Theology, Theories of

views updated

Theology, Theories of

The term theology, in its Greek cognate roots, means discourse about or study of gods or divine things. It was not originally distinguished from philosophy about gods and divine matters, and for some contemporary thinkers, such as process theologians, theology retains that connection with philosophy. These kinds of issues raised regarding the relationship of science and religion depend in many respects on one's conception of theology as it pertains to rationality, authority, and the communities and sources of theology.

Early Christian thinkers used the term theology (or its cognates) to describe their expressions of the Christian faith to other Christians and to non-Christians. In this context, theology had an apologetic function, that is, explaining and justifying religious beliefs and practices to people for whom explanation and justification is needed, including Christians themselves. In late Christian antiquity, as represented, for example, by Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.), theology as reflection on religious beliefs and practices embraced philosophy, history, interpretation of scripture, appeal to the scientific understanding of the day, rhetoric, and other modes of discourse as they might bear upon the divine, as found in Augustine's The City of God. Although the ancients were self-conscious about these modes of thought, they did not focus on theology as a special mode of thought.

By the Christian middle ages, however, theology was understood theoretically in a three-fold way. A distinction was drawn, for instance by Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), between natural theology and revealed theology. Natural theology consisted in what could be known by reason without the aid of revelation, and revealed theology was based on revelatory sources. Although there were many sources for this distinction, comprehensively explored in Etienne Gilson's classic Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (1938), a primary source was the extraordinarily fruitful dialogue between Christians and Muslims. They shared a common reason that was exercised in rational argument and in the interpretation and criticism of Aristotle. They disagreed about revelatory sources and hence about some doctrines that were particular to those sources. Aquinas himself believed that truth is one and consistent, and that natural and revealed theology must therefore be complementary. Some (e.g., Roger Bacon, c.1212c.1292) said that revelatory claims that disagree with reason must be superstitions whereas others (e.g., William of Ockham, c.12901349) said that revelation trumps reason and takes the form of paradox when it does so. Although the distinction between reason and revelation was not sharp until the European medieval period, antecedents of these emphases are ancient; Origen (c.185c.254), for instance, interpreted revelatory sources so that they conformed to reason, and Tertullian (c. 160c.225) delighted in paradoxical irrationality of scriptural theology.

In addition to the theory that theology is either natural or revealed, the medieval period saw the development of theology in a rhetorical mode, as in Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153). In this mode, theology arises from the interpretation of scriptures in sermons and inspirational writings, often taking the form of allegories. Rhetorical theology to this day is often suspicious of natural and revealed theology for attempting to make theology a science or explanatory description of divine matters, preferring instead that theology move the soul to greater spiritual competence.

Whereas the term theology, by the medieval period, was used mainly within Christian circles, the discourse itself was shared with Muslims and Jews. Islam and Judaism developed rational modes of theology something like Thomistic natural theology, and also revelational modes of theology, sometimes in complementary and sometimes in competing forms relative to natural theology.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the term theology has expanded its scope of subject matter. Ancients such as Plato could use the term theology to refer to the study of gods while at the same time believing that there are higher principles than gods, the Form of the Good in Plato's case. Under the impact of the great monotheistic religions of West Asia, however, theology came to interpret only the highest principles as divine and hence the object of theology. By the end of the twentieth century, the term theology had been generalized to mean discourse about ultimate matters regardless of whether ultimacy is interpreted in a theistic way, as discussed, for instance, by the Comparative Religious Ideas Project in Ultimate Realities (2001 ). Some forms of Hinduism are plainly theistic, and these contest with others that are nontheistic, all as theology. Various kinds of Buddhism, like many kinds of Hinduism, represent the existence of hundreds or thousands of gods without treating them as ultimate. Buddhist theology uses concepts such as emptiness, suffering, attachment, Buddha-mind, and enlightenment, to treat ultimate matters. Daoism also represents many non-ultimate gods but discusses the ultimate in terms of the Dao. Confucianism regards most beliefs in gods as superstitions and interprets the ultimate in terms of Heaven and Earth, or Principle and Material Force.

Theories of theological publics

Contemporary theories of the nature of theology can be understood in terms of the publics they address, the sources and justifications to which they appeal, and their mode of logical presentation.

Acknowledging that there are different types of theology, some theorists distinguish them by the publics to which they are addressed. One of the most influential recent typologies was developed by David Tracy in his The Analogical Imagination (1981). Admitting that the boundaries are not fixed, his typology says that systematic theology takes the Church (or a religious community, Christian in Tracy's case) for its public, fundamental theology takes the academy for its public, and practical theology takes society, usually addressed by a social movement, as its public. Systematic theology thus is thinking in, by, and for a religious community, framed in the language of its historical symbols, and aimed to give a coherent and clarifying account of the community's beliefs. Fundamental theology, as Tracy explained it, is open to philosophical considerations that might undermine a religious community's assumptions and at any rate has to employ rational discourse to engage members of the intellectual community (the academy and its neighbors) who might not be members of the religious community. Practical theology, for Tracy, aims to understand the religious implications of social conditions and perhaps to change them.

