To appreciate any discipline beyond a superficial level, a working knowledge of that discipline’s terms and concepts is necessary. This fact is no less true of the discipline or study of Christian theology. While it is true that the terminology associated with Christian theology is ever developing, it is also true that many terms are foundational and, therefore, not as fluid and open to subjective interpretation. This article attempts to introduce the reader to some of the most fundamental aspects of Christian theology and related studies.
I. Theology in General
The term theology (qeologi,a), literally meaning “word about God,” “discourse about God,” or “science of God.” Christians tend to use this term as if they enjoyed exclusive rights to it, but the term is also aptly applied to those of other faiths who reflect upon their own religious convictions. For this reason, the study of theology may be divided into two general classes–ethnic theology and Christian theology.
II. General Classes of Theology
A. Ethnic Theology
The term theology was used prior to the life and ministry of Christ. Aristotle, in his Organon, used the term to suggest his highest or first philosophy. More generally, the Greeks applied the term theologoi to their honored poets and teachers, such as Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus. This elastic use of the term may be applied more generally to the religious reflections of the various people groups of the world, and for this reason may be known as ethnic theology.
B. Christian Theology
Unlike the elastic classification of ethnic theology, Christian theology attempts to study more specifically the teachings of the Christian faith. Very simply defined, “Christian theology is the systematic presentation of the doctrines of the Christian Faith.”
Christian theologians have classified Christians studies in a variety of ways. The classification which follows has been widely held throughout the Church. It identifies four classifications: exegetical; historical; systematic; and practical theology. An organizational chart of theology is provided in an appendix at the end of this article. Though some may differ with the relationships identified, it serves as a convenient framework for basic theological relationships.
Christian theology is often generally divided into four classes: 1) exegetical theology; 2) historical theology; 3) systematic (or dogmatic) theology; and 4) practical theology. The first three classes will determine the nature of the latter, practical theology.
I. Exegetical Theology
Exegetical theology concerns itself with the records of revelation, and, therefore, is primarily concerned with the interpretation of both the Old and New Testaments. From exegetical theology emerges various branches of study:
A. History of the Canon
The term canon is often used in one of two ways. The first sense in which it may be used refers to the standards which were used to evaluate the trust worthiness of books for acceptance into the group of books known as “Scripture.” Neither the Jews nor early Christians were willing to place every writing on the same level of authority with those works which they believed to be inspired by God. Therefore, there were standards or canons which they used to evaluate revered writings for possible acceptance into the sacred literary corpus known as Scripture.
The second way in which the term canon is used is to refer to the entire text of Scripture. Though not used on a popular level, canon is often used within the scholarly community to refer to the Bible. For Protestants, that would include the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven of the New Testament.
B. Biblical Philology
Biblical philology is the study of Hebrew and Aramaic languages for the sake of the study of the texts which compose the Old Testament as well as the study of Greek for New Testament studies. It is the study of words, their origin, and their use within Scripture.
C. Biblical Geography
Biblical geography is the study of the lands which are mentioned in Scripture.
D. Biblical Archaeology or Antiquities
The study of the remains of ancient cultures identified within or associated with Scripture is known as biblical geography or antiquities.
E. Biblical history
Biblical history considers the historical milieu of the Bible, from creation to the close of the apostolic age.
F. Textual Criticism
The scientific restoration of the original texts of the sacred writers is known as textual criticism or lower criticism.
G. Higher Criticism
The literary history of the Bible, frequently called higher criticism or historico-critical introduction, including an account of the books of Scripture, their genuineness, integrity, authorship, and the time and place of composition. Often higher criticism has been employed by the negative critical scholar to attack the supernatural quality of Scripture. But the conservative scholar need not answer the questions which arise within this discipline with the same negative spirit. Higher criticism should be regarded as an important tool for the lover of God’s Word.
H. Biblical Hermeneutics
The science of the interpretation of Scripture is known as biblical hermeneutics. The interpretation of Scripture is both a science and an art. There are principles which must be applied to the study of Scripture if it is to be accurately interpreted. Biblical hermeneutics is the study of those principles which aid the scholar in the study of the Bible.
I. Biblical Theology
Biblical theology logically stands at the end of exegetical theology. After lower and higher critical questions have been answered, appropriate methods of interpretation have been applied to a biblical passage or book, then the scholar is prepared to summarize the overall theology of the author of the portion of Scripture under consideration. Very simply put, biblical theology is the distillation or summary of the results of exegesis and which is arranged in a systematic form. It gives particular attention to the stress and emphases within a given portion of Scripture.
II. Historical Theology
Historical theology is the study of how the church has interpreted divine revelation throughout its own history. Assuming this definition, historical theology may be further divided into two classifications.
A. Church History
Church history seeks to understand the life of the Church, focusing upon the major events, individuals, and circumstances which have surrounded the development of the church. Its particular interest is the outward development of the kingdom of God from Pentecost to the present.
