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Christian theology is discourse concerning Christian faith. Christian theologians use biblical exegesis, rational analysis and argument to understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote Christianity. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian understand Christianity more truly,[1] make comparisons between Christianity and other traditions,[2] defend Christianity against critics, facilitate Christianity's reform,[3] assist in the propagation of Christianity,[4] draw on the resources of the Christian tradition to address some present situation or need,[5] or for a variety of other reasons.

Christian theology has permeated much of Western culture, especially in pre-modern Europe.

The emergence of Christian theology

The emergence of Christian theology has sometimes been presented as the triumph of Hellenistic rationality over the Hebraic faith of Jesus and the early disciples (see also Jewish Christianity). The early African theologian Tertullian, for instance, complained that the 'Athens' of philosophy was corrupting the 'Jerusalem' of faith.[6] More recent discussions have qualified and nuanced this picture.

  • From the very beginning of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus tried to make sense of the impact of Jesus of Nazareth, and began arguing about differing ways of making sense. There has never been an uncontested, unrationalized Christian faith.[7]
  • These processes of making sense initially drew upon the ideas and narratives of contemporary Judaism, which was already Hellenized in various degrees, see Hellenistic Judaism. As time went by, ideas and narratives from other Hellenistic context were drawn on, but, with the rejection of Marcionism by Proto-orthodoxy, the Jewish scriptures remained a key driver of theological development, and too sharp a distinction between Hebraic and Hellenistic is unsustainable. Some elements of early Christian theologizing previously thought to be thoroughly 'Hellenistic' (e.g., the Prologue of John's Gospel) are now regularly argued to be thoroughly Jewish.
  • The ideas and narratives drawn on in this process were transformed as they were given a new context in Christian practices of devotion, community—formation and evangelism—and the extent to which borrowings from Hellenistic culture (for instance) were given new meanings in this process should not be underestimated.[8]
  • One of the characteristics of those strands of Early Christianity (in the second and third centuries) sometimes called proto-orthodox (because they are the most direct ancestors of the forms of Christianity that in the fourth century were defined as Orthodox), invested a great deal of time and energy in communication between widely spread conversations, and in pursuing a deep interest in each other's beliefs and practices. This concern and communication seems to have been as much a driver of the development of theological activity as the desire to communicate Christianity to, or make it acceptable in, a Hellenistic culture.[9]

The history of Christian theology

Early Christian theology

The New Testament contains evidence of some of the earliest forms of reflection upon the meanings and implications of Christian faith, mostly in the form of guidance offered to Christian congregations on how to live a life consistent with their convictions – most notably in the Sermon on the Mount, the Pauline epistles and the Johannine corpus.

A huge quantity of theological reflection emerged in the early centuries of the Christian church – in a wide variety of genres, in a variety of contexts, and in several languages – much of it the product of attempts to discuss how Christian faith should be lived in cultures very different from the one in which it was born. So, for instance, a good deal of the Greek language literature can be read as an attempt to come to terms with Hellenistic culture. The period sees the slow emergence of orthodoxy (the idea of which seems to emerge from the conflicts between catholic Christianity and Gnostic Christianity), the establishment of a Biblical canon, debates about the doctrine of the Trinity (most notably between the councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, part of the period of the First seven Ecumenical Councils), about Christology (most notably between the councils of Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451), about the purity of the Church (for instance in the debates surrounding the Donatists), and about grace, free will and predestination (for instance in the debate between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius).

Texts from patristic authors before AD 325 are collected in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Texts from patristic authors after AD 325 are collected in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Important theological debates also surrounded the various Ecumenical CouncilsNicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451 See also main articles on Patristics and Church Fathers.

Medieval Christian theology

While the Western Roman Empire declined and fell, the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, remained standing until 1453, and was the home of a wide range of theological activity that was seen as standing in strong continuity with the theology of the Patristic period; indeed the division between Patristic and Byzantine theology would not be recognised by many Orthodox theologians and historians.

Before the Carolingian Empire

When the Western Roman Empire fragmented under the impact of various 'barbarian' invasions, the Empire-wide intellectual culture that had underpinned late Patristic theology had its interconnections cut. Theology tended to become more localised, more diverse, more fragmented. The classically-clothed Christianity preserved in Italy by men like Boethius and Cassiodorus was different from the vigorous Frankish Christianity documented by Gregory of Tours which was different again from the Christianity that flourished in Ireland and Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries. Throughout this period, theology tended to be a more monastic affair, flourishing in monastic havens where the conditions and resources for theological learning could be maintained.

