Theology

Theology (from the ancient Greek θεός, theos, God, and λόγος, logos, “word,” “discourse,” or “inquiry”) is a religious discipline that studies God or the characters that religions recognize as proper to the divine as such.

Historical notes

Since the revelation of God attested in Scripture is concentrated in the person of Jesus Christ, Christian theology is simultaneously Christology. Since revelation is concerned with man not as a mere object of speculative knowledge, but as a divine word and act, in relation to which the very fate of human existence is decided, Christian theology is also soteriology; it is therefore ecclesiology, insofar as it reflects on the reality to which the encounter of revelation and faith gives rise, that is, on the community of believers; it is eschatology, insofar as theological reflection addresses the problem of the relationship between God’s revelation and the totality of world history.

This exposition of the internal articulation of Christian theology-which could be further specified-if, on the one hand, it serves to illustrate, in very general terms, its thematic range, is nevertheless still wholly inadequate to define exhaustively its proper character. In other words, the concept of Christian theology becomes comprehensible, in its concreteness, when one considers that it is, essentially, a historical phenomenon, the ever new result of a dynamic movement, of a process of reflection, conditioned by multiple factors.

A first – so to speak intrinsic – condition for the development of Christian theology is already contained in the complexity of biblical theology, especially New Testament theology, from which, as we have said, theological reflection takes its starting point and to which it continually returns to refer: this complexity, often full of tensions, has implied that, from time to time, theology has been configured as an attempt to enucleate the center of the biblical message from the multiplicity of its expressions, and to refer systematically to it the variety of theological data.

The development of this same interpretative process has been in fact conditioned, in turn, by the ever-recurring need to re-understand and re-expose the object of faith within different historical and cultural contexts, which has given rise to a way of developing theological thinking that is not linear, but dialectical. From this point of view, we can consider the history of Christian theology as the history of the tension, never definitively resolved, between the need, on the one hand, to think and express the object of faith in new forms than those of biblical theology (i.e., always linked to new conceptual and expressive modes), and the need, on the other hand, to hold firm, in this succession of encounters with different historical and cultural contexts, the originality of the object of faith, its irreducibility, that is, to any form or cultural tradition outside the Bible.

In the period immediately following the elaboration of the New Testament corpus, the first coherent theorization of the encounter between biblical tradition and Hellenic philosophical tradition is found in the Christian Apologists, especially in the work of Justin, where the concept of Lógos identifies the New Testament word (Gospel of John) and Stoic reason: this conceptual identification implies an evaluation of the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophical culture in terms of substantial historical and ideal continuity and constitutes at the same time the theoretical premise for the object of Christian faith to be able to retrace itself in forms proper to the Greek cultural tradition. Along this line of thought moves then (between the second half of the second century and the first half of the third century) the Alexandrian theological school, where the theorization of the Greek-Christian synthesis is brought to completion by Clement and results in the impressive philosophical-theological arrangement of Origen.

The process of assimilation of Greek conceptuality and philosophical terminology by Christian theology, which takes place in these first centuries, constitutes the foundation, on the basis of which the nucleus of Trinitarian and Christological symbolism is built (through doctrinal disputes and ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries), where the search for the essence of the New Testament assertions is crystallized in dogmas, to the formulation of which Greek philosophical culture makes a decisive contribution. In the fifth century, the theological syntheses of Augustine and of the Pseudo-Dionysius testify how Christian theology assumes, as privileged conceptual tools, Platonic and Neoplatonic thought, which, together with the well-established patristic tradition, constitute the central point of reference of subsequent theological elaboration for a period of several centuries.

This whole process of assimilation of Greek culture by Christian theology (which took place not without internal tensions and dialectical contrasts) has often been spoken of as a Hellenization of Christianity: this formula can still be accepted, only if one is critically aware of the fact that in the context of New Testament theology itself Hellenistic culture is already widely present (Paul, John).

However, while in this context the Jewish cultural tradition maintains a decisive weight and conditions the very use of Hellenistic conceptuality, in the process of subsequent Hellenization it actually happens that the weight of the Greek philosophical tradition leads to the blurring and even reversal of this relationship, so that concepts and meanings proper to Jewish culture undergo, in the Greek translation that is made of it (in this sense: in the process of Hellenization), changes not simply formal, but also in content. To give a well-known example: in the field of soteriology, the reference to Greek dualistic anthropology implies a shift from the biblical idea of resurrection to the conception of the immortality of the individual soul.

In medieval theology, the Greek-Christian synthesis continues to develop along different lines: the Platonic and Augustinian heritage is collected and led to new systematizations by Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) and, two centuries later, by Anselm of Rome (11th century). The Platonic and Augustinian inheritance is collected and led to new systems by Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) and, two centuries later, by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio; the mysticism of M. Eckhart is connected to Neoplatonism – mediated by Dionysius the Areopagite, Scotus Eriugena and the Arab commentators of Aristotle; Aristotelianism is placed at the basis of the theological construction of Thomas Aquinas. At the same time, the very presuppositions of the convergence between philosophy and theology are being problematized in the thought of scholasticism, continually traversed by the thematization of the relationship between reason and faith.