B. Doctrinal History or Historical Theology
Whereas church history concerns itself with the life of the church, doctrinal history or historical theology is the study of the thought of the church. Historical theology may concern itself with sacred or biblical history, from creation to the close of the apostolic age, but usually dedicates itself to the study of the thought of the Church, from the close of the apostolic age to the present. Unlike systematic theology, the principle of organization for historical theology is not logical or topical, but chronological.
III. Systematic Theology
Turning to the third major division of theology, the term itself must be more carefully distinguished from “dogmatics.” In English theology the term “dogmatics” had not come into general use, but dogmatics had been included under the discussion of systematic theology. In Germany, however, it became common, following Danmus and Calixt, to divide systematic theology into dogmatics and ethics.
Among Wesleyan-Arminian theologians, the term “dogmatics” has rarely been used to describe a systematic arrangement of Christian doctrine. Usually the expression “systematic theology” has been used to describe the orderly arrangement of thought as well as to describe a corpus of thought–a printed theology.
Here systematic theology assumes larger proportions which is best described as a term indicative of a process or procedure of thought. The starting point for an authentic systematic theology must be the Word of God as presented to us in the canon (biblical), expressed in the life of the church in the forms of faith, customs, and methods (historical), organized into a system (doctrinal), and internalized in definite forms in particular denominations (symbolical). At this point, doctrinal consciousness discovers the variations between systems of other denominations and the apparitions within the church to which it belongs and engages in conflict to defend the truth (polemical) or identify avenues or reconciliation (irenical). The end of which is a greater realization of the kingdom of God on earth (ethical). Systematic theology is, then, an effort to topically arrange the doctrines of Scripture so as to inform the ethical life of the church and infuse life into its practice (pastoral).
Dogmatics is the organized and scientific discussion of the doctrines (dogmas) of the church. Since theologians deal with more than dogmas, the discipline is most generally known as “systematic theology,” or simply “theology.” It enjoys a two-fold function. First, it seeks to identify what constitutes a doctrine of the Christian faith. What is regarded as constituting a Christian doctrine depends upon the source from which it is drawn. For evangelicals, that source is Scripture, but for Catholics, it is tradition as well, and for the rationalist the ultimate source of authority is reason. Second, dogmatics attempts to connect those doctrines which have been deduced into a system.
The system which is used generally develops the doctrines of revelation (prolegomena or bibliology), God (theology proper), the person and work of Jesus Christ (Christology), the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), man (anthropology), the application of salvation (soteriology), the church and means of grace (ecclesiology), and the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the age (eschatology).
B. Ethics or Moral Theology
From the ancient church down to the Reformation, Christian ethics has been part of dogmatics or doctrinal discussions. But from the 17th century, the two have been separated. Following the example of P. Ramus, most writers have distinguished between them as theory and practice. Moral theology, or Christian ethics, attempts to identify the implications of the kingdom of Christ as it is extended over the individual, the Church, and society. It is a systematic attempt to explain how the Christian must order his own life and the life of the society in which he lives.
The study of Christian ethics is the attempt to apply the principles which are discovered in Scripture, Church history, and systematic theology to the decision making process and daily life of the believer. It is an attempt to develop a world view which honestly reflects upon what may be learned from the foregoing theologies.
The study of creeds and confessions. Throughout the history of the church, a large repository of statements concerning the faith of the various adherents of the church have been bequeathed to succeeding generations. Symbolics is the specific study of these articles or succinct statements of faith.
Apologetics is the defense of the Christian faith against those outside the church. It considers the “evidences of Christianity; an apology, in the sense of the word as here used, is not an excuse for a blunder, but a reason for a belief.” Apologetics has been used by every generation of believers to communicate the claims of the Gospel to the unbelieving world, often with the intent of clarifying misconceptions understandings on the part of unbelievers.
Polemics are attempts to vindicate Christian doctrine from heretical attacks from within the body of Christ.
Whereas apologetics defends the faith against those outside the church and polemics defends Christian doctrine from erroneous teaching from within the church, Christian irenics (from the Greek meaning “peace”) attempts to build upon the common faith shared between two parties within the church, demonstrating points of commonality.
IV. Practical or Pastoral Theology
Whereas systematic theology is constructed upon exegetical and historical theology, practical theology applies the findings of systematic theology. Practical or pastoral theology includes the pastor’s ministry to his congregation through a variety of means.
Homiletics is the science of sermon preparation. The history and definition of this term has been described by McClintock:
Homiletics is the science of Christian address. The term is derived from omilia, converse, which, in early Christian usage, signified a religious address; or, more directly, from the adjective omilhtikojv, conversational, or pertaining to verbal communion. It came into permanent use during the 17th century, at a period when, under the influence of the scholastic method, the principal branches of theology received scientific designations derived from the Greek language: e.g. Apologetics, Dogmatics, Hermeneutics, Polemics. Although promptly naturalized on the continent of Europe, the term Homiletics was not for a long time generally adopted in England.
