Theology 101

I’ve put together a little two-page hand-out as an introduction to what theology is all about, which I plan to share with some friends in a small group.  I figured it’d be decent material to post here, too, since it reveals my understanding of how one can approach theology.

Personally, I’m a fan of incorporating biblical & systematic theology in my approach.  I have very little experience with philosophy, but I do want to start reading philosophy to find out what all the fuss is about.  Not that I want to do “philosophical theology,” exactly, but insofar as philosophical language is used in theology, I do want to have a better grasp of it.  As for the specific foci, I acknowledge that I favor sacramental and pastoral the most.  Historical and dogmatic I hold in high regard, but am somewhat lax in my use of them.  Ecumenical theology has a great deal of pull for me, but I’m always afraid that it compromises the true meaning of the differing traditions it tries to unite.

Definition of theology

Technical definition:    theology = theos + logos = word/study about God

Broader definition:       Theology also refers to doctrine, the teaching of the Church.

Purpose of theology

            Theology is not merely an academic activity, it is what happens every time Christians think about or interact with God.  What we believe and how we think profoundly effects our spirituality and practical Christian living.  As we pursue relationships with God in Christ, we need to get to know God as well as we can intellectually as well as emotionally.  This doesn’t mean that we all have to have Master’s degrees to be good Christians, but it is expected of us to get to know God as well as we’re able.
Theology in its broader sense is also critical to healthy Christian living because it strengthens our faith.  If we have questions about something, we either seek an answer or our faith may be weakened.  Again, not every Christian has to be a scholar, but every Christian can benefit from good scholarship through local preachers and teachers.

Multiple approaches to formulating theology

Every responsible theologian and every good style of theology makes use of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and the Experience of the Holy Spirit in public and private life.  Of course, different styles of formulating theology emphasize different things.  In this respect we must be careful not to be create a false hierarchy: theology that is “straight from the Bible” is not necessarily better than theology that is worked out within a system.  The Bible always supports good doctrine, but is not itself comprehensive, so there is a place for the voices of reason and tradition to make sense of things.  At the same time, though, reason and tradition can only carry us so far without direct Biblical support before we enter the realm of pure conjecture.  The point at which this happens is identified differently by different people and denominations, so we should be careful of how we strike that balance.  Here are three major approaches to Christian theology:

Biblical – starts with biblical passages, themes, etc. and works out doctrine from there
Examples:  The Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 & 15, Atonement according to Psalm 50
Pros: stronger biblical fidelity
Cons: much less comprehensive in scope, disjointed, risk of taking passages out of context

Natural / Philosophical / Scientific – starts with non-Christian sources and works up to God
Examples: The Ontological Argument, synthesis with Aristotelian metaphysics
Pros: powerful apologetic, integrates General Revelation with Special
Cons: risk of putting the Bible under foreign authorities

Systematic – starts with a comprehensive system and how doctrines connect to one another
Examples: catechisms, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
Pros: superior coherence and coverage, is well-thought-out
Cons: risk of putting reason & logic over the Bible

Multiple focuses for organizing theology

Within a particular theological style, of course, are many ways to organize the information.  Although this level of detail is not always necessary to intentionally pursue in personal theological considerations, these can be helpful categories to think about to better understand how we’re thinking as well as to understand how others are thinking as we read books or articles.

Also, these focuses very often overlap.  Virtually all good Christian theology is at least partially historical in nature, if not heavily indebted to the work of the past.  At the other end of the same spectrum, most theologies are at least somewhat contextual too, responding to the concerns of the time in which they’re written.  Different focuses also help bring out different aspects of the same thing.  For example, Baptism will have a more “what this event means in our lives” description in a pastoral theology, and a more Spirit-filled description in a sacramental theology, so both focuses together can shed more light than just one.  Here are seven major fields of theological focus:

Contextual – focused upon contemporary issues and situations
Examples: Liberation Theology, 20th century American Evangelical Theology
Pros: much more practical and relevant for the setting or culture
Cons: risk of putting non-essentials over the essentials

Dogmatic – focused upon absolute truths that must be affirmed by all Christians
Examples: Roman Catholic Dogmatic Theology, The Five Fundamentals
Pros: keeps the essentials in the center
Cons: is divisive when people disagree over what the essentials are

Ecumenical – focused upon unifying different traditions without disrupting their integrity
Examples: Chalcedonian Christology, Evangelicals & Catholics Together
Pros: can help bring different traditions closer together
Cons: can produce shallow writings or limited conclusions

Historical – focused upon utilizing past theological writings into the present
Examples: Doctrine of the Trinity, Polity of the Church
Pros: keeps the Church consistent with herself over time, learning from the past
Cons: risk of putting tradition over the Bible

Moral / Ethical – focused upon how Christians are supposed to live and act in this life
Examples: Biblical Divorce & Remarriage, Just War Theory
Pros: much more practical and relevant in every-day life
Cons: risk of exchanging the gospel for moralism

Pastoral – focused upon addressing practical concerns that come up in local church contexts
Examples: How to foster the spiritual life of a 1-year old, small group conflict resolution
Pros: much more practical and relevant for ministry situations
Cons: risk of disregarding the big picture and taking a reactionary approach

Sacramental – focused upon God’s interaction with the world through the Church
Examples: Doctrine of the Real Presence, Baptismal Regeneration
Pros: gives the doctrine of the Incarnation a central role
Cons: risk of inappropriately claiming God’s power for ourselves


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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One Response to Theology 101

  1. I realized that I should add another theological focus: Ascetical.
    Ascetical theology focuses on how spiritual truth and doctrine can be lived out as spiritual disciplines within an intentional and wholistic life of worship.
    Examples include fasting on Fridays or praying certain ways at certain times, provided they’re regular and disciplined.
    Pros: makes for extremely healthy Christian spiritual life
    Cons: risk of ritualism divorced from theological purpose

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