Theology

 

 

What part of ‘Theology’ would you like to explore?

 

 

The term "theology" literally means the study of God, deriving from the Greek word theos, meaning 'God', and the suffix -ology from the Greek word logos meaning (in this context) "discourse", "theory", or "reasoning". Augustine of Hippo defined the Latin equivalent, theologia, as "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity"; Richard Hooker defined "theology" in English as "the science of things divine".  More generally, it is the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or of spirituality.

 

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

 

albert the great

Albert the Great, patron saint of Roman Catholic Theologians

·        understand more truly his or her own religious tradition,

·        understand more truly another religious tradition,

·        make comparisons between religious traditions,

·        defend or justify a religious tradition,

·        facilitate reform of a particular tradition,

·        assist in the propagation of a religious tradition, or

·        Draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need.

 

 

History of the term

 

Theology translates into English the Greek theologia (θεολογία) (from theos (θεός) meaning God and logos (λόγος) meaning word, discourse, or reasoning, plus the abstract substantive suffix ia), which had passed into Latin as theologia and into French as théologie. The English equivalent "theology" (Theologie, Teologye) had evolved by 1362.  The sense the word has in English depends in large part on the sense the Latin and Greek equivalents had acquired in Patristic and medieval Christian usage, though the English term has now spread beyond Christian contexts.

·        Greek theologia (θεολογια) was used with the meaning "discourse on god" in the fourth century B.C. by Plato in The Republic, Book ii, Ch. 18.  Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematike, physike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which, for Aristotle, included discourse on the nature of the divine.

·        Drawing on Greek Stoic sources, the Latin writer Varro 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 rights and duties of public religious observance).

·        Theologos, closely related to theologia, appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalypsis ioannoy toy theologoy, "the revelation of John thetheologos." 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 rootlogos, meaning not "rational discourse" but "word" or "message,"—one who speaks the words of God, logoi toy theoy.

·        Some Latin Christian authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine, followed Varro's threefold usage,, though Augustine also used the term more simply to mean 'reasoning or discussion concerning the deity'

·        In Patristic Greek Christian sources, theologia could refer narrowly to devout and inspired knowledge of, and teaching about, the essential nature of God.

·        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.

·        The Latin author Boethius, writing in the early 6th century, used theologia to denote a subdivision of philosophy as a subject of academic study, dealing with the motionless, incorporeal reality (as opposed to physica, which deals with corporeal, moving realities).  Boethius' definition influenced Medieval Latin usage.

·        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 in this last sense, theology as an academic discipline involving rational study of Christian teaching, that the term passed into English in the fourteenth century, though it could also be used in the narrower sense found in Boethius and the Greek patristic authors, to mean rational study of the essential nature of God - a discourse now sometimes called Theology Proper.

·        From the 17th century onwards, it also became possible to use the term 'theology' to refer to study of religious ideas and teachings that are not specifically Christian (e.g., in the phrase 'Natural Theology' which denoted theology based on reasoning from natural facts independent of specifically Christian revelation), or that are specific to another religion (see below).

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

 

 

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.  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.)

 

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 atheological, rejecting as it does the notion of God."

·        Within Hindu philosophy, there is a solid and ancient tradition of philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe, of God (termed "Brahman" in some schools of Hindu thought) and of the Atman (soul). The Sanskrit word for the various schools of Hindu philosophy is Darshana (meaning "view" or "viewpoint"). Vaishnava theology has been a subject of study for many devotees, philosophers and scholars in India for centuries, and in recent decades also has been taken on by a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Bhaktivedanta College.

·        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)

·        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.

 

 

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 BC or earlier; the Platonic Academy founded in Athens in the 4th century BC seems to have included theological themes in its subject matter; the Chinese Taixue delivered Confucian teaching from the 2nd century BC; the School of Nisibis was a centre of Christian learning from the 4th century AD; Nalanda in India was a site of Buddhist higher learning from at least the 5th or 6th century AD; and the Moroccan University of Al-Karaouine was a centre of Islamic learning from the 10th century, as was Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

 

Modern Western universities evolved from the monastic institutions and (especially) cathedral schools of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages.   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 defense of its teaching, and in supporting the legal rights of the church over against secular rulers.  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.

 

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.

 

Christian theology’s preeminent place in the university began to be challenged during the European Enlightenment, especially in Germany.  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.

 

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 centers 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.

 

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, a liberal theologian, argued for the inclusion of theology in the new University of Berlin in 1810.

 

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.’

 

In the U.S.A. several prominent colleges and universities were started in order to train Christian ministers in the U.S. Harvard, Georgetown University, Boston, Yale, Princeton, Brown University, and Mercer University 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. There are, for instance, numerous prominent US examples, including The Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Criswell College in Dallas, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Dallas Theological Seminary.

 

Theology as an academic discipline in its own right

 

In some contexts, theology is pursued as an academic discipline without formal affiliation to any particular church (though individual members of staff may well have affiliations to different churches), and without ministerial training being a central part of their purpose. This is true, for instance, of several Departments in the United Kingdom, including the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds.

 

Theology and religious studies

 

In some contemporary contexts, a distinction is made between theology, which is seen as involving some level of commitment to the truth of the religious tradition being studied, and religious studies, which is not. If contrasted with theology in this way, religious studies is normally seen as requiring the bracketing of the question of the truth of the religious traditions studied, and as involving the study of the historical or contemporary practices or ideas those traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks that are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition, and that are normally understood to be neutral or secular.  In contexts where 'religious studies' in this sense is the focus, the primary forms of study are likely to include:

·        Anthropology of religion,

·        Comparative religion,

·        History of religions,

·        Philosophy of religion,

·        Psychology of religion, and

·        Sociology of religion.

 

Theology and religious studies are sometimes seen as being in tension; they are sometimes held to coexist without serious tension; and it is sometimes denied that there is as clear a boundary between them as the brief description here suggests.

 

 

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Theology

 

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