The most simple answer to the question ‘what is theology’ is that it is ‘the study of God’. The term itself comes from a combination of two greek words: theos and logia. The first of these is the word for ‘god’; the second can be translated as ‘sayings’ or ‘utterances’.
Theology is often conceived of as ‘any idea or knowledge about God’. This is to use the word broadly – and indeed correctly. But it also has a more narrow definition: the critical study of God undertaken in the context of a university or seminary.
As an academic discipline, how does theology relate to other academic disciplines? Theology is often thought of as a cross between philosophy, history, sociology, psychology and poetry, and in order to comfortably learn about it it takes at least a working knowledge in each of these fields listed.
At one point theology was know as ‘the queen of the sciences’. This was in reference to its place as the unifying discipline that crowned and undergirded all other sciences. In this day and age theology has a much more modest place in most universities (if it exists there at all).
As we move into a discussion of ‘what is theology?’ for someone like St Athanasius who comes from an early period in Christian history it is all the more important that we define our concepts. Not until the medieval period do we get the concept of theology thoroughly worked out and defined more or less as a certain science, a field of understanding a way of understanding Christian doctrine.
Instead at the time of Athanasius in the fourth century the word ‘theology’ was often used in contrast to the word ‘economy’. This of course is not the economy as we use the word today but refers to God’s activity within his creation. The word economy originally had a connection in Greek to the head of the household who would order, arrange, manage the resources in their domain. And so it was a fitting word to describe God’s providential managing of history and creation.
Theology, on the other hand, today known as theology proper’, was limited to speaking about God and his eternal essence. So Jesus dying on the cross, his atonement, as much as that is central to theology today, would have fallen under economy insofar as it was talking about God’s action to reconcile humanity. This is not to say that the two were not related, if you have ever heard of Karl Rahner’s famous dictum that the economic trinity is the immanent (theological) trinity then you will know that these two are often difficult to hold entirely apart.Continue reading “What is theology? – St Athanasius”
Karl Barth is far too complex a thinker to quickly describe his theology. In an effort to be concise I am going to try and remain tied to his work Evangelical Theology. Of course, even in doing so I will not summarize everything.
Let me begin with a brief introduction to Evangelical Theology. The book is comprised of several lectures that he gave at the end of his academic career in Basel Switzerland. Some of these lectures were delivered also in the United States. As it is one of his later works it might seem to be a short summary of his earlier work. But Barth denies this instead claiming it as a short account “of what, up to now, I have basically sought, learned, and represented from among all the paths and detours in the field of evangelical theology during my five years as a student, twelve years as a preacher, and subsequent forty years as a professor.”
It has been proposed by some, most notably Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Barth left his dialectical theology behind by the time of the writing of Evangelical Theology and replaced it with a neo-Orthodoxy with a focus on analogy. Dialectical theology of course was a radical challenge to liberal theology of the early nineteenth-century, contained perhaps most famously in his Commentary on Romans. In this approach to theology the world stands in absolute contrast to God, emphasizing God’s sovereignty and his unconstrained choice in redemption through Jesus Christ. The neo-Orthodox strain held out more promise for greater continuity between God and creation and limited the jarring effects of ‘crisis’.
It is always enriching reading Martin Luther and imagining how he would answer the question ‘what is theology?’ His character and imagination are just so rich and deep that it always provides one with some food for thought.
Theology is active!
In an attempt to grasp at this depth using Luther’s own words (conflating for a moment theology and his notion of faith) we could say that for Luther theology “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” It is a task impossible for armchair theologians. Instead theology is a call, the call of God in Jesus Christ. To use the language of the 20th century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theology makes demands of you, it bids you to come and die. Hence, for Luther, theology is not a cartographers map, rather, it is a picture painted with vivid existential strokes and colours.
The term theology can mean a great variety of things. Among these are meanings related to its etymological significance, its uses drawn from before, during and after Christendom, and its academic definition.
What I intend to do on this webpage is to make a home for as many interpretations and meanings given to theology over the years as is possible – from those of individuals and churches to those of the university and religion more broadly.
I have been blessed by so many of these different meanings and I hope you will be blessed by them as well in your journey to study who God is and what we humans have to say about him.