and interpretation, and communications. This can be an academically rigorous program that prepares graduates to work in religious education and formation, while not necessarily providing church leadership training.
- Online Master of Theological Studies/Master of Divinity: If you find the perfect program but it’s outside your geographic preferences, you may want to consider an all-online MTS or MDiv program. Participants receive the same curriculum and instruction as on-campus students, with the added benefit of scheduling flexibility.
- Religious Studies: Religious studies is a multidisciplinary approach to examining the role religion has played in societies throughout human history. In general, religious studies takes an objective approach to world religions and faith traditions, without instructing through the lens of one religion. Religious studies degrees are offered at the baccalaureate, graduate, and community college level.
- Bible Studies: Like religious studies, Bible studies degrees are offered at all levels of higher education. Programs focus solely on Christian doctrines, with an emphasis on textual analysis and interpretation.
Which Degree is Right For You?
Whether or not you have clarity on your choice of degree, it can always help to an alumni or current faculty at schools you have your eye on. Those who have the most familiarity with the programs you’re considering can answer your questions, offer advice, and speak to their own goals going into the program.
If you feel a calling to explore your faith on a deeper level, consider the programs offered by the Francsican School of Theology. Built on a foundational tradition of joy, compassion, and solidarity, FST welcomes anyone who wishes to examine their faith in a world-class academic environment, whether that’s on campus or online.
No matter your calling, our enrollment advisors are open and available to answer any questions, big or small. If you would like to speak with an alumni or current student, please visit our Contact Us page.