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Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God and the creation of the cosmos.

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Theology is reasoned discourse concerning religion, spirituality and God or the Gods. Theologians use rational analysis and argument to understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of a myriad of religious topics. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian understand more truly his or her own religious tradition, understand more truly another religious tradition, make comparisons between religious traditions, defend a religious tradition, facilitate reform of a particular tradition, assist in the propagation of a religious tradition, or draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need, or for a variety of other reasons.

Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, is not usually associated with "Theology".

The word 'theology' has classical Greek origins, but was slowly given new senses when it was taken up in both Greek and Latin forms by Christian authors. It is the subsequent history of the term in Christian contexts, particularly in the Latin West, that lies behind most contemporary usage, but the term can now be used to speak of reasoned discourse within and about a variety of different religious traditions. Various aspects both of the process by which the discipline of 'theology’ emerged in Christianity and the process by which the term was extended to other religions are highly controversial.

History of the term theology.

The word "theology" originated in Ancient Greece, but its meaning shifted as it was used (in Greek and in Latin) in European Christian thought in the Patristic period, the Middle Ages and

  • The term theologia is used in Classical Greek literature, with the meaning "discourse on the Gods or cosmology".
  • Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematice, phusike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which for Aristotle included discussion of the nature of the divine.
  • Drawing on Greek sources, the Latin writer Varro influentially distinguished three forms of such discourse: mythical (concerning the myths of the Greek Gods), rational (philosophical analysis of the Gods and of cosmology) and civil (concerning the rites and duties of public religious observance).
  • Christian writers, working within the Hellenistic mould, began to use the term to describe their studies. It appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalupsis ioannou tou theologou, "the revelation of John the theologos". There, however, the word refers not to John the "theologian" in the modern English sense of the word but -using a slightly different sense of the root logos meaning not "rational discourse" but "word" or "message" - one who speaks the words of God - logoi tou theou.
  • Other Christian writers used the term with several different ranges of meaning.
    • Some Latin authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine followed Varro's threefold usage, described above.
    • In patristic Greek sources, theologia could refer narrowly to devout and inspired knowledge of, and teaching about, the essential nature of God.
    • In some medieval Greek and Latin sources, theologia (in the sense of "an account or record of the ways of God") could refer simply to the Bible.
    • In scholastic Latin sources, the term came to denote the rational study of the doctrines of the Christian religion, or (more precisely) the academic discipline which investigated the coherence and implications of the language and claims of the Bible and of the theological tradition (the latter often as represented in Peter Lombard's Sentences, a book of extracts from the Church Fathers).
  • It is the last of these senses (theology as the rational study of the teachings of a religion or of several religions) that lies behind most modern uses (though the second - theology as a discussion specifically of a religion's or several religions' teachings about God - is also found in some academic and ecclesiastical contexts; see the article on Theology Proper).
  • 'Theology' can also now be used in a derived sense to mean 'a system of theoretical principles; an (impractical or rigid) ideology'.

Theology and religions other than Christianity

In academic theological circles, there is some debate as to whether theology is an activity peculiar to the Christian religion, such that the word 'theology' should be reserved for Christian theology, and other words used to name analogous discourses within other religious traditions. It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of religions that worship a deity (a theos), and to presuppose belief in the ability to speak and reason about this deity (in logia) - and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts which are organized differently (i.e. religions without a deity, or which deny that such subjects can be studied logically). (Hierology has been proposed as an alternative, more generic term.)

Analogous discourses

  • Some academic inquiries within Buddhism, dedicated to the rational investigation of a Buddhist understanding of the world, prefer the designation Buddhist philosophy to the term Buddhist theology, since Buddhism lacks the same conception of a theos. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, who argues that the use of 'theology' is appropriate, can only do so, he says, because 'I take theology not to be restricted to discourse on God ... I take "theology" not to be restricted to its etymological meaning. In that latter sense, Buddhism is of course atheological, rejecting as it does the notion of God.'.
Adi Shankara.
Adi Shankara(centre), 788 to 820, founder of Advaita Vedanta, one of the major schools of Hindu philosophy.
  • There is, within Hindu philosophy, a solid and ancient tradition of philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe, of God (termed Brahman in some schools of Hindu thought) and of the Atman (soul). The Sanskrit word for the various schools of Hindu philosophy is Darshana(meaning, view or viewpoint), but some schools within the Vedanta branch of Hindu philosophy like Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita can loosely be called theologies, and the term has become widespread in English-language discussions of these and other aspects of Hindu thought. In particular, Vaishnava theology, which has been a subject of study for many devotees, philosophers and scholars in India for centuries, has in recent decades also been taken on by a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Bhaktivedanta College.
  • In Islam, theological discussion which parallels Christian theological discussion has been a minor and even slightly disreputable activity, named "Kalam"; the Islamic analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law, or "Fiqh". 'Kalam ... does not hold the leading place in Muslim thought that theology does in Christianity. To find an equivalent for "theology" in the Christian sense it is necessary to have recourse to several disciplines, and to the usul al-fiqh as much as to kalam.' (L. Gardet).
  • In Judaism the historical absence of political authority has meant that most theological reflection has happened within the context of the Jewish community and synagogue, rather than within specialised academic institutions. Nevertheless Jewish theology has been historically very active and highly significant for Christian and Islamic Theology. Once again, however, the Jewish analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.

