The Theology Of History

The concept of a theology of history as distinct from a philosophy of history raises problems that affect our understanding of the field. Loose, ambivalent use of both terms is not uncommon. Several reasons may account for the confusion:

(1) there is some question about the claims of each field to be properly a science;

(2) both are phases of the larger problem that concerns the relationship of philosophy and theology, reason and faith; and

(3) the historical development of comprehensive theories of history has occasioned fluctuations and ambiguities, such as the still prevalent tendency to include plainly theological interpretations under the loose heading of philosophies of history.

On the other hand, defensible opinions hold that the key concepts of modern philosophies of history are secularized forms of older, theological concepts.

Greek theologia (θεολογία) was used with the meaning “discourse on god” around 380 BC by Plato in The Republic, Book ii, Ch. 18. Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematike, physike and theologike, with the last corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which, for Aristotle, included discourse on the nature of the divine.

Drawing on Greek Stoic sources, the Latin writer Varro distinguished three forms of such discourse: mythical (concerning the myths of the Greek gods), rational (philosophical analysis of the gods and of cosmology) and civil (concerning the rites and duties of public religious observance).

Some Latin Christian authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine, followed Varro’s threefold usage, though Augustine also used the term more simply to mean ‘reasoning or discussion concerning the deity’

In patristic Greek Christian sources, theologia could refer narrowly to devout and inspired knowledge of, and teaching about, the essential nature of God.

The Latin author Boethius, writing in the early 6th century, used theologia to denote a subdivision of philosophy as a subject of academic study, dealing with the motionless, incorporeal reality (as opposed to physica, which deals with corporeal, moving realities). Boethius’ definition influenced medieval Latin usage.

In scholastic Latin sources, the term came to denote the rational study of the doctrines of the Christian religion, or (more precisely) the academic discipline which investigated the coherence and implications of the language and claims of the Bible and of the theological tradition (the latter often as represented in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a book of extracts from the Church Fathers).

In the Renaissance, especially with Florentine Platonist apologists of Dante’s poetics, the distinction between “poetic theology” (theologia poetica) and “revealed” or Biblical theology serves as steppingstone for a revival of philosophy as independent of theological authority.

It is in this last sense, theology as an academic discipline involving rational study of Christian teaching, that the term passed into English in the fourteenth century, although it could also be used in the narrower sense found in Boethius and the Greek patristic authors, to mean rational study of the essential nature of God – a discourse now sometimes called theology proper.

From the 17th century onwards, it also became possible to use the term theology to refer to study of religious ideas and teachings that are not specifically Christian (e.g., in the term natural theology which denoted theology based on reasoning from natural facts independent of specifically Christian revelation,) or that are specific to another religion.

Theology” can also now be used in a derived sense to mean “a system of theoretical principles; an (impractical or rigid) ideology”.

The Temple of Athena, Paestum

The Temple of Athena, Paestum

Ancient Greek and Hellenistic theology

Classical Greek theology

Various forms of systematic and philosophical reflection on Ancient Greek religion and Greek mythology arose in the classical period—from Hesiod’s attempts to organize the diverse materials of mythology into a unified Theogony to the more properly philosophical analysis reportedly carried out by Socrates.

Influential texts include:

  • Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 BC)
  • Plato’s Timaeus (c. 360 BC)
  • Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book Lambda (c. 330 BC)

Hellenistic theology

See also: Greek mythology, Hellenistic rationalism and Ancient Greek religion § Theology

Philosophical reflection on the gods, on religion, and on the origins and governance of the Universe, flourished in the Hellenisti  period among both Greek- and Latin-speaking thinkers. Among the very diverse movements of Hellenistic philosophy in which theological reflection could be found were Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Middle Platonism, and Neoplatonism. The Skeptics were to have a larger impact on Western reasoning than the Cynics; but this would not occur until after its having been reified during the middle years of the Roman Empire when it passed into the mainstream of Western thought.

Influential texts include:

  • Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus (3rd century BC)
  • Cicero’s de Natura Deorum (45 BC)
  • Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura (1st century BC)
  • Epictetus’ Enchiridion (135)
  • Plotinus’ Enneads (c. 235 and after).

Hellenistic theology, which could be deemed to last until the suppression of the Athenian Academy in 529 by Justinian I, overlaps with early Jewish and early Christian theology (see below), and several strands of thought important particularly to early Christian thought arise within Hellenistic circles: attempts to explain the apparent caprice of the gods, Atheism, the development of monotheism, the idea of God as first cause or form of the Good, the dualism of spirit and matter in humanity, and redemption (the release of the spirit from its material prison to a higher spiritual world) through knowledge.

