Theology, strictly speaking, is the science which treats of God. The term, having varied in comprehensiveness at different periods, is now used to denote the science which -treats of both God and man as moral beings, and of their mutual relations. Christian Theology treats of these subjects according to the teachings of the Christian religion. Theology is thus commensurate in its range of meaning with religion; and the two are also otherwise closely related.
Christianity is distinctively a Revealed Religion. Christian Theology, therefore, has to do with revealed truth, and its one direct and controlling source, to which the decisive appeal must always be made, is the Sacred Scriptures. No doctrine is to be received which is unwarranted by their teachings. But the Author of the Scriptures was also the prior author of man, and of the world in wh ich man lives. And the Scriptures presuppose a certain amount of religious knowledge to be already in the possession of man,— Acts, 17: 19. He is so constituted, intellectually and morally, and so surrounded by objects which spring from the divine mind and embody divine thoughts, that he cannot but have some knowledge of God and his will,—Rom., 1: 18-20; and this knowledge, so far as it is positive and indubitable, cannot but be authoritative.
Christian Theology is the consummation of its earlier dispensations. Christ was the Revealer from the beginning. But His revelations have been given by progressive stages; and now in the end of the world He has gathered the whole into one great system of truth. Christian Theology is the consummation of its preliminary forms. It is the fulfilment of Old Testament Theology as a vast body of preparatory truth, the ruling design of which is to prepare the way of the Lord.
Theology has been a progressive science. Its principles have been formulated along centuries of conflict, and its formulas have been collected into gradually widening creeds, confessions and systems. Parallel with the growth of these, and as a reflex of their changes, have been the types of piety into which the belief's of the church have been crystallized. Within these creeds, confessions, systems and types of piety, the Divine Spirit, the formative force of Christianity, has garnered the thoughts which the Church has gathered from the Bible ; and through these, as an organic and indivisible whole, the doctrines of the Christian Church, amid endless discussions and controversies, have become what is now denominated Christian Theology.
Christendom soon was divided into provinces: the period of perfect unity in theological teaching was very brief. This is not the place to discuss the moral character of this fact: it is with the fact alone we have to do. Scarcely were the Three Creeds lodged in the universal faith than the first division of Confessional Theology took place: that between the Oriental and the Western confessions. Beginning with the difference of a word, the breach wore on, and the two Theologies have had ever since their marked types: that of the East contemplative, mystical, unprogressive, and teaching rather by symbol than by creeds; that of the West abounding in analysis, always progressive, and developing every truth to its utmost issues.
The Tridentine and the Protestant types of Theology have divided the Western world for three centuries: united in some fundamental verities, their differences touch almost every essential topic in the administration of redemption and the presence of Christ in His Church. Those differences will meet us only too often: meanwhile it is enough to say that each type of doctrine is developed into a large body of theology.
Protestantism has many subdivisions, and its confessions are many. Historically considered, these divided into two at the Reformation—the Lutheran and the Reformed; the chief expositors of the former having been Luther and Melanchthon, and of the latter Calvin and Zwingle. These are one in the restoration of Holy Scripture to its supreme place as the standard of faith, in the vindication of the fundamental doctrines of grace, and in the establishment of the Scriptural view of a sinner's personal relations to Christ.
But they differ in other respects: mainly in that Lutheran Theology is more deeply sacramental, and the Reformed is pervaded by the revived predestinarianism of Augustine. The chief standard of Lutheran doctrine is the Augsburg Confession, of 1530: the Reformed has spread more widely, and is represented by many formularies. In the beginning of the seventeenth century the Arminian, or rather Remonstrant, Confession arose in Holland as a protest against what has been called, from its second founder, CALVINISM. The supreme principle of this latter type of doctrine is the Absolute Sovereignty of God: its best representative is the Westminster Confession.
The Arminian type has for its principle the universality of the benefit of the Atonement and the restored freedom of the human will as an element in the doctrine of the Divine decrees: its best representative is found in the standards of METHODIST Theology. There is no Anglican Theology proper: it is a composite of Lutheran, Reformed, and Arminian. Nor can there be said to be an Eclectic or Latitudinarian system: for these words apply to no one particular type of Christian doctrine. The same remark may be applied to what has been above called Methodist Theology: it is not Latitudinarian in any sense; it is Eclectic only in the best sense; it has in it eome of the best elements of the doctrine of Luther and of Calvin, but stamps upon all its own impress.
All these Confessional types are exhibited in the systematic teachings of the larger communions into which the modern Church is divided. Nor are there any other, unless a Unitarian type is admitted: there was after the Reformation a Socinian Confession; but that, as a Confession, has vanished, scarcely any trace of its peculiarities being found in modern Unitarianism.
In the Patristic Church—including the ante-Nicene and post-Nicene periods down to Gregory, AD 600—there were schools of theological thought, which represented almost all the later tendencies. For instance, Asia Minor and Antioch, Alexandria, and North Africa were severally centres of three very distinct kinds of teachings: the first, more faithful to Scripture and Apostolical tradition; the second, blending philosophical speculation, allegorical interpretation, and the mystical element with its Christianity; and the third, hard, real, and dialectic. (2.) During the earlier part of the Middle Ages, superstition moulded tradition into forms of doctrine that more and more diverged from the Scriptural standard.
The Scholastic Theology in the universities of Christendom wrought up the materials it inherited into systematic forms, which carried dialectic subtilty and philosophical speculation to their highest point. Through all these, however, struggled the Mystical spirit, which controlled a large part of the Scholastic Theology, and penetrated every branch of the Christian Church, infecting the doctrines of each by turns. Its law of development is the independent teaching of God in communion with the human spirit: independent, first, as without the external means of grace, and, secondly, as given to the individual apart from all others. The theology of every period, and of every region of Christendom, has received the impress of this law working lawlessly: its operation has touched Pantheism at the one pole, and at the other merely imparts a mystical colouring to Christian doctrine.
In every age, but especially in these last times, theology in the Church has been influenced by a tendency the opposite of that of Mysticism: the spirit of Rationalism, which makes the human understanding the measure of the truth which it accepts. Rationalism is either philosophical or critical: the former has aimed to recast Christian doctrine, and make it the manifold expression of its own ideas; the latter has been destructive, eliminating from the faith everything that human reasoning cannot explain. In both these forms it has widely influenced the development of Christian Theology.
The deep-seated popular prejudice against systems of theology, is easily accounted for as the natural heritage of Protestantism. It was against the scholastic systems of theology, as well as against papal assumptions and priestly corruptions, that the reformers arrayed themselves. Scholasticism had enslaved medieval theology, and the appeal of the reformers was immediately and without qualification to the holy Scriptures. But a lapse from this method into rigid systemization in the 17th century was rapid and inevitable, from which again a reaction led back the Protestant mind, not only to its original dislike of all scholasticism, but to a settled and hereditary distrust of all systems of theology.
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