Theology is literally rational discourse concerning God (Greek θεος, theos, “God”, + λογος, logos, “rational discourse”). By extension, it also refers to the study of other religious topics.
History of the term
The term theologia is used in Classical Greek literature, with the meaning “discourse on the Gods or cosmology” (see Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon for references). Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematice, phusike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which for Aristotle included discussion of the nature of the divine.
Drawing on Greek sources, the Latin writer Varro influentially distinguished three forms of such discourse: mythical (concerning the myths of the Greek gods), rational (philosophical analysis of the gods and of cosmology) and civil (concerning the rites and duties of public religious observance).
The term was taken up by Christian writers. It appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalupsis ioannou tou theologou, “the revelation of John the theologos“. There, however, we are probably dealing with a slightly different sense of the root logos, to mean not “rational discourse” but “word” or “message”: ho theologos here is probably meant to tell us that the author of Revelation has presented God’s revealed messages – words of God, logoi tou theou – not that he was a “theologian” in the modern English sense of the word.
Other Christian writers used the term with several different ranges of meaning.
- Some Latin authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine followed Varro’s threefold usage, described above.
- In patristic Greek sources, theologia could refer narrowly to the discussion of the nature and attributes of God.
- In other patristic Greek sources, theologia could also refer narrowly to the discussion of the attribution of divine nature to Jesus. (It is in this sense that Gregory Nazianzus was nicknamed “the theologian”: he was a staunch defender of the divinity of Christ.)
- In medieval Greek and Latin sources, theologia (in the sense of “an account or record of the ways of God”) could refer simply to the Bible.
- In scholastic Latin sources, the term came to denote the rational study of the doctrines of the Christian religion, or (more precisely) the academic discipline which investigated the coherence and implications of the language and claims of the Bible and of the theological tradition (the latter often as represented in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a book of extracts from the Church Fathers).
It is the last of these senses which lies behind most modern uses (though the second is also found in some academic and ecclesiastical contexts), and while the term “theology” can refer to any discussion of the nature of God or the gods, or indeed the discussion of any religious topic, it is also regularly used to denote the academic study (in Universities, seminaries and elsewhere) of the doctrines of Christianity, or of any other religion, or of the relationships and contrasts between various different religions, although the latter is a field more usually termed “comparative religion.”
Theology and religions other than Christianity
In academic theological circles, there is some debate as to whether “theology” is an activity peculiar to the Christian religion. It is seen by some to be a term appropriate to a religion which is significantly organised around complexes of belief – a religion focused on certain doctrines which invite rational investigation and testing – particularly beliefs or doctrines concerning a deity (a theos) – and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts which are organized or perceived differently. So, for instance, some academic courses on Buddhism which are dedicated to the rational investigation of a Buddhist understanding of the world prefer the designation “Buddhist philosophy” to the term “Buddhist theology”. Others have argued that, say, in Islam, theological discussion which parallels Christian theological discussion has, in the modern period, been a minor activity, and that the Islamic analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law.
Theology and the philosophy of religion
Theology generally assumes the truth of at least some religious beliefs and is therefore often distinguished from the philosophy of religion, which does not presume the truth of any religious beliefs.
Drawing on the work of the American theologian Hans Frei, we may describe the relationship between theology and the philosophy of religion in the following way. At one end of the spectrum we find discussions of religious phenomena and religious claims which seek to explain those phenomena and claims entirely within the terms of some secular discipline (such as psychology or social anthropology), without regard to the view which the practitioners of the religion in question would have of those phenomena or claims (except insofar as those views are symptoms which the investigator is seeking to explain). At the other end of the spectrum we have discussions of these phenomena and claims which seek to work entirely within the religious practitioners’ own terms, investigating the internal structures of a particular religious worldview. Between these two extremes are any number of forms of theological inquiry which look for some kind of correlation between these two forms of description – and this is as true of conservative theological approaches as it is of liberal approaches. (For instance, a conservative theologian will tend to correlate the claims they find in their religious scriptures about particular events in the past with the kind of description of the past allowed by historical criticism, arguing at least for compatibility between the two descriptions and possibly for some stronger relationship. A liberal theologian might be more interested in, say, exploring the correlation between the religion’s ethical claims and the ideas of some secular philosophy like existentialism.) Forms of correlational discussion will differ, however, according to whether they give priority to the secular discourse or to the internal religious description: which is allowed to set the agenda, which is allowed to over-rule the other, and so on. The term “theology” can be used to denote any of these forms of correlational discourse, as well as the extreme which restricts itself to religious self-description; the term “philosophy of religion” will be used both for the opposite extreme and for many of the correlational forms of discourse; it is, however, more likely to be restricted to forms of correlation which give some form of priority to the secular discourse.