Early Jewish theology

The 1st and 2nd centuries

Two strands of Jewish theology develop in the 1st and 2nd centuries. On the one hand, there are those oral traditions of Rabbinic exegesis (Midrash) and legal discussion (Mishnah and Tosefta) that eventually began to be written down towards the end of the 2nd century AD.

Important figures (known as Tannaim) include

  • Hillel the Elder (working c. 30 BC to 10 AD)
  • Shamai (c. 50 BC to 30 AD)
  • Gamliel I (died c. 50)
  • Yohanan ben Zakkai (1st century AD)
  • Gamliel II (1st century D)
  • Rabbi Akiva (c. 50 to c. 135)
  • Simeon bar Yohai (2nd century AD)
  • Rabbi Judah haNasi (2nd century AD).

On the other hand, there is the attempt to accommodate traditional Jewish exegesis of the Jewish Scriptures and tradition with Greek philosophy—a strand of thought of which Philo (c. 20 BC to 40 AD) is the best known proponent. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the dispersion of many Jews from Israel had a profound effect on Jewish Theology.

In the period of the Talmud

A page of Talmud

The first page of the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud,

In the centuries after its compilation, discussion and commentary upon the Mishnah flourished in Jewish academies in Israel and in Babylon. Collections of opinions from these discussions, known as Gemara were eventually edited together and placed with the Mishnah itself, in both Israel (around 350 AD – the Jerusalem Talmud) and Babylon (around 550 AD, with further editing in the two centuries that followed – the Babylonian Talmud). See Talmud

Important figures (known as Amoraim) include

  • Samuel of Nehardea (Shmuel) (c. 165 – c. 257)
  • Resh Lakish (born c. 200)
  • Hillel, son of Gamaliel III (3rd century)
  • Abba Arika (Rav) (died 247)
  • Rabbi Yochanan (died c. 279)
  • Abaye (278 – c. 338)
  • Abbahu (died c. 320)
  • Ashi (352–427)

Early Christian theology

Theologies of the New Testament

The New Testament contains evidence of some of the earliest forms of reflection upon the meanings and implications of Christian faith, mostly in the form of guidance offered to Christian congregations on how to live a life consistent with their convictions – notably in the Pauline corpus and Johannine corpus.

Patristic theology

  • The collection known as the Apostolic Fathers (mostly 2nd century)
  • Justin Martyr (c. 100/114 – c. 162/168)
  • Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215)
  • Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – 202)
  • Various ‘Gnostic’ authors, such as Valentinius (c. 100 – c. 153) and Basilides (c. 117–138)
  • Some of the texts commonly referred to as the New Testament apocrypha.

Influential texts and writers between c. 200 and 325 (the First Council of Nicaea) include:

  • Tertullian (c. 155–230)
  • Hippolytus (died 235)
  • Origen (c. 182 – c.251)
  • Cyprian (died c. 258)
  • Arius (256–336)
  • Other Gnostic texts and texts from the New Testament apocrypha.

Texts from patristic authors before 325 AD are collected in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Influential texts and writers between 325 AD and c. 500 AD include:

  • Athanasius (298–373)
  • The Cappadocian Fathers (late 4th century)
  • Ambrose (c. 340–397)
  • Jerome (c. 347–420)
  • Chrysostom (347–407)
  • Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
  • Cyril of Alexandria (376–444)

Texts from patristic authors after 325 AD are collected in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Important theological debates also surrounded the various Ecumenical Councils – Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451 See also main articles on Patristics and Church Fathers.

Medieval Christian theology

Byzantine theology

Gregory Palamas

Gregory Palamas

While the Western Roman Empire declined and fell, the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, remained standing until 1453, and was the home of a wide range of theological activity that was seen as standing in strong continuity with the theology of the Patristic period; indeed the division between Patristic and Byzantine theology would not be recognised by many Orthodox theologians and historians.

Mystical theology

  • Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (working c. 500)
  • Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022)
  • Gregory Palamas (1296–1359)

Christological controversy after Chalcedon

  • Severus of Antioch (c. 465–518)
  • Leontius of Jerusalem (working 538–544)
  • Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–682)
  • Eastern Orthodox – Roman Catholic theological differences
  • Eastern Orthodox – Roman Catholic ecclesiastical differences

Iconoclasts and iconophiles

  • Patriarch Germanus I of Constantinople (patriarch 715–730)
  • John of Damascus (676–749)
  • Theodore the Studite (c. 758 – c. 826)

Western theology

Before the Carolingian Empire

When the Western Roman Empire fragmented under the impact of various ‘barbarian’ invasions, the Empire-wide intellectual culture that had underpinned late Patristic theology had its interconnections cut. Theology tended to become more localised, more diverse, more fragmented. The classically clothed Christianity preserved in Italy by men like Boethius and Cassiodorus was different from the vigorous Frankish Christianity documented by Gregory of Tours which was different again from the Christianity that flourished in Ireland and Northumbria in the 7th and 8th centuries. Throughout this period, theology tended to be a more monastic affair, flourishing in monastic havens where the conditions and resources for theological learning could be maintained.

