Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Theology 101 - Types of Christian Theology

The study of theology is concerned with speech about God, with the speech of God, and with the experiences that are said to derive from Him. We now understand the sources of theological reasoning as well as the value of this kind of study. In this post, we turn to examine the various ‘types’ of Christian theology. [1] This post will be a little more complicated than the others, but we should persevere. We are well on our way to understanding the breadth of theological study!

When we speak of the various types of Christian theology we refer to its disciplines and traditions. However, before we begin to explore these disciplines and traditions, it may be helpful to suggest an analogy. Let’s propose that Christian theology acts as the ‘grammar’ of faith. [2] Just like the rules of grammar help us to structure language, theological study informs the order and cogency of belief. To continue this linguistic analogy, the disciplines and traditions of Christian theology may be understood in terms of ‘punctuation’ and ‘accent’. In what follows we’re going to explore this analogy more deeply.

The various disciplines of Christian theology constitute the ‘punctuation’ of theological study.
Just like a full stop or a semi-colon arranges our sentences, these disciplines inform the arrangement of Christian theology and the way in which its various sources are presented. We may list five examples.

(1) Biblical Theology – As we discussed in the previous post, revelation is one of the central sources of Christian theology. When we speak of Biblical theology, we don’t mean to suggest that the other disciplines fail to consult the Bible. Rather, Biblical theology uses the Scriptural data to paint a ‘big picture’. For example, a Biblical theology of the Eucharist may start with the observation that in Genesis 14:17-20, Melchizedek the High Priest gives Abram a gift of bread and wine as a sign of God’s blessing. It would proceed to note that in Hebrews 7:17, Jesus is regarded as a fulfilment of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and that in the Last Supper narratives, He is seen offering bread and wine as a symbol of Israel’s blessing through His own body and blood. A ‘big picture’ is thereby painted through which our doctrine of the Eucharist may be given greater clarity and new textual/theological connections may be made. [3]

(2) Historical Theology – As we discussed in the previous post, tradition is also one of the sources of Christian theology. Historical theology attempts to speak of doctrine according to its development throughout Christian history. In this regard, it’s a discipline that’s in constant dialogue with Church tradition. For example, a student doing historical theology may have an interest in the doctrine of justification. She may begin by performing a thorough investigation of the NT data, and proceed to trace its reception amongst the early Church. She may observe how Augustine influenced Luther’s reading of Romans with regards justification by faith alone. Nearly 500 years later, E.P. Sanders sought to re-interpret the doctrine minus the ‘Lutheran spectacles’ that had influenced so much of Western theology since the Reformation. Historical theology is concerned with this sort of investigation. It constructs an account of doctrinal development throughout Church history. [4]

(3) Mystical Theology – We’ve established that Christian theology is concerned with the experiences that are said to derive from God. Mystical theology is especially interested in these experiences as a source of theological reflection. One’s encounters with God in prayer, worship, visions or mystical ecstasy are used to inform one’s theological understanding. Mystical theology may use these encounters in a way that complements Church tradition and the Bible, or in a way that disregards both as inferior. [5]

(4) Contextual Theology – Like mystical theology, this is another discipline that is concerned with experience but in a rather different way. The contextual theologian insists that praxis should instruct theological reflection. In particular, the circumstances and experiences of different social groups (especially marginalised or oppressed ones) are used to inform the conclusions of contextual theology. Liberation thought is one example of this discipline at work. Sensing the Biblical mandate to champion the poor and oppose injustice, liberation theologians highlight the local needs and experiences of varying demographics throughout the world, such as the impoverished within Latin America. A liberation understanding of Jesus, for example, would emphasise His mission to liberate the captives and bind up the broken. According to the aforementioned example, a ‘Latin American Jesus’ would be constructed; one who was on the side of and identified with the region’s oppressed. Instead of being constructed directly from Scripture or the creeds of tradition, an understanding of Jesus is crafted using the experiences of those within a specific situation. This is the nature of contextual theology. [6]

