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Theology - What Is It?

Keijo Nissilä | The Voice of Zion February 2019 --

Installment 2 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)

Theology, the study of divinity, means on one hand the systematic examination of the fundamentals and concepts of Christian faith. On the other hand, it means the analysis and comparison of different religious understandings. Nowadays theological work is scientific in nature. Theology examines sources critically, evaluates and compares them and then reaches objective conclusions based thereon.

The term theology was likely coined by the philosopher Plato (427–347 BC). The word “theology” comes from the Greek words theos (God) and logia, (speech, study, knowledge). Theology therefore means the study of or speech about God.

In my article I will examine a few main points about theology’s history and areas of research as well as its research methods. In addition, I will ponder whether theology is science.

Phases of Christian Theology

Early Christian Theology (50–500 AD)

Christian theology is based on the New Testament. The term theology does not exist in the New Testament, but Paul proved to be a theologian in his way of thinking when he defined in his letters the doctrine of justification and demarcated the contents of the Christian faith in relation to Judaism. Paul’s doctrine of justification was the deepest theology of the early Christian period. It clarified the essence of the Christian faith and freed it from the shackles of the Jewish righteousness of the law.

Early on, people began to call the writer of The Gospel According to John a theologian. The basis for this was his description of Logos, the Word that became flesh. The unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews can also be added to the group of New Testament theologians. He defined in a theologically deep manner the nature and essence of Christian faith (11:1–3) and illustrated it with many examples. His narrative of Abraham’s faith culminated in the sacrificing of Isaac. By faith Abraham sacrificed Isaac and thought that God can awaken one even from the dead. He functioned just as a theologian would: in a problematic situation he compiled all the revelation he had received from God, analyzed it and, based thereon, came to the conclusion (logisámenos) that he was to receive his son back as the prophetical sign of the resurrection (Heb. 11:17–19).

When Christianity spread into the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, there arose a need to define the contents of faith more precisely. That is how the creeds were born, which were the first theological definitions of Christian faith. The Apostolic creed was originally the confession of faith of one being baptized. It was apparently used in Rome by around the year 200.

Many kinds of false doctrines threatened to dim the truths of the Bible. A particular challenge was presented by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius (256–336), who questioned the deity of Christ. Arius taught that the Word that became human in Christ was a different being than the Father: Christ was not eternal but belonged to creation and was the first of the created ones and the mediator of creation. The challenge posed by Arius started a theological pondering to understand the image of God. The Bible clearly refers to the Holy Trinity, but the complete picture was not yet clarified. The bases of the discussion were the Bible and the Apostolic Creed. It was thought to represent the Apostolic doctrine because it was based on the Bible and the baptismal doctrine taught in the early church.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325 the creed was expanded to distinguish it from Arius’ false doctrines. Church Father Athanasius (298–373) defined that Christ is God’s only son, who was born of the Father before the beginning of time: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” At the First Council of Constantinople in 381 this definition was expanded to include the Holy Spirit also. God is one Holy Trinity, who has revealed Himself in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Church Father Augustine (354–430) outlined the image of the Triune God in human terms: just as a human expresses himself with his thoughts and words, so also God the Father reveals Himself through His Word, which is His Son. Just as a human thinks about what she loves, so also the Holy Spirit connects the Father and Son together. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, which kindles love for God and join believers to the Father and the Son. Augustine emphasized that the Holy Spirit proceeds of both Father and Son (Lat. filioque). This became the prevailing understanding in Western Christendom and separated it from the doctrine of the Eastern Church. At the Third Council of Toledo in 589, filioque was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The third universal church creed is mistakenly named after Athanasius. It was likely written in Spain at the end of the 5th century and is influenced by Augustine’s doctrine of Trinity. The Athanasian Creed is one of the most significant theological documents in Christendom. In 1537, Martin Luther relied heavily on the Athanasian Creed in the Smalcald Articles, when he gave the Pope a statement of the main, unrelinquishable points of evangelical faith.

According to the Athanasian Creed, Christian faith worships “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” According to Athanasius’ “true doctrine”, Jesus Christ is both God and human: “God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world.” He is “Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” In Christ there existed simultaneously the divine nature and human nature.

The doctrine of Trinity (Lat. Trinitas) as expressed in the three universal creeds is perhaps the most significant theological achievement in the entire history of the church. The doctrine of Trinity is present in the opening and closing blessings in our church’s [Evangelical Church of Finland’s] divine worship service.