Theology and the Academy.

Theology has a significantly problematic position within academia that is not shared by any other subject. Most universities founded before the modern era grew out of the church schools and monastic institutions of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages (e.g. University of Bologna, Paris University and Oxford University). They were founded to train young men to serve the church in Theology and law (often Church or Canon law). At such Universities Theological study was incomplete without Theological practice, including preaching, prayer and celebration of the Mass. Ancient Universities still maintain some of these links (e.g. having Chapels and Chaplains) and are more likely to teach Theology than other institutions.

During the High Middle Ages theology was therefore the ultimate subject at universities, being named "The Queen of the Sciences", and serving as the capstone to the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.

With the Enlightenment, universities began to change, teaching a wide range of subjects, especially in Germany, and from a Humanistic perspective. Theology was no longer the principal subject and Universities existed for many purposes, not only to train clergy for established churches. Theology thus became unusual as the only subject to maintain a confessional basis in otherwise secular establishments.

As a result theology is often distinguished from many other established Academic disciplines that cover the same subject area. Those who contend it is different sometimes claim that it is distinguished by viewpoint (suggesting that theology is studied from within a faith, rather than from without) and by practical involvement (suggesting theology cannot be truly studied or understood without a practical faith - an idea that would have been familiar to some of the early Christian Church Fathers, who described the theologian as a person who "truly prays."). Others would claim that theology involves taking seriously claims internal to a religious tradition on their own terms, as topics for investigation and analysis - studying people's beliefs about God, rather than necessarily studying God, perhaps - even if that inquiry is not carried out by one who is committed to the relevant tradition, or involved in practice flowing from it.

Nevertheless theology should be distinguished from the following disciplines;

  • comparative religion/Religious studies.
  • Philosophy of religion.
  • The History of religions.
  • Psychology of religion.
  • Sociology of religion.

All of these normally involve studying the historical or contemporary practices or ideas of one or several religious traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks which are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition, but are (normally) understood to be neutral or secular.

Even when it is distinguished from these other disciplines, however, some hold that the very idea of an academic discipline called 'theology', housed in institutions like Universities, is an inherently secular, Western notion. Noting that 'reasoned discourse about religion/God' is an idea with a very particular intellectual pedigree, with at least some roots in Graeco-Roman intellectual culture, they argue that this idea actually brings with it deep assumptions which we can now see to be related to ideas underlying 'secularism': i.e., the whole idea of reasoned discourse about God/religion suggests the possibility of a common intellectual framework or set of tools for investigating, comparing and evaluating traditions - an idea with a strong affinity for a 'secular' worldview in which religions are seen as particular choices, set within an overarching religiously neutral public sphere. They argue that even those who pursue this discourse as a way of deepening their commitment to and expertise in their own tradition, perhaps even so as to become promoters and propagators of it, often do so in a way which underlines this same 'secular' atmosphere - by assuming the communicability of their religious views (as explored and explained by theological discourse) within a neutral intellectual market-place.

Theological studies in different institutions.

In Europe, the traditional places for the study of theology have been universities and seminaries. Typically the Protestant state churches have trained their ministers in universities while the Roman Chatholic Church has used seminaries as well as universities for both the clergy and the laity. However, the secularization of European states has closed down the theological faculties in many countries while the Catholic church has increased the academical level of its priests by founding a number of pontifical universities.

In some countries, some state-funded Universities have theology Departments (sometimes, but not always, Universities with a medieval or early-modern pedigree), which can have a variety of formal relationships to Christian churches, or to institutions within other religious traditions. These range from Departments of Theology which have only informal or ad-hoc links to religious institutions to countries like Finland and Sweden, which have state universities with faculties of theology training Lutheran priests as well as teachers and scholars of religion - although students from the latter faculties can also go on to typical graduate careers such as marketing, business or administration, even if this is frowned upon by some.

In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Constitution prevents the study of theology from enjoying state endorsement. Theological studies (sometimes called Biblical studies) take place in a large number of private universities and seminaries, at varying academic levels and with various different degrees of academic freedom. Some hold that many of these American contexts for the study of theology have less academic freedom than the faculties of theology in many European state universities, pointing out that, at least in some of these contexts, theologians who end up with views deemed "heretical" by the denomination upholding the institution and may find themselves out of work. On the other hand, there are those who claim that the "openness" of the European faculties of theology is really an openness towards liberal or modernist theological trends, and that those who hold more conservative theological views have very little of practical freedom.

Albert the Great, patron saint of Roman Catholic Theologians.

Quotations on theology.

  • Theology is "faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)." - Anselm of Canterbury.
  • "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." - H. L. Mencken.
  • "An authentic theology will not allow man to be obsessed with himself." - Thomas F. Torrance in Reality and Scientific Theology..
  • "Theology announces not just what the Bible says but what it means." - J. Kenneth Grider in A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1994), p. 19.
  • "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor." - Martin Luther, quoted in Martin Marty, Martin Luther, 2004, p. 114.

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