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Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God (Greek θεος, theos, "God", + λογος, logos, "word" or "reason").

It can also refer to the study of other religious topics.

A theologian is a person learned in theology.

Albert the Great, patron saint of Christian Theologians
Albert the Great, patron saint of Christian Theologians


History of the term

The word “Theology” is derived from Hellenistic Greek, but its meaning has changed significantly through its use in the European Christian thought of the Middle ages and Enlightenment

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).

Since the authority of Hellenistic city states was partly based on religious observance, those who first sought to ask difficult questions about the gods were often viewed as heretics, or in the language of the day “atheists”. Socrates is famous for having been exiled for teaching youths atheism (though in fact he had not). Plato, his pupil, wrote several discourses on the gods, though his doctrine of forms and emanations would be more significant for later Theology.

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. The term has since been appropriated by a number of Eastern and Western religious traditions.

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).

Christian writers, working within the Hellenistic mould, began to use the term to describe their studies. 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.

  1. Some Latin authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine followed Varro's threefold usage, described above.
  2. In patristic Greek sources, theologia could refer narrowly to the discussion of the nature and attributes of God.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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."

A brief history of "Theologies"

Hellenistic Theology developed several problems important to later Christian thought including explaining the apparent caprice of the Greek gods, Atheism and a movement towards monotheism. The one “God” became especially important as a philosophically necessary “first cause” and ultimate form of the Good. Emphasis was also given to the dualism of spirit and matter in man; redemption came through knowledge that released the spirit from its material prison to a higher spiritual world.

Pre-Christian Jewish Theology sought to accommodate traditional Jewish exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures and tradition with Greek philosophy. Philo is the best known of those who attempted this. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the dispersion of many Jews from Israel had a profound effect on Jewish Theology, which mainly developed in Babylon, as with the important Talmuds. Jews in Mesopotamia remained important throughout Islamic rule often translating what had been syriac texts (with Christians) of Hellenistic works.

Early Christian theology, coming partly from Hellenistic Judaism, therefore had no trouble in expressing itself in the Greek language (i.e. the New Testament). Whilst the conception of a canon of sacred books was inherited from Judaism, their interpretation soon came to be heavily influenced by Greek allegorical methods (e.g. Origen).

Augustine wrote "The City of God" during the long decline of the Roman Empire
Augustine wrote "The City of God" during the long decline of the Roman Empire

Patristic Theology (c. 100 – 500 AD) is so called because certain men (Fathers or “Patroi”) concerned themselves with determining the degree to which the Christian faith could be accommodated to Hellenistic thought. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote to combat those who made Christianity into Gnostic Theology. Justin Martyr sought to use Hellenistic philosophy and Natural Theology to justify Christianity to the Romans. Later Theologians especially sought to show how three divine persons could be one in substance (the Trinity, see Council of Nicea) and how Jesus (a man of material flesh, see Council of Chalcedon) could at also be divine. These statements though held to be philosophically illogical were nevertheless held to be true, human reason being incapable of understanding them. This was an important development that would define the Theology of the Middle Ages in Islam as well as Christianity. Important theologians were Athanasius, Gregory of Nazanzius, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome.

The fall of the Roman empire affected Theology in two main ways; Firstly monasticism became more popular and ascetic, and mystical theology therefore became more prevalent. Secondly, the increasing influence of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope) in theological doctrine and cultural differences between the two remnants of the Roman empire caused the doctrine of apostolic succession to be more important. The two sides finally split in 1054.

The collapse of the Roman Empire meant that most Theology occurred in Monasteries with few of the resources of classical scholarship available. Over time many local variations in Theology developed and the traditions of pre-Christian religions were sometimes included in Theology as well as practice.

Likewise, in the East, (Greece and the Levant) Theology became increasingly influenced by speculative neo-Platonism. The epistle of Dionysius the Areopagite was a popular guide with such ideas. Many monks came to emphasize the idea of the inherent evil of the world.

