Marilyn McCord Adams, 1943-2017

First female Regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford remembered

April 13, 2017
Marilyn McCord Adams

One of the most distinguished theologians of her generation has died.

Marilyn McCord Adams was born in October 1943 in Oak Park, Illinois, and grew up in the same state before majoring in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1961-64). She went on to a PhD in philosophy at Cornell University (1964-67).

After a short period as an instructor in philosophy at SUNY College at Cortland (1967-68), Professor Adams became assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan (1968-72), associate professor (1972-78) and then full professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (1978-93). Although she had already acquired two master’s degrees in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, it was partly because of her work with Aids patients in Hollywood that she decided to become ordained into the Episcopal priesthood. She would always remain an outspoken advocate for the full recognition of same-sex relationships.

Shifting her disciplinary affiliation, Professor Adams became professor of historical theology at Yale Divinity School in 1993, a post that she held for two decades. She was the first woman and the first American to serve as Regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford (2004-09) before returning to the US to work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2009-13) and, finally, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

A leading authority on medieval theology, Professor Adams published a definitive two-volume study of William Ockham (1987) and Some Later Medieval Theories of the Eucharist: Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, Duns Scotus, and William Ockham (2010). She also made major contributions to debates about “the problem of evil”, how a just God can permit cruelty and suffering: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (1999) and Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (2006).

Jane Shaw, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, described Professor Adams as “one of the most brilliant and distinguished philosophers and theologians of her generation” as well as “a loyal and true friend”.

“Giving Marilyn a piece of work to read,” Professor Shaw said, “was daunting – she had such a huge intellect – but she was always both generous and rigorous in giving comments and, when you got over the amount of red ink on the page, you knew that your work was going to be infinitely better for Marilyn’s incisive and brilliant criticism. She cared profoundly about the life of the mind, but she was also deeply humane and funny – and a great cook and a wonderful host.”

Professor Adams died on 22 March and is survived by her husband of five decades, fellow philosopher Robert Merrihew Adams.

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