Important writers include:

  • Caesarius of Arles (c. 468–542)
  • Boethius (480–524)
  • Cassiodorus (c. 480 – c. 585)
  • Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604)
  • Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636)
  • Bede (672–736)

Theology in the time of Charlemagne

Both because it made communication between different Christian centres easier, and because there was a concerted effort by its rulers to encourage educational and religious reforms and to develop greater uniformity in Christian thought and practice across their territories, the establishment of the Carolingian Empire saw an explosion of theological inquiry, and theological controversy. Controversy flared, for instance, around ‘Spanish Adoptionism, around the views on predestination of Gottschalk, or around the eucharistic views of Ratramnus.

Important writers include:

  • Alcuin (c. 735–804)
  • The Spanish Adoptionists Felix of Urgel and Elipandus of Toledo (late 8th century)
  • Claudius of Turin (?–839)
  • Rabanus Maurus (c. 780–856)
  • Radbertus (c. 790–865)
  • Ratramnus (died c. 868)
  • Hincmar (806–882)
  • Gottschalk (c. 808 – c. 867)
  • Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815–877)

Before Scholasticism

With the division and decline of the Carolingian Empire, notable theological activity was preserved in some of the Cathedral schools that had begun to rise to prominence under it – for instance at Auxerre in the 9th century or Chartres in the 11th. Intellectual influences from the Arabic world (including works of classical authors preserved by Islamic scholars) percolated into the Christian West via Spain, influencing such theologians as Gerbert of Aurillac, who went on to become Pope Sylvester II and mentor to Otto III. (Otto was the fourth ruler of the Germanic Ottonian Holy Roman Empire, successor to the Carolingian Empire). With hindsight, one might say that a new note was struck when a controversy about the meaning of the eucharist blew up around Berengar of Tours in the 11th century: hints of a new confidence in the intellectual investigation of the faith that perhaps foreshadowed the explosion of theological argument that was to take place in the 12th century.

Notable authors include:

  • Heiric of Auxerre (c. 835–887)
  • Remigius of Auxerre (c. 841–908)
  • Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 950–1003)
  • Fulbert of Chartres (died 1028)
  • Berengar of Tours (c. 999–1088)
  • Lanfranc (died 1089)

Early Scholasticism and its contemporaries

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God's existence.

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence.

Anselm of Canterbury is sometimes misleadingly called the ‘Father of Scholasticism’ because of the prominent place that reason has in his theology; instead of establishing his points by appeal to authority, he presents arguments to demonstrate why it is that the things he believes on authority must be so. His particular approach, however, was not very influential in his time, and he kept his distance from the Cathedral Schools. We should look instead to the production of the gloss on Scripture associated with Anselm of Laon, the rise to prominence of dialectic (middle subject of the medieval trivium) in the work of Abelard, and the production by Peter Lombard of a collection of Sentences or opinions of the Church Fathers and other authorities. Scholasticism proper can be thought of as the kind of theology that emerges when, in the Cathedral schools and their successors, the tools of dialectic are pressed into use to comment upon, explain, and develop the gloss and the sentences.

Notable authors include:

  • Anselm of Canterbury (1033/1034–1109)
  • Anselm of Laon (died 1117)
  • Hugh of St Victor (1078–1151)
  • Peter Abelard (1079–1142)
  • Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
  • Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
  • Peter Lombard (c. 1100–1160)
  • Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202)

High Scholasticism and its contemporaries

The 13th century saw the attempted suppression of various groups perceived as heterodox, such as the Cathars and Waldensians and the associated rise of the mendicant orders (notably the Franciscans and Dominicans), in part intended as a form of orthodox alternative to the heretical groups. Those two orders quickly became contexts for some of the most intense scholastic theology, producing such ‘high scholastic’ theologians as Alexander of Hales (Franciscan) and Thomas Aquinas (Dominican), or the rather less obviously scholastic Bonaventure (Franciscan). The century also saw a flourishing of mystical theology, with women such as Mechthild of Magdeburg playing a prominent role. In addition, the century can be seen as period in which the study of natural philosophy that could anachronistically be called ‘science’ began once again to flourish in theological soil, in the hands of such men as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon.

