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John Dillenberger, authority on Protestantism

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mary Rourke
Los Angeles Times / February 22, 2008

LOS ANGELES - John Dillenberger, a professor of historical theology who was the founding president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and who wrote several books on Protestant Christianity and others on religious themes in art, died Feb. 7 at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He was 89.

The cause was complications from Parkinson's disease, according Michael Bank, a family friend.

In a career of more than 30 years at Graduate Theological Union, Dr. Dillenberger served as president from 1963 to 1972 and acting president in 1999 during a period of transition for the school.

"John was an authority on Protestant Christianity and one of the foremost historians of Martin Luther and John Calvin," James A. Donahue, president of Graduate Theological Union, said.

Along with his scholarship on the development of Protestantism, Dr. Dillenberger explored religious beliefs as expressed in artworks by Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, and various figures in modern art.

Best known books by Dr. Dillenberger include "Protestant Christianity," written with coauthor Claude Welch and published in 1954, and "A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities," published in 1986.

Dr. Dillenberger had progressive views on how to teach and study religion that helped shape the curriculum for Graduate Theological Union.

The school now includes centers for the study of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as courses in the Christian denominations. "John had a vision that scholarship should cut across denominations and religious traditions," Donahue said.

Dr. Dillenberger was born in St. Louis. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Elmhurst College and a bachelor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York. He also earned a doctorate from Columbia University in 1948.

His education was interrupted during World War II while he served as a chaplain in the US Navy.

Dr. Dillenberger's teaching career included four years as an associate professor of religion at Columbia University in the early 1950s followed by four years at Harvard Divinity School. He left Berkeley from 1978 to 1983 to serve as president of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

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