One problem with Tracy's typology is that much theology that takes place within the exclusive public of a religious community is not systematic. In On Christian Theology (2000), Rowan Williams provides an alternative typology of celebratory, communicative, and critical styles. Celebratory theology arises from the scriptural symbols, liturgies, and hymnody of a religious community and weaves these together so as to exercise the symbolic and affirmative thinking of the living community, a kind of theology in direct lineage from rhetorical theology of Bernard of Clairvaux's sort. Williams points out that this is unstable when the community exists within a larger environment and that communicative theology arises as church theologians interact with the languages and concerns of others. The use of Greek theology by the early Christian apologists, the engagement of Islamic theology in the medieval period, and the use of Marxism in recent Christian theology are examples of this.

Celebratory theology is primarily focused on the public of the religious community whose symbols it exercises. Communicative theology has the public of some elements of the larger environment as engaged by the religious community. Sometimes those engagements go so far as to call into question the continuities of the community's faith with its participation in larger discourses, and sometimes the very meaningfulness of the celebratory concepts and symbols. Then theology becomes critical in the sense of objectifying and questioning the very meaning and truth of original affirmations celebrated by the religious community. The result can be a conservative reaffirmation of them, as in the theology of the Yale School as represented by George Lindbeck in his The Nature of Doctrine (1984), or a radical break from traditional notions, as represented by Mark C. Taylor in Erring: A Post-modern A/Theology (1984). Williams cites classical apophatic (that is, negative) theology as preeminently critical. The public for critical theology is anyone with a relevant critical argument.

Both Tracy's and Williams's theories of types of theology assume that theology begins from and is rooted in a religious community (Christian in both cases). Their distinctions of publics have to do with how far theology ventures from the symbolic language and doctrines of the community itself, and in both cases they would call all their types "Christian" theology. Sometimes this community-based theology is called "confessional," in reference to the traditional confessions that constitute the identity boundaries of some, though not all, religious, even Christian, communities. Tracy's fundamental and Williams's critical types of theology call the confessional identity into question, but themselves are defined by reference to the confession in so doing.

The confessional publics, including the out-reach in fundamental and critical theologies, can be contrasted with scientific publics. Some theologies, for instance those of the Yale school, would treat the religious and scientific publics as defined by separate communities, each with its own cultural-linguistic system (Lindbeck's category), such that the membership of a person in both communities would be adventitious. Much of the late twentiethcentury religion and science discussion, however, had to do with whether the beliefs from the different religion and science publics could be made compatible, as in the work of Nancey Murphy in Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (1990) and John Polkinghorne in Science and Christian Belief (1994). Such discussion does not question extensively the results of the confessional theologies or sciences in their respective publics, or cause them to learn from one another so as to change; rather it attempts reconciliation of the publics left as they are.

Yet another kind of public for theology is simply the global array of perspectives that might have something to contribute to inquiry about divine matters (broadly understood). Although individual theologians aiming at this global public might come from a specific religious tradition, the orienting base is, at first, comparative religions. The language of theology for a global public includes extremely vague theological categories that might be specified in different and perhaps incompatible ways by different religions. Ultimacy, as discussed above, is a vague category specified differently by God, the Dao, and so forth. Debates in global theology both adjudicate these differences and aim to develop claims more adequate than any tradition's symbols by themselves. Moreover, not only religions, but also imaginative literature, the arts, and indeed the sciences have contributions to make to inquiry about theology's topics. All these disciplines have articulate bearings on ultimate matters. So the orienting base of theology with a global public is not only comparative religions but all the disciplines that might bear upon the topic. In this case, scientific publics do not stand in contrast to theological ones but are components of the discipline of theology insofar as they have relevance to ultimate matters. For theology in a global public, no particular issues of reconciling religion and science are fundamental but only questions of what can be learned from each for understanding theological matters. The language of global theology draws on many religious, imaginative, artistic, and scientific sources, as well as practical politics and ethics. Twenty-first-century theology aiming at a global public is stimulated by global problems such as in ecology and distributive justice, and aided by the rapid communication of thinkers in many fields and cultures about these global problems.

Sources for theology

Theories of theology are sometimes distinguished by what they take to be the most important sources for theology and the roles those sources play. The commonly cited sources are scriptures, such as the Vedas, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and the Qur'han; historical traditions as expressed in creeds, commentarial texts, and special teachings; experience, usually contextualized, as in mysticism, popular piety, and liberation movements for the poor or marginalized; and reason, as in philosophy, the arts, imaginative literature, sciences, common sense, and practical endeavors such as politics and law.

