It can also refer to the study of other religious topics.
A theologian is a person learned in theology.
The word "Theology" is derived from Hellenistic Greek, but its meaning has changed significantly through its use in the European "Christian" thought of the Middle ages and Enlightenment
The term theologia is used in Classical Greek literature, with the meaning "discourse on the gods or cosmology" (see Lidell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon for references).
Since the authority of Hellenistic city states was partly based on religious observance, those who first sought to ask difficult questions about the gods were often viewed as heretics, or in the language of the day "atheists". Socrates is famous for having been condemned to death for teaching youths atheism (though in fact he had not). Plato, his pupil, wrote several discourses on the gods, though his doctrine of forms and emanations would be more significant for later Theology.
Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematice, phusike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which for Aristotle included discussion of the nature of the divine. The term has since been appropriated by a number of Eastern and Western religious traditions.
Drawing on Greek sources, the Latin writer Varro influentially 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).
"Christian" writers, working within the Hellenistic mould, began to use the term to describe their studies. It appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalupsis ioannou tou theologou, "the revelation of John the theologos". There, however, we are probably dealing with a slightly different sense of the root logos, to mean not "rational discourse" but "word" or "message": ho theologos here is probably meant to tell us that the author of Revelation has presented God's revealed messages – words of God, logoi tou theou – not that he was a "theologian" in the modern English sense of the word.
Other "Christian" writers used the term with several different ranges of meaning.
It is the last of these senses which lies behind most modern uses (though the second is also found in some academic and ecclesiastical contexts), and while the term "theology" can refer to any discussion of the nature of God or the gods, or indeed the discussion of any religious topic, it is also regularly used to denote the academic study (in Universities, seminaries and elsewhere) of the doctrines of "Christianity", or of any other religion, or of the relationships and contrasts between various different religions, although the latter is a field more usually termed "comparative religion."
::Main article: History of theology
Classical Greek theology (c.700 BC to 323 BC). Various forms of systematic and philosophical reflection on Ancient Greek religion and Greek mythology arose in the classical period - from Hesiod's attempts to organise the diverse materials of mythology into a unified Theogony to the more properly philosophical analysis reportedly carried out by Socrates. Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Metaphysics Book Lambda are two of the most influential writings of Classical Greek theology.
Hellenistic theology (323 BC to 529 AD). Philosophical reflection on the gods, on religion, and on the origins and governance of the Universe, flourished in the Hellenistic period amongst both Greek- and Latin-speaking thinkers. Amongst the very diverse movements of Hellenistic philosophy in which theological reflection could be found were Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Middle Platonism, and Neoplatonism. Influential texts include Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus, Cicero's de Natura Deorum, Lucretius' de Rerum Natura, Epictetus' Enchiridion, and Plotinus' Enneads. Hellenistic theology, which could be deemed to last until the suppression of the Athenian Academy in 529 by Justinian I, overlaps with early Jewish and early "Christian" theology (see below), and several strands of thought important particularly to early "Christian" thought arise within Hellenistic circles: attempts to explain the apparent caprice of the gods, Atheism, the development of monotheism, the idea of God as first cause or form of the Good, the dualism of spirit and matter in humanity, and redemption (the release of the spirit from its material prison to a higher spiritual world) through knowledge. See also Greek mythology - Hellenistic rationalism and Ancient Greek religion - Theology
Early Jewish theology (to c.200 AD). Two strands of Jewish theology develop in this period. On the one hand, there are those oral traditions of Rabbinic exegesis (Midrash) and legal discussion (Mishnah) that eventually began to be written down towards the end of the 2nd Century AD. Important figures include Gamliel I, Yohanan ben Zakkai, Gamliel II, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Judah haNasi. On the other hand, there is the attempt to accommodate traditional Jewish exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures and tradition with Greek philosophy - a strand of thought of which Philo is the best known proponent. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the dispersion of many Jews from Israel had a profound effect on Jewish Theology.
Early "Christian" theology, coming partly from Hellenistic Judaism, therefore had no trouble in expressing itself in the Greek language (i.e. the New Testament). Whilst the conception of a canon of sacred books was inherited from Judaism, their interpretation soon came to be heavily influenced by Greek allegorical methods (e.g. Origen).
Patristic Theology (c. 100 – 500 AD) is so called because certain men (Fathers or "Patroi") concerned themselves with determining the degree to which the "Christian" faith could be accommodated to Hellenistic thought. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote to combat those who made "Christianity" into Gnostic Theology. Justin Martyr sought to use Hellenistic philosophy and Natural Theology to justify "Christianity" to the Romans. Later Theologians especially sought to show how three divine persons could be one in substance (the Trinity, see Council of Nicea) and how Jesus (a man of material flesh, see Council of Chalcedon) could at also be divine. These statements though held to be philosophically illogical were nevertheless held to be true, human reason being incapable of understanding them. This was an important development that would define the Theology of the Middle Ages in Islam as well as "Christianity". Important theologians were Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.