Theology in the Middle Ages (500–1500)

Among theologians in the Middle Ages, scholasticism ruled for quite some time. The scholastics attempted to combine teachings of the Holy Scriptures with science and philosophy of the ancient times. The scholastics based their teachings on those of the Bible and Church Father Augustine and also on the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The goal of the scholastics was to present the understanding of revealed truth in a logical and systematic form.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was the greatest philosopher and the best-known scholastic of the Middle Ages. For Thomas, theology—“holy doctrine”—was science for which sources were the Holy Scriptures and the tradition of the church. To him they were God’s own revelation. Faith and reason were separate but connected and they served as tools in processing information. The effect of both was needed in order to attain true knowledge of God. The highest objective of theology, according to Thomas, was through that knowledge to attain the truth about God and salvation. In his main work Summa Theologicae, he tried to make Christianity a logical and solid systematic entity.

Due to the influence of the scholastics, theology in the Middle Ages was considered a science that was subject to the same laws of deduction as philosophy. Theology came to mean a field of science that considered religious questions. It expanded to include things other than the doctrine of God, such as doctrines of sacraments, the church and salvation.

Theology of the Reformation (16th Century)

The reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) did not write a comprehensive presentation of his theology. For Luther, theology was primarily the Bible-based theology of the cross. It was based on humankind, sin-fallen and condemned to perdition, before the righteous God. Characteristic to Luther’s theology were certain rudimentary thoughts from Scriptures, which he taught in contrast to understandings that prevailed in the Catholic church. In particular he opposed the scholastic doctrine of justification. At the core of Luther’s theology was the teaching based on Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:17) that a person is justified by God’s grace, by faith, through the merit of Christ (sola gratia, sola fide, propter Christum). A pardoned sinner is simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul justus et peccator).

The doctrine of justification by faith developed into the Reformation’s leading material principle. It was paired with the teaching on the authority of the Bible, which became the primary formal principle of the Reformation. Luther emphasized the authority of the Bible as the only instruction for the life of faith (sola scriptura).

The authority of the Bible extended into Luther’s teachings on the sacraments. He limited the number of them to two which Christ himself had instituted, baptism and communion. Luther’s teaching on communion was the line of demarcation with both the Catholic Church and the Calvinists. In contrast to the Catholic doctrine on the communion elements’ material change (transubstantiation), Luther taught that the Word unites with the substance and makes it a sacrament. In contrast to the understandings of Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin, according to whom the communion elements had a parable-like nature, Luther taught that there is Christ’s actual presence in the blessed bread and wine of communion. He emphasized Christ’s actual presence in the sermon as well: Christ comes amidst His people in the gospel.

Luther raised the issue of the doctrine of universal priesthood, which was based on the Bible but forgotten in the Catholic Church. It is the priesthood of Christ of which every Christian is a partaker through the union of faith in Christ: “In faith, Christ Himself is present.” To care for the universal priesthood, Luther wrote his catechisms, in which he presented the main points of the Bible’s teachings “as the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.”

Luther also brought to life Paul’s teaching of the two regiments, meaning the two ways God governs: spiritually and temporally. They are like God’s two hands, with which the Almighty governs His creation. God governs the world through the government and the laws; in Christ’s church He governs spiritually through His Word.

The Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy (1580–1700)

During the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy that followed the Reformation, the correct doctrine and superiority of Lutheran confessional books was emphasized in comparison to the theology of other Christian churches. The theology of Lutheran Orthodoxy originated in the will of salvation that God reveals in the Bible. Its most significant representative was Johann Gerhard (1582–1637). Every chapter of his book Loci communes theologici [Theological Common Places] concluded with a section On Practice, in which the teachings of theology were applied to Christian life.

Dogmatics (doctrinal study) began to gain prominence in theology during the period of Orthodoxy. The Bible nonetheless held its position of authority in questions regarding salvation.

Theology of the Age of Enlightenment (1750–1800)

The development of science in the 18th century resulted in modern inventions that raised faith in people’s ability to solve problems and direct life with their own reason. People’s worldview began to be shaped by natural sciences. The question of how the world was created was no longer solved theologically, but rather scientifically. Scientific research replaced theological and church authorities in other fields of study as well.

This shift in values resulted in the Age of Enlightenment. It was thought that religion should be evaluated on the basis of reason, benefit and virtue. Enlightenment philosophers rejected the traditional theological world view and began to strive for a new, more rational society. From the realm of theology they accepted that which was deemed comprehendible by reason, such as the assumption that God created the world, for example.

