What the different types of theology are all about.

Theology is a Greek compound word of God “Theo” and study “-ology,” so in the most basic sense it is the study of God. Historically, it has featured as an aspect of most religions; it was not an independent discipline as it is today. That difference came about in the medieval era as the scholastic movement first founded Universities. Studies back then first started to be broken up into departments.

What are the main divisions of Christian theology today?

St Augustines On Christian Doctrine
St. Augustine, Image courtesy of LACMA

Theology these days is primarily a Christian thing, and in Christian theology there are a few major areas of active study:

Systematics

This is the “big picture” type of theology that tries to utilize all the other theological disciplines as well as philosophy, science, and other forms of knowledge to build a comprehensive system. Systematic theology is the place where Greek influence is the strongest. But at the same time, you could use Nietzsche.

It is also the place were new ideas are the most welcome, because in systematics a “new basis” in a new philosophy, a new theory of science, etc. So systematic theologians often try to say the same basic principles in new ways; it is not like apologetics (making the faith comprehensible to doubters/ answering their objections) per say.

It is done by people who already believe, to expand all our understandings as we learn new things.

When taught in Seminary, the outline often follows the Apostles creed:

We believe in God: study of God and who he is

We believe in Jesus, etc. etc.

Practical

This is where the rubber hits the road! It encompasses ethics, mission, and anything that pertains to living out the faith.

But don’t think it’s less influential than the systematics because it is less heady. In fact, this is the area that causes the most problems. Prayers, devotions, and piety are how people actually live out their beliefs, and in a sense these things eventually form peoples’ belief system.

The practical theologian must ask, “Does this fit into what we really believe?” and to do that he uses the other disciplines like systematics and biblical studies.

In Seminary, the teaching structure  is  topical: Spirituality, Ethics, Mission, etc.

Biblical

For many, they assume this is the only “pure theology” as it deals with interpreting scripture. However, because it deals with historical peoples, historical ideas, an original audience, etc. there is a lot of philosophical and cultural sleuthing to be done.

At the same time, the Bible while written to a certain group of people, should be made relevant to us and our times. So, biblical theologians should learn how to translate, how to make ideas intelligible, and what not.

This still isn’t separate from the other disciplines 100% because biblical theologians don’t want to leave the bible under the microscope but seen it lived out in people’s lives. Moreover, the Biblical theologian has their own beliefs about the bible, etc. as determined by their systematic theology.

Biblical theology is today not explicitly taught. Instead schools favor teaching the purely academic discipline of biblical studies, and allow classwork in the other fields of theology fill the gap.

Biblical studies consist of: original languages, manuscript science, exegetical methods of inquiry, and basic primers on entering academic debates on the subject (there are A LOT).


Types per Philosophy

However, outside of all of this which may seem familiar, there are some broader “types” of theology that exist.

God First

Apophatic

This is negative theology. It’s not a very common animal in the church today; it’s important to be aware of because some very big doctrines like the Trinity have an apophatic nature that gets obscured by modern attitudes that love “facts.”

Nicolas of Cussia was a great example of a negative theologian, and while most of his work is lost he summed up the approach well. Loosely: “God is not a Frog, but he is more a frog than he is a log”

If you look at church history this is actually the theology on the Western side of the church that marks the recent “greats”: Barth, Otto, and Kierkegaard. On the Eastern side of Christendom, it is the main name of the game.

Cataphatic

This is what everyone is familiar with “positive theology” that attempts to make concrete claims; however, just because it is trying to describe what really is means it does not have abstraction in it.

Most of the theological “proofs” are attempts at a cataphatic witness, establish something that people “know” and raise to a higher. In fact, Apophatic without this wouldn’t work.

Humans first

Figures by Benjamin Berlin
Figures by Benjamin Berlin, image courtesy of LACMA, link in image

Classical Liberal theology -androcentric

This is its own type of “method” and in fact even fundamentalist in an American context fall under it.

Basically, one takes what is “rational” as the basis of reality and establishes a whole system using this razor. So, if one believes in God, the “rational” view is 6 days’ creation. If God is “irrational” he is cute out of the system. Core to all of these, is that they are an observer based method where experience and worldview dictates

Modernism is a huge influence on the world!

Natural theologies

There are others who still observer based, assume there is a discernible “design” or something like that which leads to revelation and right belief.

In one religion it is called animism. In another its “creative design.” At the same time it’s also “material reductionism” in philosophy.

Mostly, this includes any view where the razor is not “what we find reasonable” but more a submission to the “world the way it is.”

This is again a growing school of theological thought, which is rather interesting to watch.

Not the whole theological spectrum

This is however a good primer on the issue. There are still many ways to “classify theology” by creed (Catholic Theology, Reformed Theology, etc.), etc., etc. There’s so many, like sacramental theology, and theologians write about all of it! like this piece on Calvin’s communion sacramentology

My main goal here is just to give some idea of the depth and approaches that exist. Many debaters seem to not really grasp where and what is being said and where the basis for any given argument rest.

Theology to be really mastered and useful needs to encompasses all of this: Systematics, Natural theology, Rationalism, and so forth.

So what’s your favorite form of theology?

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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