Theology in the time of Charlemagne

Both because it made communication between different Christian centres easier, and because there was a concerted effort by its rulers to encourage educational and religious reforms and to develop greater uniformity in Christian thought and practice across their territories, the establishment of the Carolingian Empire saw an explosion of theological inquiry, and theological controversy. Controversy flared, for instance, around 'Spanish Adoptionism, around the views on predestination of Gottschalk, or around the eucharistic views of Ratramnus.

Before Scholasticism

With the division and decline of the Carolingian Empire, notable theological activity was preserved in some of the Cathedral schools that had begun to rise to prominence under it – for instance at Auxerre in the 9th century or Chartres in the 11th. Intellectual influences from the Arabic world (including works of classical authors preserved by Islamic scholars) percolated into the Christian West via Spain, influencing such theologians as Gerbert of Aurillac, who went on to become Pope Sylvester II and mentor to Otto III. (Otto was the fourth ruler of the Germanic Ottonian Holy Roman Empire, successor to the Carolingian Empire). With hindsight, one might say that a new note was struck when a controversy about the meaning of the eucharist blew up around Berengar of Tours in the 11th century: hints of a new confidence in the intellectual investigation of the faith that perhaps foreshadowed the explosion of theological argument that was to take place in the twelfth century.

Early Scholasticism and its contemporaries

Anselm of Canterbury (Benedictine) is sometimes misleadingly called the 'Father of Scholasticism' because of the prominent place that reason has in his theology; instead of establishing his points by appeal to authority, he presents arguments to demonstrate why it is that the things he believes on authority must be so. His particular approach, however, was not very influential in his time, and he kept his distance from the Cathedral Schools. We should look instead to the production of the gloss on Scripture associated with Anselm of Laon, the rise to prominence of dialectic (middle subject of the medieval trivium) in the work of Abelard, and the production by Peter Lombard of a collection of Sentences or opinions of the Church Fathers and other authorities. Scholasticism proper can be thought of as the kind of theology that emerges when, in the Cathedral schools and their successors, the tools of dialectic are pressed into use to comment upon, explain, and develop the gloss and the sentences.

High Scholasticism and its contemporaries

The 13th Century saw the attempted suppression of various groups perceived as heterodox, such as the Cathars and Waldensians and the associated rise of the mendicant orders (notably the Franciscans and Dominicans), in part intended as a form of orthodox alternative to the heretical groups. Those two orders quickly became contexts for some of the most intense scholatsic theologizing, producing such 'high scholastic' theologians as Alexander of Hales (Franciscan) and Thomas Aquinas (Dominican), or the rather less obviously scholastic Bonaventure (Franciscan). The century also saw a flourishing of mystical theology, with women such as Mechthild of Magdeburg (Cistercian) playing a prominent role. In addition, the century can be seen as period in which the study of natural philosophy that could anachronistically be called 'science' began once again to flourish in theological soil, in the hands of such men as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon (Franciscan).

Late Scholasticism and its contemporaries

Scholastic theology continued to develop as the thirteenth century gave way to the fourteenth, becoming ever more complex and subtle in its distinctions and arguments. The fourteenth century saw in particular the rise to dominance of the nominalist or voluntarist theologies of men like William of Ockham (Franciscan). The fourteenth century was also a time in which movements of widely varying character worked for the reform of the institutional church, such as conciliarism, Lollardy and the Hussites. Spiritual movements such as the Devotio Moderna also flourished.

See also Scholasticism

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The Renaissance yielded scholars the ability to read the scriptures in their original languages and this in part stimulated the Reformation. Martin Luther, a Doctor in Bible at the University of Wittenburg,[10] began to teach that salvation is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus, who in humility paid for sin.[11] "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification," insisted Martin Luther, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness."[12] Along with the doctrine of justification, the Reformation promoted a higher view of the Bible. As Martin Luther said, "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so."[13] . These two ideas in turn promoted the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Other important reformers were John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Bucer and the Anabaptists. Their theology was modified 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. Other important Catholic reformers were Teresa of Avila (Carmelite), St. John of the Cross (Carmelite), and Charles Borromeo (Jesuit).

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.

Modern Christian theology

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 viewed as synergism versus monergism, though the labels Calvinist and Arminian are more frequently used, referring 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.

John Henry Newman was a notable Roman Catholic theologian and religious thinker of the 19th century.

Vladimir Lossky is a famous Eastern Orthodox theologian writing in the 20th century for the Greek church. In the twentieth century, Christian theology has become more global, with an increasing number of theologians making significant contributions from outside Europe. These include the African John Mbiti, Kosuke Koyama and Kazoh Kitamori from Japan and various liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff, from South America.

Postmodern theology

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, Queer Theology and 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 as in the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez (Dominican), which can be interpreted as a rejection of Academic Theology that fails to challenge the establishment and help the poor.

