A Spirituality blog from our Community

What is Theology?

The sources of discussion/language about God.

What then is theology? What do you think of when you hear the word?

Etymologically it is the study of God, and if we confined ourselves to that original meaning then the stereotypical derision of it as not a ‘proper’ discipline would be quite understandable. After all, there isn’t any way that we could study God like a pharmacist studies chemicals, and as a result it is often supposed that theology is all made up opinions. Theology cannot be straightforward and descriptive because religion is inexorably mysterious- God is fundamentally ‘other’ and cannot be adequately described in human language.

A familiar understanding of theology is that it is an ongoing dialogue between members of a religious community with the aim of formalising the ways of speaking about God that we find successful. This ‘God talk’ will be different when applied to different subjects and situations, and it is a tough job to construct a coherent model for approaching an entire religion, that is, a theology. We may also speak of separate theologies of particular subjects.

Where does God talk come from?

Well, as the picture above implies there are usually thought to be four sources: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. These four are like a doughnut in that they form circle, a unified whole. What would happen if we over emphasised or under emphasised some of these?

This seems to be a very good way of describing different theologies. Those that emphasise scripture or tradition too much may end up unable to adapt to the modern world and relate to the people in it. Those that emphasise experience or reason too much may end up with exclusive esoteric practises and leave the church community altogether to focus on philosophy rather than theology.

Yet if we fail to emphasise reason then we do wrong by a God who is supremely rational and the author of all wisdom, who commanded us to love him not only with our heart and soul, but also with our mind. Here it is useful to remember Coleridge’s statement: “He who begins by loving Christianity more than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all”. And if we fail to emphasise experience we will end up with a dry, abstract theory about how to live with no actual grounding or from or influence upon how life really works.

Can you think of which kinds of Christianity which fall afoul of these different requirements?

I think many people would say that Reformed Christianity over emphasises scripture, catholic Christianity over emphasises tradition, and that the Quakers would be an example of a group that over emphasise experience, and the Unitarian Universalist church an example of one that over emphasises reason.

What different kinds of theology are there?

On a general level there are two kinds of theology with different aims:

  • Scriptural theology: this is exegesis- elaborating and explaining particular bits of Biblical teaching. This is what people usually do in in bible studies and sermons, particularly in Reformed churches. This is the kind of theology we are doing in Bible for Bluffers.
  • Systematic theology: reviewing and cross-referencing several sources on a common theme with the aim of building up a theology of that issue. This is often found in sermons in churches that use a lectionary system because the set readings for each day will have been chosen for their mutual resonance with one another. This also the kind of theology we are exploring in Theology and Doughnuts.

Cutting across this distinction are two different ways in which these can be done:

  • Kataphatic theology proceeds from what we know about the nature of God to construct a fitting way of doing Christianity.
  • Apophatic theology begins with the assumption that we ultimately cannot know anything about the nature of God and seeks to falsify or deconstruct bad ways of speaking about God or of doing Christianity.

What different approaches to theology are there?

  • We often hear people loosely characterising theologians on analogy with politicians: conservative, liberal, left-wing, radical (perhaps atheist), ultra-traditional etc. Personally, I find this distortive because theology is very different from politics.
  • Religious authorities label some ways of talking about God orthodox (preferred), some heterodox (not preferred) and some heretical (excluded from the conversation).
  • A more precise typology has been offered by Hans Frei who describes a scale of five different approaches to theology:

Type 5 on this scale treats theology solely from the inside as something that is already fixed and certain. It is almost entirely reduced to a personal exploration of an infallible revelation from God which is equally accessible to anyone. Type 1 is the opposite in some respects, treating traditional Christianity solely from the outside as a ‘dead option’, not something that any reasonable person can be convinced by. Nevertheless this counts as theology because scholars from this perspective seek to dialogue with and learn from theologians, and may consider themselves Christians.

