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Theology is the study of the existence or attributes of a god or gods, and of how that god or those gods relate to the world and especially to human existence; more generally, it is the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or of spirituality. It is sometimes contrasted with religious studies: theology is understood as the study of religion from an internal perspective (e.g., a perspective of commitment to that religion), and religious studies as the study of religion from an external (e.g., a secular) perspective.[1]

Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic, historical, and others) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad religious topics. It might be undertaken to help the theologian:

  • understand more truly his or her own religious tradition,[2]
  • understand more truly another religious tradition,[3]
  • make comparisons between religious traditions,[4]
  • defend or justify a religious tradition,
  • facilitate reform of a particular tradition,[5]
  • assist in the propagation of a religious tradition,[6] or
  • draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need,[7]

among other things.

The word "theology" has classical Greek origins, but it was taken up in both Greek and Latin forms by Christian authors, and it is the history of the term in Christian contexts, particularly in the Latin West, that lies behind most contemporary usage, even though the term can now be used to speak of reasoned discourse within and about a variety of different religious traditions.[8]


[edit] History of the term

See the main article on the History of theology, particularly for the history of Jewish, Christian and Islamic theology.

The word theology comes from late middle English, from French théologie, from Latin theologia, from Greek θεολογία, theologia, from θεός, theos or God + λόγος or logos, "words," "sayings," "discourse," or "reason" ( + suffix ια, ia, "state of," "property of," "place of"). The Greek word can be literally translated as "talk about God or the divine," but the meaning of the word shifted as it was used (first in Greek and then in Latin) in European Christian thought in the Patristic period, the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, and then taken up more widely.

Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, was a writer on Islamic theology or "Kalam." His school of Averroism had a significant influence on Christian theology.

"Theology" can also now be used in a derived sense to mean "a system of theoretical principles; an (impractical or rigid) ideology."[9]

  • The term θεολογια theologia is used in classical Greek literature, with the meaning "discourse on the gods or cosmology." The first known use is by Plato in The Republic, Book ii, Ch. 18.[10]
  • Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematike, physike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which, for Aristotle, included discussion of the nature of the divine.[11]
  • 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).[12]

[edit] Christian Theology

Christian writers, working within the Hellenistic mold, began to use the term theology to describe their studies. It appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalypsis ioannoy toy theologoy, "the revelation of John the theologos." There, however, the word refers not to John the "theologian" in the modern English sense of the word but—using a slightly different sense of the root logos, meaning not "rational discourse" but "word" or "message,"—one who speaks the words of God, logoi toy theoy.[13]

Other Christian writers used this term with several different ranges of meaning.

  • Some Latin authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine, followed Varro's threefold usage, described above.[14]
  • In Patristic Greek sources, theologia could refer narrowly to devout and inspired knowledge of, and teaching about, the essential nature of God.[15]
  • In some 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.[16]
  • 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).[17]
  • It is the last of these senses (theology as the rational study of the teachings of a religion or of several religions) that lies behind most modern uses (though the second—theology as a discussion specifically of a religion's or several religions' teachings about God—is also found in some academic and ecclesiastical contexts; see the article on Theology Proper).

[edit] Religions other than Christianity

In academic theological circles, there is some debate as to whether theology is an activity peculiar to the Christian religion, such that the word "theology" should be reserved for Christian theology, and other words used to name analogous discourses within other religious traditions.[18] It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of religions that worship a deity (a theos), and to presuppose belief in the ability to speak and reason about this deity (in logia)—and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts that are organized differently (religions without a deity, or that deny that such subjects can be studied logically). ("Hierology" has been proposed as an alternative, more generic term.[19])

[edit] Analogous discourses

  • Some academic inquiries within Buddhism, 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. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, who argues that the use of "theology" is appropriate, can only do so, he says, because "I take theology not to be restricted to discourse on God ... I take 'theology' not to be restricted to its etymological meaning. In that latter sense, Buddhism is of course a theological, rejecting as it does the notion of God."[20]
  • Islamic theological discussion that parallels Christian theological discussion is named "Kalam"; the Islamic analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law, or "Fiqh." "Kalam ... does not hold the leading place in Muslim thought that theology does in Christianity. To find an equivalent for 'theology' in the Christian sense it is necessary to have recourse to several disciplines, and to the usul al-fiqh as much as to kalam." (L. Gardet)[22] A number of Muslim theologians, such as Alkindus, Alfarabi, Avicenna (see Avicennism) and Averroes (see Averroism), have influenced the development of Christian theology significantly.
  • 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 specialized academic institutions. Nevertheless, Jewish theology historically has been very active and highly significant for Christian and Islamic theology. It is sometimes claimed, however, that the Jewish analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.[23]

