Christian theology is discourse concerning Christian faith. Christian theologians use biblical exegesis, rational analysis and argument to understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote Christianity. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian understand Christianity more truly, make comparisons between Christianity and other traditions, defend Christianity against critics, facilitate Christianity's reform, assist in the propagation of Christianity, draw on the resources of the Christian tradition to address some present situation or need, or for a variety of other reasons.
Christian theology has permeated much of Western culture, especially in pre-modern Europe.
The emergence of Christian theology
The emergence of Christian theology has sometimes been presented as the triumph of Hellenistic rationality over the Hebraic faith of Jesus and the early disciples (see also Jewish Christianity). The early African theologian Tertullian, for instance, complained that the 'Athens' of philosophy was corrupting the 'Jerusalem' of faith. More recent discussions have qualified and nuanced this picture.
- From the very beginning of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus tried to make sense of the impact of Jesus of Nazareth, and began arguing about differing ways of making sense. There has never been an uncontested, unrationalized Christian faith..
- These processes of making sense initially drew upon the ideas and narratives of contemporary Judaism, which was already Hellenized in various degrees, see Hellenistic Judaism. As time went by, ideas and narratives from other Hellenistic context were drawn on, but the Jewish scriptures remained a key driver of theological development, and too sharp a distinction between Hebraic and Hellenistic is unsustainable. Some elements of early Christian theologizing previously thought to be thoroughly 'Hellenistic' (e.g., the Prologue of John's Gospel) are now regularly argued to be thoroughly Jewish.
- The ideas and narratives drawn on in this process were transformed as they were given a new context in Christian practices of devotion, community—formation and evangelism—and the extent to which borrowings from Hellenistic culture (for instance) were given new meanings in this process should not be underestimated.
- One of the characteristics of those strands of Early Christianity (in the second and third centuries) sometimes called proto-orthodox (because they are the most direct ancestors of the forms of Christianity that in the fourth century were defined as Orthodox), invested a great deal of time and energy in communication between widely spread conversations, and in pursuing a deep interest in each other's beliefs and practices. This concern and communication seems to have been as much a driver of the development of theological activity as the desire to communicate Christianity to, or make it acceptable in, a Hellenistic culture.
The history of Christian theology
Early Christian theology
The New Testament contains evidence of some of the earliest forms of reflection upon the meanings and implications of Christian faith, mostly in the form of guidance offered to Christian congregations on how to live a life consistent with their convictions – notably in the Pauline corpus and Johannine corpus.
A huge quantity of theological reflection emerged in the early centuries of the Christian church – in a wide variety of genres, in a variety of contexts, and in several languages – much of it the product of attempts to discuss how Christian faith should be lived in cultures very different from the one in which it was born. So, for instance, a good deal of the Greek language literature can be read as an attempt to come to terms with Hellenistic culture. The period sees the slow emergence of orthodoxy (the idea of which seems to emerge out of the conflicts between catholic Christianity and Gnostic Christianity), the establishment of a Biblical canon, debates about the doctrine of the Trinity (most notably between the councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381), about Christology (most notably between the councils of Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451), about the purity of the Church (for instance in the debates surrounding the Donatists), and about grace, free will and predestination (for instance in the debate between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius).
Texts from patristic authors before 325 AD are collected in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Texts from patristic authors after 325 AD are collected in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Important theological debates also surrounded the various Ecumenical Councils – Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451
See also main articles on Patristics and Church Fathers.
Medieval Christian theology
While the Western Roman Empire declined and fell, the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, remained standing until 1453, and was the home of a wide range of theological activity that was seen as standing in strong continuity with the theology of the Patristic period; indeed the division between Patristic and Byzantine theology would not be recognised by many Orthodox theologians and historians.
