Academic Theology

Theology can be defined many ways, but two definitions are perhaps most significant. The first could be described as “God-talk”: It is logos (speech) with theos (God). In this way, prayer is seen as theology proper.

In time, this led to a second definition — that theology involves the study of God. The early Christians, after all, were facing new questions both from fellow Christians confused about Church doctrine and from non-Christians who challenged believers to credibly explain their faith. Origen, in many respects, is considered the founder of this kind of theology (though we can find precedents from St. Clement of Alexandria and the apologists before him). This, then, became speech (logos) about God (theos).

Of course, those who engaged in talk about God were assumed to have a relationship with God. Indeed, the combined fruit of prayer and study led them to write theological documents, and the liturgy — the prayer of the faithful — significantly influenced dogmatic theology. One who was engaged in theology was expected to be humble, never going beyond what he knew either from experience or authority. Speculation was possible but was to be kept to a minimum, and any speculation should be tested by the Church before it became readily accepted.

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When the Church Fathers confronted Arius, for example, one of their chief criticisms was that his spiritual life was lacking, and so his mistakes came about because he spoke beyond what he could possibly know. He should first have known himself, said St. Anthony of Egypt, because then he would have known his own limitations. 

During the scholastic era, things began to change. There we saw the beginnings of academic theology proper, where one studied what others had said about God, without such study having any necessary contact with one’s own spiritual life. While the method of study improved, it did so at a cost — theology became more abstract and cut off from the needs of the Christian Faith. Certainly much good fruit came out of this, as we see from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. But for every Aquinas there were more prideful scholars — Peter Abelard comes to mind — whose great learning instilled in them a sense of superiority.

Both Sts. Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux considered this shift in theological discipline a major threat to the Faith (and a source of grave scandal to the Church). Bonaventure, who was himself involved with the universities of his day, nevertheless wrote harshly about the new methodology.

Nonetheless, it was widely understood that theology, even when involving speculation, sought to preserve the teachings of the Faith. What was new was how one engaged those teachings, not the teachings themselves. Commenting upon the past was a way to make sure one kept the tradition alive.



Today, we have a major crisis in theology: Theologians are trained to be academics. There is much good in this training, no question about it, but it should not be an end in and of itself. One should study and discuss what others have said, not because what they say is a curiosity, but because one finds something important in their work — something that offers meaning to our meandering world. Theologians, because they are tied to universities, are required to write according to the dictates and expectations of academia. This can be problematic, as academia loves novelty, while theology should be about preserving the faith and avoiding empty novelty.

To establish oneself and justify one’s unique contribution to his field, the academic must reject what has come before, by either proving it wrong or incomplete. But how can one sustain faith in the midst of that?

Theologians need to reconsider their relationship with academia. Of course, they should have a place in it, but they should also see that academic study should be carried out for the sake of faith. Theology should help the faithful feel enriched about their faith. How is this possible if theologians confine themselves to projects that only undermine that faith?

I fear that many who began their theological training to enrich their faith ended up losing it. What Bonaventure saw in his own day is happening again, and worse. Many who have studied theology do not preserve their faith; they have sought knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and nothing more. They have eaten of a new tree of knowledge, and its fruit is bitter. In 19th-century Russia, the seminary was the greatest source of atheists. Their problem is our own: The academic who has lost his faith will pass that on to his students.

It’s time for academia to open back up to theological reflection, to let those who study theology write positive theology, and not just critical material. There are places where this is being done, but in general, academic theology today is little different from any secular field. We need scholars who will combine the critical work of academia with a well-nourished spiritual life. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that theology proper can only be done on one’s knees. His work, which often reads like poetry, shows that one can faithfully engage theology today.

Those within academia need the freedom to continue this tradition. They shouldn’t be required to “publish something new” or “perish.” Theology should be concerned with the continuation of the Faith, not simple novelty. Until this happens, theologians will continue to be trained to do something that runs contrary to the very notion of theology itself.



  • Henry Karlson

    Henry Karlson is a doctoral candidate in Historical and Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America. He has taught at Georgetown and Catholic University, and is a contributor at Vox Nova.

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