What is Theology?

There are as many definitions as there are theologians. Mine is:

Theology is investigating the implications of a particular model of God.


Thealogy is investigating the implications of a particular model of Godess.


  1. You start from some model of what or who God is, then you follow the out-workings of that model. You could do theology starting from a model of God-as-omnimax, for example, or God-as-orthodox-trinity or God-as-deistic-God.
  2. Inevitably there are lots and lots of implications. So you have to choose which you’re interested in. In western Christian theology there have been a set of particular topics that theologians address. Things like ontology, eschatology, soteriology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, missiology.
  3. It is also possible to do theology on a specific topic, considering a set of distinct model of God. Some feminist or liberation theologies do this (though most stick to a single model of God).
  4. A good theology is one that finds new implications, or that uses a new model to get further.
  5. You don’t need to be a believer to do theology. While Anselm wrote that theology was “faith seeking understanding”, my experience is that many if not most theologians don’t exactly share the model of God they use as the basis of their work.

Atheistic Theology

In this framing of theology, it is possible to do atheistic theology. One starts with a particular model of God (as an epiphenomenon of belief in God, for example), and one can hunt down the implications.

It is important to me that any such theology be relevant to the historical and cultural context of western theological discussion. To do that, one would have to address the conventional topics of the discipline. I struggled to get very far there with a bald atheistic model of God (i.e. having no referent when talking about ‘God’).

But now I’ve found that my meta-cognitive God allows interesting theological investigation in areas such as ontology, hamartiology, ecclesiology and missiology. It is less, but still somewhat relevant to areas such as pneumatology and Christology. It is even less useful in soteriology and eschatology, but I can still chase some new implications there.

I think the idea of an atheistic theology is very exciting. I think there are probably vast numbers of models to investigate, and vast numbers of topics to use them in. I’m starting with one.



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4 responses to “What is Theology?

  1. Uzza

    starting with one what? One model?
    There are probly as many models as there are believers in god. You pick some group, determine their belief, and explore the ramifications: isn’t that just basic anthropology? Not saying it’s bad, just don’t see the difference between theol and anthrop (and I had to look up half the words you used :-).
    How does the meta-cognitive god allow more?

  2. Ian

    The difference, I think, between theology and description of belief, is that it might come up with implications that are not part of the original belief.

    So you start with a model of God, and reason about that, and you end up with conclusions that should be reached, but maybe few people do reach. You can show inconsistencies that way, or suggest other types of belief that may be harmonious with the ones you started at.

    Meta-cognitive God allows you to talk about things with a referent. So you can say things about, for example, about the nature of Sin, and how God gives rise to a moral law. If you just want to say ‘there is no God’ and stop there, it is tough (at least for me). You can say ‘there is no such thing as Sin’ then, or ‘Jesus was not a messiah, because there is no God to anoint him’. My model gives me a valid referent to talk about what anointing might mean, and why Jesus in particular was Messiah, and what that means for the current communities of Jesus believers.

    That, I think, is a tiny step further than just talking about what communities of believers *think* it mean, because that would be religious studies, not theology. For theology I think you have to be able to go the next step and say what it *should* mean. If that makes sense.

  3. Boz

    This feels like a dumb anti-theist/bigoted comment, but…

    theology seems to me to be a huge waste of time, due to step 1, the initial assumption of the model. To me, it is the equivalent of talking about the implications of different models of santa. What a huge waste of time and money.

    When the truth/factuality of the initial assumption has an almost 0 probability, then the analysis is pointless.

    It would be different if there were a few possible options, and one of them must be true. Then we can say, If A then X, or If B then Y. This gives insight. But this is not the case.

    Do you hear this complaint often? What is your response? Can you give examples of how theology is not a waste of time, if we are interested in discovering what is true/factual?

  4. Ian


    I think it is a valid question. And not an easy one to find a solution for. It is particularly depressing, I think, for folks who think they are discovering eternal truths through theology.

    There are two other families of answers I’ve heard, neither of which are entirely convincing:

    1. Theology is like art, if it has any claims to truth, it is truth in an aesthetic, poetic sense.

    2. Belief in God is terribly important to an obscene number of people around the world, so understanding that belief better is a very important job. Part of understanding that belief is to consider a broad range of its implications.

    I think a lot of theologians think 2, while actually being closer to 1.

    For me personally I have a 3rd motivation.

    3. To demonstrate the mechanics of religious and theological processes do not need and do not suggest the existence of a conventional understanding of God.

    For me, if the 99% of the world were atheists, I’m not sure I’d want to do theology. But I think theology is important, because innovation in theology really does push forward thinking about God. And I think it is important that, if people want to have faith, they don’t have a deluded faith.

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