Before the Carolingian Empire
When the Western Roman Empire fragmented
under the impact of various 'barbarian' invasions, the Empire-wide intellectual culture that had underpinned late Patristic theology had its interconnections cut. Theology tended to become more localised, more diverse, more fragmented. The classically-clothed Christianity preserved in Italy by men like Boethius
was different from the vigorous Frankish
Christianity documented by Gregory of Tours
which was different again from the Christianity that flourished in Ireland
in the seventh
and eighth centuries
. Throughout this period, theology tended to be a more monastic
affair, flourishing in monastic havens where the conditions and resources for theological learning could be maintained.
Theology in the time of Charlemagne
Both because it made communication between different Christian centres easier, and because there was a concerted effort by its rulers to encourage educational and religious reforms and to develop greater uniformity in Christian thought and practice across their territories, the establishment of the Carolingian Empire
saw an explosion of theological inquiry, and theological controversy. Controversy flared, for instance, around 'Spanish Adoptionism
, around the views on predestination of Gottschalk
, or around the eucharistic views of Ratramnus
With the division and decline of the Carolingian Empire, notable theological activity was preserved in some of the Cathedral schools that had begun to rise to prominence under it – for instance at Auxerre
in the 9th century
in the 11th
. Intellectual influences from the Arabic world (including works of classical authors preserved by Islamic scholars) percolated into the Christian West via Spain, influencing such theologians as Gerbert of Aurillac
, who went on to become Pope Sylvester II and mentor to Otto III
. (Otto was the fourth ruler of the Germanic Ottonian Holy Roman Empire
, successor to the Carolingian Empire). With hindsight, one might say that a new note was struck when a controversy about the meaning of the eucharist blew up around Berengar of Tours
in the 11th Century
: hints of a new confidence in the intellectual investigation of the faith that perhaps foreshadowed the explosion of theological argument that was to take place in the twelfth century.
Early Scholasticism and its contemporaries
Anselm of Canterbury
is sometimes misleadingly called the 'Father of Scholasticism' because of the prominent place that reason has in his theology; instead of establishing his points by appeal to authority, he presents arguments to demonstrate why it is that the things he believes on authority must be so. His particular approach, however, was not very influential in his time, and he kept his distance from the Cathedral Schools. We should look instead to the production of the gloss
on Scripture associated with Anselm of Laon
, the rise to prominence of dialectic
(middle subject of the medieval trivium
) in the work of Abelard, and the production by Peter Lombard
of a collection of Sentences
or opinions of the Church Fathers and other authorities. Scholasticism proper can be thought of as the kind of theology that emerges when, in the Cathedral schools and their successors, the tools of dialectic are pressed into use to comment upon, explain, and develop the gloss and the sentences.
High Scholasticism and its contemporaries
The 13th Century saw the attempted suppression of various groups perceived as heterodox, such as the Cathars
and the associated rise of the mendicant orders
(notably the Franciscans
), in part intended as a form of orthodox alternative to the heretical groups. Those two orders quickly became contexts for some of the most intense scholatsic theologizing, producing such 'high scholastic' theologians as Alexander of Hales
(Franciscan) and Thomas Aquinas
(Dominican), or the rather less obviously scholastic Bonaventure
(Franciscan). The century also saw a flourishing of mystical theology
, with women such as Mechthild of Magdeburg
playing a prominent role. In addition, the century can be seen as period in which the study of natural philosophy that could anachronistically be called 'science' began once again to flourish in theological soil, in the hands of such men as Robert Grosseteste
and Roger Bacon
Late Scholasticism and its contemporaries
Scholastic theology continued to develop as the thirteenth century gave way to the fourteenth, becoming ever more complex and subtle in its distinctions and arguments. The fourteenth century saw in particular the rise to dominance of the nominalist
theologies of men like William of Ockham
. The fourteenth century was also a time in which movements of widely varying character worked for the reform of the institutional church, such as conciliarism
and the Hussites
. Spiritual movements such as the Devotio Moderna
See also Scholasticism
Reformation and Counter-Reformation Christian theology
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
, Martin Bucer
and the Anabaptists
. Their Theology was developed by successors such as Theodore Beza
, the English Puritans
and Francis Turretin
The Roman 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.
