Theology: Defining the Term

I seem to have put the cart before the horse in publishing a post about my theological method before I had even defined the term ‘theology’. Therefore, in this post I will set out what I mean by theology, and attempt to ‘discipline’ the field by distinguishing it from other related fields of study and practice.

I.  Definition

Theology, in my view, is the work of making sense of divine revelation, revelation including both ‘revealed’ texts and the mystical experiences of recognised holy people. Theology is the engaging with this body of revelation with the goal of deepening the theologian’s own experience of the accepted revelation as well as the divine (or transcendent) life of holiness revealed through it; or to make such experience more deeply accessible by and to others.

A somewhat circular or self-reinforcing argument is produced by this definition, in that experience and a faith illumined by its own questions and doubts, precedes the theological endeavour. The above definition also undermines non-believers from engaging in theology, if the non-believer is not seeking to deepen his or her experience of God and holiness as revealed through particular texts and lives. However, it does leave the door open for cross-religious interaction and discussion, particularly when certain texts or traditions are shared, as for example with the complex of ‘Abrahamic traditions’, or the medieval interaction of these religions with Neoplatonic monotheism.

II.  Theology as a Discipline

An objection can be raised that theology is for elites within a religion and that it functions to reinforce the current state of power relations. I would disagree, and argue that it holds authority figures accountable for their decisions. (The question to ask is how the legitimate actors who can do theology is decided; history has shown that sometimes these actors do not come from privileged social or hierarchical positions. The Latin idea of the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, and the Byzantine notion that a council is not ecumenical if it is not accepted by the people are examples in favour of a dispersed set of power relations not embodied in hierarchs, abbots and abbesses, emperors and empresses.) Theology does create a disciplinary imperative by giving space to and enrolling a network of fellows engaged in the same work, a community of others who further one another in the deepening of engagement and experience with the texts, revelation, and divine life embodied by those texts; but this can spring as much from the local community as from any top-down decision. Who is allowed to take up this work rests very much on the local community and its powers of negotiation vis-a-vis those who would oppose them; but ultimately, history, and the power to transmit someone’s perspective, has the last say.

It is true that theology as a discipline legitimates certain power and knowledge relations, but these involve issues such as the canon of scripture, the composition of hagiography, and the communal establishment of an obligatory passing point that all theological work must address (e.g. in Christianity, that passing point would be the Incarnation or the Resurrection of Christ; in Judaism, it would be the Torah itself). As a discipline, theology establishes and clarifies language and the meaning attached to that language (Jerome has much to say on the topic of using different words to express the same meaning). Both the creation of a group of fellows and the clarification of language lead to internal debate within the field over what questions exactly need solving. Such debates further positive developments in keeping with the tradition, and clarifies anomalous developments which are currently not reconcilable with the tradition in some way (i.e. heresy).

(Readers may note that some of the above characteristics of a discipline are drawn from Katz, 1996.  Disciplining old age:  the formation of gerontological knowledge.  Uni Press of Virginia.  Actor-Network Theory, or translation theory, in which people agree to form a network, provides additional elements incorporated into the above discussion.)

The knotty question about what are the disciplinary boundaries of theology, of how it is not philosophy,  not religious studies, not history, psychology, and how it uniquely makes use of each of the above disciplines must be left to another post. Instead, I will uncover the assumptions foundational to the definition of theology I set forth above.

III.  Assumptions within the Definition

Leaving aside additional questions of how a revelation is construed or constructed as ‘authentic’ and who or what community is responsible for recognising someone as ‘holy’ or ‘numinous’, the fundamental assumptions underlying the above definition are:

1.  the existence of some sort of divine revelation (and the attendant notion that human-divine communication or relation is possible);

2.  the possibility of having an inner life expressive of external reality rooted in divinity;

3.  the accessibility of texts, whether oral texts or written canonical texts; and

4.  that such texts, experiences, and relationships are open to analysis and interpretation.

Taking up the last assumption first, we can interrogate the idea of openness to interpretation in several ways. Does revelation need analysis? Why does it not speak for itself? What contexts allow for the questioning and interpretation of revelation, and when is this proscribed or discouraged? Who has the authority to make such interpretations, and who has the authority to publicise them? What sorts of analysis and interpretation are allowed? These questions are often more anthropological or sociological than theological, though theology would be wise to answer them if it is to defend its own existence. Ultimately, the question theology itself must address in the face of the fourth assumption is specifically, in what way does theology make sense of revelation and experience?

Theology makes sense of revelation first, through augmentation and commentary on the text at hand. Commentary means the incorporation of new insights with regard to earlier texts, liturgical works, and artistic norms. Argumentation includes not only debates about the integrity of the revelation or life being discussed, but also the creation of a dialectic movement with other experiences, philosophies, methods, and knowledge systems outside the one at hand.

