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edit index Theology

Theology was used as early as in Plato's Republic (book ii, chap 18). The the term, compounded from two Greek words theos (god) and logos (rational utterance), has been defined as reasoned discourse about God or the gods, or more generally about religion or spirituality. Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic, historical) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of a myriad of religious topics. It might be undertaken to help the theologian:
  • understand more truly his or her own religious tradition,(1)
  • understand more truly another religious tradition,(2)
  • make comparisons between religious traditions,(3)
  • defend a religious tradition,
  • facilitate reform of a particular tradition,(4)
  • assist in the propagation of a religious tradition,(5) or
  • draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need,(6) or for a variety of other reasons.

The word "theology" has classical Greek origins, but was slowly 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.(7) 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.

Beyond the West

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.'(8)

There is, within Hindu Philosophy, 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, has in recent decades also been taken on by a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Bhaktivedanta College. See also: Krishnology

In Islam, theological discussion which parallels Christian theological discussion has been a minor and even slightly disreputable activity, 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)(9)

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 specialised academic institutions. Nevertheless Jewish theology has been historically very active and highly significant for Christian and Islamic Theology. Once again, however, the Jewish analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish Law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.

Theology and the Academy

Theology has a significantly problematic position within Academia 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, Yale, Princeton, and Brown all started to train preachers in the subjects of Bible and theology. However, now 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. 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 in London UK, as well as many others have influenced higher education in Theology and Philosophy.

With universities becoming more secular in their views, theology is often distinguished from many other established academic disciplines that cover the same subject area. Those who contend it is different sometimes claim that it is distinguished by viewpoint (suggesting that theology is studied from within a faith, rather than from without) and by practical involvement (suggesting theology cannot be truly studied or understood without a practical faith - an idea that would have been familiar to some of the early Christian Church Fathers, who described the theologian as a person who "truly prays."). Others would claim that theology involves taking seriously claims internal to a religious tradition on their own terms, as topics for investigation and analysis - studying people's beliefs about God, rather than necessarily studying God, perhaps - even if that inquiry is not carried out by one who is committed to the relevant tradition, or involved in practice flowing from it.

Even when it is distinguished from these other disciplines, however, some hold that the very idea of an academic discipline called 'theology', housed in institutions like Universities, is an inherently secular, Western notion.(10) Noting that 'reasoned discourse about religion/God' is an idea with a very particular intellectual pedigree, with at least some roots in Graeco-Roman intellectual culture, they argue that this idea actually brings with it deep assumptions which we can now see to be related to ideas underlying 'secularism': i.e., the whole idea of reasoned discourse about God/religion suggests the possibility of a common intellectual framework or set of tools for investigating, comparing and evaluating traditions - an idea with a strong affinity for a 'secular' world view in which religions are seen as particular choices, set within an overarching religiously neutral public sphere. They argue that even those who pursue this discourse as a way of deepening their commitment to and expertise in their own tradition, perhaps even so as to become promoters and propagators of it, often do so in a way which underlines this same 'secular' atmosphere - by assuming the communicability of their religious views (as explored and explained by theological discourse) within a neutral intellectual market-place.


  • Theology is "faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)." - Anselm of Canterbury
  • "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." - H. L. Mencken
  • "An authentic theology will not allow man to be obsessed with himself." - Thomas F. Torrance in Reality and Scientific Theology
  • "Theology announces not just what the Bible says but what it means." - J. Kenneth Grider in A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1994), p. 19.
  • "God is whole, more or less a theological being." - Jerimiah Minderson
  • "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor." — Martin Luther, quoted in Martin Marty, Martin Luther, 2004, p. 114.
  • "A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution." - Thomas Jefferson, on the University of Virginia, which he founded.
  • "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian." - Denis Diderot
  • "It is a thousand times better to know how to cook than it is to understand any theology in the world." - Robert G. Ingersoll
  • "What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?" - Richard Dawkins

See Also


  1. See, e.g., Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004)
  2. 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 weblink
  3. See, e.g., David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)
  4. See, e.g., John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (New York: Harper Collins, 2001)
  5. See, e.g., Duncan Dormor et al (eds), Anglicanism, the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum, 2003)
  6. See, e.g., Timothy Gorringe, Crime, Changing Society and the Churches Series (London:SPCK, 2004)
  7. See, for example, Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, ed 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)
  8. 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.
  9. L. Gardet, 'Ilm al-kalam' in The Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. P.J. Bearman et al (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 1999).
  10. See, for instance, debates on the Talk page for this article between Stevertigo, Mahigton and Totalthinker in 2006.

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Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article "Theology" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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