Most religious traditions have employed all these sources in their theologies, but different theories of theology have emphasized one or several over the others. A fundamental distinction between theories of theology is whether the theory takes one or several of these sources to be absolutely authoritative in the sense of trumping claims arising from the other sources. The alternative theory is that theology respects all or some of these sources as important authorities but considers all to be liable to reinterpretation by some or all of the others. The theories claiming that some one or several sources must be absolutely authoritative include biblical fundamentalisms in Islam and Christian Protestantism, deference to infallible elements of tradition in Roman Catholicism, insistence that a theology is valid only if it supports women's experience in some forms of feminism, and rationalisms such as Charles Hartshorne's process theology. Hans W. Frei's Types of Christian Theology (1992), a classic of the Yale School, classifies theologies according to whether their sources are primarily biblical, philosophical, or social scientific in various combinations, while holding that the public for theology is the Christian community.

Because of the rise of modern science in connection with the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe, a special story needs to be told about the modern connection of theological sources with science. Martin Luther and other reformers attacked the authority of tradition and traditional church institutions to assert the primary and almost exclusive authority of the Christian Biblethe doctrine of sola scriptura. This had the force within much subsequent reformed Protestant theology of subordinating, marginalizing, or even dismissing the rich philosophical, literary, and scientific language of medieval Christian theology. Protestant theology found itself constrained to use the language of the Bible with its serious personifications of God and highly political imagery of the divine kingdom. Conceptions of God as the transcendent One in Christian neo-Platonism, or as pure Act of Esse in Thomism, found little place in Protestant theology, which developed increasing suspicion of metaphysics. The reformers' emphasis on sola scriptura had the opposite impact on the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, namely the fixing upon a scholastic form of theology as a near unalterable and absolute authority.

Both Protestant biblical theology and Roman Catholic scholastic theology were seriously ill-equipped to respond to the burgeoning findings of modern science that might have been a delight and inspiration to a continuing imaginative and creative development of the medieval synthesis of philosophy, scripture, and politics. As a result, a tradition of philosophical theology developed parallel to and often in hostile relation to both Protestant and Roman Catholic church theologies, with thinkers who themselves were often also scientists. The greats include René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Benedict de Spinoza, George Berkeley, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Alfred North Whitehead. That list includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and a Jew (Spinoza); Berkeley was an Anglican bishop. Yet their theologies all were outside the mainstream of their church communities, however influential they might have become later. All those thinkers understood theology to require a reconception of God and creation in relation to the findings of modern science. Neither the biblical representations of God nor the Roman Catholic scholastic conceptions, which had become fairly authoritative for their religious traditions, were adequate in the scientific world.

At the end of the twentieth century, discussions of theology and science were torn between two sets of assumptions. One is that religion or theology is to be represented by a defense of what some Protestants call the "classical" conception of God: a personal being with conscious subjectivity and infinite power, knowledge, and goodness who can interact with the world in ways at least analogous to the ways described in the biblical narratives. Keith Ward's Religion and Creation (1996) contains an elegant defense of an Anglo-Catholic version of this view. The question science raises for religion under this set of assumptions is whether the conception of God as a personal being with agency in the world can be made compatible with science. The other set of assumptions is that the conception of God needs to be rethought as science causes us to reconceive other foundational aspects of reality. Process theologians following from Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality (1929) and Charles Hartshorne in The Divine Relativity (1948) claim there is a need for a "neo-classical" conception to replace the "classical" conception of God. By "classical" the process theologians mean the Thomistic idea, not the biblical idea of God as a personal being that the other set of assumptions calls "classical," though Whitehead found both problematic. Many philosophical approaches other than those of process theology contend within the second set of assumptions. Some have great potential for relating to religions other than Christianity, as in existential theologies such as Paul Tillich's in Systematic Theology (19511963), Heideggerian theologies such as John Macquarrie's in Principles of Christian Theology (1966), Karl Rahner's in Foundations of Christian Faith (1989), and pragmatic theologies such as Charles Sanders Peirce's in his 1908 essay "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God."

All the world's theological traditions are affected by modern science in that they have to reexamine the relation of contemporary practice to ancient texts and symbols. The dialectical relation between Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism developing over the last two centuries is a case in point. The introduction of Western science into China in the nineteenth century caused both a revolution within Confucianism as it westernized and revolutions against Confucianism, most notably the Marxist. The theological traditions of South Asia were greatly dislocated by European imperialism from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, and were recovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in forms usually positively related to science. Some of these forms enjoy the positive relation by distancing religion as spiritual from science as material; others claim scientific standing for ancient techniques and ideas. Relating to "Eastern Mysticisms" generally, Fritjof Capra's popular The Tao of Physics (1975) reconciles science to mystical ultimates by modifying both beyond what the home communities recognize easily.

