So, the last time it was my week I discussed three ways in which we could respond to fiction as fundamentally theological (i.e. whether in can be theological, how it helps us understand our own beliefs, and how it helps us communicate our beliefs). However, as I’ve been thinking more about this I realized that I really started at the end, rather than starting at the beginning with the end in mind. So, my three posts this week are going to deal more specifically with explaining the nature of theology itself and how it can be approached.
Theology can be most broadly defined as the study of god or gods. While most in the West probably think of theology primarily as Christian theology, this is not entirely accurate. There is also Islamic theology, Muslim theology, Hindu theology, etc. In fact, every religion that puts forward a belief in a god or gods also has at least a rudimentary study of them and the world in light of them. However, I am most familiar with Christian theology, and Christian theology in its broadest scope is one of the best developed fields of its kind. Further, I personally believe that the general organization of Christian theology can also be easily and effectively applied to other forms of theology as well. Thus, this post initially will outline the academic organization of theological study.
Broadly speaking there are four major fields of theological study:
Biblical Theology: in foreign this could be termed ‘textual theology’ or ‘cultic theology.’ This field focuses on the study of the proper translation and interpretation of a religions sacred texts or central creeds. In Christianity the field of biblical theology (also called biblical studies) focuses on questions about what the bible actually says. For instance, how should Romans 1:24-27 be interpreted? How should the term ratsach in Exodus 20:13 be translated? This field can be separated into four major areas: study of the original languages (i.e. Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and sometimes Ugaritic, Sumerian, and Latin or other major Middle Eastern languages as well), Hermeneutics (or the study of interpreting written texts), Old Testament Studies (which includes both the study of Old Testament documents and of the culture and history of Ancient Near Eastern societies from around 2500-2000 B.C.E. to around 0 C.E.), New Testament Studies (which includes the study of New Testament documents and of the culture of Ancient Near Eastern Societies from around 400 B.C.E. to around 100 C.E.). Any scholar of Christian Biblical Theology could be expected to have some familiarity with all of these fields, but will probably be specialized in one or two.
Natural Theology: this field focuses on the study of the revelation given by god or gods outside of sacred texts. In Christianity this focuses on the study of God’s revelation through creation. For instance, how much of God’s moral law is revealed apart of Scripture? How are God’s attributes revealed through the natural world? This is a field of study that is not often a focus of Christian theologians, but is often heavily used by Christian Apologetics. Thus, aspects of Natural Law theory, Apologetics, and Christian Philosophy draw heavily on the study of Natural Theology, but it is not a discipline in which Christian theologians generally specialize apart from their study of one of the other major areas of theology.
Systematic Theology: this field focuses on the organization and extrapolation of the truths revealed by biblical and natural theology. While Systematic Theology draws (or at least should draw) heavily on the work produced by the study of sacred texts and the natural world, it is not the same as this study. Instead, it is an attempt to organize the results of these studies topically and to apply reason in order to explore and consider the logical implications of the work produced by the study of sacred texts and the natural world. Systematic theology in Christianity is separated into nine categories: Theology Proper (the study of nature and attributes of God), Biblical Theology (the study of the whole context of scripture–similar to but not identical with the biblical theology listed above, this is more focused on topical analysis than textual analysis), Christology (the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ), Pneumatology (the study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit), Soteriology (the study of the nature of salvation), Theological Anthropology (the study of the nature of man), Hamartiology (the study of sin), Angelology (the study of Angels and Demons), Ecclesiology (the study of the Church), Eschatology (the study the end times and final judgment). Some of these categories would be appropriate for a systematic theology of other religions as well, but many obviously are not.
Applied Theology: applied theology is the study of how theological truths can and should be applied to daily life. Some people will argue that all theology is applied theology, but I disagree with this. All theology should be taken to the point of being applied, but theory comes before application. So, there must be theoretical theology, but that theory must be applied if it is to have any purpose. In any religion there are as many areas of applied theology as there are possible fields to which theology can be applied. For instance, theology and culture studies the implications and applications of theology to modern high or pop-culture (i.e. art, fiction, music, etc). Worship theology studies the implications and applications of theology to the practice of corporate worship. Political theology studies the implications and applications of theology to the governance of a community (sometimes called Christian Social Ethics). Moral theology studies the implications and applications of theology for the individual moral life (sometimes called Christian Ethics). Spiritual Formation studies the implications and applications of theology for individual worship and relationship with God. Obviously, these are all somewhat intertwined such that all fields of applied theology have some things in common and generally touch upon each other in many and significant ways.
These is the basic outline for the nature of theology that I will be discussing this week. Most theologians focus on a few areas in one of these fields, but all theologians should be familiar with all of these fields (as is appropriate for their religion obviously) because they have a substantial impact upon one another. A systematic theologian who pays no attention to biblical theology, and thus does not have a strong foundation in what the sacred texts of his/her religion actually say, is unlikely to produce meaningful and edifying work in his field. The same can be true with an applied theologian. Alternatively, a biblical theologian who has no clear concept of systematic theology would be under-prepared to effectively and meaningfully organize and present the results of his textual studies in the light of the text as a whole. Thus, while one may specialize, some degree of generalization is necessary for any good theologian.