/thee ol"euh jee/, n., pl. theologies.
1. the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God's attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.
2. a particular form, system, branch, or course of this study.
[1325-75; ME theologie < OF < LL theologia < Gk theología. See THEO-, -LOGY]

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Study of the nature of God and the relationship of the human and divine.

The term was first used in the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers to refer to the teaching of myth, but the discipline expanded within Christianity and has found application in all theistic religions (see theism). It examines doctrines concerning such subjects as sin, faith, and grace and considers the terms of God's covenant with humankind in matters such as salvation and eschatology. Theology typically takes for granted the authority of a religious teacher or the validity of a religious experience. It is distinguished from philosophy in being concerned with justifying and explicating a faith, rather than questioning the underlying assumptions of such faith, but it often employs quasi-philosophical methods.

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      discipline of religious thought that is restricted in its narrower sense, because of origination and format, to Christianity, but in its broader sense, because of its themes, to other religions. The themes of theology are God, man, the world, salvation, and eschatology (or the study of last times).

Nature of theology
      The concept of theology that is applicable as a science in all religions and that is therefore neutral is difficult to distill and determine. The problem lies in the fact that theology as a concept had its origins in the tradition of the Greeks but that it obtained its content and method only within Christianity. Thus, theology, because of its peculiarly Christian profile, is not readily transferable in its narrow sense to any other religion. In its broader thematic concerns, theology as a subject matter is germane to other religions.

      The Greek philosopher (philosophy) Plato (c. 428–348/347 BC), with whom the concept emerges for the first time, associated with the term theology a polemical intention—as did his pupil Aristotle. For Plato theology described the mythical (myth), which he allowed may have a temporary pedagogical significance that is beneficial to the state but is to be cleansed from all offensive and abstruse elements with the help of political legislation. This identification of theology and mythology also remained customary in the later Greek thought. In distinction to philosophers, “theologians” (as, for example, the poets of myth—e.g., the 8th-century-BC Greeks Hesiod and Homer—or the cultic servants of the oracle at Delphi [Greece] and the rhetors of the Roman cult of emperor worship) testified to and proclaimed that which they viewed as divine. Theology thus became significant as the means of proclaiming the gods, of confessing to them, and of teaching and “preaching” this confession. In this practice of “theology” by the Greeks lies the prefiguration of what later would be known as theology in the history of Christianity. In spite of all the contradictions and nuances that were to emerge in the understanding of this concept in various Christian confessions and schools of thought, a formal criterion remains constant: theology is the attempt of adherents of a faith to represent their statements of belief consistently, to explicate them out of the basis (or fundamentals) of their faith, and to assign to such statements their specific place within the context of all other worldly relations (e.g., nature and history) and spiritual processes (e.g., reason and logic).

      Here, then, the above indicated difficulty becomes apparent. In the first place, theology is a spiritual or religious attempt of “believers” to explicate their faith. In this sense it is not neutral and is not attempted from the perspective of removed observation—in distinction to a general history of religions. The implication derived from the religious approach is that it does not provide a formal and indifferent scheme devoid of presuppositions within which all religions could be subsumed. In the second place, theology is influenced by its origins in the Greek and Christian traditions, with the implication that the transmutation of this concept to other religions is endangered by the very circumstances of origination. If one attempts, nevertheless, such a transmutation—and if one then speaks of a theology of primitive religions and of a theology of Buddhism—one must be aware of the fact that the concept “theology,” which is uncustomary and also inadequate in those spheres, is applicable only to a very limited extent and in a very modified form. This is because some Eastern religions have atheistic qualities and provide no access to the theos (“god”) of theology. If one nonetheless speaks of theology in religions other than Christianity or Greek religion, he implies—in formal analogy to what has been observed above—the way in which representatives of other religions understand themselves.