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up five main arguments as proofs for God's existence.

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up five main arguments as proofs for God’s existence.

Notable authors include:

  • Saint Dominic (1170–1221)
  • Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253)
  • Francis of Assisi (1182–1226)
  • Alexander of Hales (died 1245)
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210–1285)
  • Roger Bacon (1214–1294)
  • Bonaventure (1221–1274)
  • Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
  • Angela of Foligno (1248–1309)
  • Giles of Rome (c.1243-1316)

Late Scholasticism and its contemporaries

See also: Scholasticism

Scholastic theology continued to develop as the 13th century gave way to the fourteenth, becoming ever more complex and subtle in its distinctions and arguments. The 14th century saw in particular the rise to dominance of the nominalist or voluntarist theologies of men like William of Ockham. The 14th century was also a time in which movements of widely varying character worked for the reform of the institutional church, such as conciliarism, Lollardy and the Hussites. Spiritual movements such as the Devotio Moderna also flourished.

Notable authors include:

  • Meister Eckhart (1260–1328)
  • Duns Scotus (1266–1308)
  • Marsilius of Padua (1270–1342)
  • Gottfried von Hagenau (c. 1270–1313)
  • William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349)
  • Gregory of Rimini (c.1300-1358)
  • John Wycliffe (c. 1320–1384)
  • Julian of Norwich (1342–1413)
  • Geert Groote (1340–1384)
  • Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)
  • Jean Gerson (1363–1429)
  • Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415)
  • Thomas a Kempis (1380–1471)

Islamic theology

See also: Islamic theology and Kalam

The beginnings of Kalam

Main article: Predestination In Islam (Qadar)

Islamic theology or Kalam, in the sense of ordered, rational reflection upon Allah and his Qur’an, is commonly held to begin at the end of the 7th century – the 1st century A.H. – with debates about divine and human freedom.

The Qadariyyah were those who defended a fairly strong view of human freedom, and included

  • Ma’bad ibn Khalid al-Juhani (died 699)
  • Ghaylan ibn Marwan al Dimashqi (died 749)

‘The Jabriyyah were their opponents, and included

  • Jahm ibn Safwan (died 745)


The Qadariyyah evolved into Mu‘tazilah which for some time was the dominant form of kalam, imposed as official orthodoxy under the Abbasid dynasty, until the accession of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, after which it was suppressed. For the five principal doctrines of Mutazilism, see the main article. Prominent Mutazilite theologians include:

  • Wasil ibn Ata (c. 700–748)
  • Abu Huthail al-‘Allaf (c. 750–c.849)
  • Ibrahim al-Nazzam (died c. 846)
  • al-Jahiz (c. 776–869)
  • al-Jubba’i (died 916)
  • al-Qadi Abdul Jabbar (died 1025)
  • al-Mawardi (974–1058)
  • Zamakhshari (died 1144)


From the late 10th century onwards, Mutazilite kalam, opposition to which had hitherto been almost indistinguishable from opposition to kalam itself, found a new opponent within kalamAsh’ari kalamAsharite kalam rose to become the dominant form of Islamic kalam, and helped distinguish kalam from falasafa—from philosophy (a distinction which is less clear when considering Mutazilite thought).

Prominent Asharites include:

  • Abu l’Hasan al-Ashari (died 945)
  • Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (died 1013)
  • Abu’l Ma’ali al-Juwayni (1028–1085)
  • Al-Ghazali (died 1111)
  • Fakhr al-Din Razi (died 1209)

Note should also be taken of the variant of Asharism known as Maturidism. Prominent Maturidi authors include:

  • Abu Mansur Al Maturidi (died 944)
  • al-Nasafi (died 1114)

Falasafa (Islamic philosophy)

Whilst the boundaries are sometimes rather porous, scholars of Islamic thought often make a distinction between Falasafa (Islamic Philosophy) and Kalam (Islamic theology). Prominent writers normally held to stand on the Falasafa side of the divide include:

  • Al-Kindī (died 873)
  • Al-Razi (865–925)
  • Al-Farabi (870–950)
  • Ibn Miskawayh (932–1030)
  • Ibn Sina (Latinised form: Avicenna) (980–1037)
  • Ibn Hazm (994–1069)
  • Ibn Bajjah (died 1138)
  • Ibn Tufail (c. 1110–1185)
  • Ibn Rushd (Latinised form: Averroes) (1126–1198)

Renaissance “poetic theology”

See also: Renaissance Philosophy

Renaissance Platonists, most notably from Florentine circles (from Boccaccio and Petrarch, to Landino and Politian), appealed to “poetic theology” (theologia poetica) as a mythical theology independent of Biblical revelation and thus, too, of Christian medieval theology. The paradigmatic “poet theologian” was Orpheus, a mythical legislator capable of subduing or civilizing beast-like men with his songs. Renaissance philosophers would adopt mythical personae such as that of Orpheus to carry out their civilizing function, as philosophical mediators between “sacred” authority and the “profane” lives subject to it. Thus, e.g., Politian would emerge as a “new Orpheus”, a philosopher in poetic garb.