Islam established itself in this atmosphere and began also to practice Theology. Although Islam is often considered to lack a “Theology” as in Christianity there were many attempts to frame Islamic ideas within Greek thought, especially during the early abbassids and the reign of the caliph al-mamun. However, this movement, Mu’tazilism, became discredited through the Abassids attempts to use it to enforce religious unity, and the popular and orthodox considered Hellenistic thought to be unhelpful and error. Theology would continue to be practiced, but was usually done so by an elite of intellectuals whose ideas would seldom be made public. These included Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Averroes, Avicenna and Al-Ghazali.

High Medieval theology in Western Europe combined the Theology inherited from Dark-age monasticism with new learning from classical Hellenistic documents from the Islamic world. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Jons Scotus and Peter Ablard were among the most important Theologians of this period.

Anselm was an important Theologian for both the Medieval and Reformation periods because of his theory of Atonement
Anselm was an important Theologian for both the Medieval and Reformation periods because of his theory of Atonement

The Renaissance yielded scholars the ability to read the scriptures in their original languages and this in part stimulated the Reformation, a Theological movement that based its “Protests” on a new understanding of the Bible. Most important were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, Bucer and the Anabaptists. Their Theology was developed by successors such as Beza, the English Puritans and Frances Turretin.

The Catholic counter-reformation spearheaded by the Jesuits under Ignatius Loyola took their Theology from the decisions of the Council of Trent. The overall result of the Reformation was therefore to highlight distinctions of belief that had previously co-existed uneasily.

The fall of Constantinople in the east, 1453, led to a significant shift of gravity to the rising state of Russia, the “Third Rome”. The Renaissance would also stimulate a program of reforms by patriarchs of prayer books. A movement called the “Old believers” consequently resulted and influenced Russian Orthodox Theology in the direction of conservatism and Erastianism.

After the Reformation protestant groups continued to splinter, leading to a range of new Theologies. Most significant were the “Enthusiasts” who stood outside established religion. These included the Methodists, the Quakers and Unitarians (who denied the Trinity).

The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of biblical criticism, new knowledge of religious diversity in other continents and above all the growth of science. This led many church men to espouse a form of Deism. This, along with concepts such as the brotherhood of man and a rejection of miracles led to what is called “Classic Liberalism”. Immensely influential in its day, classic liberalism suffered badly as a result of the two world wars and fell prey to the criticisms of postmodernism.

Gordon Fee is a well known Renewal Theologian
Gordon Fee is a well known Renewal Theologian

Post Modern Theology arose as a result, including the death of God movement, Process Theology, Feminist Theology and Queer Theology and most importantly Neo-Orthodox Theology. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Reinhold Niebuhr were Neo-Orthodoxies main representatives. In particular Barth labeled his Theology "Dialectical Theology", a reference to existentialism.

Finally, the predominance of Classic Liberalism resulted in many reactionary movements amongst conservative believers. Evangelical Theology, Pentecostal or Renewal Theology and Fundamentalist Theology, often combined with Dispensationalism, all moved from the fringe into the academy. Marxism stimluated the significant rise of Liberation Theology which can be interpreted as a challenge to Academic Theology that fails to challenge the establishment and help the poor.

The pattern of challenge from a changing world, liberal response from official representatives and orthodox backlash from conservatives is found also in the history of Islam and Judaism. Reformed Judaism represents a liberal interpretation as against Orthodox Judaism, and Liberal or moderate Islam continues to be theologically distinct from Islamic Fundamentalism, notably its Wahabi and Deobandi Schools. As other religions came to be studied in Western post Christian academies the term Theology was applied to them, though as noted above this may be a serious misnomer!

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. If so we should distinguish Christian Theology from others. It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of a deity (a theos) within a presupposed belief in the ability to speak and reason about the subject (in logia)- and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts which are organized differently (i.e. religions without a deity, or which deny that such subjects can be studied logically).

Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, is not usually asociated with "Theology"
Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, is not usually asociated with "Theology"

For example, 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, since Buddhism lacks the same conception of a theos. The same might be said of Hinduism which has many gods, rather than one.; see for example, Vaishnava Theology.

Moreover, the application of the term Theology to religions similar to Christianity can be misleading. in Islam, theological discussion which parallels Christian theological discussion has been a minor and even slightly disreputable activity, named “Kalam”; the Islamic analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law, or "Fiqh".

In Judaism the historical absence of political authority has meant that most theological reflection has happened within the context of the Jewish community and synagogue, rather than within specialised academic institutions. Nevertheless Jewish Theology has been historically very active and highly significant for Christian and Islamic Theology. Once again, the Jewish analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.

Theology and the Academy

Theology has a significantly problematic relationship to Academia that is not shared by any other subject. Most Universties founded before the modern era grew out of the church schools and monastic institutions of Western Europe during the High Middle ages (e.g. Bologna Universtiy, Paris University and Oxford University). They were foudned to train young men to serve the church in Theology and Law (often Church or Canon Law). At such Universities Theological study was incomlete with Theological practice, including preaching, prayer and the Mass. Ancient Universities still maintain some of these links (e.g. having Chapels and Chaplains) and are more likely to teach Theology than other institutions.

During the High Middle ages Theology was therefore the main subject at Universities, being named “The Queen of the sciences” alongside theTrivium andQuadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including Philosophy) existed primarily to help with Theological thought.

With the Enlightenment Universities began to change, teaching a wide range of subjects, especially in Germany, and from a Humanistic perspective. Theology was no longer the principle subject and Universities existed for many purposes, not only to train Clergy for established Churches. Theology thus became unusual as the only subject to maintain a confessional basis in othewise secular establishments.

As a result Theology is often distinguished from many other established Academic disciplines that cover the same subject area. Those who contend it is different claim it is distinguished by its viewpoint (it is studied from within a faith, rather than from without) and its practical involvement (Theology cannot be truly studied or understood without a practical faith). Many of the early church fathers described the theologian as a person who "truly prays.". Non religious Theologians often disagree with these viewpoints, arguing that the term Theology covers the study of religion or peoples beliefs about God, rather than God himself. They also argue that human reason alone is sufficient to understand such subjects and that prayer and worship are not necessary.

Nevertheless Theology should be distinguished from the following disciplines;

Comparative religion/Religious studies

Philosophy of Religion

The History of Religions

Psychology of Religion

Sociology of Religion

All of these approach religion with Humanistic presuppositions and assume a uniformity in religious faith and experience, unlike most Theology.

Theological studies in different institutions

In Europe, the traditional places for the study of theology have been universities and seminaries. Typically the protestant state churches have trained their ministers in universities while the Catholic church has used seminaries. However, the secularization of European states has closed down the theological faculties in many countries while the Catholic church has increased the academical level of its priests by founding a number of pontifical universities. However, at least Finland and Sweden have state universities with faculties of theology training Lutheran priests as well as teachers and scholars of religion. As study of theology in these countries includes a strong (Christian) humanist content, graduates of theology who do not wish to embark on clerical career may find work also in marketing, business or adminstration, although this is frowned upon by many.

In the United States, study of theology does not enjoy state endorsement due to the nature of the constitution of United States. Theological studies (often called Biblical studies) take place in a large number of universities, the academic level of which may vary considerably. The academic freedom of thought in many of these institutions may not reach the level of the faculties of theology in European state universities. Theologians ending up with view deemed "heretical" by the denomination upholding the institution may find themselves out of work.

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.

The most established distinctions are Systematic Theology, Biblical Studies/Biblical Theology, Historical Theology and Pastoral Theology.

Theology can also be divided up into :

Academic subdisciplines;

Topic (or by 'Loci');


  • 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
  • dialectical theology
  • 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



  • "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.

See also

External links

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