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What is Theology? Disciplines of Theological Study

What is Theology?

When theology is mentioned, many people think of a bunch of old professors arguing over minor topics using a bunch of boring six syllable highly technical terms.  While this can sometimes happen, theology is actually very exciting.  The word theology can be broken down into two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word).  So theology is considered to be a discourse, or study, about God, in a similar way that biology is a study about life (Greek word for life is bios).  We can better define theology as the study of the personal, triune God, His nature and His purposes, which He reveals through His words and His deeds.  The scholastic goal is to formulate accurate, lucid and pertinent statements about God and His doctrine in order to help equip ourselves and others to better worship, glorify and relate to God through a fuller knowledge and understanding of His nature, being and will.

All Christians are theologians to varying degrees. When we read our Bibles or other Christian literature, listen to sermons, or discuss doctrine, we’re involved with theology. To put it in the simplest of terms, whenever we are reading or discussing anything about God, we are doing theology.

For example, we could study God’s attributes, one of which is His love.  When we talk of God’s love, we see that it is so profound, so deep, so consistent, that the only way the Hebrews could describe it was to say that “God is love”, that is to say that God’s love is the ultimate standard to which all other forms of love are compared.

Because of this great love for us, God has revealed Himself through His Word, and His Word is truth (Jn. 17:17).  Similarly to God’s love, His truth functions as the ultimate standard of truth, the reference point by which every other claim to truthfulness must be measured.  So, the study of theology must be based upon God’s self-revelation and thus, our main source is God's Word, the Bible.  In fact, the greatest theologians throughout history, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and others, thought of themselves foremost as Bible students and teachers.  The modern day distinction between “bible studies" and “theology" would not have even crossed their minds.  Instead, the terms were practically interchangeable.

To better understand the modern theological process, we can break it down into various disciplines or categories (see our Methods of Theological Study for more information on applying these disciplines):

Exegesis

Exegesis is the practice of determining the correct meaning (author’s intent) of a particular portion of Scripture.  This has also been called Hermeneutics by some, but in actuality, Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting Scripture.  In other words, we use the rules of Hermeneutics to do our Exegesis.  This is the most important discipline, since it is the basis and foundation for all the others.

Biblical Theology

This disciple is a canonical approach to the study of doctrine, considering the contribution of the various books and authors within their era, without neglecting the unity of the whole of Scripture.  Biblical Theology begins with Genesis and traces the development of the truths given by God's progressive special revelation in their historical setting though the close of the NT canons.

Systematic Theology

In contrast to Biblical Theology, this branch of study attempts to summarize all the Bible’s teachings on each particular doctrinal subject.  Systematic studies build on the conclusions of exegesis and Biblical theology, and are typically broken down into the following areas (with obvious overlap):

Prolegomena

(from Greek meaning “speak beforehand”) – Introductory remarks on Foundations, Presuppositions and Methods; sometimes includes God’s means of Revelation

Bibliology

(from Greek biblos meaning “book”) - the study of the Bible, including its revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, canonicity, illumination, and interpretation.

Theology Proper

the study of the doctrine of God and the Trinity

Christology

(from Greek Christos meaning “anointed one”) – the study of the Person, Deity and Works of Jesus

Pneumatology

(from Greek pneuma meaning “"wind," "breath," or "spirit") – the study of the Personality, Deity and Works of the Holy Spirit

Anthropology

(from Greek anthropos meaning “man”) – the study of man or Humanity

Hamartiology

(from Greek hamartia meaning “sin”) - the study of the doctrine of sin, including its origin, nature, transmission, effects, and resulting judgment

Soteriology

(from Greek soteria or soterious meaning “salvation”) – the study of the doctrine of salvation, including man's condition, God's plan, atonement, nature of saving faith, etc

Angelology

(from Greek aggelos or angelos meaning “angels”) – the study of angelic beings, including origins, nature, classifications, service and works.  Some theologians include Satan and demons in the category, while others treat them under a separate heading (Demonology).

Ecclesiology

(from Greek ekklesia meaning “assembly”) – the study of the church including definition, forms, worship, government, leadership, ordinances, sacraments, and relation to OT Israel

Eschatology

(from Greek eskhatos meaning “last things”) – study of the end times including death, the intermediate state, the return of Christ, resurrection, judgment, tribulation, the millennial kingdom, heaven, hell, new creation, and the eternal state

Historical Theology

This discipline is concerned with how the understanding of the assorted doctrines further developed through the various periods of church history.

Practical Theology (Homiletics)

This field, sometimes called “Application Theology”, attempts to determine the best means by which to apply the theological truths gleaned from the other disciplines.  This broad category not only includes study of the construction and delivery of sermons, but also counseling, education, missions, worship, evangelism etc.

Other Theological Disciplines

The aforementioned categories make up the core of theological discipline, but we can also briefly mention a few related branches which often contribute to the study of theology.  The most closely related branch is known as Philosophical Theology, an area of study which applies the tools and methods of philosophical reason to information obtained from “general revelation” (nature and human thought) apart from the Bible.  Many modern theologians actually consider this discipline as part of the core categories.  Another mode of study is sometimes called Critical Theology.  This discipline critiques the works of other theologians.  Most theologians include critiques and commentary on the works of others within the other disciplines, but some consider this as a separate category.  Finally, we mention the field of Apologetics.  This is usually not considered a category within theology, but apologists use the results of theological studies to defend and explain the truth of the faith.

While on the subject of disciplines and categories, the question sometimes comes up regarding whether theology and “religious studies” are one and the same.  The answer can be “yes” or “no” depending on our definitions of the terms.  Some theologians make a distinction between the two while others do not.  Opinions and definitions greatly vary on this topic, so we’ll just give our position here.  We see “religious studies” as a broad field concerning all aspects of true and false religions such as beliefs, origins, trends, social aspects etc.  This field would actually encompass most all other religious categories.  In a general sense, theology can be very similar.  We stated earlier that, whenever we are reading or discussing anything about God, we are doing theology.  Thus in the broadest sense, even non-believers can be theologians.  That said, we generally limit the use of the term “theology” to tasks involving personal faith, or at least an honest commitment to finding truth, on the part of the person studying or discussing a particular religious subject.  Thus, when we say that theology is “talking about God”, were referring to discussing the one true infinite personal God, Creator of the universe.  Of course, theology (and apologetics) can also discuss world religions in comparison with and contrast to Christianity.  We can also refer to this field as the study of “comparative religions”.

As we might expect, the lines which separate the various theological disciplines tend to blur a bit.  The disciplines not only overlap, but are interrelated and inseparable.  We’ll address this further in our Methods of Theological Study article, but we’ll offer a simplified example here.  Suppose we want to research a topic such as Atonement.  We first find all applicable texts from Scripture to determine what the doctrine originally meant and how it developed through the canon.  We next consult the historic interpretations and then determine what the doctrine means today.  We then develop a systematic teaching of that doctrine, including how it interconnects with other doctrines and the whole of dogma.  Finally, the pastor or teacher must go one step further, proclaiming the message of the doctrine and how it is to be applied.

So, we see that Theology involves both doctrine and application.  Theology isn’t just studying God’s word, but personally interacting with God through our studies.  John Calvin writes, "It does us no good for all these truths to flit around our brain if they never penetrate our heart".  Many scholars have rightly said, “Theology is Doxology”.  Theology should not only change the way we think, but also the way we live.

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