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Etymology of the word Theology

The word theology comes from two Greek words - theos, which means "god," and logos, which means "words." The simplest definition of theology, then, is "god words" or words about god. Whenever someone speaks of God or the characteristics of God, he or she is speaking theologically and doing theology. Since the basic word theology means only words about god and does not specify a particular god, it is possible to say that every major religion has its own distinct theology. There is Islamic theology, Buddhist theology, Hindu theology, Christian theology and the like - one could even say that atheists, when they talk about god not existing, are in some way forming their own "theology"[1].

Even though the etymology of the word “theo-“ comes from the Greek word for God, god, deity or divine, as is said above, it is not limited to one of these particular perceptions. "-logy" is a Greek suffix used by any branch of knowledge; any science or academic field of study and is often used with an "o" as “-ology”. It denotes “one who speaks” in a certain manner or “one who deals with”, “talks” or “speaks” about a certain topic. The historical usage of the word is also relevant. There are uses by Plato, Aristotle (who calls Hesiod & Homer theologians), other Greek philosophers, the Christian church fathers, Christian and other communities of faith that have effects on the meaning of the word. The connotations differs, depending on various Religions’ practices that can be described as “a theology” and different types of theologies in different cultures. There are different understandings of the word by some seminaries and academic institutions in Christian circles. The fields addressed in theology like the writings, traditions, history, faith, creeds and dogmas, enquiry, ethical praxis. A main effect also comes from the relationships with other disciplines. Methods used in theology from philosophical presuppositions, mythological constellations used, scientific methods (like the deductive, inductive, analytical and synthetic) are important elements that also need description in terms of theology. Early philosophy from the pre-Socratics saw no difference between what they understood as philosophy and God or the gods and deities. The distinction started with the early church fathers. As mentioned about ‘who does theology’, it is true that all are engaged in theology in some way, which points to the fact that Theology has to interact with all elements of human reality; like the Sciences, Philosophy, etc. It is a human endeavour and natural need to understand.

The Scope and Field of Study of Theology

It is possible to break down the theologies of the world's major religions even further. For example, within Islamic theology, one might expect to find a distinct Shi'a theology and a distinct Sunni theology; and within Christian theology one will find Catholic theology and Protestant theology. The breakdown of various theologies can continue to become more and more specific, as there are hundreds of distinct theologies.

Though individuals can and do speak theologically and do theology on a day to day basis whenever they talk about God, there are within most major religions a group of trained "theologians" whose task is to evaluate the acceptability and validity of various beliefs. Often, these professional theologians evaluate various possible positions on an issue according to a specific paradigm, although nearly all religions appeal to some combination of holy writings (i.e. the Bible, the Qur'an) and of oral or written tradition (i.e. Vatican Councils, the Jewish Midrash). These theologians spend time studying the sacred texts of the religion and the ways in which those texts have been interpreted throughout history (hermeneutics). This study often results in a new understanding of crucial issues or a reinforcement of previous understandings.

The Christian practice is largely two fold, a dogmatic study done in confessional boundaries in seminaries and confessional institutions of higher education on the one hand, and on the other hand a scientific academic approach as done within other academic disciplines in non-confessional universities. Both need space here. Dogmatics (e.g. confession of faith, church law, dogma, ritual and traditions) is usually seen as part of a Theological curriculum, alongside Systematic Theology (which again can be divided into Hermeneutics, Ethics, and philosophical theology), Scriptural studies (e.g. the book religions and other scripts), languages (e.g. Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit), commentaries, etc. Most institutions in the Christian traditions have similar courses, but arrange the content individually. Most non-confessional universities have developed similar subjects in their curricula.

The influences of other Paradigms on Theology

Not all theological paradigms are so simple, though. John Wesley - the noted Protestant Christian theologian - built his theological understandings at the convergence of four distinct threads: tradition, experience, reason, and scripture. This is just one example of the ways in which theological understandings can be developed. It is easy to understand - given the variety of paradigms for theological development - why theology has the potential to become quite divisive and controversial.


  1. Philosopher Michel Onfray calls for an atheology in Traité d'athéologie : Physique de la métaphysique (tr. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).