Theology, a discipline that attempts to express the content of a religious faith as a coherent body of propositions. The word is usually taken to refer to the Christian faith, although it is sometimes extended by analogy to cover other creeds since Christianity originated the term in its present meaning. Theology is narrower in scope than faith, for whereas faith is a total attitude of the individual, including will and feeling, theology attempts to bring to expression in words the elements of belief that are explicitly or implicitly contained in faith.


Not every verbal expression of faith is theology, however. The first verbalizations of faith were naive and mythological. Theology arose out of reflection upon these first naive utterances. For instance, in the New Testament the disciple Thomas exclaims to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” but a long process of reflection and speculation came between that simple confession and the theological declaration, made by the Council of Nicaea (325), that Jesus Christ is “one in substance with the Father”. This example demonstrates the tendency to move from concrete language (“Lord”) to conceptual language (“substance”).

Although theology ultimately concerns God, many theologians maintain that concepts of him necessarily fall short. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God is often described in such negative terms as invisible or incorporeal. If this negative theology is not to become sheer agnosticism, it has to be supplemented by indirect ways of speaking about God (involving analogy, symbolism, and metaphor) so that the language of theology never becomes purely conceptual, instead retaining some of the imagery from the pretheological stage of belief. A careful analysis of theological language is a necessary prelude to the theological enterprise. It reveals a language that employs both images and concepts and that is both critical and confessional.


Theologians as diverse as the 13th-century Italian St Thomas Aquinas and the 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth have held that theology is a science. Both, however, were careful to point out that sciences are of many sorts. Theology resembles a science to the extent that orderly, critical intellectual procedures are employed in the study of its subject matter, but it differs radically from the natural and even from the human sciences because of its ultimate subject matter, God, is not accessible to empirical investigation. The problem of establishing a rigorous way of reasoning about God is, therefore, crucial in theology. Aquinas began his theological system by offering five proofs for the existence of God as a basis for all his other arguments. Barth, on the other hand, began with God’s revelation or communication of himself (the word of God), believing that only thus can one avoid the danger of approaching God as a mere object of investigation. Those who follow Barth’s method argue that every science has, to begin with, some assumptions and that the assumption of a self-communicating God is the correct starting point for theology; those who follow Aquinas’s example hold that intellectual integrity demands that the theologian begins with the question of whether God exists. Clearly, in both views theology must be concerned as much with human beings and their capacities as with God. Indeed, Barth has said that theology would be more properly called “theanthropology” because its subject matter is not God in isolation, but rather the divine and the human as they are related to each other.


The oldest theology of all—that of the Greek philosophers, who invented the word theology—was based on rational reflection on God, the world, and human life. These philosophers explicitly contrasted the rational theological approach to the problem of God with the mythological stories of the gods told by the Greek poets. The rational approach has continued to have many adherents, such as Aquinas, but the appeal to revelation as the source of religious (and hence theological) truth has also been strong in the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and several Eastern traditions. These religions are traced back to founders who offered some new and striking insights into the questions of God and human destiny. Subsequent generations of thinkers reflected on the content of these illuminations, drew their implications, applied their insights in new situations, and tested and criticized the interpretations that had been previously offered. The distinctive insights of the founders, whether or not the word revelation is used, have been stamped on the structures of the different religions, and it is a testimony to the depth and richness of these insights that so much has been drawn from them and that they still seem inexhaustible.

A The Role of Scripture

Most developed religions of the world possess scriptures or sacred writings. These are usually taken to be the work of the founders themselves or of their earliest disciples. The Torah, long attributed to Moses; the New Testament, much of it attributed to disciples of Jesus; the Koran, attributed to Muhammad; and the voluminous scriptures of Hinduism and Buddhism are all examples of the transmission of original revelations through written documents. Within the various traditions, the status of scripture varies. Among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, scripture is accorded an authority—sometimes as the very word of God—that it does not have in Hinduism or Buddhism. Even in Christianity, however, differences exist between Fundamentalists, for whom the Bible is divinely inspired, and liberals, for whom it is the fallible human attestation of revelation, but not revelation itself. Nonetheless, wherever scriptures exist, they provide an important source for theology, even when modern critical methods are applied.

B Tradition and Experience

Tradition is another means by which the original revelation is conveyed and mediated. Tradition precedes scripture, in the sense that stories and teachings of the founders were passed on by word of mouth before they were written down and assumed a fixed form. But tradition also follows scripture, for where scripture is unclear or inconsistent, the believing community has to interpret it, and a whole body of interpretation may evolve alongside the original scripture and may even be written down. This has happened in both Judaism and Islam, although the body of tradition in these religions is not accorded the same status as scripture.

