PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Many people in the pews
think that theology is above and beyond them. It has indeed been
elaborated into a complex system of ideas over many centuries. But it is
in fact well within the reach of the average person. Theology is, in the
final analysis, only our thoughts about what we regard as ultimate in
our lives. Anyone can reflect upon that with wisdom and great insight.
Christians regard theology as a subject best left to experts. It is,
they think, too difficult and abstract for ordinary people to concern
themselves with - apart perhaps for listening carefully to preachers and
learning those parts of the catechism or other statements of faith
required of them by Church rules.
There is an element of truth in this position. Theology as a body of
thought is as old as humanity - unlike the majority of modern
disciplines. The latter all have their origins in new currents of
thought which came to life within the last four or five centuries. What we know
today as "science" came into its own only in the 17th century. From it
have grown a multitude of disciplines deriving their methods and
standards from the scientific method.
Because it has been going for so many thousands of years, theology is
enormously complex. It incorporates the conclusions of thousands of
religions and stretches back to the dawn of history. The best minds of
humanity have stretched and strained to their limits over the problems
and solutions presented by theologians throughout the ages.
Not unexpectedly, the present time has spawned what appear to be its
own share of apparently intractable puzzles and difficulties.
The main focus here is perforce Christian theology, of which A E McGrath
The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible, which bears
witness to the historical grounding of Christianity in both the
history of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus
This statement has the merit of reflecting traditional dogma that
Christians have a revelation of truth direct from God through the
Bible. A truth direct from God cannot be refuted, since God by
definition can't either lie or make a mistake. If this is true, then
those who correctly reflect this revelation to the world are also by
definition irrefutable. The Roman Catholic Pope, bishops in general and
many other Church officials claim this for themselves. That they don't
necessarily agree with each other about the "truth" is an ongoing problem.
What we have in the churches, therefore, is a system which in practice outlaws
theology for the great mass of Christian people - except insofar as they
conform with revealed truths as laid down by Church authorities. Anyone
who doesn't so conform can be excluded from the Christian fellowship for
It follows, I think, that all theology is systematic. That is, it
seeks to put together a complete theological explanation of the whole of
existence. To be complete, such a system must leave no corner of human
experience unexplored. This is because God is, again by traditional definition, that
from which everything comes.
Part of theology is the study of its history. The film actor-director
Woody Allen is reputed to have remarked that
History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listens the first time
The history of Christian theology reveals important deviations from
the traditional claim that the faith is fundamentally unchangeable and
stable. It turns out that this is far from the truth.
Orthodoxy is not irrefutable. Mistakes are made and must be corrected by
subsequent generations in the light of new knowledge and insights.
Until comparatively recently, for example, it was an unquestioned
Christian premise that God created the earth more or less as it now
is. Our knowledge of how the universe operates has dismissed this
into the realm of myth.
The so-called Christian revelation turns out not to have been
given "once and for always" as many have asserted. It has
been repeatedly shown that doctrines change and develop over time.
One instance is the once-untouchable revelation that Jesus is the
Son of God. Study of the gospels has recently shown that he did not claim
this for himself. It was a creation of the early Church, for whom it
was a valid way of understanding Jesus from within their perception
of the world.
In similar vein, it has been shown that the Church has created
many different images or visions of the person of Jesus, their
on the circumstances in which Christians have found themselves.
Albert Schweitzer proposed that "Each successive epoch found
its own thoughts in Jesus, which was indeed the only way in which it
could make him live." 
Jaroslav Pelikan has isolated no fewer than eighteen images or ways
of perceiving Jesus over the millennia (not all compatible with each
Theology, then, is not something relatively fixed and unalterable, to
be studied as a pre-formed body of knowledge. Like every other
discipline it changes and mutates constantly to both reflect and
incorporate the ebb and flow of human understanding.
in my view, that theology as the study of "that which is ultimate
in life" is as much the domain of the ordinary Christian as it is
of the professional theologian. The latter may provide detail, insight
and carefully thought-through arguments. But his or her conclusions are
no more valid or useful than anyone else's. In reality, there is a
complex and continuing traffic between professional theologians and
those Christians who work out their theology at the rock-face of life.
put the matter slightly differently: Theology is like a map .
The history of theology studies the evolution of the present map over
millennia, from the simple to the complex. The map today shows this hill
and that dale, this path and that highway, this river and that mountain
range. Desperate and sometimes homicidal debate has raged over the exact
height of this hill and whether this desert or that forest should be on
the map at all.
But an important aspect of all theological maps is
frequently missed - that they refer to no known country.
"God-talk" has no discernable referent. It is impossible to
produce the God to whom (or to which) God-talk is supposed to relate.