The Renaissance judicious appeal to theologia poetica would find its historical consummation in the works of Giambattista Vico, whose discussions on “poet theologians” (Scienza Nuova) echoed Renaissance counterparts both literally and allegorically.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation Christian theology

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

The Renaissance yielded scholars the ability to read the scriptures in their original languages and this in part stimulated the Reformation, a theological movement that protested the outlawing of their faith at the Second Diet of Speyer. Its main themes were Justification by faith, the Bible as the only source of Christian teaching, and the Priesthood of all believers, and. Important figures include Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists. Calvinist theology was developed by successors such as Beza, the English Puritans and Turretin. Lutheran theology entered a period of doctrinal unity with the adoption of the Book of Concord and preserved it through the work of theologians such as Chemnitz and Gerhard.

The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation spearheaded by the Jesuits under Ignatius Loyola took their theology from the decisions of the Council of Trent and developed Second Scholasticism, which they pitted against Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism. The overall result of the Reformation was to highlight distinctions of belief that had previously co-existed uneasily.

The Fall of Constantinople in the East, 1453, led to a significant shift of gravity to the rising state of Russia, the “Third Rome”. The Renaissance stimulated a program of reforms by patriarchs of prayer books. A movement called the “Old Believers” consequently resulted and influenced Russian Orthodox Theology in the direction of conservatism and Erastianism.

Modern Christian theology

A caricature of Kierkegaard published in The Corsair, a satirical journal

A caricature of Kierkegaard published in The Corsair, a satirical journal

After the Reformation protestant groups continued to splinter, leading to a range of new theologies. The “Enthusiasts” were so named because of their emotional zeal. These included the Methodists, the Quakers and Baptists. Another group sought to reconcile Christian faith with “Modern” ideas, sometimes causing them to reject beliefs they considered to be illogical, including the Nicene creed and Chalcedonian Creed. these included Unitarians and Universalists. A major issue for Protestants became the degree to which Man contributes to his salvation. The debate is often viewed as synergism versus monergism, though the labels Calvinist and Arminian are more frequently used, referring to the conclusion of the Synod of Dort.

The 19th century saw the rise of biblical criticism, new knowledge of religious diversity in other continents and above all the growth of science. This led many church men to espouse a form of Deism. This, along with concepts such as the brotherhood of man and a rejection of miracles led to what is called “Classical liberalism”. Immensely influential in its day, classic liberalism suffered badly as a result of the two world wars and fell prey to the criticisms of postmodernism.

Vladimir Lossky is a famous Eastern Orthodox theologian writing in the 20th century for the Greek church.

Postmodern theology

Postmodern theology seeks to respond to the challenges of post modern and deconstructionist thought, and has included the death of God movement, process theology, feminist theology and queer theology and most importantly Neo-orthodox theology. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Reinhold Niebuhr were Neo-Orthodoxy’s main representatives. In particular Barth labeled his theology “dialectical theology”, a reference to existentialism.

The predominance of classic liberalism resulted in many reactionary movements amongst conservative believers. Evangelical theology, Pentecostal or Renewal theology and fundamentalist theology, often combined with dispensationalism, all moved from the fringe into the academy. Marxism stimulated the significant rise of liberation theology which can be interpreted as a rejection of Academic Theology that fails to challenge the establishment and help the poor.

From the late 19th century to the early twentieth groups established themselves that derived many of their beliefs from Protestant evangelical groups but significantly differed in doctrine. These include the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints and others. Many of these groups use the Protestant version of the bible and typically interpret it in a fundamentalist fashion, adding, however, special prophecy or scriptures, and typically denying the trinity and the full deity of Jesus Christ.

Ecumenical theology sought to discover a common consensus on theological matters that could bring the many Christian denominations together. As a movement it was successful in helping to provide a basis for the establishment of the World Council of Churches and for some reconciliation between more established denominations. But ecumenical theology was nearly always the concern of liberal theologians, especially Protestant ones. The movement for ecumenism was opposed especially by fundamentalists and viewed as flawed by many neo-orthodox and confessional Lutheran theologians.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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