Theology as Science and Religion

Formal, Systematic Study of Religion & Faith

Theology is a systematic formulation of ways to think about God, to talk about a religion's distinctive symbols or concepts, and to bring it all together into a coherent system of thought. Theology has much in common with philosophy and religion, often straddling the borders between the two.

Systematic & Authoritative

As practiced in various religious traditions, theology can be more or less formal and systematic.

Some traditions have built schools for the purpose of training in theology, developing long and rich traditions. Others, though, tend to "do" theology much more informally and on an ad hoc basis. A single person reflecting on the meaning of a religious text might be said to be "doing" theology in some manner.

Much of theology done today assumes an authoritative element that arises out of the assumption of the truth of most, if not all, basic beliefs within any particular religious tradition. This is sometimes referred to as "confessional theology" because it occurs within the context of a particular "confession," though such a label is typically only used among Protestant denominations rather than among various religious traditions.

Taking Doctrines for Granted

Theology doesn't begin from a perspective that would call basic religious beliefs into question; instead, they are taken as a given and disagreements over their implications are hashed out.

Christian theologians, for example, don't normally debate amongst themselves whether God exists or whether Jesus is the Son of God. Despite employing the language of the independent reasoning one finds in philosophy, theology partakes in the assumed authority of prophets, scriptures, and traditions.

To engage in Christian theology, it is assumed that one must be a Christian as well. The theologian is thus first and foremost a believer - and a committed believer, too, otherwise they wouldn't have made a career out of the study of their religion's doctrines. The theologian believes that the fundamental truths that can be known are already known; their job is to explain and communicate those truths to others. Arguably the work of a theologian is a type of ministry that functions alongside and compliments that of ordained pastors.

The three most important sources from which Western theological systems derive their premises are divine revelation, natural reason, and community traditions. Thus much of what occurs in theology involves the logical, historical, and even mystical exegesis of a body of authoritative traditions and texts that are generally accepted as authoritative on the basis of faith.

Authority & Power of Theologians

The conclusions of theologians are taken to be authoritative over believers - if dominant theologians agree on some particular conclusion about the nature of God, it is an "error" for the average believer to adopt a different opinion. In some extreme cases those who disagree with authoritative theologians may even be labeled "heretics" and excluded from the religious community entirely.

In most religious traditions theologians are thus imbued with a great deal of power. Theologians are made responsible for guiding the community of believers on what the "major themes" of the religion are and how believers should interpret those themes. Theologians set the agenda for how a religion is understood and talked about, what language is used, what the concepts mean, what the symbols are, etc.

Theology today also tends to assume the context, categories, and concerns of particular religious traditions - none of which may apply in another religion. For example, Christian theologians trained in the concepts of "sin" and "salvation" may have difficulty understanding a religion where those concepts don't appear at all or have very different meanings. Because of this, theology is almost always rooted in one tradition and any sort of "general" or "global" theology can be impossible.