Enlightenment downplayed the doctrinal differences between faiths and emphasized the common characteristics of different faiths. This meant a radical re-evaluation of the doctrinal tradition of different churches. Theology was understood in a new way as the critical study of Christianity. Many core points of Christian doctrine were questioned, such as the doctrine of Trinity and the doctrine of Christ’s divine and human nature. Instead of these, Enlightenment emphasized the ethical aspects of Christianity, such as the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12).

Counterbalancing the Enlightenment was the contemporaneous theology of Pietism, which emphasized personal faith. According to the Pietistic understanding, those who have experienced an awakening and new birth are distinguishable as their own group among “cultural Christians.” According to Pietists, faith of the heart—and the Christian lifestyle it gives rise to—are more important than theological pondering. The Pietists also wished to restore the use of “universal priesthood” of all Christians.

The Birth of Liberal Theology (19th century)

As a consequence of Enlightenment philosophy, a movement called liberal theology developed and grew. Christian theology was to be rebuilt and made suitable to modern science and lifestyle. Religious experience and feelings became the foundation of Christianity. Referring directly to the Bible was viewed as on old-fashioned way of thinking.

Liberal theology gained traction in the 19th century from new currents of Bible research. Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) was one of the best-known representatives of liberal theology and one of the most significant developers of historical Biblical research. In his research on the New Testament he attempted to clarify the most fundamental elements of Jesus’ original teachings from beneath the dogmas of Christianity. According to Harnack, Christianity could be made more understandable by restoring its original qualities. He maintained that Christianity was at its core a question of the relationship between God and the human soul, without any external doctrines or institutions.

One of the most typical characteristics of liberal theology is human exceptionalism. This includes the emphasis on religious experience at the expense of church doctrine and the authority of the Bible. A certain relativism regarding values is also characteristic of liberal theology. This means that no religious truth is permanent, but rather that they change over time according to a person’s personal experiences. The teachings of the Bible are also time-bound, according to liberal theology.

Dialectic Theology (20th century)

After the First World War, dialectic theology was born in protestant Germany to oppose liberal theology. One of the main thoughts of dialectic theology is that a person is in dialog with God and is always the receiving, listening and learning party. God’s word is something totally different than the human word. Theology cannot consist of mere dogmas, because in them human word and God’s word are equated.

Rudolf Bultmann (1874–1976) is known as one of the most significant Bible scholars of all time. Bultmann maintained that the most important thing in the Gospels is not their historical authenticity but rather the proclamation of Christ found in them. According to Bultmann, the divine God speaks to people in the proclamation of Christ. The doctrine of Christ is faith in which one believes. Faith, by which one believes, is realized in the proclamation about Christ, the sermon. Personal and subjective faith “by which one believes” is the core of Bultmann’s theology.

The best-known representative of dialectic theology is Karl Barth (1886–1968). Barth emphasized God’s holiness and divinity in contrast to the sinful, earth-bound human. The main pairs of opposites in Barth’s dialectics are creation and redemption, grace and judgement, flesh and spirit, heaven and earth, promise and fulfillment. A person’s religious efforts and works are worthless, no matter how good and pious they are. The immeasurable distance between God and a person can only be shortened by God. He has done this in Jesus Christ, the word made flesh. The Word is hidden and veiled and can only be understood through faith. Barth attempted to return to a theological interpretation of the Bible, in which he nonetheless utilized modern historical-critical methods of Bible research.

Barth in his ponderings focused on the main points of Christian faith. His theology originated in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the consensus on it reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Barth’s life work showed that Christendom made its greatest theological achievement in the form of the creeds that defined the Holy Trinity at the Church Councils in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Theological Research Areas and Research Methods

Theology has traveled a long road from the culture of Ancient Greece to the cultural context of our postmodern times. Modern theology attempts to objectively analyze questions and ideological currents that belong to or touch on Christian faith. Theology has broadened to include scientific research on other religions as well.

Theological teaching and research in Finland has traditionally been divided into five areas: exegesis (the study of interpretation of Scripture), church history, systematic theology, comparative religion and practical theology.

Exegesis, the study of interpretation of Scripture, researches what the writers of Bible texts spoke and taught. It clarifies the original message of Bible texts and seeks an answer to the question, “How was it then?” The exegetical position on a given question exists in relation to the applied or hermeneutical position on the same question, which asks, “How is it now?” Answers to timely questions can be presented only after Bible texts are studied exegetically and the original message has been determined.