From the eleventh century onwards, this relationship is the object of discussion and controversy, such as the one that opposes to Berengar of Tours the anti-dialecticians of the eleventh century (especially known among them is Pier Damiani), or the one between Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux in the following century. From this point of view, the development of medieval theology can be seen as an arc stretched between the conscious re-foundation of the synthesis of philosophy and theology, present in Anselm and then in Thomas, and the dissolution of the reason-faith relationship operated in different ways, in the first half of the 14th century, by Duns Scotus and William of Occam, in whose theology fundamental motifs of the original biblical conception of God are re-attracted and consciously opposed to the Greek cultural tradition.

Prepared therefore by Occamism, and in part also by the critical recovery of classical culture in Humanism, the dissolution of the Greek-Christian synthesis reaches its culminating moment in the theology of the Protestant Reformation, in whose programmatic formulas (sola Gratia and sola Scriptura) the need to restore to the object of theology its full originality is affirmed. In the face of this theological position, the Council of Trent re-proposes, on the contrary, the foundation of the cultural synthesis, in particular with the doctrine of the two sources of revelation (Scripture and Tradition): three centuries later, the redefinition in Thomistic terms of the relationship between reason and faith, in the Vatican Council of 1870, confirms and specifies the basic choice of Catholic theology.

Very schematically, it can be said that since the sixteenth century, the tension within ancient and medieval theology, between the moment of synthesis and the reaffirmation of the irreducibility of the object of faith to extrabiblical cultural traditions, is transferred into the contrast that opposes Catholic theology and Protestant theology, although this assessment should not prevent us from seeing how, in fact, that tension comes back again, in new forms, within each of the two theological systems, conditioning the historical process of development.

In the Catholic world, for example, while Protestant theology was engaged in the systematization of its own contents (the period of Protestant orthodoxy), the Jansenist movement developed in the seventeenth century, which, in the work of its most representative figure, B. Pascal, contrasted “the God of the philosophers with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. On the other hand, if Jansenism remains in Catholicism a phenomenon substantially marginalized by the official ecclesiastical theology, which proceeds in its elaboration along the lines of the Council of Trent, much more complex and full of consequences is shown, in the following century, the phenomenon of the encounter between Protestant theology and Enlightenment thought, which founds an essential moment in the history of Protestant theology: the synthesis between theological thought and modern culture.

The contrast between Catholic theology and Protestant theology in the nineteenth century is thus configured in new terms: on the one hand, within a theological system substantially retreating into the past, attempts to connect with the new critical and historicist culture (for example, the theologies of J. A. Möhler and J. H. Newman) are presented as quite isolated episodes, when not openly disavowed by the ecclesiastical magisterium (such as modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century); on the other hand, in the context of a theological system substantially retreating into the past, attempts to connect with the new critical and historicist culture (such as the theologies of J. A. Möhler and J. H. Newman) are presented as quite isolated episodes, when not openly disavowed by the ecclesiastical magisterium (such as modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century). On the other hand, Protestantism collects and assimilates the results of Kantian and idealistic thought, giving rise to the movement of liberal theology, marked by the names of F. D. Schleiermacher, F. Ch. Baur, A. Ritschl, A. von Harnack; at the same time, the historical-critical study of the Bible renews exegetical theology, opening a period of development of biblical criticism according to rigorously scientific methods.

Liberal theology, however, shows itself, within the process of theological development of Protestantism, more as a necessary transitional phase than as the definitive achievement of a new cultural synthesis: after the First World War, the movement of dialectical theology, dissolving the systematic and dogmatic motives of that synthesis, but at the same time gathering the critical tools of biblical investigation, proposes again to Protestant theology the task of drawing and highlighting – even in a close comparison with contemporary culture – the proper object of faith, that is, the core of the biblical message, in its originality.

Reconnecting in part to the thought of S. Kierkegaard, who had remained isolated in the previous century, K. Barth gave the fundamental impulse to this turning point, from which germinated the new theological positions of R. Bultmann, F. Gogarten, E. Brunner and, last but not least, Barth’s own dogmatic reconstruction.

Within Catholicism, the conflict between official theology and the search for new theological paths still persists, even if, after the Second Vatican Council, there has been a vigorous expansion of innovative tendencies: while neo-Thomism (which has its happiest moment in the work of J. Maritain) is hysterical and theological. While neo-Thomism (which has its happiest moment in the work of J. Maritain) is hysterical, the results of French theology (Y. Congar), German theology (H. Küng, K. Rahner), and Dutch theology (E. Schillebeeckx, P. Schoonenberg, among the main inspirers of the New Dutch Catechism) are of greater interest.

Christian theology as a whole is engaged in the search for an answer to the problems raised by the secularization of the contemporary world: the new American Protestant theology (P. van Buren, H. Cox, W. Hamilton, Th. Altizer), which draws especially on the thought of P. Tillich and D. Bonhöffer, the political theology of the Protestants J. Moltmann and D. Sölle and of the Catholic J. B. Metz, the proposal of a materialistic reading of the Bible advanced by the Portuguese F. Belo, and the liberation theology of J.H. Cone, G. Gutierrez and F. Herzog constitute so many moments of this research, enriched, among other things, by the phenomenon of ecumenism.

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