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The modern conception of theology as both a faithful and rational or scientific way of talking about God dates from the Christian Middle Ages. Theology as a term is rooted in Greek philosophy, which consisted of three parts: the mythology of the gods, theology as a form of philosophy of nature, and political theology as a public cult. Christendom only reluctantly accepted the term. It is only from the twelfth century onwards that the term theology is commonly used for this science of Christian faith in contrast to the term philosophy. The late Middle Ages finds the term entirely accepted and it is even taken over by Martin Luther. In modern times it is especially used to distinguish between religious philosophy and religious studies on the one hand and Christian doctrine on the other.
Christian theology finds its roots in the biblical tradition. In its first phase since the second century, theology was dominated by the apologetical defense of faith from external attack as well as inner gnostic debate. Clement of Alexandria and Origen developed the first conceptions of systematic knowledge and of an understanding of faith. From the thirteenth century a new prototype of theology as science of faith was established. The west and east developed differently, with western theology concerned with inner processes of systematization and rationalization, while the east was more liturgically and spiritually oriented. Furthermore, philosophy and theology in the west were separated, and challenged faith and science to bring forth their inner connection. Thomas Aquinas thought of God from the rational as well as the revelational points of view. The plurality of theologies was already apparent in the Middle Ages. Thus, scholastic theology with its tendencies to rationalize and intellectualize faith went hand in hand with forms of theology with ties to Augustinian-Neoplatonic thinking or those which were more biblically or affectively oriented, such as the devotio moderna. Nominalism in the late Middle Ages came under the pressure of the medieval synthesis of faith and reason until it fell apart during the Reformation.
Modern western theology is marked by schism and conflict with modern society and culture. Reformation, due to the negation of scholastic theology, fell back on the Bible and on patristic theology, as well as trends of mysticism. For Luther, the object of theology was no longer the unity of faith and reason, but ”the culpable and forlorn individual and the justificatory or saving God” (WA: 327). Modern trends in Protestant theology are marked either by the search for a connection with modern culture (e.g., the theology of the Enlightenment and liberal theology) or a stress on separation (e.g., Pietism and dialectical theology).
Theology conceives of its modern form in processes of inner differentiation which follow the general development of society and science. When it began in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was still homogeneous in its interpretation of the Bible, reflection on faith, and introduction to religious practices. The beginnings of the separation of biblical and systematic theology reach back as far as the Middle Ages. In its function of thinking about faith, theology consists of three basic structures: historical, systematic, and practical science. Historical theology gained its modern form through the development of the historical-critical method, which leads to tensions with systematic theology. Pastoral theology reacts to the modern differentiation of religion and society and helps establish practical theological disciplines which specialize in the practical role of the church in society. It is a specific part of modern theology that it reflects and copies the plurality of scientific approaches and disciplines. Today, theology signifies the connection between historical disciplines (contemporary history and exegesis of the Old and New Testament, church history), systematic disciplines (philosophy, fundamental theology, dogmatics, moral theology, social ethics), and practical disciplines (pastoral theology, liturgics, canon law, missionary science, religious education). The unity within the plurality of theologies is nowadays mainly expressed in the challenges it faces: the overcoming of confessional separation, the dialogue between religions, the variety of cultures, and the separation of the world into the poor and the rich. Theology is challenged to demonstrate the unity of the Christian promise of salvation and the culturality of Christian faith. It proves to be most fruitful where it succeeds in interpreting faith as part of a sociopolitical and cultural sphere with a view to its capability for experience and action. This is all the more clear in outlines of contextual theology developed across confessional boundaries, the best known of which are feminist theology, the theology of liberation, the theology of enculturation, and the theology of religions. In the sciences, theology nowadays appears to be an indispensable science of the cultural memory and a challenge to overcome the limitations of the modern understanding of science as a system of hypothetical-deductive propositions within interdisciplinary dialogue.
- Luther, M. (2002) Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Bd. 40, II. Bohlau, Weimar.
- McGrath, A. E. (1994) Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell, Oxford.