Exegesis focuses on the origins of the Bible, its contents and interpretation in its original languages, which were Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament. Research methods are based on linguistic research methods, which exegesis has developed and applied to the analysis of Bible texts. The research methods are called historical-critical methods because they aim to attain a true historical understanding of the texts in their original contexts.

Church history is the study of the history of Christianity and the Church. The aim of Church history is to determine how we have arrived at the present moment and how a divided, diverse Christendom has come into existence. It uses general history research methods. Church history is not differentiated from general history by research methods, only by the research subject.

A history researcher constructs a description of the past based on his or her sources. The sources are usually written material but they can also be oral tradition. The researcher evaluates sources critically. He or she asks how and when the sources originated and for what purpose. The researcher constructs the description of the past based on all known sources. If some source does not match an existing description, the description must be re-evaluated or the source must be verified.

Systematic theology means a research approach in which understandings of Christian faith are analyzed using scientific methods and interpreted for current times. Systematic theology also aims to answer timely theological questions. This is done using the method of systematic analysis, through which patterns of theological thought in texts are identified. Systematic theology is interested in the origins of thought and in forming a systematic statement of the whole entity of thought. Its areas of study are dogmatics, ecumenics, theological ethics and philosophy of religion.

Dogmatics studies the doctrines of different churches and the theological philosophy within them. It clarifies how the points of doctrine—dogmas—have originated. Dogmatics does not take a stand on whether a certain point of doctrine is right or wrong. Its task is not to present binding or normative conclusions. Presenting the normative points of doctrine is the duty of churches and religious communities.

Ecumenics is the newest field of study in systematic theology, Its research topics are ecumenical movements, their theology, churches’ creeds and doctrinal discussions between churches. Dogmatics and ecumenics are methodically like two sides of the coin: dogmatic researches the doctrinal understandings of churches based on their own origins which ecumenics researches how these various doctrinal understandings relate to one another.

Theological ethics studies morals and values and the lifestyles connected to them. It clarifies different religions’ and denominations’ understandings of right and wrong, good and bad. One of the most central topics of study in theological ethics throughout time has been the interpretation and application of the Golden rule from Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. One of the main questions has been the relationship between Christian ethics and naturalistic morality. Theological ethics is challenged by the question on what ethical obligations are there for human life from the creational theology viewpoint on human being an image of God.

Comparative religion is scientific research that compares religious phenomena. It examines people’s religious behavior and is interested in the origin and essential nature of different religions, religious phenomena and traditions as well as customs and beliefs related to them. Comparative religion clarifies the things that connect and separate religions.

Practical theology, as its name suggests, researches the manifestation of theology in the life of society, churches and Christian communities. Practical theology is the research of the activities of Christian societies, whereas comparative religion focuses on the study of non-Christian religions. The research questions can nonetheless be similar to a large extent.

The most important topics in general practical theology are the research of sacred acts, the divine worship service liturgy, sermon and music, and religious communication. In addition, this field of study includes church architecture, Christian symbolism as well as deaconry and church law. The broad range of topics results in a diverse array of research methods, which are used according to the research assignment.

Sociology of religion researches religious phenomena using sociological research methods. Areas of interest include religious movements, people’s religious attitudes, how churches function, and the relationships between church and society. Central research topics are secularization, the effect of urbanization on people’s religiosity, and the relationships between religion and politics.

Religious pedagogy researches the teaching of religion using methods of behavioral science. It researches religious education in communities and in society, particularly the special nature of religious learning compared to other learning. Confirmation school is traditionally a main focus of religious pedagogy.

Is Theology Science?

The practice and research of religion are two different things. The practice of religion includes faith which confesses that the world observed with the senses is not the whole reality and that there exists things which the human mind cannot comprehend. Pausing around unfathomable mysteries is a way of practicing religion. By contrast, the research of religion focuses on that from which one can gather experiential knowledge.

Bishop Juha Pihkala has examined the relationship between faith and reason as well as faith and scientific knowledge in his book Johdatus dogmatiikkaan [Introduction to dogmatics] (1992). Pihkala notes that science means an organized collection of data or facts that have been gathered using scientific methods. Pihkala emphasizes that scientific data is gathered in a systematic manner using methods accepted in the scientific community.

The question of how scientific theology is focuses above all on the question of theology’s research methods. As previously indicated, modern theology uses many kinds of methods depending on the research task. When asking how scientific the study of theology is, the same question could be posed to the humanities with good reason. Theology focuses on those questions in its field for which data can be collected using modern scientific research methods.

The contents of faith can never be perfectly described through scientific methods. It is as Apostle Paul wrote: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” (1. Cor. 13:9–10).


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