Relationship of theology to the history of religions and philosophy

Relationship to the history of religions
      If theology explicates the way in which the believer understands his faith—or, if faith is not a dominating quality, the way in which a religion's practitioners understand their religion—this implies that it claims to be normative, even if the claim does not, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, culminate in the pretention to be absolutely authoritative. The normative element in these religions arises simply out of the authority of a divine teacher, or a revelation (e.g., a vision or auditory revelation), or of any other kind of spiritual encounter over against which one feels committed. The newly evolving discipline of the history of religions, which encompasses also religious psychology, religious sociology, and religious phenomenology as well as philosophy of religion, has emancipated itself from the normative aspect in favour of a purely empirical analysis. This empirical aspect, which corresponds to the modern conception of science, can be applied only if it functions on the basis of objectifiable (empirically verifiable) entities. Revelation of the kind of event that would have to be characterized as transcendent, however, can never be understood as such an objectifiable entity. Only those forms of religious life that are positive and arise out of experience can be objectified. Wherever such forms are given, the religious man is taken as the source of the religious phenomena that are to be interpreted. Understood in this manner, the history of religions represents a necessary step in the process of secularization. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that theology and the history of religions only contradict one another. The “theologies”—for want of a better term—of the various religions are concerned with religious phenomena, and the adherents of the religions of the more advanced cultures are themselves constrained—especially at a time of increasing cultural interdependency—to take cognizance of and to interpret theologically the fact that besides their own religion there are many others. In this regard, then, there are not only analytical but also theological statements concerning religious phenomena, particularly in regard to the manner in which such statements are encountered in specific primitive or high religions. Thus, the objects of the history of religions and those of theology cannot be clearly separated. They are merely approached with different categories and criteria. If the history of religions does not surrender its neutrality, since such a surrender would thereby reduce the discipline to anthropology in an ideological sense (e.g., religion understood as mere projection of the psyche or of societal conditions), theology will recognize the history of religions as a science providing valuable material and as one of the sciences in the universe of sciences.

Relationship to philosophy
      The relationship of theology to philosophy is much more difficult to determine, because it is much more complicated. The problems can here only be mentioned. If one does not adhere to the narrow concept of philosophy that reduces it positivistically to logic or epistemology (theory of knowledge) but rather understands philosophy as the discipline that attempts to explicate the totality of being, the difference between this latter interpretation of philosophy in relation to theology becomes apparent. If theology is responsible to an authority that initiates its thinking, speaking, and witnessing—e.g., a document containing revealed truth, as well as the spiritual testimony related to it—philosophy bases its arguments on the ground of timeless evidence, an evidence with which autonomous reason understands itself to be confronted. Since, on the other hand, theology also uses reason and systematically develops its tenets—however much its critical reflections are based on religious convictions—there are many common areas that have partly complementary significance but that partly also lead to polemical tensions.

The significance of theology

The religious significance of theology
      Just as in the case of religions themselves, so also their theological reflections are not limited to a special religious sphere, separated from common life. Whoever speaks of God and the gods speaks at the same time of man and of the meaning of existence. He makes therewith statements about the world, its conditions of being created, its estrangement from the purpose of creation (e.g., sin), and its determined goal (eschatology or view of the last times). Out of these statements result normative directives for life in the world, not only for the purpose of gaining access to salvation but also for concrete ethical (ethics) behaviour in the context of the I–Thou (or person to person) relationship, of the clan, of the nation, and of society. In ancient times, all aspects of life (e.g., relationship between the sexes, hygiene, work, and other aspects) were determined religiously and permeated by cultic forms and practices. In this regard, every religion contains the totality of being that its “theology” intends to express—if one also includes certain rudiments of reflection in primitive religion in the concept “theology.”

      In primitive religions the tribe represents the pivot around which all world relations turn. The primeval (or mythical) time to which the tribe traces its own origins is also the time of salvation and fulfillment. Therefore, primitive religions primarily concern themselves with the ancestral cult. Involved in tribal concerns in the realm of religious thought are conceptions of mana (spiritual power, or force); i.e., the teaching that tribal heads, medicine men, and sorcerers are subjects of special charisma (spiritual power or influence) and more potent powers of life. In Eastern religions, as in Western religions, this understanding is infinitely refined, developed, and theologically reflected. In regard to the relationship of man to the world, many Eastern religions (especially Hinduism) have a definite skeptically tinged negative view of all reality, which is especially pronounced in contrast to the Christian doctrine of creation (creation myth). Though this doctrine points to a “happy event” in Christianity, the call to life and reality is understood in Eastern thought in the opposite manner:

To be man implies being cut off from all true reality. Creation should have never happened, and its faults should be eliminated as soon as possible. . . . The illusion that I am is a calamity. Not death is to be explained, but rather birth. (Stephen Neill).

