On Tuesday 22 August 2017 the Chancellor of the University of Divinity, Dr Graeme L Blackman AO, conferred the Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) on the Very Reverend Dr John Behr for his exceptional contribution to patristic theological scholarship and demonstrated commitment to building partnerships across the theological world, including with the University of Divinity through St Athanasius College.
The Doctor of Divinity is the highest academic honour the University bestows. It is the oldest award of the University, created in 1910 and first awarded in 1913. The degree was last awarded in 2008 to Professor Gerald O’Collins. The University reserves this award for persons who have made a sustained and distinguished contribution to theological scholarship or to the wider community in the area of religion.
Fr Behr is the former Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, and has also taught at the University of Divinity, where in 2016 his intensive unit in Patristics attracted an exceptionally large enrolment. This was undoubtedly because Fr John has a reputation throughout the world as an engaging speaker, teacher, researcher and educational leader.
His Christian formation began in his native England and continued his education in London and then Oxford, where he completed the Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy, and subsequently the Master of Theology from St Vladimir’s Seminary. These degrees have laid the foundation for his exceptional career as scholar, ecumenist and priest.
Father John began teaching at St Vladimir’s in 1995, becoming Professor of Patristics in 2004. During these years of teaching, he has continued an outstanding research output, including more than fifty articles, on subjects as diverse as ‘The Trinitarian Being of the Church’, ‘Let there be Light: A Byzantine Theology of Light’, and ‘Reading the Fathers Today’.
In addition, he has written and edited books that have enriched the whole church’s appreciation of the early fathers of our faith, with special attention to anthropology, in St Irenaeus, St Athanasius, and St Clement, and then on the Mystery of Christ, and textbooks introducing the Nicaean formation of Christian theology.
In all of this, Father John stands as a teacher and leader in the Orthodox Church, and has worked courageously to reach across some areas of misunderstanding between the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox communities.
In the citation presenting the award Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, one of Father John’s examiners, was quoted as commending him as “without doubt one of the most significant English-speaking Orthodox theologians now working –certainly the most productive and positive in his generation.”
Dr Williams adds that his “major textbooks on the development of pre-Nicene theology and the theology of the Nicene Council itself have established themselves as first class digests of a huge amount of material, …[providing] a good deal more than conventional summaries”.
Following the presentation of the award, Fr Behr gave a graduation address on the place of learning in Christianity. Professor Wendy Mayer, Patristics scholar and Associate Dean for Research at Adelaide Lutheran College (South Australia), presented a critical response to Fr Behr’s address.
Fr Behr’s address can be viewed online: https://youtu.be/U-RUCWW0VSw