There are several different types of theology. Examine a few here.
What did you think about yesterday? If you’re like most people, you probably spent a lot of time focused on your job or schooling and the tasks required of you. Or perhaps you worried about your kids—how they’re doing and the friends they’re making. Or maybe the details of life took most of your mental energy: paying bills, making ends meet, running errands, planning for dinner, planning for the weekend.
How many of us spend much time thinking about theology? You know, God stuff.
Some of us don’t care about that. Others feel like it’s a waste of time. Like philosophy, isn’t theology just a hobby for people who have nothing better to do than sit around and pontificate on the meaning of life? Consider the words of one skeptic: “Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”1
Whether this is true or not, many of us do think about the big questions of life from time to time. Attending a funeral causes us to wonder about life after death. Meeting someone who is religious raises questions about whether certain beliefs are really true. Or maybe a difficult season in life provokes a desire for something or someone “out there” who hears our prayers. In a way, all of these thoughts are an exploration of theology.
Properly speaking, theology is the study of God. The word comes from two Greek words: theos, which means God, and logos, which means word, thought, reason, or study. So while biology is the study of life, sociology is the study of society, and pharmacology is the study of drugs, theology is the study of God.
More broadly speaking, the word “theology” includes not just the study of God, but the study of all things related to God, spirituality, and religious beliefs. This includes beliefs about humanity; the nature of creation; sin, evil, or suffering in the world; truth; ethics; and the afterlife.
In addition, each religious tradition has its own study of beliefs. So we can speak of Muslim theology, Jewish theology, and Hindu theology even though conceptions of God and religious practice are quite different in all of these traditions.
The most common use in Western culture of the term “theology” refers to Christian theology—what Christians believe about God, spirituality, humanity, and the world.
Angles of Theology
Theology is very broad; it has to do with what people believe about God and just about everything else. Given how comprehensive this concept is, scholars have defined several useful subfields that approach the study of these beliefs from a particular angle. Here are the most important theological angles that people utilize within the Christian tradition:
This field focuses on a specific part or author of the Bible. For example, what did the Apostle Paul believe about God, based on the letters attributed to him? What theological themes are prominent in the book of Exodus?
This is different from simply saying one’s theology is biblical, meaning it is based on the Bible. Biblical theology more narrowly emphasizes a particular portion of the Bible and what it meant in its original context.2
Historical theology focuses on how certain doctrines or beliefs have been discussed and developed throughout history. Questions explored might be: How did beliefs about Jesus change from the first to fifth centuries CE? Why did Martin Luther challenge the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century? How do modern Americans think about God differently than medieval Europeans?3
This field organizes the study of God and religious beliefs into specific doctrines that fit together into a larger, coherent system. For example, what do you believe about angels? About the afterlife? About sin and evil? About the Trinity?
One’s beliefs in each category may be dependent on biblical teachings, historical writings, and even other factors like what is logical, reasonable, or coheres to one’s personal experience. But, at its core, systematic theology seeks to come up with a rational system to explain one’s beliefs on major topics of faith.4
This method of studying God is becoming more prominent among those disillusioned by traditional, rationalistic approaches. “Apophatic” means describing something by what it is not. Many think this is the best approach for studying a transcendent God and his ways. For example, apophatic theology might focus on God as not created, not bound by space and time, or not finite.5
Practical theology seeks to bring the study of God and religious belief into daily life. Important questions might include: How do our beliefs about God translate into viable ethical systems? How does my perspective on the afterlife shape my daily decisions? What role does prayer actually play in everyday?6
There are many other ways to approach and explore theology. And while none of these listed is the “right” or “correct” way, some may be more helpful than others depending on what you are looking for.
Finally, community can play a significant role in one’s spiritual journey. Finding a group of friends or a community of faith that explores the biggest questions of life with you may be the most important factor in finding the answers for which you are searching.