Modern Christian theology
After the Reformation protestant
groups continued to splinter, leading to a range of new theologies. The "Enthusiasts
" were so named because of their emotional zeal. These included the Methodists
, the Quakers
. Another group sought to reconcile Christian faith with "Modern" ideas, sometimes causing them to reject beliefs they considered to be illogical, including the Nicene creed
and Chalcedonian Creed
. these included Unitarians
. A major issue for Protestants became the degree to which Man contributes to his salvation. The debate is often viewed as synergism
, though the labels Calvinist
are more frequently used, referring to the conclusion of the Synod of Dort
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.
Vladimir Lossky is a famous Eastern Orthodox theologian writing in the 20th century for the Greek church.
seeks to respond to the challenges of post modern and deconstructionist thought, and has included the death of God
movement, Process Theology
, Feminist theology
, Queer Theology
and 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
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 stimulated the significant rise of Liberation Theology which can be interpreted as a rejection of Academic Theology that fails to challenge the establishment and help the poor.
From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth groups established themselves that derived many of their beliefs from Protestant evangelical groups but significantly differed in doctrine. These include the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints. Many of these groups use the Protestant version of the bible and typically interpret it in a fundamentalist fashion, adding, however, special prophecy or scriptures, and typically denying the trinity and the full deity of Jesus Christ.
Ecumenical Theology sought to discover a common consensus on theological matters that could bring the many Christian denominations together. As a movement it was successful in helping to provide a basis for the establishment of the World Council of Churches and for some reconciliation between more established denominations. But ecumenical theology was nearly always the concern of liberal theologians, often Protestant ones. The movement for ecumenism was opposed especially by fundamentalists and viewed as flawed by many neo-orthodox theologians.
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. Reform Judaism represents a liberal interpretation as against Orthodox Judaism, and moderate or Liberal Islam continues to be theologically distinct from Islamic Fundamentalism, notably its Wahabi and Deobandi Schools.
Divisions of Christian theology
There are many methods of categorizing different approaches to Christian theology.
Christian theologians may be specialists in one or more theological sub-disciplines. These are the kinds of phrases that one finds in certain job titles such as 'Professor of x', 'Senior Lecturer in y':
- Apologetics/polemics—studying Christian theology as it compares to non-Christian worldviews in order to defend the faith and challenge beliefs that lie in contrast with Christianity
- Biblical hermeneutics—interpretation of the Bible, often with particular emphasis on the nature and constraints of contemporary interpretation
- Biblical studies—interpretation of the Bible, often with particular emphasis on historical-critical investigation
- Biblical theology—interpretation of the Bible, often with particular emphasis on links between biblical texts and the topics of systematic or dogmatic theology
- Constructive theology—generally another name for systematic theology; also specifically a postmodernist approach to systematic theology, applying (among other things) feminist theory, queer theory, deconstructionism, and hermeneutics to theological topics
- Dogmatic theology—studying theology (or dogma) as it developed in different church denominations
- Ecumenical theology—comparing the doctrines of the diverse churches (such as Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and the various Protestant denominations) with the goal of promoting unity among them
- Exegesis—interpretation of the Bible
- Historical theology—studying Christian theology from an historical perspective
- Homiletics—in theology the application of general principles of rhetoric to public preaching
- Moral theology—explores the moral and ethical dimensions of the religious life
- 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")
- Patristics or patrology—studies the teaching of Church Fathers, or the development of Christian ideas and practice in the period of the Church Fathers
- Philosophical theology—philosophical analysis of theological topics.
- Pragmatic or practical theology—studying theology as it relates to everyday living and service to God, including serving as a religious minister
- Spiritual theology—studying theology as a means to orthopraxy: Scripture and tradition are both used as guides for spiritual growth and discipline
- Systematic theology (doctrinal theology, dogmatic theology or philosophical theology)—focused on the attempt to arrange and interpret the ideas current in the religion. This is also associated with constructive theology
- Theological aesthetics—interdisciplinary study of theology and aesthetics / the arts
- Theological Hermeneutics - the study of the manner of construction of theological formulations. Related to theological methodology.