Second, by applying that revelation to specific situations, including novel, literal, physical or embodied applications of metaphorical statements. Examples of this sort of interpretation include the very literal application and embodiment of scriptural ideas in early Syriac asceticism. Theology also delimits the applicability of a text, not in the sense of reigning in holiness, so much as curtailing the sort of zealousness that would destroy holiness altogether.

Third, theology engages with revelation in lives and texts by deepening existential knowledge, that is, the knowledge of one’s existence in personal and interpersonal terms and with regard to time and place in their dimensions as processural and changing. Related to this task is the augmentation of the theologian’s personal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. (I distinguish the three as different activities, although prayer can be rather encompassing with regard to the other two.)

Finally, theology makes sense of divine revelation by generalisation of a particular experience to other people, making it accessbile to them, either through translation into locally understood meanings and terms, or through simply bringing these experiences to the attention of other people. This can be done either by bringing the revelation down to the level of the people (which Byzantines observe Latin theologians doing) or through raising the people up to the level of the revelation (which Byzantines, like myself, argue is the real litmus test of a tradition well-transmitted). Making revelation accessible to a general audience addresses the third of the earlier assumptions. Theology is in part the transmission and making available of texts and lives which will lead others to greater holiness or deepen their interior lives and existential experience.

Of the above, how does argumentation and commentary further the stated goal of entering more deeply into divine life? I will draw an example from the Talmud, which is quite appropriate since the Talmud (and Mishnah) is an example of grappling with divine revelation through argumentation par excellence. The Talmud relates that R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish were debating partners in the yeshiva. Resh Lakish was not afraid to challenge his friend and brother-in-law when he thought R. Yochanan was ruling incorrectly on a matter of Torah. Often R. Yochanan would concede to Resh Lakish’s logic; Resh Lakish, in turn, would abandon his own argument if it could not find support in the tradition. After Resh Lakish died (a tragic story I need not relate here), R. Yochanan was assigned a new debating partner. As if R. Yochanan’s grief at the death of his friend were not enough, this new debating partner had the nerve to always agree with R. Yochanan. As a result, R. Yochanan felt he no longer made progress in deepening his knowledge of Torah, and mourned the loss of Resh Lakish (and his own role in Resh Lakish’s death) for the rest of his days. The challenge offered by Resh Lakish helped R. Yochanan sharpen his own ideas and look ever more closely at the texts available to him. In the process, they both created commentaries which would be referred to by the next eighteen centuries of Jewish theologians.

I will leave the assumptions of an interior life and the possibility of revelation for other posts. For now, I will move on to mention how one knows that theology is being done properly.

IV.  The Worth and Fruits of doing Theology

The fruits of theology properly done are peace, joy, pleasure, awareness, and engagement.  These are the goals of theology in particular. Mysticism, more broadly speaking, may be different in its goals and aims, as well as its fruits.  What are not the fruits of theology properly done are stasis, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, and authoritative domination over others (at least, dominion over contemporaries of the theologian).  By stasis I mean specifically the sort of crystalised position that does not admit of further questions; theology, as I see it, is dynamic and changing as new people speak of their own experiences and these are positioned within the experience of the tradition as it was known and experienced by previous generations. Theology — and ritual — is not the absence of creativity as an extreme Durkheimian position might have it. Room for dispute within the discipline, including anger and criticism of poorly argued ideas and misapplied interpretations is still possible despite restrictions on domination and self-righteousness; after all, criticism can be respectfully leveled.  Augustine, whose theological corpus was formed from debates with Manichaeans, Donatists, and others, wrote that he is a man who makes progress by writing, and writes because he has made progress.  This is the sort of dynamic and humble process by which theology is advanced, or done.

Is theology worthwhile today?  Was it worthwhile in the past?

I would passionately argue that yes, theology remains worthwhile today. Like other intellectual disciplines, it sharpens skills in debating, writing, and cricial thinking, but with an eye to how people create meaning in their own and other’s lives.  Keeps ‘religion’ from being misused/ abused; reigns in fanaticism, promotes personal experience and engagement with society, a tradition, embodied transcendence; lends interest to apathetic; opens new questions (about life, inter- and intra-personal relations) to exploration; deepens meaning; aids aesthetics (although I sometimes debate this when looking at some results stemming from Vatican II; but by aesthetics I think of the Platonic triad of Love-Beauty-Truth); and alters the body and its deployment. Ultimately, theology is its own reward, in that it deepens one’s inner life and opens the world, in all its beauty and tragedy to oneself.

At its best, theology empowers actors to make reflective and conscious decisions, examine life, and clarify ideals, ideals both personally developed and socially received.   Theology has the capacity to critically evaluate new developments and, because it grapples with the slow movement of humanity over the course of centuries, can overcome the limitations of temporal and geographical constraints — that is, it becomes something enduring and unbounded by the perspectives and concerns particular to the writer’s present moment.  Something written in 360, or 1240, or 1810 can still be applicable and helpful to someone in 2025 and beyond.


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