How theology related to science at the end of the twentieth century depended very much on the kind of authority different conceptions of theology gave to scripture and scholasticism, on the one hand, and to philosophical reason and the sciences as sources for theology on the other. For many of the philosophical traditions of theology, science has been a more important source for conceptions of God than scriptural symbols, with scriptural symbols being given interpretations based on the scientifically shaped philosophical conceptions.

Modes of theology

Few, if any, pure modes of theological argument exist, although in theory four have been defended as particularly important: expository, hypotheticodeductive, practical, and dialectical inquiry.

The expository mode takes as given, although not necessarily infallible, some core set of texts or claims, and seeks to unfold, elaborate, interpret, and bring them to relevance. Williams's celebratory and communicative theologies, Tracy's systematic theology, classical biblical theologies, and commentarial theologies in all religions have this mode.

The hypothetico-deductive mode, as illustrated for instance in Peirce's "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" and Whitehead's cosmological scheme in Process and Reality, elaborates an abstract scheme of conceptions that is then treated as an hypothesis to explain the world and God or ultimate matters. This mode is explicitly derived from a conception of how science works, and emphasizes that the conceptions are hypotheses whose plausibility consists in their capacity to interpret reality as well as in their consistency and coherence. Theology in this mode is heavily empirical. Wolfhart Pannenberg's proleptic theology, which says that his particular conception of Christian theology will be proved right in the End Time, and John Hick's conception of eschatological verification, are empirical in a different sense.

The practical mode of theology combines both expository and perhaps hypothetico-deductive philosophy as well as other forms of analysis to interpret the religious situation and to develop strategies for religious response. The situation might call for reform of social circumstances as in liberation theologies, the production of art and culture, the care of a religious congregation or community, or service to people in times of disaster. Science relates to practical theology both as offering important means of analysis of the situation to be addressed and in some instances as providing instruments of action.

Theology in the mode of dialectical inquiry focuses on the topics of theologyGod or ultimacy and the bearing of this on human lifeand looks to all possible sources and to all the modes of argumentation for learning from these sources. The word dialectic has been used to mean some kind of unfolding of reason from within, as in the theories of Hegel or Thomas J. J. Altizer, but that is not the meaning here. Dialectical inquiry means combining as many different modes of thinking as exist in religions, the arts, sciences, and practical domains of experience so as to learn what they might teach about ultimacy. The combinations and the limitations of the various modes of thinking can only be adjudicated in particular arguments. Dialectical inquiry is simply making the best case in the sense articulated by the contemporary historical theologian Van Harvey in The Historian and the Believer (1966), and is the mode most appropriate for theology in a global public.

See also Thomas Aquinas; Natural Theology; Process Thought; Revelation


capra, fritjof. the tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. berkeley, calif.: shambhala, 1975.

frei, hans w. types of christian theology, eds. george hunsinger and william c. placher. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1992.

gilson, etienne. reason and revelation in the middle ages. new york: scribners, 1938.

hartshorne, charles. the divine relativity: a social conception of god. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1948.

harvey, van a. the historian and the believer: the morality of historical knowledge and christian belief. new york: macmillan, 1966.

hick, john. faith and knowledge: a modern introduction to the problem of religious knowledge. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1957.

lindbeck, george a. the nature of doctrine: religion and theology in a post-liberal age. philadelphia, pa.: westminster press, 1984.

macquarrie, john. principles of christian theology. new york: macmillan, 1966.

murphy, nancey. theology in the age of scientific reasoning. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1990.

neville, robert cummings, ed. ultimate realities. a volume in the comparative religious ideas project. albany: state university of new york press, 2001.

pannenberg, wolfhart. systematic theology, trans. geoffrey w. bromily. grand rapids. mich.: eerdmans, 19881993.

peirce, charles sanders. "a neglected argument for the reality of god." the hibbert journal 7 (1908): 90112. also in the collected papers of charles sanders peirce, vol. 6, eds. charles hartshorne and paul weiss. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1935.

polkinghorne, john. science and christian belief: theological reflections of a bottom-up thinker. london: spck, 1994.

rahner, karl. foundations of christian faith: an introduction to the idea of christianity. new york: crossroad, 1989.

taylor, mark c. erring: a postmodern a/theology. chicago: university of chicago press, 1984.

tillich, paul. systematic theology. chicago: university of chicago press, 19511963.

tracy, david. the analogical imagination: christian theology and the culture of modernity. new york: crossroad, 1981.

ward, keith. religion and creation. oxford: clarendon press, 1996.

whitehead, alfred north. process and reality: an essay in cosmology (1929), eds. donald w. sherburne and david ray griffin. new york: free press, 1978.

williams, rowan. on christian theology. oxford: blackwell, 2000.

robert cummings neville