The fall of the Roman empire affected Theology in two main ways; Firstly monasticism became more popular and ascetic, and mystical theology therefore became more prevalent. Secondly, the increasing influence of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope) in theological doctrine and cultural differences between the two remnants of the Roman empire caused the doctrine of apostolic succession to be more important. The two sides finally split in 1054.
The collapse of the Roman Empire meant that most Theology occurred in Monasteries with few of the resources of classical scholarship available. Over time many local variations in Theology developed and the traditions of pre-"Christian" religions were sometimes included in Theology as well as practice.
Likewise, in the East, (Greece and the Levant) Theology became increasingly influenced by speculative neo-Platonism. The epistle of Dionysius the Areopagite was a popular guide with such ideas. Many monks came to emphasize the idea of the inherent evil of the world.
Islam established itself in this atmosphere and began also to practice Theology. Although Islam is often considered to lack a "Theology" as in "Christianity" there were many attempts to frame Islamic ideas within Greek thought, especially during the early abbassids and the reign of the caliph al-mamun. However, this movement, Mu’tazilism, became discredited through the Abassids attempts to use it to enforce religious unity, and the popular and orthodox considered Hellenistic thought to be unhelpful and error. Theology would continue to be practiced, but was usually done so by an elite of intellectuals whose ideas would seldom be made public. These included Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Averroes, Avicenna and Al-Ghazali.
High Medieval theology in Western Europe combined the Theology inherited from Dark-age monasticism with new learning from classical Hellenistic documents from the Islamic world. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, John Duns Scotus and Peter Abelard were among the most important Theologians of this period.
The Renaissance yielded scholars the ability to read the scriptures in their original languages and this in part stimulated the Reformation, a Theological movement that based its "Protests" on a new understanding of the Bible. Most important were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Martin Bucer and the Anabaptists. Their Theology was developed by successors such as Theodore Beza, the English Puritans and Francis Turretin.
The Roman Catholic counter-reformation spearheaded by the Jesuits under Ignatius Loyola took their Theology from the decisions of the Council of Trent. The overall result of the Reformation was therefore to highlight distinctions of belief that had previously co-existed uneasily.
The fall of Constantinople in the east, 1453, led to a significant shift of gravity to the rising state of Russia, the "Third Rome". The Renaissance would also stimulate a program of reforms by patriarchs of prayer books. A movement called the "Old believers" consequently resulted and influenced Russian Orthodox Theology in the direction of conservatism and Erastianism.
After the Reformation protestant groups continued to splinter, leading to a range of new Theologies. The "Enthusiasts" were so named because of their emotional zeal. These included the Methodists, the Quakers and Baptists. Another group sought to reconcile "Christian" faith with "Modern" ideas, sometimes causing them to reject beliefs they considered to be illogical, including the Nicene creed and Chalcedonian creed. these included Unitarians and Universalists. A major issue for protestants became the degree to which Man contributes to his salvation. The debate is often viewied as synergism versus monergism, though the labels Calvinist and Arminian are more frequently used, refering to the conclusion of the Synod of Dort.
The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of biblical criticism, new knowledge of religious diversity in other continents and above all the growth of science. This led many church men to espouse a form of Deism. This, along with concepts such as the brotherhood of man and a rejection of miracles led to what is called "Classic Liberalism". Immensely influential in its day, classic liberalism suffered badly as a result of the two world wars and fell prey to the criticisms of postmodernism.
Postmodern theology seeks to respond to the challenges of post modern and deconstructionist thought, and has included the death of God movement, Process Theology, Feminist theology and Queer Theology and most importantly Neo-orthodox Theology. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Reinhold Niebuhr were Neo-Orthodoxies main representatives. In particular Barth labeled his Theology "Dialectical Theology", a reference to existentialism.
The predominance of Classic Liberalism resulted in many reactionary movements amongst conservative believers. Evangelical theology, Pentecostal or Renewal theology and Fundamentalist theology, often combined with Dispensationalism, all moved from the fringe into the academy. Marxism stimulated the significant rise of Liberation Theology which can be interpreted as a challenge to Academic Theology that fails to challenge the establishment and help the poor.
From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth many groups established themselves that derived many of their beliefs from protestant evangelical groups but significantly differed in doctrine. These include the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints and many so called "cults". Many of these groups use the protestant version of the bible and typically interpret it in a fundamentalist fashion, adding, however, special prophecy or scriptures, and typically denying the trinity and the full deity of Jesus "Christ" .
