Theological study and learning go back to the foundation of this university, which is the third oldest university in Scotland. The Foundation Bull, granted by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, states that one of the main purposes of the newly founded university was to provide well-educated clergy for the northern part of the Kingdom of Scotland.
The present Department of Divinity and Religious Studies is derived from three institutions: the original university situated at King's College in Old Aberdeen and founded by William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen; Marischal College, the Presbyterian university, founded after the Reformation by George Keith, Earl Marischal, in 1593; and Christ's College, the modern name for the College founded after the Disruption of 1843 by the Free Church of Scotland for the training of its ministers.
The two ancient universities of King's College and Marischal College were united to form the University of Aberdeen in 1860. Christ's College was linked with the Faculty of Divinity after the Union of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church of Scotland in 1929. Thus the university was in the unique situation of being able to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 1993 and its 500th in 1995!
From the foundation of King's College, the Principal was required to teach theological subjects. The oldest separate Chair of Divinity was founded in Marischal College in 1616, to be followed closely by a similar foundation in King's College in 1620; these Chairs are now assigned to Church History and Systematic Theology, respectively. The Chair of Hebrew and Semitic Languages was founded in King's College in 1673, while the Chair of Biblical Criticism (now New Testament) was founded after the union of 1860, and lately renamed the Kirby Laing Chair in New Testament Exegesis in honour of its major benefactor. A Chair of Practical Theology was established in Christ's College in 1934. The School has also expanded through the establishment of a number of lectureships in all the major areas of study and secured a 6th-Century Chair in Religious Studies. More recently, a Chair in Theological Ethics has been established.
Each of the various traditions has produced notable scholars and theologians, such as John Forbes, George Campbell, William Milligan, William Robertson Smith, David S. Cairns and G.D. Henderson.
The principal role of Christ's College is to oversee the preparation and formation of ministerial candidates for the Church of Scotland. The College collaborates closely with the Department of Divinity and Religious Studies to ensure candidates receive appropriate academic training for the ministry, funding a Teaching Fellowship in Practical Theology, organizing extramural lectures and seminars, and hosting an annual lecture at the beginning of each academic year. In addition, the College maintains the Divinity Library, which serves all undergraduates within the department. It also contributes to the spiritual life of the university.
Working with the Master and administrative staff of the College, the Financial Board administers the various bequests, legacies and funds held by the College, providing financial support to the University in its provision of appropriate courses and library resources; to candidates, especially in emergency situations. The Board also distributes bursaries and prizes to outstanding students through the department's exam board.