All other disciplines refer to a physical entity from which data can be got
(with the possible exception of some kinds of philosophy). Theology has
none except human assertions and the records of those assertions. God
cannot be produced as a witness to theological truths.
take too long to even scetchily survey Christian theologies over the
last two thousand years, never mind the Hebrew and other influences
which shaped those theologies. So here is a brief and simplistic outline
of the main groupings I have identified as current today. It is
one of many possible outlines and is intended only to highlight the
differences between each group's main theological emphases.
Catholic theology Catholics are by far the majority
of Christians. As such they are at least nominally committed to a
system which claims to go back, relatively unaltered, to the
earliest Christian leaders.
Right Catholic theology is determined from the centre. The Bishop of Rome
claims absolute authority, in consultation with the whole body of
bishops, over orthodoxy. When the Pope speaks under certain
conditions, he is to be regarded as infallible. There is a
distinction between required theological beliefs and expedient
practice backed by theology. For example, belief in and assent to the doctrine
that Jesus was not conceived by the usual method (the "virgin
birth") are required on pain of punishment. But the celibacy of
all Roman Catholic clergy is a theologically supported practice which may one day be changed.
The Catholic Church teaches that human reason is to be used in
theological thinking. But reason can take us only to a certain
point. Beyond that, we must have faith - the trust that God's
revelation to humanity, even though beyond the reach of reason, is
nevertheless right and sufficient.
Catholic theology is said to be true for all humanity, regardless of
belief or culture. It only their intrinsically sinful nature which
prevents non-Catholics from joining those who have found the true
Reformed or Protestant theology In this theological
system, the Bible takes the place of the Pope as the ultimate
authority. God's final revelation to humanity is to be found in the
and particularly in the New Testament. Nobody who refuses this
authority can be regarded as orthodox.
On implication of this sort of theology is that the interpretation
of a biblical text is ultimately in the hands of the individual.
Preachers and teachers may have the authority of great learning and
deep insight. But it is the individual in spiritual communion with God
through Jesus the Messiah who commits to the truths of the Bible.
Some Catholics might be described as institutional fundamentalists.
That is, they are absolutely committed to theological truths as
mediated by a body of people set aside by God for that purpose.
Protestants are more likely be biblical fundamentalists. The origin
of absolute theological truths for them is the Bible. Catholics are
bound by the authority of the Pope, but Protestants are bound to the
authority of the Scriptures as mediated by bishops and others.
Liberal theology This is a theological tendency,
rather than a coherent system of thought and teaching. Broadly
speaking, it can be said to have derived from the wave of new
thinking characterised by the Enlightenment. The
term is used for trends in 18th-century thought and letters in
Europe and America before the French Revolution. It derives from
writers of the period, who were convinced that they were emerging
from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened
by reason, science, and respect for the individual human.
Liberal theology attempts openness to scientific thought and
investigation. It rests on human reason, rather
than revelation, as the ultimate measure of truth. An important
implication of this approach is that all the disciplines which
embody reason and evidence in their methodologies are taken
into account by liberal theology.
Because truth is pursued wherever reason leads, there can be no
discontinuity between right Christian theology and other systems of
thought. Thus the claims of Catholic theology are to be ruthlessly
examined and, if found to be at fault, can be dismissed regardless
of who might claim absolute authority.
Similarly, the Bible is taken as a thoroughly human document to be
analysed and dissected just like any other written source. If
aspects of the Bible don't stand up to literary, historical and
philosophical testing, then they can be put aside. Miracles and the
resurrection of Jesus after death are typical casualties of liberal
Both Catholic and Protestant theologies lead inevitably to codes or
systems of right living. That is, their ethics are based upon
personal beliefs mediated by theology and enforced by authority.
Liberals stress that Christianity is a way of life based not on
authority but upon the reasoned assessment, in the light of the life
and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, of the pros and cons of
can't yet be described as a system of theology, for it is in its
very early days. If it has a single fundamental characteristic it is
that traditional theology has no intrinsic value. In other words,
theology is no longer valid just because it has been derived from
the past. All theology is a human creation.
It can therefore be altered and re-framed if to do that makes the
person of Jesus more accessible to the contemporary mind. This
re-framing process attempts to get back to the roots of what it
means to be Christian - hence the term radical. There is
clearly an assumption that some aspects of Christianity are basic to
it. What they are is still to be worked out in the light of how we
understand the world today.
Christian theology is therefore of no more intrinsic value than any
other theology. Christians are those who have placed Jesus of
Nazareth at the centre of their lives. Quite naturally, therefore,
they have and will evolve theological ways of expressing what he means to them.
Through him they may come to also express what God means to them.