(5) Systematic Theology – It may be suggested that the systematic theologian has to be the ‘jack of all trades’. Systematic theology is concerned with the broad tapestry of Christian theology. It seeks to construct an account of Christian theology using a variety of sources and methods. It may even consult the conclusions of all the disciplines listed so far. It’s aware of the various ways in which the subjects of theology inter-connect with one another and it hopes to produce a cogent model or ‘system’, one that accounts for these diverse theological expressions. We may speak of a specific systematic doctrine, one that produces a cogent model of a particular theology in the manner described, or of a general systematic theology, one that speaks from within a tradition about the nature of its theology as a whole. [7]

These five disciples act as the ‘punctuation’ to theology’s overall ‘grammar’. They arrange the sources and presentation of Christian theology in different ways, but they all concern speech about God and the speech of God.

The various traditions of Christian theology, on the other hand, constitute the ‘accents’ of theological study. Throughout Christian history, different Churches have spoken the language of faith in a diverse number of ways. The Roman Catholic tradition, for example, speaks in a starkly different way about theology than the Anabaptist tradition. The Reformed tradition enunciates differently than the Lutheran tradition. The Eastern Orthodox tradition proclaims in a vernacular distinct from the Coptic tradition, and so forth.

When we speak of the ‘types’ of Christian theology, this is therefore what we mean. We’re referring to the various disciplines that influence theological study as well as the diverse array of traditions that do theological study particular to their own location.

Next time: Apologetics & Theology [Part One] – How do they relate?


[1] It’s worth noting at the outset that there are a number of ways I could arrange an examination of the ‘types’ of Christian theology. I could list individual theologians and describe how their approaches differ; I could identify a handful of competing theological methods and give each one an individual exemplar; or I could describe the various schools of Christian theology. I have opted for the latter, although the former approaches are exampled by a generic reader volume in Christian theology (such as the one edited by McGrath) and by Hans Frei’s Types of Christian Theology (1994), respectively.

[2] This analogy of Christian theology as the ‘grammar’ of faith is also found in R.W. Jenson’s Systematic Theology – Volume 1 (1997) and Rowan Williams’ On Christian Theology (2000). In Jenson’s words: “The Church is the community that speaks Christianese” – it is the theologian’s task to understand the rules of coherent expression (1997, 18).

[3] For Biblical theology, one may wish to consult J.K. Mead’s Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods and Themes (2007), or the more popularising Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (2010) by Michael Lawrence.

[4] For examples of historical theology, one may suggest Reasoner’s Romans in Full Circle (2005), which chronicles the history and interpretation of Pauline theology. Or Dunn’s Christology in the Making (2003), which traces the development and reception of Christological thought as it is contained throughout the Scriptures. Or Muller’s Christ and the Decree (2008), which tracks the predestinarian and Christological doctrines of the Reformed tradition. These are just illustrative, designed to give you a sense of what historical theology entails.

[5] For examples of mystical theology, one may look to Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (originally written c. 1400), or the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux and Meister Eckhart. These all lived and wrote within the medieval period, although theological reflection based on mystical experiences has continued throughout Christian history. (Indeed, some of the 17th Century Baptist prophetesses highlighted in Freeman’s A Company of Women Preachers (2011) write in a style occasionally reminiscent of Julian of Norwich, c.f. Anne Wentworth’s England’s Spiritual Pill.

[6] Examples of contextual theology would include the works of Liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff’s Introduction to Liberation Theology (1996) Boff’s Trinity and Society (2005) and Gustavo Gütierrez’s Theology of Liberation (2001). We would also include Feminist theologians, such as Mary Daly or Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Black theologians, such as James Cone or Robert Beckford.

[7] Theology has been done in a systematic fashion for a very long time. One could turn to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (2nd Century) or Origen’s De Principiis (3rd Century) for examples. However, properly speaking, systematic theology finds its roots in works like Lombard’s Sentences, Aquinas’ Summa or Calvin’s Institutes. One may wish to consult Colin Gunton’s essay on ‘Historical and Systematic Theology’ in his edited text The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (1997). One may also wish to consult the systematic texts of Berkhof, Grudem, Tillich or Pannenberg, or indeed The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (2009), edited by Iain Torrance. Much older, but also helpful, is B.B. Warfield’s The Right of Systematic Theology (originally published in 1897).

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