[edit] Theology as an academic discipline

The history of the study of theology in institutions of higher education is as old as the history of such institutions themselves. For example, Taxila was an early centre of Vedic learning, possible from the 6th century BCE or earlier;[24] the Platonic Academy founded in Athens in the 4th century BCE seems to have included theological themes in its subject matter;[25] the Chinese Taixue delivered Confucian teaching from the 2nd century BCE;[26] the School of Nisibis was a centre of Christian learning from the 4th century CE;[27] Nalanda in India was a sight of Buddhist higher learning from at least the 5th or 6th century CE;[28] and the Moroccan University of Al-Karaouine was a centre of Islamic learning from the 10th century,[29] as was Al-Azhar University in Cairo.[30]

Modern Western universities evolved from the monastic institutions and (especially) cathedral schools of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages (see, for instance, the University of Bologna, Paris University and Oxford University).[31] From the beginning, Christian theological learning was therefore a central component in these institutions, as was the study of Church or Canon law): universities played an important role in training people for ecclesiastical offices, in helping the church pursue the clarification and defence of its teaching, and in supporting the legal rights of the church over against secular rulers.[32] At such universities, theological study was initially closely tied to the life of faith and of the church: it fed, and was fed by, practices of preaching, prayer and celebration of the Mass.[33]

During the High Middle Ages, theology was therefore the ultimate subject at universities, being named "The Queen of the Sciences" and serving as the capstone to the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including Philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.[34]

Christian theology’s preeminent place in the university began to be challenged during the European Enlightenment, especially in Germany.[35] other subjects gained in independence and prestige, and questions were raised about the place in institutions that were increasingly understood to be devoted to independent reason of a discipline that seemed to involve commitment to the authority of particular religious traditions.[36]

Since the early nineteenth century, various different approaches have emerged in the West to theology as an academic discipline. Much of the debate concerning theology's place in the university or within a general higher education curriculum centres on whether theology's methods are appropriately theoretical and (broadly speaking) scientific or, on the other hand, whether theology requires a pre-commitment of faith by its practitioners, and whether such a commitment conflicts with academic freedom.[37]

[edit] Theology and ministerial training

In some contexts, theology has been held to belong in institutions of Higher Education primarily as a form of professional training for Christian ministry. This was the basis on which Friedrich Schleiermacher argued for the inclusion of theology in the new University of Berlin in 1810.[38]

For instance, in Germany, theological faculties at State universities are typically tied to particular denominations, Protestant or Catholic, and those faculties will offer denominationally-bound (konfessionsgebundenes) degrees, and have denominationally-bound public posts amongst their faculty; as well as contributing ‘to the development and growth of Christian knowledge’ they ‘provide the academic training for the future clergy and teachers of religious instruction at German schools.’[39]

In the U.S.A., several prominent colleges and universities were started in order to train Christian ministers in the U.S. Harvard, [40] Georgetown University, [41] Boston,[42] Yale,[43] Princeton,[44] and Brown University[45] all had the theological training of clergy as a primary purpose at their foundation.

Seminaries and Bible colleges have continued this alliance between the academic study of theology and training for Christian ministry. The Chicago Theological Union, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Creighton University of Omaha, University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, the University of San Francisco, Criswell College in Dallas, Southern Seminary in Louisville, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, Wheaton College and Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois, Dallas Theological Seminary, and many other schools have influenced higher education in theology.

[edit] Theology beyond affiliation to religious institutions

In some countries, some state-funded universities (sometimes, but not always, universities with a medieval or early-modern pedigree) have theology departments that have only informal or ad-hoc links to religious institutions (see, for instance, several theology departments in the UK).