But Christian theology is no better, for example, than Muslim theology -
it is just different. All other theological systems are owed deep
and sincere respect, no matter how much they may differ from a
An important spin-off of emerging theology is its implications for
the Church. Radical theologians are often censured for their
supposed anti-authority bias.
But their aim is not to destroy the Church as such. It is rather to
stimulate Church people to realise that to claim absolute truth is
to invite gradual death. Indeed, part of an emerging problem is
exactly how to understand the Christian as a community without
setting up defensive walls between it and the rest of society.
Radical theologians on the whole reject the split between sacred and
A number of distinctive theologies also exist.
There is no way of knowing if they will have a long life, or exactly
into which overall category of theology they will eventually fit.
Modernism This word has generally
been used in a negative way. It was first brought into common usage by
Pope Pius X who condemned it in 1907. Broadly, it describes a range of
thought which has tried to get the Church to come to terms with various
modern approaches to Christianity. These have included linguistic analysis of
biblical texts, the historical examination of the Church and of the Bible
in the light of history, and the reformulation of traditional teachings
in the light of scientific discoveries.
Feminist theology Feminists of the
19th century began criticising the use of the Bible to bolster what they
saw as male domination. This is a primary theme of most feminist
theology today. Its scope began to broaden in the 1960s as it moved to
examine how male bias has skewed theological understanding of God,
nature and Christian doctrines. Some women have given up on Hebrew and
early Christian theologies as hopelessly patriarchal. They have tended
to move off into so-called New Age religion. In particular, there is a
growing reaction against a patronising use of female Christian images -
such as the Virgin Mary - to balance out and neutralise perceived
excesses of feminist theology.
Liberation theology The term
originated in South America. It developed as part of a broad movement
aimed at liberating the region from economic dependence on Europe and
the United States. Liberation theology challenges traditional
formulations which, in its view, legitimise an unjust world order. Jesus
is recast as a liberator from injustice. In some more extreme forms,
liberation theology has expounded aspects of the gospels to put forward
Jesus as a revolutionary - with mixed results.
Black theology Although usually
put in the 1960s, the roots of black theology go back at at least a
hundred years earlier in Africa. The modern movement began in the USA
and was quickly taken up by the churches and others in South Africa. Its
main focus was to rewrite Christian theology to counter the prevailing
idea that black identity could and should be assimilated into
Euro-American traditions. In some ways it came to be identified with
aspects of liberation theology - that is, as a legitimisation of aspects
of a struggle against social inequities. An important result of black
theology is an increasingly independent stance by African Christians on
one hand, and on the other a careful integration of black power into
churches with white majorities.
Many more sub-sets of theology exist than have
been mentioned here. In Africa and Asia, for example, many thousands of
indigenous churches have a bewildering array of esoteric theologies.
In the West, however, an important driver of
theology is proving to be a need to accommodate and enrich what is
perceived as a somewhat bleak and amoral secular society. The latter
has, according to many Christian theologians, increasingly abandoned its
deeply-rooted Christian traditions. In doing so, it may be losing to a
degree many traditional moral limitations - and suffering a qualitative
decline as a result.
As a result of secular pressures, and of a
large-scale flight away from organised Christian religion, theology has
taken on a number of new directions.
First, there are increasing signs that a small
minority is now open to questioning any and all traditional theology.
That is, they are abandoning the premise that any doctrine can be
justified merely by past authority. On the contrary, Christian
theology must be able to hold its own in contemporary terms and
according to the same or similar rational criteria which now rule all legitimate
disciplines. This seems to be intensifying conflict between those who
claim that Christianity is fundamentally a faith based on history, and
those who claim that it is based upon traditional expression of the
Second, the ancient idealist thesis that the
world is contiguous with a non-material but perfect dimension is
increasingly being abandoned. While the situation is far from clear, it
appears that the focus has shifted to attempting to understand God in
terms of creation in all its complexity and as a unified system. One
casualty of this approach may turn out to be traditional formulations of
theism - or at least the expression of theism in terms quite far from
Third, the Newtonian thesis that there are
discoverable objective truths "out there" waiting to be
defined and preserved is being put to the test. In its place is a
recognition that [a] there is no such thing as final, unchangeable truth
and [b] that how each person perceives truth depends to a great extent
upon that person's situation in comparison to the situations of others
(often labelled negatively as "relativism" or
"postmodernism"). If this is true, then all theology is in
constant flux and change - which is not the same as saying that there is
no theology upon which we can depend.
The theological stage today is exciting -
regardless of the position from which one comes. To put it simply, the
huge theological changes coming about can be seen either as a threat
requiring stout defence of tradition, or as an opportunity requiring
imagination and risk-taking.
 Christian Theology, Blackwell 1994
 The Life of Jesus
 Jesus Through the Centuries, Yale University Press, 1999
 After Richard Holloway in Religion On The Level