These topics crop up repeatedly and often in Christian theology; composing the main recurrent 'loci' around which Christian theological discussion revolves.
- Bible--the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; including hermeneutics (the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts)
- Eschatology—the study of the last things, or end times. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
- Christology—the study of Jesus Christ, of his nature(s), and of the relationship between his divinity and humanity;
- Creation myths
- Divine providence - the study of sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people's lives and throughout history.
- Ecclesiology (sometimes a subsection of missiology)—the study of the Christian Church, including the institutional structure, sacraments and practices (especially the worship of God) thereof
- Mariology, area of theology concerned with Mary, the Mother of Christ.
- Missiology (sometimes a subsection of ecclesiology)—God's will in the world, missions, evangelism, etc.
- Pneumatology—the study of the Holy Spirit, sometimes also 'geist' as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems
- Soteriology—the study of the nature and means of salvation. May include Hamartiology (the study of sin), Law and Gospel (the study of the relationship between Divine Law and Divine Grace, justification, sanctification
- Theological anthropology—the study of humanity, especially as it relates to the divine
- Theology Proper—the study of God's attributes, nature, and relation to the world. May include:
A traditional pattern
Roman Catholic theology
One important branch of Christian theology is Roman Catholic theology which has these major teachings:
Christians have had theological disagreements since the time of Jesus. Theological disputes have given rise to many schisms and different Christian denominations, sects and movements. Sometimes theological studies have taken place in universities under secular, often anti-Christan authority. Theology done in such a manner is extremely suspect if no attempt is made to obtain wide feedback from the actual Christian community. In the extreme case a schizophrenic belief system is created which is completely out of touch with the reality of daily life.
Since the Reformation emphasized the rights of Christians to expound their own views of theology, most theological distinctions have occurred between the various Protestant denominations. Some elaboration of Roman Catholic doctrines; however, have been promulgated since that time. The differences between many of the denominations are relatively minor, and this has helped ecumenical efforts in recent times.
- Adventism: Typified by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
- Anglo-Catholicism: High church theology of Anglicanism.
- Arminianism: Reaction to Calvinist soteriology, which affirms man's freedom to accept or reject God's gift of salvation; identified with Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius, developed by Hugo Grotius, defended by the Remonstrants, and popularized by John Wesley. Key doctrine of Anglican and Methodist churches, adopted by many Baptists and some Congregationalists.
- Brethrenism: Anabaptist-Pietist, with Open and Exclusive streams.
- Calvinism: System of soteriology advanced by French Reformer John Calvin, which espouses Augustinian views on election and reprobation; stresses absolute predestination, the sovereignty of God and the inability of man to effect his own salvation by believing the Gospel prior to regeneration; principle doctrines are often summarized by the acronym TULIP (see Canons of Dort).
- Charismaticism: Movement in many Protestant and some Catholic churches that emphasizes the gifts of the Spirit and the continual working of the Holy Spirit within the body of Christ; often associated with glossolalia (i.e., speaking in tongues) and divine healing.
- Congregationalism: Form of governance used in Congregationalist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches in which each congregation is self-governing and independent of all others.
- Counter-Reformation (or Catholic Reformation): The Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation (see also Council of Trent).
- Creation Spirituality: Panentheist theology.
- Deism: The general doctrine that no faith is necessary for justified belief in God's existence and/or the doctrine that God does not intervene in earthly affairs (contrasts with Fideism).
- Dispensationalism: Belief in a conservative, Biblically literalist hermeneutic and philosophy of history that, by stressing the dichotomy between Israel and the Church, rejects supercessionism (commonly referred to as "replacement theology").
- Evangelicalism: Typically conservative, predominantly Protestant outlook that prioritizes evangelism above all or most other activities of the Church (see also neo-evangelicalism).