In Christianity, Roman Catholicism has assigned a high value to tradition as the living voice of the Church. Protestants have stressed the principle of relying on the authority of the Bible alone, but because the Bible is read and taught in the context of the church—especially in the liturgy—it is virtually impossible to hear it without overtones of traditional interpretation. Finally, experience has become an important influence on theology, especially in modern times. Respect for the authority of scripture, tradition, and even revelation has diminished, and consequently, the theologian tends to draw more and more on present experience, either personal or that of the community. The theologian searches for the meaning of God not only in such religious experiences as mysticism and conversion, but also in the general cultural, social, and political experience of the time.


There is no single, universally recognized method in theology. The method varies from one theologian to another and largely depends on the degree of importance attached to the various sources. The 11th-century theologian St Anselm is a good example of a theologian who used the method of rigorous logical argument. In his Proslogion, Anselm sought to prove the existence of God from the concept of a perfect being, and in Cur Deus Homo he argued that, given the existence both of a benevolent God and of the sinfulness of humanity, the Christian doctrines of incarnation and atonement may be deduced by logical necessity. Few theologians have been as rigorously logical as Anselm, but most have aimed at logical coherence. A minority, however, including the 2nd-century Church father Tertullian and the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, have denied that theology can be conceived as a rational system and have held that the human experience of God reveals discontinuities and paradoxes.

A quite different method can be observed among Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant theologians, who have attempted to base theology on the Bible alone. In its crudest form, this has meant a constant appeal to the Bible to prove theological assertions. With the development of biblical studies, however, this type of theology has become much more sophisticated. The method is, first of all, to establish the biblical text from the manuscripts and variant readings and, next, to subject this text to the closest scrutiny, taking note, for example, of linguistic considerations, literary sources, and historical background. This constitutes the work of exegesis, which aims at ascertaining as far as possible the meaning that the writer intended. The theologian must then go on to ask how the original meaning of the text has been developed in the course of doctrinal history, and what it might be taken to mean in the theologian’s own time and cultural situation. This step involves hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. Some hold that interpretation is itself a creative, innovative act, not just the transposition of meaning from an ancient to a modern context. Even a transposition intended to reproduce the exact meaning of the original text may result in substantial changes. The 20th-century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann advocated a method of “demythologizing” on the assumption that the essential meaning of the New Testament is an understanding of human existence that must be disengaged from the mythological language current at the time when the New Testament was written. Bultmann’s project involved the translation of this “essential meaning” into the language of modern existentialist philosophy.

Formally similar to the biblically based theologies of Protestant writers are those of Roman Catholic writers who have tried to develop theologies based on the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church. This was done somewhat naively in the older handbooks, but it is now recognized that hermeneutic questions are as relevant to dogma as they are to scripture and that even the most venerated dogmas periodically need reinterpretation and may lead to new insights.

Theologians who are reluctant, to begin with an appeal to authoritative texts, whether biblical or dogmatic, begin the task from the opposite end, analysing human experience and its problems, and then asking how traditional wisdom might illuminate or resolve these problems. The 20th-century German theologian Paul Tillich has used the expression “method of correlation” to describe this procedure in theology. He and others have made much use of phenomenology in their analysis of human experience.

The principal types of theological method are obviously capable of being combined in different ways. Every major theologian has a method that in its detail is unique, but which nonetheless involves many procedures similar to those of other theologians. It is also important to notice that many of the methods of theology are the same as those employed by historians, students of language and literature, philosophers, and others.


The word theology is sometimes used in a broad sense, meaning not only the study of doctrine, but also biblical studies and Church history, as when one speaks of a faculty of theology at a university. More often, however, theology means systematic theology—the sense in which it has been discussed in this article—that is, the ordered exposition of the beliefs of a religious faith as a whole. Christian systematic theology is subdivided into the doctrine of God (theology in the strictest sense); Christology, the doctrine of the person of Christ; soteriology, the doctrine of salvation; anthropology, the doctrine of humanity; pneumatology, the doctrine of the spirit; eschatology, the doctrine of the “last things”, or the end of time; and ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. Further divisions are sometimes made, but truly systematic theology always emphasizes the unity and mutual implication of the various parts.

The distinction between natural theology, which is based on reason and common experience, and revealed theology, which is based directly on revelation, has already been noted. Similarly, a distinction should be made between apologetics—the attempt to state religious belief while taking note of, and responding to, objections and criticisms—and dogmatics, the straight exposition of beliefs. Some theologians, however, reject apologetics, because it seems to allow their opponents to set the agenda, arguing that the best apologetic is simply a clear statement of belief.