Catechetics is often associated with the formal instruction of youth in the basic principles of the Christian faith with a manual, normally in question and answer form. But the term was not used in this way until the early part of the sixteenth century. The practice originated in the early church in an effort to instruct converts to the faith. It is used here to describe the pastor’s participation in the Christian education of the local church.
Often evangelism is regarded as one aspect of pastoral life which focuses particularly upon the local church. But a more balanced view of evangelism must not only consider the local parish, but also give deliberate attention to foreign missions.
The ministry of shepherding primarily focuses upon the personal relationship which a pastor sustains to his or her parishioners. Often it is exercised through counseling.
An oft neglected responsibility of the pastor is administration. Though lay and clerical assistants may be called upon to relieve much of the demand of the administration of the local church, the pastor remains an important component in the maintenance of the critical functions of the church.
Within the Methodist tradition, the local pastor has been responsible for the administration of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. The prophetic ministry of the pastor exercised through preaching has been an essential part of Methodist worship. The pastor who does not superintend the components of the worship service misses the didactic opportunity essential for maturing of the local church.
Stewardship is often applied to the challenge of raising financial support for the local church. But in fact, finances and tithes are only a small portion. The pastor is called upon to help parishioners understand their responsibility of the stewardship of their time and talents as well.
These practical forms of theology emerge from the speculative forms, the theoretical being necessarily wedded to the practical. Speculative theology will always determine how one engages in practical Christian ministry.
Crooks and Hurst, Theological Encyclopedia and Methodology (New York: 1884)
Drury, A. W. Outlines of Doctrinal Theology. 2d ed. Dayton, OH: The Otterbein Press, 1926.
McClintock, John. Lectures by the Late John McClintock on Theological Encyclopedia and Methodology (New York: 1873).
Wiley, Orton. Christian Theology. Vol. 1. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1940.
America deserves to know its true heritage.
Please contribute today!
One's beliefs necessarily determine one's behavior. Benjamin Franklin clearly understood this fact when he told Thomas Paine that atheism and agnosticism leads only to social anarchy: "If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it." Paine, who consulted Franklin concerning political matters, had requested Franklin to review his Age of Reason before it was published. Franklin understood that left to determine his own moraRead more...
In the early Christian Church, believers were forced to decide what books of Scripture they would be willing to die. If a book was not regarded as authoritative, conscience did not forbid them to surrender it to pagan authorities, but if a work was regarded as inspired and evidenced Divine authority, Christians were far less likely to part with it. Yet this was only one of the influences that gave rise to the development of the New Testament. TheRead more...
Robert Charles Winthrop was an American lawyer, politician, and philanthropist who at one point in his political career rose to the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Like most who lived during the Founding Era of the United States, Winthrop was concerned about the moral character of America's development. As was characteristic of many Founding Fathers, Winthrop involved himself in the advancement of Christianity in Read more...
Leaving the deism of his youth and the immorality it produced, Benjamin Franklin came to realize that the Calvinism of his youth was closer to reality than he had previously imagined. Though never fully returning to this theological tradition in which he was raised, he realized that human government must reflect God's government of the world, and for this reason, secularists, atheists, agnostics, and the irreligious falsely attempt to lay clRead more...
The doctrine of one suffering in the place of another for the forgiveness of sin (vicarious atonement) is one, generally speaking, that has been dismissed from the mind of the American Christian and remains a matter of ridicule for the secularist. Throughout the twentieth century, a sustained attack was waged against the teaching of the Bible concerning the doctrine of how one is permitted into a right relationship with God—known as the doctrine Read more...
Wiley, Christian Theology, 1:16.
As it is used here, “speculative” is used to describe contemplation of a subject or theory of a discipline.
These three classes are sometimes known as “speculative theology.”
Higher criticism is also known as historical criticism.
Biblical theology was initiated in 1787 when Philipp Gabler delivered a lecture which distinguished the historical aspect of biblical thought (i.e., what the biblical authors themselves thought) from the normative (i.e., what the Bible teaches as a whole).
Philip Schaff, “Exegesis, Exegetical Theology,” in Religious Encyclopedia.
Philip Schaff, “Church History,” in Religious Encyclopedia.
See Olin Curtis, “XIII Systematic Theology,” in The Christian Faith.
McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, s.v. “Dogmatic Theology.”
McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, s.v. “Theology.”
McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, s.v. “Ethics.”
Raymond, Systematic Theology, 2:7.
An older term used to describe pastoral theology is “poimenics”.
McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, s.v. “Homiletics.”
See pages 63-73.