The development of theology in Christendom arose from the need for educated Christians of the ancient world to express their ideas in terminology familiar in current thought. Hence arose the close relation of Christian theology with Greek philosophy formulated by the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. St. Augustine, a Latin Father and one of the greatest theologians, introduced and standardized in his writings teachings that became central to Christian theology. Augustine's influence was paralleled in the East by that of Origen.
The great theological problems of the early church involved the relationship of the first and second persons of the Christian Trinity, the relationship of the divine and human in Jesus, and the relationship between God and humanity. One important struggle was over Arianism, the heresy that denied the true divinity of Jesus. The nature of grace was also debated during the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation; the heretical Pelagians (see Pelagianism) contended that a human being has the ability to take the first steps necessary toward salvation apart from divine grace. Augustine insisted, against the Pelagians, that humanity is totally dependent on grace for salvation.
Scholastic theology (see scholasticism) sought to illuminate matters of religious faith through intellectual understanding. Scholastic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile seeming contradictions in revealed truths by presenting a doctrine with supporting argument, contradicting argument, and a solution. Aquinas' Summa Theologica is often regarded as the greatest work of Scholasticism. Scholastics differentiated carefully between theology and philosophy by confining theology to the field of the systematization and investigation of revealed truths; in this distinction philosophy is to proceed always from reason and does not investigate the truths that transcend reason. The distinction is maintained explicitly by Roman Catholic thinkers and implicitly by conservative Protestants. According to this differentiation Calvinism and Lutheranism are theologies, not philosophies.
As a result of the 18th-century Enlightenment, especially the work of Immanuel Kant, a new rational theology arose in the 19th cent. This must be carefully distinguished from the "rationalism" of scholasticism, because 19th-century rational theology assumes as axiomatic the ability of reason to criticize adequately every truth. The theological school of Tübingen was the center for the extreme "rationalistic theologians," and there the "higher criticism" of the Bible, which revolutionized much of Protestant thought, was brought to its first fruition. The most profound of 19th-century Protestant German theologians, and perhaps the most influential of the new rationalists, was Friedrich Schleiermacher. The new rationalistic theology developed very rapidly, and hardly any two theologians of it agree in detail; there are various systems of modernism.
In the 20th cent. the Protestant neoorthodoxy movement emerged in Europe and America. It owed much to the theology of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. The movement, which accepted the methods and findings of modern biblical criticism, interpreted religion as only one aspect of contemporary life and emphasized faith and revelation as divine gifts. Among Roman Catholics in the 20th cent., liberation theology, which originated in Latin America, has emphasized the importance of fighting oppression and aiding the poor through active roles in political affairs; since the 1980s it has been strongly criticized by the church hierarchy. Under Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church strongly reasserted its control over the teaching of theology by Catholic theologians, removing official sanction from Hans Küng and others who deviated from church doctrine.
The word 'theology' has classical Greek origins. The term was first used by Plato in The Republic (book ii, chap 18), and is compounded from two Greek words theos (god) and logos (rational utterance). It was gradually given new senses when it was taken up in both Greek and Latin forms by Christian authors. It is the subsequent history of the term in Christian contexts, particularly in the Latin West, that lies behind most contemporary usage, but the term can now be used to speak of reasoned discourse within and about a variety of different religious traditions. Various aspects both of the process by which the discipline of ‘theology’ emerged in Christianity and the process by which the term was extended to other religions are highly controversial.
The word theology comes from late middle English (originally applying only to Christianity) from French théologie, from Latin theologia, from Greek: θεολογία, theologia, from θεός, theos or God + λόγος or logos, "words", "sayings," or "discourse" (+ suffix ια, ia, "state of", "property of", "place of"). The Greek word is literally translated as "to talk about God" from Θεός (Theos) which is God and logy which derives from logos, though this raises the question of the meaning of the word "God". The meaning of the word "theologia"/"theology" shifted, however, as it was used (first in Greek and then in Latin) in European Christian thought in the Patristic period, the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, before being taken up more widely.
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 which are organized differently (religions without a deity, or which deny that such subjects can be studied logically). (Hierology has been proposed as an alternative, more generic term.)
Theology has a significantly problematic position within academia (higher education) that is not shared by any other subject. Most universities founded before the modern era grew out of the church schools and monastic institutions of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages (e.g. University of Bologna, Paris University and Oxford University). They were founded to train young men to serve the church in Theology and Law (often Church or Canon law). At such universities, theological study was incomplete without Theological practice, including preaching, prayer and celebration of 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 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.
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 principal 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 otherwise secular establishments. However, this did not lead to the abandonment of theological study.
Eventually, several prominent colleges/universities were started to train Christian ministers in the U.S. Harvard, Georgetown University, Boston College, Yale, Princeton, and Brown University all began in order to train preachers in Bible and theology. However, now some of these universities teach theology as a more academic than ministerial discipline.
With the rise of Christian education, renowned seminaries and Bible colleges have continued the original purpose of these universities. Chicago Theological Union, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Creighton University Omaha, University of Notre Dame in South Bend IN, University of San Francisco, Criswell College in Dallas, Southern Seminary in Louisville, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Wheaton College and Graduate School in Wheaton, Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, London School of Theology, as well as many others have influenced higher education in theology in philosophy to this day.
Theology is generally distinguished from other established academic disciplines that cover similar subject material (such as intellectual history or philosophy). 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.
While theology often interacts with and draws upon the following, it is generally differentiated from:
All of these normally involve studying the historical or contemporary practices or ideas of one or several religious traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks which are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition, but are (normally) understood to be neutral or secular.
The whole idea of reasoned discourse about God suggests the possibility of a common intellectual framework or set of tools for investigating, comparing and evaluating traditions. Still, most maintain that theology is a field of study presupposed by a particular worldview of faith.
In Europe, the traditional places for the study of theology have been universities and seminaries. Typically the Protestant state churches have trained their clergy in universities while the Roman Catholic church has used seminaries as well as universities for both the clergy and the laity. 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.
In some countries, some state-funded Universities have theology departments (sometimes, but not always, universities with a medieval or early-modern pedigree), which can have a variety of formal relationships to Christian churches, or to institutions within other religious traditions. These range from Departments of Theology which have only informal or ad-hoc links to religious institutions (see, for instance, several Theology departments in the UK) to countries like Finland and Sweden, which have state universities with faculties of theology training Lutheran priests as well as teachers and scholars of religion - although students from the latter faculties can also go on to typical graduate careers such as marketing, business or administration, even if this is frowned upon by some.