What Is Theology?

Inevitably over the last year as I have been in the process of applying to and preparing to move for grad school, the following exchange has unfolded with friends, family, strangers, and customers at the restaurant where I bartended, any time my personal life comes up:

“So, are you in school?”
“I was — I just graduated from Truett Seminary at Baylor with my Masters of Divinity.”
“Oh, interesting. Congrats! So what’s next?”
“I’m actually about to move to Scotland to start a postgraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh.”
“Wow! That’s so neat!”
“Yeah, I’m really excited about it, I think it will be a really great experience.”
“Oh I’m sure! So what will your degree be in, then?”
“It’ll be in Systematic Theology.”
Systematic Theology? I don’t even know what that would mean (*self-deriding chuckle*) — I think I get the theology part, but what’s systematic?”

Through these conversations I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that most people — even most Christians — don’t really have any idea what it means to study theology or religion. And, rather to my own annoyance, I realized that I haven’t always had a good answer when people asked, either.

One product of becoming an “expert,” or at least having a lot of education in a particular field, is that you lose track of what the average person on the street knows about your topic of study. This doesn’t tend to create many problems for mechanical engineers or accountants — laws of thermodynamics and tax audit procedures don’t typically come up in casual dinner conversation — but for professionals in the humanities, particularly theology and religious studies, there’s not a clear cut line between work and life, because everyone participates in our field in their daily lives.

Because whether it’s recognized as such or not, we are all constantly doing theology at some level. For many, “theology” conjures up ideas of deeply religious people in ivory towers, drawing diagrams of the Trinity, reading Latin and debating with atheists about proofs for the existence of God. But this notion is problematic, and it is so not only for the way many people (both religious and non-religious) think about academic theologians, but for how they understand themselves.

Theology means, literally from Greek theos and logos, “words about God.” This means that in a very real sense, any speech about God (in small group Bible study, in casual conversation, in tipsy speculation at the pub) is theology. Any thinking or reflecting that we do about ultimate things is, in some form or fashion, theology. Even the atheist must do theology of a sort, because to ponder ultimate things as a product of Western culture is to deal with the question of God as God has been described for millennia.

I believe that it’s important to have a basic grasp of what theology is and what theologians do — and not just so that I don’t have to explain my field of study. Rather, it’s important because as Christians (or Muslims, or Hindus, or atheists), our ever-evolving thoughts and words about God determine not merely what we believe abstractly, but how we approach and see the world around us in every facet of life.

And as in every other field — be it medicine, physics, economics, or political science — you may not be directly aware of what the academics and professionals are doing at a given point in history, but what they do, discover, and write affects your life nonetheless. This is especially true if you attend a weekly church service; your view of the world is shaped by what you hear from your pastor, who is shaped not only by current reading and prayer, but by what he or she has learned from his or her college and seminary professors, who were in turned shaped by scholars in biblical studies, theology, and a whole range of other disciplines through decades and centuries.

And so I present to you a basic typology of what it is that theology and religious studies examine. It is neither exhaustive nor nuanced, and I am sure that it fails to justice to some (if not all) of the disciplines. Nevertheless, I hope that it will be helpful — not just in conversation with your cousin who is in seminary, but for your own conception of how your beliefs and the beliefs of a culture more broadly have come to be what they are.

Biblical Studies includes both New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and studies details about the text itself. There are a whole host of specific disciplines within biblical studies, but at a broad level, biblical scholars ask questions such as: who wrote the text, when it was written, who it was written for, what it intended to accomplish, what genre of literature it is, what particular Greek or Hebrew words mean in context, or what a verse, chapter, or book meant for its original audience. In short, Biblical Studies asks: What does the Bible say, and what does it mean?

Historical Theology or Church History is the study of what has been said, done, and believed by people in the past 2,000 years. For example, a Church Historian would look at historical documents and early Christian sources to understand how the doctrine of the Trinity developed through the first four centuries of the church. In short, Historical Theology asks: What did Christians in the past say and do?

Systematic or Constructive Theology is the practice of drawing on tradition (i.e. Church History) and Scripture in order to say something about God here and now. While Christians confess that Jesus Christ is eternal truth, the way that we speak about God is always changing based on language, culture, and experience. For example, a Systematic Theologian would draw on Scripture and previous words about God to ask and answer questions about evil and the goodness of God in light of the Holocaust. In short, Systematic Theology asks: What should Christians say here and now?

Theological Ethics or Moral Theology addresses particular ethical issues in light of Scripture and theological tradition, aiming to say something constructive about how Christians should live. For example, a Moral Theologian would be interested in how racism has been historically justified by Christianity, and in correcting problematic theological assumptions that support such justifications. In short, Theological Ethics asks: What should Christians do?

Practical Theology is closely related to Theological Ethics, but geared toward concrete solutions or best practices. For example, a Practical Theologian might take research about racism done by Moral Theologians and examine particular ways in which churches in a certain geographical region can work in their communities to establish economic and social equality across racial divides. In short, where Theological Ethics asks what Christians should do, Practical Theology asks: How should we do it?

World Christianity examines how Christianity is and has been expressed in cultures outside of the Western world. For example, a scholar of World Christianity might research how Christian confessions of faith and doctrine have developed in India since the end of British colonialism. In short, World Christianity asks: How is faith in Christ expressed in cultures around the world other than our own?

Religious Studies, Comparative Religions, and Sociology of Religion are all broad terms and are not synonymous with each other, but they are similar in that they typically examine the human practice(s) of religion from an outside perspective. Rather than dealing with questions from inside the faith (i.e., attempting to say something about God), these fields focus on the measurable sociological and anthropological elements of religions. In short, these scholars ask: How do religions function in society more broadly, or in relation to each other?

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