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What Is the Study of Theology?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated: May 23, 2024

The study of theology is the systematic, scholarly examination of religious tradition and practice as well as the effects of religion on daily life and the historical evolution of religious belief and doctrine. It is possible to study theology within any religious tradition, although religions with strong histories of religious law and scholarship produce more theologians than do religions which lack these traits. Theology may be studied informally, from religious texts and observation, or formally, within a structured academic context.

Linguistically, the term theology is derived from Greek, and first emerged in a recognizably modern form during the early years of Roman Christianity. A very strict definition of the study of theology would include only the examination of religious traditions that derived from the Christianity practiced when the term was coined. Such a definition encompasses all modern sects of Christianity but would have excluded several heretical movements and all non-Christian religions, even those such as Judaism and Islam which have strong connections to Christianity.

A theologian will typically employ a variety of methods to understand faith and religion. Close reading of scriptural sources, often in conjunction with the analytical works produced by other theological scholars, is a key part of the process. Many theologians employ philosophical reasoning in an attempt to understand the structure and meaning of religious tradition and experience. Frequently, men and women engaged in the study of theology work to understand changing events and developments in the world through the lens of religious faith and tradition.

Theological scholarship can take place in nearly any setting, and many important figures in the history of theology worked outside of any established institutional framework. Most theologians are affiliated with academic institutions, however. In the Christian tradition, this association dates back to the Middle Ages, when the distant ancestors of modern universities were first created as branches of the Catholic Church.

Many universities offer formal training in theology. A degree in theology may be based on the study of a single faith or may include a comparative study of multiple religions. Many programs offer theology courses to students regardless of personal religious affiliation.

Religions that place a great deal of emphasis on written holy works are especially likely to encourage the systematic study of theology. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are based on scriptures that contain a mixture of teachings and religious laws. The richness and complexity of this tradition has encouraged a great deal of theological study over the centuries, and each of these faiths has developed several competing schools of theological thought. The study of theology is not necessarily confined to these bookish religions, however, and the structures and beliefs of any religious tradition can be subjected to careful theological examination.

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