[edit] Theology and religious studies

In some contexts, following the Enlightenment challenge to its legitimacy, theology has evolved into (or been replaced by) religious studies. In such contexts, the primary forms of study are likely to include:

These studies normally involve studying the historical or contemporary practices or ideas of one or more religious traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks that are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition, but that are (normally) understood to be neutral or secular.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  2. ^ See, e.g., Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004)
  3. ^ See, e.g., Michael S. Kogan, 'Toward a Jewish Theology of Christianity' in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32.1 (Winter 1995), 89-106; available online at [1]
  4. ^ See, e.g., David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)
  5. ^ See, e.g., John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (New York: Harper Collins, 2001)
  6. ^ See, e.g., Duncan Dormor et al (eds), Anglicanism, the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum, 2003)
  7. ^ See, e.g., Timothy Gorringe, Crime, Changing Society and the Churches Series (London:SPCK, 2004)
  8. ^ See, for example, Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, edited by Elliott Dorff and Louis Newman (Oxford: OUP, 1998), Ignaz Goldziher's Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law (Princeton University Press, 1981), Roger Jackson and John J. Makransky's Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars (London: Curzon, 2000), and Jose Pereira, Hindu Theology (New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1991)
  9. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 edition, 'Theology' sense 1(d), and 'Theological' sense A.3; the earliest reference given is from the 1959 Times Literary Supplement 5 June 329/4: "The 'theological' approach to Soviet Marxism ... proves in the long run unsatisfactory."
  10. ^ Lidell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon''.
  11. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Epsilon.
  12. ^ As cited by Augustine, City of God, Book 6, ch.5.
  13. ^ This title appears quite late in the manuscript tradition for the Book of Revelation: the two earliest citations provided in David Aune's Word Biblical Commentary 52: Revelation 1-5 (Dallas: Word Books, 1997) are both 11th century - Gregory 325/Hoskier 9 and Gregory 1006/Hoskier 215; the title was however in circulation by the 6th century - see Allen Brent ‘John as theologos: the imperial mysteries and the Apocalypse’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 75 (1999), 87-102.
  14. ^ See Augustine reference above, and Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book 2, ch.1.
  15. ^ Gregory of Nazianzus uses the word in this sense in his fourth-century Theological Orations; after his death, he was called "the Theologian" at the Council of Chalcedon and thereafter in Eastern Orthodoxy—either because his Orations were seen as crucial examples of this kind of theology, or in the sense that he was (like the author of the Book of Revelation) seen as one who was an inspired preacher of the words of God. (It is unlikely to mean, as claimed in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers introduction to his Theological Orations, that he was a defender of the divinity of Christ the Word.) See John McGukin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), p.278.
  16. ^
    Albert the Great, patron saint of Roman Catholic Theologians
    See e.g., Hugh of St. Victor, Commentariorum in Hierarchiam Coelestem, Expositio to Book 9: "theologia, id est, divina Scriptura" (in Migne's Patrologia Latina vol.175, 1091C).
  17. ^ See the title of Peter Abelard's Theologia Christiana, and, perhaps most famously, of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica
  18. ^ See, for example, the initial reaction of Dharmachari Nagapriya in his review of Jackson and Makrasnky's Buddhist Theology (London: Curzon, 2000) in Western Buddhist Review 3
  19. ^ E.g., by Count E. Goblet d'Alviella in 1908; see Alan H. Jones, Independence and Exegesis: The Study of Early Christianity in the Work of Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), Charles Guignebert (1857 [i.e. 1867]-1939), and Maurice Goguel (1880-1955) (Mohr Siebeck, 1983), p.194.
  20. ^ Jose Ignacio Cabezon, 'Buddhist Theology in the Academy' in Roger Jackson and John J. Makransky's Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars (London: Routledge, 1999), pp.25-52.
  21. ^ See Anna S. King, 'For Love of Krishna: Forty Years of Chanting' in Graham Dwyer and Richard J. Cole, The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), pp.134-167: p.163, which describes developments in both institutions, and speaks of Hare Krishna devotees 'studying Vaishnava theology and practice in mainstream universities.'
  22. ^ L. Gardet, 'Ilm al-kalam' in The Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. P.J. Bearman et al (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 1999).
  23. ^ Randi Rashkover, 'A Call for Jewish Theology', Crosscurrents, Winter 1999, starts by saying, "Frequently the claim is made that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is a tradition of deeds and maintains no strict theological tradition. Judaism's fundamental beliefs are inextricable from their halakhic observance (that set of laws revealed to Jews by God), embedded and presupposed by that way of life as it is lived and learned."