To the extent that theology relies upon the religious practitioners’ own terms, it is likely to be explored by those who have some kind of commitment to those terms: i.e., by those who are either practitioners of the religion, or sympathisers. This is not, however, to say that one must have religious belief in order to be a theologian: some undertake it simply in order better to understand a religion’s structure and implications, or as a form of thought experiment – though the further one moves from the “philosophy of religion” end of the spectrum to the “theology” end, the rarer non-practitioners become.
Theology and transformation
In Eastern Christianity, there is more emphasis on prayer than on intellectual thought and study as a means to learn about God, and so as the proper form of “theology”. Many of the early church fathers described the theologian as a person who “truly prays.”
Similarly, some other Christians, and some practitioners of other theistic religions, believe that to study God without any kind of relationship or desire for relationship with God is almost meaningless, as they believe that it is only in such a relationship that one finds an encounter with God sufficient to allow the testing and refining of claims about God. As the discussion above suggests, however, others would argue that one can engage with issues in terms of notions around “God” as an exercise in history, anthropology, and/or sociology, yet not have any desire for engagement in terms of the personal God offered in terms of certain forms of religion.
More generally, however, many theologians consider that, because the topics considered in theology touch on the theologians’ deepest commitments and beliefs, it is impossible to study theology with complete detachment: the study of theology is “self-involving” in a way that makes some kinds of objectivity difficult. The study of theology, such theologians argue, is (if undertaken seriously and with an open mind) likely to lead to personal transformation of some sort – although that transformation might take many different forms.
Divisions of theology
Theology can be divided up in any number of ways. Many of these divisions have originated in the study of the Christian religion, although some have been adapted and extended to apply to other religions, or to the study of multiple religions.
Theology can be divided up into academic subdisciplines, often into some division like this:
- Biblical Theology – focused on the investigation and interpretation of a religions’ scriptures,
- Historical Theology – focused on the intellectual history of the religion
- Systematic Theology (or doctrinal theology, or dogmatic theology) – focused on the attempt to arrange and interpret the ideas current in the religion.
- Comparative religion – focused on the comparison of common themes among different religious traditions
- Practical Theology – dedicated to the practical application of theological insights. Generally includes the subdisciplines of pastoral theology, homiletics, and Christian education, among others.
Theology can also be divided up by topic (or by ‘loci’):
- theology proper – God or the divine: attributes, nature, and relation to the world. Often includes discussion of creation and providence. See the nature of God in Western theology.
- theodicy – Attempts at reconciling the existence of all the evil and suffering in the world with the nature and power of the God or gods of the religion
- christology (normally only in Christianity) – Jesus Christ, the nature of Christ, the relationship between the divine and human in Christ
- pneumatology – the Holy Spirit or divine Spirit; sometimes also ‘geist’ as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems;
- anthropology – nature of humanity
- harmatiology (often considered under ‘soteriology’) – sin
- soteriology – the nature and means of salvation
- bibliology (a less common term than most of the others) – the Bible, the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; hermeneutics is the study of proper biblical interpretation (exegesis).
- ecclesiology – the church
- missiology (often a subsection of ecclesiology) – missions, evangelism, etc.
- eschatology – literally, the study of ‘last things’ or ‘ultimate things’. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
- Covenant theology, an interpretive grid that understands God’s plans in the Old and New Testaments as being a result of God’s covenant with his chosen people. This movement is an alternative to Dispensationalism.
- angelology (less common than it used to be) – angels, the unseen world
- demonology (much less common than it used to be) – Satan, demons, evil spirits
Theology can also be divided up into different modes, including
- natural theology – the discussion of those aspects of theology that can be investigated without the help of revelation, scriptures or tradition (sometimes contrasted with “positive theology”) – the discussion of those aspects of theology
- apophatic theology (or negative theology; sometimes contrasted with “cataphatic theology”) – the discussion of what God is not, or the investigation of how language about God breaks down
See also: dialectical theology
Theology can also be divided up into various movements, including
- Ecumenical theology
- Evangelical theology
- Liberal theology
- Postliberal theology
- Postmodern theology
- Revisionist theology
- Transcendental Theology
- Feminist theology
- Womanist theology
- Liberation theology
- Black theology
- Holocaust theology (In response to the horrors of the Holocaust, many theologians (especially Jewish theologians) were prompted to take a harder look in terms of issues around theodicy; the theological works that were created as a response to the Holocaust have been termed Holocaust theology.)
- “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.” – H.L. Mencken
- “An authentic theology will not allow man to be obsessed with himself.” – Thomas F. Torrance in Reality and Scientific Theology
- “Theology announces not just what the Bible says but what it means.” – J. Kenneth Grider in A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1994), p. 19.