Theology is the study of God or, more generally, the study of religious faith, practice, experience or of spirituality.
Augustine of Hippo defined the Latin equivalent, theologia, as "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity"; Richard Hooker defined "theology" in English as "the science of things divine". The term can, however, be used for a variety of different disciplines or forms of discourse.
Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic, historical, spiritual and others) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad 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 or justify 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,
- draw on the resources of a tradition to explore possible ways of interpreting the world, or
- explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition.
History of the term
Theology translates into English the Greek theologia (θεολογία) (from theos (θεός) meaning god and logos (λόγος) meaning word, discourse, or reasoning, plus the abstract substantive suffix ia), which had passed into Latin as theologia and into French as théologie. The English equivalent "theology" (Theologie, Teologye) had evolved by 1362. The sense the word has in English depends in large part on the sense the Latin and Greek equivalents had acquired in Patristic and medieval Christian usage, though the English term has now spread beyond Christian contexts.
- Greek theologia (θεολογια) was used with the meaning "discourse on god" in the fourth century B.C. by Plato in The Republic, Book ii, Ch. 18. Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematike, physike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which, for Aristotle, included discourse on the nature of the divine.
- Drawing on Greek Stoic sources, the Latin writer Varro 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).
- Theologos, closely related to theologia, appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalypsis ioannoy toy theologoy, "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 toy theoy.
- Some Latin Christian authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine, followed Varro's threefold usage, though Augustine also used the term more simply to mean 'reasoning or discussion concerning the deity'
- In Patristic Greek Christian 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.
- The Latin author Boethius, writing in the early 6th century, used theologia to denote a subdivision of philosophy as a subject of academic study, dealing with the motionless, incorporeal reality (as opposed to physica, which deals with corporeal, moving realities). Boethius' definition influenced medieval Latin usage.
- 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 in this last sense, theology as an academic discipline involving rational study of Christian teaching, that the term passed into English in the fourteenth century, though it could also be used in the narrower sense found in Boethius and the Greek patristic authors, to mean rational study of the essential nature of God - a discourse now sometimes called Theology Proper.
- From the 17th century onwards, it also became possible to use the term 'theology' to refer to study of religious ideas and teachings that are not specifically Christian (e.g., in the phrase 'Natural Theology' which denoted theology based on reasoning from natural facts independent of specifically Christian revelation ), or that are specific to another religion (see below).
- "Theology" can also now be used in a derived sense to mean "a system of theoretical principles; an (impractical or rigid) ideology."
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 that are organized differently (religions without a deity, or that deny that such subjects can be studied logically). ("Hierology" has been proposed as an alternative, more generic term.)