General Information

The term theology is a compound of the Greek words theos ("god") and logos ("word," "discourse," "thought," "reason"). Theology may therefore be defined as reasoned discourse about God. In a strict sense theology considers only the existence and nature of divine being. In its wider and more usual sense, however, it may encompass the full range of the divine's relationships to the world and to humanity as well as the full variety of human responses to the divine. Although used more commonly of Western religions, the term may be applied to the systematic study and presentation of any religion.

The first to use the term was apparently the Greek philosopher Plato, for whom theology meant a rational conception of the divine as opposed to poetic myths about the gods. The subsequent Greek tradition of rational theology survived well into Christian times, and aspects of it have been influential in shaping various Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologies.

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In early Christianity, theology had a number of meanings. It referred, for instance, to the whole mystery of God, to particular teachings about God (for example, the doctrine of the Trinity), or to a stage in the mystical knowledge of God. In general, however, theology implied an understanding of God over and above simple belief in God. Only in the medieval period did theology become an academic field, or "science," in somewhat the modern sense. With the rise of medieval universities, theological faculties began to emerge, and theology itself came to be defined as a science like other sciences in the medieval curriculum. It proceeded from its own first principles, followed accepted canons of rational inquiry, and produced an organized body of knowledge in its own right. Since the Middle Ages theology has included both academic and nonacademic forms of religious inquiry, often in tension with each other.

In the course of its history theology has been subdivided according to various patterns. One typical pattern distinguishes between historical, systematic, and philosophical theology. The first studies the content of a religious tradition; the second attempts comprehensive explanations and expositions of its doctrines; and the third investigates the philosophical presuppositions and implications of religious belief. Also important are moral theology, or ethics, which explores the moral dimensions of the religious life, and practical theology, which interprets the forms of worship, styles of organization, and modes of interpersonal relationship within religious communities.

Although different questions have preoccupied theologians at different times, certain topics have established themselves as basic to theological study. These include the basis for humans' knowledge of God, the being and attributes of God, the relation of God to the world and of the world to God, the modes of divine governance of human affairs, the source and character of human alienation from the divine, the manner of humanity's restoration to God, and the ultimate destiny of humankind. Such themes have been central throughout theology's history and continue to dominate theological reflection today.

William S Babcock

Ferre, Frederick, Language, Logic, and God (1961; repr. 1977); Harvey, Van, A Handbook of Theological Terms (1964); Schleiermacher, Friedrich, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, trans. by Terrence N. Tice (1966); Smart, Ninian, Reasons and Faiths (1958).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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