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.
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