Aug 12, 2021


5 Min Read


Theology, defined most simply, is the study of God. Theos is the Greek word for “God.” The Greek word logos means “word,” “study,” “communication,” “logic,” or “reason.” The meaning of the term has, over the centuries, remained close to its etymological origin.

However, the definition as it stands is incomplete, since a detached academic study of theology, while still being part of theology, would not fill out the complete picture. The Puritan William Ames defined theology as the “the doctrine of living for God.” This is another way of saying that the Christian theologian always needs the help of the Holy Spirit. The term can be used in a broader sense to include all the various theological disciplines. It can also be used in a narrower sense to mean the branch of systematic theology that examines the Bible’s teaching on God. Usually, when the latter is meant, the term theology proper is used. This article will focus on a broad definition of theology.


Theology looks different depending on who is doing the theologizing. For instance, God’s own self-understanding is a form of theology that is both exhaustive and qualitatively different from that of any creature. In the history of doctrine, God’s own self-understanding is called archetypal theology and is the basis of His revelation to us. All creaturely understanding of God is called ectypal. And to some degree, all human beings engage in ectypal theology. Once we begin to think about God and spiritual truth, developing beliefs and conclusions, we have started to form an ectypal theology—though apart from grace, our ectypal theology will always go astray.

Ectypal theology, in turn, can be divided depending on the person’s state. Those who are unbelievers can only engage in false theology (though this does not mean that everything they believe about God is false, only that their fundamental understanding of God is based on a twisted version of reality). Christians engage in pilgrim theology while in this life. In glory, we will continue to learn about God, though this knowledge will be mediated by a direct vision of God known as the beatific vision. The angels have their own version of theology, as does Jesus Christ, according to His humanity. Each of these cases is ectypal theology, for none of them is equivalent to God’s archetypal theology. However, Jesus Christ not only engages in ectypal theology according to His humanity, but He also possesses the divine archetypal theology according to His deity. This is because He is true God of true God according to His divine nature. Jesus’ engagement in ectypal authority according to His human nature and archetypal theology according to His divine nature is part of the mystery of the hypostatic union.

This article focuses on pilgrim theology, which includes many different fields. The five main fields are exegesis (drawing out the meaning of the biblical texts), biblical theology (tracing the history of redemption and the promises of God from Genesis to Revelation), systematic theology (discerning what the Bible as a whole says about a particular topic), church history (examining God’s providence in Christ’s body), and practical (or applied) theology (exploring the application of theology in everyday life). Some people would see apologetics (defending the faith against various forms of unbelief) as part of systematic theology, whereas others would see it as a separate field of its own. Each of these main fields has various branches.

Major problems arise when these fields are sealed off from each other. For instance, some people may be tempted to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as impractical. However, all true doctrine is practical, since all true theology is biblical, and the Bible exists to tell us the way of salvation and how to please God. A much more fruitful way to approach theology is to see all the different fields as mutually interdependent. What connects all the disciplines is the Bible itself. Exegesis is obviously about the meaning of Scripture. Systematic theology asks what the Scriptures teach about a topic. Biblical theology considers how redemption and the biblical teaching on a particular topic developed over time from Genesis to Revelation. Church history sees how God’s providence uses Scripture in history to form and discipline His bride. Practical theology applies Scripture to our lives.

If theology is to be fully biblical, then exegesis must be systematically informed, attentive to the entire biblical story, historically aware, and practical in application. Systematic theology must be flexible enough to include all the data from Scripture, sufficiently aware of how God progressively reveals truth over the course of the entire biblical canon, historically informed, and marked by considering the person in the pew. Church history must know the history of biblical interpretation, understand how the church fulfills God’s biblical plan of redemption, show how doctrines came to be defined, and help laypeople avoid the mistakes of the past while also rejoicing in God’s providential care for the church through the ages. Practical theology must be exegetically informed, sensitive to how our position in biblical history informs application, systematically rigorous, and organically related to how God’s people have done things in the past.

Theology has two primary principles (Latin principia). The external principle of theology is Scripture. The internal principle is the Holy Spirit, who makes the Scriptures understandable to human beings and who regenerates the hearts of the elect such that they grow in their knowledge of God.

Theology is also a science, in the old Latin sense of a scientia, a branch of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, theology was rightly held to be the queen of the sciences. Unfortunately, in today’s world, theology is no longer seen as the apex and unifying subject of human understanding. All knowledge has become fragmented as a result, since only theology can unite all knowledge while respecting its diversity. Without theology to hold knowledge together, “universities” (places where “truth is one,” the meaning of the term university) have actually become “multiversities.” If, however, all truth is God’s truth, then there is no reason why all branches of knowledge could not be reunited with theology at the head.


The ultimate truth is the truth of God, and that He is the foundation and source of all other truth. Everything else we learn—economics or philosophy or biology or mathematics—has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God.

Because revelation is of such a nature that it can only be truly accepted and appropriated by a saving faith, it is absolutely imperative that the dogmatician be active as believer not only in the beginning but also in the continuation and at the end of his work. The theologian can never arrive at knowledge that is higher than the faith.

Herman Bavinck

Reformed Dogmatics

We have . . . to restrict theology to its true sphere, as the science of the facts of divine revelation so far as those facts concern the nature of God and our relation to him, as his creatures, as sinners, and as the subjects of redemption.

Charles Hodge

Systematic Theology

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion