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Theology’s Many Disciplines

Theology strives to speak in the most comprehensive way possible. Theologians must try to give voice to their convictions in the light of everything that is currently known to be true. In today’s world, this implies that theology is summoned to a dialogue with many academic disciplines. What we believe to be true because of our faith cannot be detached from all that we know to be true as thinking members of the human race. To illustrate this general principle, we can think of what might be involved in a comprehensive theological discussion of a central statement of Christian faith such as “God loves the world”, reflecting on the significance of the well-known biblical verse John 3:16.

    Biblical Exegesis

We need to think about the significance of this verse within its scriptural context, as this would have been understood by its original author and readers. This involves a linguistic analysis of the words used in biblical Greek, a literary analysis of the passage in which the verse is set within John’s gospel as a whole, a rhetorical analysis of the argument the author is making to his audience, among other approaches. Our focus here is on what John the author thinks Jesus is saying about God’s love for the world, in this particular passage.

    Biblical Theology

Having clarified what John is saying about God’s love in this particular passage, we can then try to place that message within a wider biblical context. What has John said elsewhere about God’s love? What do other New Testament writers have to say on the subject? How is this aspect of the gospel grounded within the scriptural traditions of ancient Israel? Biblical theology is a distinct academic discipline, which began by seeking to identify beliefs shared by all biblical writers but is now more usefully focused on tracing the development of key beliefs throughout the long period during which the canonical scriptures of Israel and the Church were written. That is, it is essentially historical by nature.

    Historical Theology

Christian theologians have been thinking about the love of God for two thousand years now, and their insights on the subject have enriched the life of their faith communities throughout this time as the Faith has been adapted and reinterpreted in response to new circumstances. We now face new challenges that force us to keep thinking afresh, but we ignore our predecessors at our peril. It is not just that they have already found good solutions to many of the problems with which we struggle, but also that they have a sort of prior ownership of the territory. We inherited our faith from them and the communities of faith to which they belonged. To be a theologian now as then is to speak on behalf of and from within a living congregation of believers. To take up the mantle of theologian is like any other spiritual calling, requiring some sort of recognition by and accountability to a particular community. Barth called his great theological opus “Church Dogmatics” for precisely this reason.

    Comparative Theology

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