Theologian led seminary at Berkeley

Times Staff Writer

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

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

In a career of more than 30 years at Graduate Theological Union, Dillenberger served as president from 1963 to 1972 and acting president for one year in 1999 during a period of transition for the school. He also served as acting director of the library for one year in 1997 during a renovation and reorganization. He continued teaching at the school as time allowed, through the 1970s.

"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 Monday, referring to the key figures of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

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

He helped establish a program for the study of religion and art at Graduate Theological Union.

His books reflect his dual interests. Best-known works by Dillenberger include "Protestant Christianity" with Claude Welch, published in 1954, and "A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities," published in 1986.

He had progressive views on how to teach and study religion that helped shape the curriculum for Graduate Theological Union. "GTU was formed to allow an interdenominational and inter-religious approach to the study of religion," Donahue said.

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.

Dillenberger was born July 11, 1918, 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 City.

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 U.S. Navy.

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 also taught at Drew University in New Jersey before joining Graduate Theological Union.

He left Berkeley from 1978 to 1983 to serve as president of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He returned to Berkeley and soon afterward was made an emeritus professor at Graduate Theological Union.

Dillenberger was married three times. His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Jean; sons Eric and Paul from his first marriage; stepdaughter Tsan Abrahamson from his third marriage; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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