Ecumenical Theology sought to discover a common consensus on theological matters that could bring the many "Christian" denominations together. As a movement it was successful in helping to provide a basis for the establishment of the World Council of Churches and for some reconciliation between more established denominations. But ecumenical theology was nearly always the concern of liberal theologians, often protestant ones. The movement for ecumenism was opposed especially by fundamentalists and viewed as flawed by many neo-orthodox theologians.
The pattern of challenge from a changing world, liberal response from official representatives and orthodox backlash from conservatives is found also in the history of Islam and Judaism. Reform Judaism represents a liberal interpretation as against Orthodox Judaism, and moderate or Liberal Islam continues to be theologically distinct from Islamic Fundamentalism, notably its Wahabi and Deobandi Schools. As other religions came to be studied in Western post "Christian" academies the term Theology was applied to them, though, as noted below, this may be a serious misnomer!
In academic theological circles, there is some debate as to whether theology is an activity peculiar to the "Christian" religion. If so we should distinguish "Christian" Theology from others. It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of a deity (a theos) within a presupposed belief in the ability to speak and reason about the subject (in logia) - and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts which are organized differently (i.e. religions without a deity, or which deny that such subjects can be studied logically).
For example, some academic courses on Buddhism which are dedicated to the rational investigation of a Buddhist understanding of the world prefer the designation Buddhist philosophy to the term Buddhist theology, since Buddhism lacks the same conception of a theos. The same might be said of Hinduism which has many devas (deities). See for example, Vaishnava Theology, Advaita Vedanta and Krishnology.
Moreover, the application of the term Theology to religions similar to "Christianity" can be misleading. in Islam, theological discussion which parallels "Christian" theological discussion has been a minor and even slightly disreputable activity, named "Kalam"; the Islamic analogue of "Christian" theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law, or "Fiqh".
In Judaism the historical absence of political authority has meant that most theological reflection has happened within the context of the Jewish community and synagogue, rather than within specialised academic institutions. Nevertheless Jewish Theology has been historically very active and highly significant for "Christian" and Islamic Theology. Once again, the Jewish analogue of "Christian" theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.
Theology has a significantly problematic relationship to Academia that is not shared by any other subject. Most universities founded before the modern era grew out of the church schools and monastic institutions of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages (e.g. University of Bologna, Paris University and Oxford University). They were founded to train young men to serve the church in Theology and Law (often Church or Canon Law). At such Universities Theological study was incomplete with Theological practice, including preaching, prayer and the Mass. Ancient Universities still maintain some of these links (e.g. having Chapels and Chaplains) and are more likely to teach Theology than other institutions.
During the High Middle Ages theology was therefore the main subject at universities, being named "The Queen of the Sciences" alongside the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including Philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.
With the Enlightenment universities began to change, teaching a wide range of subjects, especially in Germany, and from a Humanistic perspective. Theology was no longer the principle subject and Universities existed for many purposes, not only to train Clergy for established churches. Theology thus became unusual as the only subject to maintain a confessional basis in otherwise secular establishments.
As a result theology is often distinguished from many other established Academic disciplines that cover the same subject area. Those who contend it is different claim it is distinguished by its viewpoint (it is studied from within a faith, rather than from without) and its practical involvement (theology cannot be truly studied or understood without a practical faith). Many of the early Church Fathers described the theologian as a person who "truly prays.". Non-religious theologians often disagree with these viewpoints, arguing that the term theology covers the study of religion or peoples' beliefs about God, rather than God himself. They also argue that human reason alone is sufficient to understand such subjects and that prayer and worship are not necessary.
Nevertheless theology should be distinguished from the following disciplines;
All of these approach religion with humanistic presuppositions and assume a uniformity in religious faith and experience, unlike most theology.
In Europe, the traditional places for the study of theology have been universities and seminaries. Typically the protestant state churches have trained their ministers in universities while the Catholic church has used seminaries. However, the secularization of European states has closed down the theological faculties in many countries while the Catholic church has increased the academical level of its priests by founding a number of pontifical universities. However, at least Finland and Sweden have state universities with faculties of theology training Lutheran priests as well as teachers and scholars of religion. As study of theology in these countries includes a strong ("Christian") humanist content, graduates of theology who do not wish to embark on clerical career may find work also in marketing, business or administration, although this is frowned upon by many.
In the United States, study of theology does not enjoy state endorsement due to the nature of the United States Constitution. Theological studies (often called Biblical studies) take place in a large number of universities, the academic level of which may vary considerably. The academic freedom of thought in many of these institutions may not reach the level of the faculties of theology in European state universities. Theologians ending up with view deemed "heretical" by the denomination upholding the institution may find themselves out of work.
Theology can be divided up in any number of ways. Many of these divisions have originated in the study of the "Christian" religion, although some have been adapted and extended to apply to other religions, or to the study of multiple religions.
Theology can also be divided up into :
Topic (or by 'Loci');