From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth 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. 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. Catholics established their own form of consensus and reform at Vatican II.

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.

Divisions of Christian theology

There are many methods of categorizing different approaches to Christian theology.


Christian theologians may be specialists in one or more theological sub-disciplines. These are the kinds of phrases that one finds in certain job titles such as 'Professor of x', 'Senior Lecturer in y':

Major topics

These topics crop up repeatedly and often in Christian theology; composing the main recurrent 'loci' around which Christian theological discussion revolves.

A traditional pattern

In many Christian seminaries, the four Great Departments of Theology are:

  1. Exegetical theology
  2. Historical theology
  3. Systematic theology
  4. Practical theology

The four departments can usefully be subdivided in the following way:
1. Exegetical theology:

  • Biblical studies (analysis of the contents of Scripture)
  • Biblical introduction (inquiry into the origins of the Bible)
  • Canonics (inquiry into how the different books of the Bible came to be collected together)
  • Biblical theology (inquiry into how divine revelation progressed over the course of the Bible).

2. Historical theology (study of how Christian theology develops over time):

3. Systematic theology:

4. Practical theology:

Roman Catholic theology

One important branch of Christian theology is Roman Catholic theology which has these major teachings:

Controversial movements

Christians have had theological disagreements since the time of Jesus. Theological disputes have given rise to many schisms and different Christian denominations, sects and movements.



Because the Reformation promoted the idea that Christians could expound their own views of theology based on the notion of "sola scriptura," the Bible alone, many theological distinctions have occurred between the various Protestant denominations. The differences between many of the denominations are relatively minor; however, and this has helped ecumenical efforts in recent times.

Contemporary Theological movements

In addition to the movements listed above, the following are some of the movements found amongst Christian theologians:


  1. See, e.g., Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004)
  2. See, e.g., David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)
  3. See, e.g., John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (New York: Harper Collins, 2001)
  4. See, e.g., Duncan Dormor et al (eds), Anglicanism, the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum, 2003)
  5. For example, see Timothy Gorringe, Crime, Changing Society and the Churches Series (London:SPCK, 2004)
  6. Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 7.
  7. See, for example, Stephen Sykes, The Identity of Christianity (London: SPCK, 1984) or Wayne Meeks, 'Inventing the Christ: multicultural process and poetry among the first Christians', Studia Theologica 58.1, pp.77-96, for arguments along these lines
  8. Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003)
  9. See Rowan Williams, 'Does it make sense to speak of pre – Nicene orthodoxy?' in idem (ed.) The Making of Orthodoxy (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), pp.1-23.
  10. Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:12-27.
  11. Wriedt, Markus. "Luther's Theology," in The Cambridge Companion to Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 88–94.
  12. Selected passages from Martin Luther, "Commentary on Galatians (1538)" as translated in Herbert J. A. Bouman, "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions," Concordia Theological Monthly 26 (November 1955) No. 11:801.[1]
  13. Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.


  • Andcone, J.H., eds. Black Theology; A Documentary History, 1966–1979. Orbis Books, 1979
  • Appiah-Kubi, K and Torres, S., eds. African Theology en Route, Orbis Books, 1979
  • Bonino, J.M. Doing theology in a Revolutionary situation, Philadelphia:Fortress Press, 1975.
  • Christian Theology Reader by Alister McGrath. ISBN 0–631–20637-X
  • Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. ISBN 0–631–22528–5
  • Elwood, D.J., ed. Asian Christian Theology; Emerging Themes. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979
  • Fuller, Reginald H. The Foundations of New Testament Christology (1965). ISBN 0–684–15532-X
  • Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity (1984, 1985, 1999). ISBN 1–56563–522–1)
  • Hill, Jonathan 2003) The History of Christian Thought. ISBN 0–7459–5093–0 and 0830827765
  • Koyama, Kosuke, Waterbuffalo Theology. Orbis books, 1974
  • Leith, John H. Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (1978). ISBN 0–8042–0479–9)
  • Miranda, J. Being and the Messiah. Orbis Books, 1974.
  • Moore, B., ed. The Challenge of Black Theology in South Africa. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974.
  • Muzorewa, H. African Theology: Its Origin and Development. Orbis Books, 1984.
  • Sobrino, J. Christology on the Crossroads. Orbis Books, 1978
  • Systematic Theology, an ecumenical trilogy by Thomas Oden
    • Volume 1: The Living God (1992). ISBN 0–06–066363–4
    • Volume 2: The Word of Life (1992). ISBN 0–06–066364–2
    • Volume 3: Life in the Spirit (1994). ISBN 0–06–066362–6

See also

External links

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