Type 3 treats theological sources of knowledge as of equal force and legitimacy to secular ones such as physical science. Neither is allowed to determine the conclusions of the other. Examples of this sort of theologian are Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner and John Henry Newman. So closer to type 5 we have type 4 which grants priority to theological sources of knowledge over secular ones, for instance, allowing religion to shape the way they interpret science in some cases. An example of this sort of theologian is Karl Barth (who defended traditional Christianity against what he saw as the threat of modern culture). And conversely we have type 2 which, being closer to type 1, understands one or more secular framework of thought as having the authority to determine our response to theological sources of knowledge. An example of this sort of theologian is Rudolf Bultmann (who interpreted the Gospel in the light of existentialism and materialism).

The above distinctions will be better understood by considering the subjects that are studied in theology:

  • Soteriology– the study of salvation, of how and why our lives can be ‘made safe’. Later on in this series of discussions we will have several workshops on aspects of salvation. This is related to Eschatology which is the study of ‘the last things’, i.e. judgement and afterlife.
  • Hermeneutics– the study of techniques for the interpretation of texts such as the Bible.
  • Ecclesiology– the study of approaches to, and ideal models for, the church and its institutional structures. This involves sociology and politics. Here we can clearly see catholic churches at one end of a spectrum and Quakers (the Society of Friends) at the other, with various Protestant groups at points in between.
  • Liturgiology– the study of forms of ritual performance and worship including music and other arts. This overlaps with the study of prayer and mysticism(subjects that are clearly central to theology rooted in experience rather than abstract reasoning) and with Sacramental theology, the exploration of specific rituals such as baptism, confirmation, confession, communion,  and marriage.
  • Harmitology– the study of sin.
  • Christology– the study of the nature and role of Christ:

Even among Christologies judged orthodox there were strong tensions between two basic types. Those called ‘Alexandrine’ tended to stress the divinity of Christ and the unity of divine and human in him; those called ‘Antiochene’ tended to emphasize the humanity of Christ and the importance of distinguishing between divinity and humanity in him. These types have tended to recur- in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, for example, Martin Luther inclined towards Alexandrine Christology and John Calvin towards Antiochene.” – David Ford, ‘Theology: A Very Short Introduction’, (1999), OUP, p. 95

  • Mariology– the study of the nature and role of Mary, the mother of Christ. Like Christology this is often related to Anthropology– the study of human nature.
  • Hagiography– the study of saints and sainthood.
  • Many theologians also practise Moral and Social Theology. This is really Philosophy, but as Christians such theologians have to synthesise their philosophical work with the teachings of the Church (and of course Church teaching develops in this way as well).
  • A rapidly growing field today is Comparative Theology which explores the similarities and differences between theology in different religious traditions in a thematic way.


Given that theologians clearly know what they are talking about when they argue over the controversies within these subjects, the allegation that theology is just a lot of hot air about nothing falls rather flat.

Are you a theologian do you think? In what way?

…All this theology has made me hungry! See the Next Part of Theology and Doughnuts.


Comments on: "What is Theology?" (2)

  1. I’ve always heard the four aspects of theology described as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, not a donut (I think because the former implies they are more malleable in emphasis).

    I think, however, you’ve missed some important general types of theology: in addition to systematic theology and biblical exegesis (which maybe should be called “biblical theology” since you’re not concerned with working with language, but what it conveys) there is also philosophical theology (sometimes called fundamental theology) and historical theology (which does tend to be more descriptive than constructive). Some might include socio-scientific studies of religion, but that seems much more clearly sociology than theology.

    I don’t know that I find the 5-scale division of the specific types of theology particularly helpful. While Bultmann is closer to 1 than Barth, his theology is the logical result of Barth’s theology (a point W. Pannenberg, who was a colleague of both, makes very well) and thus shouldn’t really be considered *that* distinct.

  2. Robert Hagedorn said:

    Bible exegesis? Google First Scandal.

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