The cultural importance of theology
      Since theology does not remain restricted to transcendent statements and to an esoteric and sacred realm, and since it rather encompasses all worldly dimensions (cosmology, anthropology, historiology, and other areas), it has always had important significance for cultural evolution and general intellectual life. Western historians hardly need to be reminded of the fact that the Old Testament prophetic theology of history (history, philosophy of) (e.g., the 8th-century-BC Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah) has decisively influenced the origins of the concept history and, indeed, has made this concept possible in the first place. On Old Testament theology of history is based the understanding of history as a linear process, as directed to a goal (i.e., the Kingdom of God), and as qualified by the characteristic of singularity. This view of history contrasts with a cyclical understanding of successive events; i.e., the view that history repeats itself. The fact that university and school were originally initiated by the church (as is still very often the case in mission fields) is based on the fact that theology has thematized in its various subjects the various dimensions of life (nature, history, ethics, and other disciplinary areas). Also, much of modern philosophy has emerged out of theological themes and categories—in such modern thinkers as the existential philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and even in the Communist thinker Karl Marx remnants of this fact are still observable. Modern philosophy has, by and large, only gradually emancipated itself from this theological origin, but this emancipation also has taken place in a manner that has retained the dialectical relationship of theology and philosophy. That theological questions in the modern age of secularism are less openly posed than in the time of the Middle Ages does not reduce their lasting significance. They always reemerge, often in disguised form, such as in the quest for the meaning of life and existence or in the nihilistic resignation over against that quest; furthermore, they reemerge in the quest for the dignity of human existence, the inviolability of life, the determination of human rights, and many other such questions. A theologian such as the German-American thinker Paul Tillich (Tillich, Paul) has investigated specifically the secular realm in view of the relevance of these latent theological questions that are posed by modern man in his relationship to a constantly changing world.

Theological themes
      The themes discussed by theology are of universal dimensions. They encompass the doctrine of God, of man, and of the world. Even when no “doctrine of God” exists in the strict sense of the term, as in the case of what are sometimes called “atheistic” religions (e.g., certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism), man and the world are understood in the context of finality and therefore have religious aspects. The inclusion of the world in theological discussion also implies that behaviour in the world—that is, ethics—is included in theology; in some areas (e.g., Confucianism) this aspect gains a dominating position. Ethical conceptions—derived from theological concepts in the broad meaning of theology—are developed in contradictory forms: they can lead to ascetic world denial but also to a definite world affirmation. The first form is realized in Buddhism and Hinduism, the second in Confucianism. In Christianity both forms are represented. The theological theme of the relation of man and the world has been described by the 17th-century French scientist and thinker Blaise Pascal (Pascal, Blaise) as the doctrine of the “dignity and poverty of man”—i.e., the doctrine of creation and fall—and, related to this, the proclamation of salvation and the presentation of a path to salvation. This path leads, in the various religions, into greatly diverging directions. It can be placed under the exclusive direction of divine grace (as in Amida Buddhism and in Protestant Christianity); it can be left to the activity and initiative of man (as in Confucianism); or it can be characterized by a combination of the two principles (as in Zen Buddhism and in the Roman Catholic combination of grace and merit). Finally, theology also includes among its various themes statements concerning the process and goal of history (eschatology), especially concerning the relation of secular history and history of salvation.

Functions of theology
      The vastness of theological interests and aspects implies that theology can master the material with which it is confronted only within a broad spectrum of partial disciplines. Since theology is based on authority (revelation), and since this authority is documented in the Holy Scriptures (especially in Christianity), it is constrained to engage in philological and historical studies of these sources and, related to these studies, also with hermeneutical (hermeneutics) (critical interpretive) questions. This historical task broadens into a concern with the history and tradition of the religion that a particular theology represents. In this concern many difficult and controversial questions arise, including whether and to what extent the canon (scriptural standard) of the sources of revelation is glossed over and modified by tradition and what normative value the modifying tradition has or should have. These problems play an important part in the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism, even though the problems are also treated independently by each confession.

      The question of truth posed by theology requires the constitution of a discipline that specifically concerns itself with fundamental questions (systematic theology). Its task can be determined in the following manner: (1) It has to develop the totality of religious teachings (dogmatics, or the doctrine (doctrine and dogma) of faith). (2) It has to interpret man's existence in the world and, related to this, to determine the norms ( ethics derived from faith) for action in the world—e.g., for the disposition toward one's fellow man and toward societal and political structures and institutions. (3) It further has to represent its claim to truth in the context of confrontation with other claims to truth and with other criteria of verification (apologetics, polemics). As part of this concern, theology's task is to explain reasonably, in view of historical relativism, the absolute claim of the truth that it represents. Related to this is the modern-day task of coordinating its doctrine of creation or its doctrine of the revelation of the transcendent (e.g., the Christ event in Christianity) with the worldview of modern natural science and its thesis of the immanency of being—i.e., of being that is self-contained. Another aspect of this task is the confrontation with other religions' claim to truth, which can lead to vastly different results: either—this is noted only as an example—it can lead to the thesis of the complementary positions of individual religions and therefore to tolerance (as, for example, in Hinduism as well as in some schools in the West) or to one's own religion's claim to be absolute (as in Christianity, at least among the most important of its representatives). But also, in the last mentioned situation, such a claim is widely modified. It can manifest itself by a total rejection of other religions as “devil's work,” but it can also be expressed in an interpretation of other religions as first steps to and as seeds of a religious development, the completion of which it knows itself to be.