  24. ^ Timothy Reagan, Non-Western Educational Traditions: Alternative Approaches to Educational Thought and Practice, 3rd edition (Lawrence Erlbaum: 2004), p.185 and Sunna Chitnis, 'Higher Education' in Veena Das (ed), The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Social Anthropology (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.1032-1056: p.1036 suggest an early date; a more cautious appraisal is given in Hartmut Scharfe, Education in Ancient India (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp.140-142.
  25. ^ John Dillon, The Heirs of Plato: A Study in the Old Academy, 347-274BC (Oxford: OUP, 2003)
  26. ^ Xinzhong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), p.50.
  27. ^ Adam H. Becker, The Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and the Development of Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); see also The School of Nisibis at
  28. ^ Hartmut Scharfe, Education in Ancient India (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p.149.
  29. ^ The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque was founded in 859 CE, but 'While instruction at the mosque must have begun almost from the beginning, it is only ... by the end of the tenth-century that its reputation as a center of learning in both religious and secular sciences ... must have begun to wax.' Y. G-M. Lulat, A History of African Higher Education from Antiquity to the Present: A Critical Synthesis (Greenwood, 2005), p.71
  30. ^ Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.101.
  31. ^ Walter Rüegg, A History of the University in Europe, vol.1, ed. H. de Ridder-Symoens, Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  32. ^ Walter Rüegg, “Themes” in Walter Rüegg, A History of the University in Europe, vol.1, ed. H. de Ridder-Symoens, Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.3–34:pp.15-16.
  33. ^ See Gavin D’Costa, Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), ch.1.
  34. ^ Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p.56: '[P]hilosophy, the scientia scientarum in one sense, was, in another, portrayed as the humble "handmaid of theology".'
  35. ^ See Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006):
  36. ^ See Thomas Albert Howard’s work already cited, and his discussion of, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties (1798), and J.G. Fichte’s Deduzierter Plan einer zu Berlin errichtenden höheren Lehranstalt (1807).
  37. ^ See Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher and George Hunsinger (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992); Gavin D’Costa, Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); James W. McClendon, Systematic Theology 3: Witness (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000), ch.10: 'Theology and the University'.
  38. ^ Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 2nd edition, tr. Terrence N. Tice (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990); Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ch.14.
  39. ^ Reinhard G. Kratz, 'Academic Theology in Germany', Religion 32.2 (2002): pp.113–116.
  40. ^ 'The primary purpose of Harvard College was, accordingly, the training of clergy.’ But ‘the school served a dual purpose, training men for other professions as well.’ George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.41.
  41. ^ Georgetown was a Jesuit institution founded in significant part to provide a pool of educated Catholics some of whom who could go on to full seminary training for the priesthood. See Robert Emmett Curran, Leo J. O’Donovan, The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University 1789-1889 (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 1961), Part One.
  42. ^ Boston University emerged from the Boston School of Theology, a Methodist seminary. Boston University Information Center, 'History - The Early Years' [2]
  43. ^ Yale’s original 1701 charter speaks of the purpose being 'Sincere Regard & Zeal for upholding & Propagating of the Christian Protestant Religion by a succession of Learned & Orthodox' and that 'Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences (and) through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.' 'The Charter of the Collegiate School, October 1701' in Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Documentary History of Yale University, Under the Original Charter of the Collegiate School of Connecticut 1701-1745 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1916); available online at [3]
  44. ^ At Princeton, one of the founders (probably Ebeneezer Pemberton) wrote in c.1750, ‘Though our great Intention was to erect a seminary for educating Ministers of the Gospel, yet we hope it will be useful in other learned professions - Ornaments of the State as Well as the Church. Therefore we propose to make the plan of Education as extensive as our Circumstances will admit.’ Quoted in Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion (Princeton University Press, 1978).
  45. ^ 'Brown was the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Yale and Harvard, Presbyterian Princeton, and Episcopalian Penn and Columbia', 'History of Brown', accessed 8 March 2009.

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