- Fideism: The doctrine that faith is irrational, that God's existence transcends logic, and that all knowledge of God is on the basis of faith (contrasts with Deism).
- Latitudinarianism: Broad church theology of Anglicanism.
- Liberalism: Belief in interpreting the Bible to allow for the maximum amount of individual freedom.
- Low church: Puritanical / Evangelical theology of Anglicanism.
- Methodism: Form of church governance and doctrine used in the Methodist Church.
- Modernism: Belief that truth changes, so doctrine must evolve in light of new information or trends.
- Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism): Belief that the Book of Mormon and others to be additional divine scriptures; belief in living prophets; generally reject the Nicene creed and other early creeds. Regarded as a distinct religion or a pseudo-Christian religion by most Christian churches.
- New Thought: Movement based on 19th century New England belief in positive thinking. Several denominations arose from it including Unity Church, and Religious Science.
- Nonconformism: Advocacy of religious liberty; includes Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Salvationists.
- Nontrinitarianism: Rejection of the doctrine of Trinity.
- Open Theism: A rejection of the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, by attribuiting it to Greek philosophy.
- Pietism: A stream of Lutheranism placing renewed emphasis on the Bible and a universal priesthood of all believers.
- Presbyterianism: Form of governance used in Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
- Puritanism: Movement to cleanse Episcopalianism of any "ritualistic" aspects.
- Supersessionism: Belief that the Christian Church, the body of Christ, is the only elect people of God in the new covenant age (see also covenant theology).
- Restoration Movement: 19th century attempt to return to a New Testament model of the Church.
- Restorationism: The doctrine that most of the modern Church is apostate; includes the Millerites, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Latter Day Saints.
- Salvation Army: An offshoot of the Methodist Church known for its charitable activities
- Tractarianism: Oxford Movement. It led to Anglo-Catholicism.
- Ultramontanism: A movement within 19th-century Roman Catholicism to emphasize papal authority, particularly in the wake of the French Revolution and the secularization of the state
- Unification Church
- Unitarianism: Rejects a holy "Trinity" and also the divinity of Christ, with some exceptions (see modalism).
- Universalism: In various forms, the belief that all people will ultimately be reconciled with God; most famously defended by Origen.
Contemporary Theological movements
In addition to the movements listed above, the following are some of the movements found amongst Christian theologians:
- Andcone, J.H., eds. Black Theology; A Documentary History, 1966–1979. Orbis Books, 1979
- Appiah-Kubi, K and Torres, S., eds. African Theology en Route, Orbis Books, 1979
- Bonino, J.M. Doing theology in a Revolutionary situation, Philadelphia:Fortress Press, 1975.
- Christian Theology Reader by Alister McGrath. ISBN 0–631–20637-X
- Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. ISBN 0–631–22528–5
- Elwood, D.J., ed. Asian Christian Theology; Emerging Themes. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979
- Fuller, Reginald H. The Foundations of New Testament Christology (1965). ISBN 0–684–15532-X
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity (1984, 1985, 1999). ISBN 1–56563–522–1)
- Hill, Jonathan 2003) The History of Christian Thought. ISBN 0–7459–5093–0 and 0830827765
- Koyama, Kosuke, Waterbuffalo Theology. Orbis books, 1974
- Leith, John H. Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (1978). ISBN 0–8042–0479–9)
- Miranda, J. Being and the Messiah. Orbis Books, 1974.
- Moore, B., ed. The Challenge of Black Theology in South Africa. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974.
- Muzorewa, H. African Theology: Its Origin and Development. Orbis Books, 1984.
- Sobrino, J. Christology on the Crossroads. Orbis Books, 1978
- Systematic Theology, an ecumenical trilogy by Thomas Oden
- Volume 1: The Living God (1992). ISBN 0–06–066363–4
- Volume 2: The Word of Life (1992). ISBN 0–06–066364–2
- Volume 3: Life in the Spirit (1994). ISBN 0–06–066362–6