Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

The Practice of Theology, 3: Branches of Theology

Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving.  I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.).  Whole books could be (and have) been written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!)  It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.

Biblical theology.  All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture.  However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology.  Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc.  But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense.

Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting.  This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today.  Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).

Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate.  A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission one listens and learns as much as one teaches.

Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.

The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative:  Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology.  So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems.  A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology.  I have no preference here.

I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church. Next in this series, I’ll try to show why that is true.

May 29, 2007 - Posted by | theology


  1. I’ve heard how some dislike the term “systematic” theology. “Constructive” may be a good alternative, but it doesn’t seem to quite encapsulate the main idea that doctrine is ordered and structured for study as the word “systematic” does.

    Good point at the end. I think that’s why many don’t like the term “systematic theology.” It sounds like it is a study detached from practical ethics, but this is far from its intention.

    Comment by Chris Huff | May 29, 2007

  2. Systematic theology seems to take a beating regularly, it seems that it has the problem of being so academic,you mentioned daunting, I think of the large tomes i.e Church dogmatics, Summa theologia, Institutes, etc. Which tends to turn people off, remind them of scholasticism or worse. The name is not very inviting either, I teach a little ST to a missions school here in Brazil and am seeking to find a better title to the course. It is intereseting also that many of the great ST’s seems like they would not call their workd ST either, Calvin and Barth.

    Comment by James gilbert | May 30, 2007

  3. I too have been deeply influenced by the non-violent yet radical Christians of earlier times. In your case it was the Levellers of the Puritan Wars in England. I would call these people early Socialists. My heroes came earlier. They were the non-violent Anabaptists who nevertheless were radical in the Word of God. They arose in central Europe during and as a counter-movement to the Reformation Wars which killed many innocents and wrecked Germany. See the videos “Luther” and “The Radicals” from “VisionVideo.com”.

    Regarding Peace I believe that is to be found in the Prince of peace our Messiah, and Him being downloaded and installed in human hearts. Only He can bring them the personal salvation that brought the English speaking people into national blessing. The French, (who killed their Huguenot Biblical Christians) missed out on this. See http://www.endtimepilgrim.org/puritans12.htm Through the atoning blood of Israel’s promised sacrifice Lamb people enter into a born-again state of being, which brings peace to citizens. This brings them into new Gr. “polity, and into the citizenship or Commonwealth of Israel. This is the end-time politics that will define the end-time Church in the days of 666 and the anti-Messiah. Just Google “Commonwealth of israel” and you will see my article on the EndTimePilgrim website.

    Comment by Gavin Finley | September 6, 2009

  4. Actually, I have been deeply influenced by the Anabaptists, too, especially Menno Simons and Pilgram Marpeck, Gavin. As well, the Leveller who most influenced me, Richard Overton, was a General Baptist minister who had spent time in the Netherlands in a Waterlander Mennonite congregation, so the Anabaptist influence was there, too.

    The French did not kill all the Hugenots. Their descendants live on as the Reformed Church of France. And, whereas most Reformed Christians around the world follow Calvin and Zwingli in being Just War thinkers, the French Reformed Church continues to produce major pacifist theologians and leaders from Andre and Magda Trocme to Jean-Michel Hornus to Jacques Ellul to Paul Ricoeur. French Catholic pacifists such as Rene Girard are also increasingly common.

    I’ll read your article, but I think we’ll have some theological differences. Thanks for writing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 7, 2009

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