A Doctor of Divinity should not be confused with a Doctor of Theology (ThD), the holder of a research doctorate in theology awarded by universities and divinity schools, such as Duke Divinity School and others. However, many universities award a PhD rather than a ThD to graduates of higher-level religious studies programs. A Doctor of Sacred Theology (STD) holds another research doctorate, in particular awarded by Catholic pontifical universities and faculties. A Doctor of Ministry (DMin) holds another doctorate-level religious degree, which is a professional doctorate rather than a research doctorate.
In the United Kingdom, the degree is a higher doctorate conferred by universities upon a religious scholar of standing and distinction, usually for accomplishments beyond the PhD level. Bishops of the Church of England have traditionally held Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, or Lambeth degrees making them Doctors of Divinity.
Typically, an academic candidate will submit a collection of work which has been previously published in a peer-reviewed context and pay an examination fee. The university then assembles a committee of academics both internal and external who review the work submitted and decide on whether the candidate deserves the doctorate based on the submission. Most universities restrict candidacy to graduates or academic staff of several years' standing.
In the United States, the degree is generally conferred honoris causa by a church-related college, seminary, or university to recognize the recipient's ministry-orientated accomplishments. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. (who received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955) subsequently received honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from the Chicago Theological Seminary (1957), Boston University (1959), Wesleyan College (1964), and Springfield College (1964).Billy Graham (who received honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from The King's College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) was regularly addressed as "Dr. Graham", though his highest earned degree was a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology from Wheaton College.
Under federal law, a 1974 judgement accepted expert opinion that an "Honorary Doctor of Divinity is a strictly religious title with no academic standing. Such titles may be issued by bona fide churches and religious denominations, such as plaintiff [Universal Life Church], so long as their issuance is limited to a course of instruction in the principles of the church or religious denomination". However, under the California Education Code, "an institution owned, controlled, and operated and maintained by a religious organization lawfully operating as a nonprofit religious corporation pursuant to Part 4 (commencing with Section 9110) of Division 2 of Title 1 of the Corporations Code" that offers "instruction... limited to the principles of that religious organization, or to courses offered pursuant to Section 2789 of Business and Professions Code" may confer "degrees and diplomas only in the beliefs and practices of the church, religious denomination, or religious organization" so long as "the diploma or degree is limited to evidence of completion of that education"; institutions "shall not award degrees in any area of physical science", while
any degree or diploma granted under this subdivision shall contain on its face ... a reference to the theological or religious aspect of the degree's subject area ... a degree awarded under this subdivision shall reflect the nature of the degree title, such as "associate of religious studies," "bachelor of religious studies," "master of divinity," or "doctor of divinity."
In a 1976 interview with Morley Safer of the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes, Universal Life Church founder Kirby J. Hensley professed that the church's honorary Doctor of Divinity degree was "...just a little piece of paper. And it ain't worth anything, you know, under God's mighty green Earth--you know what I mean?--as far as value." In 2006, Universal Life Church minister Kevin Andrews advised potential degree recipients not to misrepresent the title as an educational achievement to employers, recommending instead that it would be appropriate to list such credentials "under the heading of Titles, Awards, or Other Achievements" on curricula vitae.
Christopher St. Germain's 1528 book The Doctor and Student describes a dialogue between a Doctor of Divinity and a law student in England containing the grounds of those laws together with questions and cases concerning the equity thereof.