      The vast dimension of theological themes implies that theology is, with its many disciplines, a microcosmic image of the university. Even though it is a science in which the believers or the adherents of a particular religion explicate and critically analyze the truth that is represented by them, it nevertheless has to remain free within the framework of this commitment, and it has to fulfill the responsibility of its scientific task on the basis of its own autonomy. The opposite of this freedom would arise when an institution (e.g., the church) restricted the range of theological inquiry with normative claims, forcing the discipline therewith to assume ideological functions. The struggle concerning the freedom and limitations of theology—i.e., concerning responsible criticism and authority—is a struggle that has accompanied the history of theology from the very beginnings to the present.

Helmut Thielicke

Additional Reading
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, trans. by Terence N. Tice, 2nd ed. (1988; originally published in German, 1811, and 2nd ed., 1830), provides an overview of theology as a whole and in all its parts from a liberal Protestant perspective. Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary (1965; originally published in German, 1961); and John Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought, 4th ed. (1988), together cover a vast range of topics and themes of theology, past and present. Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984), considers differing viewpoints on theological theories. Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vol. (1962–65; originally published in German, 1957–60); and Rudolf K. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 2 vol. (1951–55, reissued in 1 vol., 1970; originally published in German, 1948–53), are the most important texts dealing with Holy Scripture in modern times.thomas Aquinas, The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. from Latin, 22 vol. (1912–25); and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. from Latin, ed. by John T. McNeill, 2 vol. (1960), are editions of probably the two most important classical statements of Roman Catholic and Reformed theology. Martin Luther, Christian Liberty, trans. from German, rev. ed. (1957, reissued 1988), while less systematic, does give a condensed statement of the Lutheran position. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (eds.), Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs (1987), provides a summary of Jewish belief. An introduction to the world of Orthodox theology can be found in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (1979, reissued 1993).Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954, reissued 1991; originally published in French, 1949); and Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, rev. ed. (1962; originally published in German, 1946), deal with Christianity as a historical religion in contrast to nonhistorical interpretations of religion. Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, 7 vol. (1894–99, reissued in 4 vol., 1976; originally published in German, 3rd improved and enlarged ed., 3 vol., 1887–90), is the classic study of the history of Christian theology in relation to Greek thought. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 5 vol. (1971–89), is the most important history of Christian doctrine since Harnack, from whose analysis he differs on many points: Pelikan takes a more balanced view of the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy and is, on the whole, more sympathetic to the contributions of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Two works by Karl Barth, Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl (1959, reprinted 1987; originally published in German, 1947), and Church Dogmatics, 5 vol. in 14 (1936–77; originally published in German, 1932–70); and two by Paul Tillich, Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology (1967), and Systematic Theology, 3 vol. (1951–63), represent two very different treatments of the Protestant tradition, the first conservative and evangelical, the second progressive and in dialogue with modern science and philosophy. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 7 vol. (1983–91); and Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (1978, reissued 1989; originally published in German, 1976), provide a comparable exposure to the diversity of Catholic perspectives. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, new ed. completely rev. and updated (1994), summarizes Roman Catholic theology in an easily accessible style. Juan Luis Segundo, Theology and the Church, trans. from Spanish, rev. ed. (1987), is an excellent brief introduction to the debate around liberation theology and to other struggles in contemporary Catholic theology. Two works by theologians, Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (1987; originally published in Portuguese, 1986); and Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, rev. ed. (1995; originally published in Spanish, 1971), have been especially influential among partisans of this theology.The disciplines of the history and the phenomenology of religions are introduced and illustrated by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2nd ed. (1950, reissued 1980; originally published in German, 9th ed., 1922); and Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vol. (1978–85; originally published in French, 1976–83). Among the more recent anthropological studies of religion, Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1975, reissued 1993), has been especially influential among theologians. Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation (1975), is a theologian's introduction to the sociological study of religion and pays considerable attention to theological implications. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984), argues for a postmodern cultural-linguistic interpretation of dogma. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), brings a feminist viewpoint to the study of Christian theology.Helmut Thielicke Ed.

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Universalium. 2010.

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