The rise and development of religious doctrines are the subject of historical theology, which has important implications for current theological speculation. Somewhat less central to the theological enterprise are several disciplines in which insights are derived from systematic theology but applied to various specialized problems. In moral theology, the insights of faith are applied to questions of moral conduct. Because of the variety of these issues, moral theology tends to become an interdisciplinary task. When the problems are connected with social and institutional aspects of human life, one may speak of social theology and even political theology. Pastoral, or practical, theology has to do with the exercise of ministry in such matters as counselling and the cure of souls.


Although the Bible contains much theological material, it is obviously not a textbook of systematic theology. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is perhaps the nearest approach to a theological treatise in the New Testament; beginning with the sinful human condition, Paul develops a doctrine of justification by faith and sketches a scheme of universal salvation. As has already been mentioned, theology began among the Greeks as a scientific discipline, and it was the convergence of Greek philosophy and biblical faith that gave rise to the great age of patristic theology. Although the German theologian Adolf von Harnack lamented the “Hellenization” of the Gospel, most theologians would agree with Tillich that biblical faith had to respond to the intellectual challenge of Greek philosophy.

In the East, the 3rd-century writer Origen, of the school of Alexandria, was perhaps the most influential theologian of the early Christian era: De Principiis (On First Principles) covers the major topics of theology, and Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), in which Origen answers the criticisms of a pagan philosopher, is a notable example of apologetics. The great patristic theologian of the West was St Augustine of Hippo. His principal work is De Civitate Dei (The City of God, 413-426), a vast study in which human history is presented as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Another profoundly influential theological work of Augustine is his lengthy treatise De Trinitate (On the Trinity, 400-416). Both Origen and Augustine also wrote commentaries on books of the Bible, and both were much influenced by philosophies derived from Plato. It was during the patristic period that the major Christian doctrines received their definitive formulation.


The next upsurge of theological activity occurred during the Middle Ages. Anselm and his principal works have already been mentioned, but the outstanding figure in medieval theology was St Thomas Aquinas. His great Summa Theologica (1265-1273), running to 2 million words and still unfinished at the time of his death, is a detailed systematic exposition of the doctrines of God, human nature and right conduct, and incarnation and salvation. It subtly interweaves philosophical and theological themes and has exercised an unparalleled influence, especially in Roman Catholic theology. Aquinas also wrote a major work of apologetics, the Summa Contra Gentiles (1261-1264). He made considerable use of the philosophy of Aristotle, which was being rediscovered at about this time.


The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century marked a return to the Bible and a more practical, ethical, and less speculative tone in theology, and therefore an attempt to reduce the role of philosophy in theological work. Martin Luther was not a systematic theologian, but the new teaching was ably presented by his colleague Melanchthon in his Loci Communes Rerum Theologicarum (1521). By far the greatest Reformation theologian was John Calvin, whose Christianae Religionis Institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536) remains the classic of Reformed systematic theology. Calvin stressed the sovereignty of God to the point of constructing a doctrine of strict predestination, but he tried to base all his teachings on the Bible.


After the Reformation, a period of theological stagnation set in as the Roman Catholic and Protestant orthodoxies faced one another in rigidly entrenched positions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, both camps were threatened by the rise of rationalist philosophy and empirical science. The long reign of theology as “queen of the sciences” was ending. In the face of these threats, the 19th-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher brought new life to theology. The authority of orthodoxy was gone, and the old natural theology had been discredited by two 18th-century philosophers, the English sceptic David Hume and the German idealist Immanuel Kant. Thus, Schleiermacher boldly made his appeal to regarding the present experience of the believing community as the new basis for theology. In his major work, Der christliche Glaube (1821-1822; The Christian Faith, 1948), the doctrine is treated as the transcript of experience. With Schleiermacher, the focus of theology seems to shift from God to humanity, and this was generally true of the liberal theology that dominated the 19th century. Its development was interrupted by the work of Karl Barth, whose monumental Die kirchliche Dogmatik (1932-1962; Church Dogmatics, 1936-1962) represents a return to biblical theology. In the last half of the 20th century, a variety of theological schools have coexisted. Notable among them is the revitalized Roman Catholic theology springing from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Other schools employ the principles of the 20th-century English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and even Karl Marx for theological construction.


Theology’s oldest partner in dialogue has been philosophy. Successive schools of philosophy have inspired innovative theological thinking, offered categories for elucidating theological ideas, and interpreted the changing interests of society.

Judaeo-Christian theology has been intimately involved with history, because in the biblical tradition, history is the medium of revelation, and the historical assertions of faith have to be scrutinized and tested like other historical assertions. Psychology, sociology, and anthropology all involve the study of religion, and although their methods and aims are different from those of theology, they often throw light on the course of theological development. Theology must also draw on the natural sciences—for instance, in investigating how the doctrines of creation and providence are related to the world described by science. Finally, during the late 20th century, Christian theologians have entered into dialogue with the other great world religions, establishing a common ground and exploring differences.

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