The word “theology” gets thrown around a lot in the church. But like many words, it is used frequently, but rarely defined and explained.
The word comes from the Greek “theos,” meaning God, and “logos,” meaning reason. When an English word ends with “ology,” we understand it to be the study of that thing. Theology, then, is the study of God, but what does that mean? Are we putting God under a microscope and examining Him?
Well, in a metaphorical way, we sort of are, but theology also goes beyond just looking at God Himself. It is the process of uncovering the truth about God from Scripture, which—since God is the Creator of all things and the Author of history—encompasses studying much more than just the attributes and character of God, although that is an important aspect of theology.
What Are the Four Types of Theology?
Theology is typically divided into four types. These can be thought of as different ways to approach theology, as they are asking different questions about God and His world. These types are:
- Systematic theology: “Answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic” (Grudem, 21).
- Biblical theology: Focuses on specific sections of Scripture and the canonical development of teachings.
- Historical theology: Studies how the church in various ages has understood theological topics.
- Practical theology: Approaches theology through the lens of application.
It is important to note that no single one of these theological approaches is the correct one. All four are necessary for gathering a full picture of the truth of God and His created world.
“Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic” (Grudem, 21). While systematic theology can be used to answer almost any biblical question, it is regularly focused on the topics of the Word, God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity, sin, salvation, angels, the church, and the end times.
Systematic theology begins with the question, What does the whole Bible teach about ________? and seeks to answer it by finding every instance in which the Bible speaks to that question. Then, those teachings are pulled together into a succinct, understandable, applicable answer.
Biblical theology focuses on the teachings of specific authors and sections of Scripture and looks at the historical development of those teachings. Its purpose is to understand how the original audience and author would have understood a teaching. It often traces biblical themes, such as marriage, rest, offspring, etc., and it seeks to understand how that theme is progressively revealed. A central aspect of reformed biblical theology is interpreting everything through the lens of Christ. The Bible is a story that points to the person of Jesus, and biblical theology looks at how each theme present in the story reveals more about Him.
Historical theology focuses on what Christians have believed throughout history. Historical theology may take note of how the Church’s beliefs have developed, changed, or remained consistent in various ages. Like systematic theology, it begins with a topic and then traces how the Church has thought about or taught that topic throughout history. Its primary focus is to understand the development of ideas and how the course of history has shaped those ideas.
Practical theology emphasizes that all theology is applicable to life and evaluates how theological conclusions should be lived out in the practice of the church and/or in the lives of individuals. In that sense, its emphasis is on application. It is concerned with the effect that theology should have on the thoughts, attitudes, affections, and actions of believers. For example, the study of Christian ethics is a branch of practical theology.
Tools for Studying Theology
Now that you have an idea of the different ways of studying theology and learning more about our God and His world, here are some tools to help you get started in your own study of theology.
- The Bible
The best way of studying God is by studying His word. The study of theology should always begin with the Bible.
- The Theology Handbook
If you desire to learn more about systematic theology, The Daily Grace Co.’s The Theology Handbook is a wonderful and accessible place to start.
- The Bible Themes Handbook
The Daily Grace Co.’s The Bible Themes Handbook is an excellent place to see biblical theology in action.
- Systematic theologies
Systematic summaries of the Bible’s teachings are extraordinarily helpful in your pursuit of a Biblical worldview. Good entry-level systematic theologies include Everyone’s a Theologian by R.C. Sproul and Pilgrim Theology by Michael Horton.
- A Bible dictionary
Bible dictionaries function like regular dictionaries or encyclopedias, but they are exclusively about things you find in Scripture.
As human beings, created by God, we all have and are living a theology. The truth of God and His Word affects us whether we acknowledge it or not. Therefore, studying theology in any of these four ways can help us make better sense of the world around us. It teaches us about reality and truth and ultimately points us to better understand our loving Creator, who desires to be known and loved by us.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Zondervan Academic, 1994.
Additional Resources for Studying Theology:
- How Do We Study Theology?
- Why You Need Theology (Daily Grace Podcast)
- How to Grow in Your Formal Theology as a Layperson