Types of Theology

I have been thinking lately about how to classify different types of theology. This is what I have come up with thus far. Don’t be shy in terms of leaving feedback as I would love to hear whether or not this sort of typology rings true.

What I am interested in here is only secondarily connected to the sorts of theological positions taken by those doing theology in any of the modes that I will explicate. The modes themselves are what interest me. It seems to me that one can fall anywhere on the continuum between orthodoxy and heterodoxy while working within any of these modes. Of course, some modes may make it easier than others to lean toward one or the other pole on this continuum, but that is beside the point.

Also, I don’t think that any theologian is working exclusively within any single one of these modes. Every theologian operates in combinations of these modes, with certain of them being primary and others secondary. Furthermore, the various modes within which a certain theologian works can be ordered in particular ways, such that certain modes serve more or less as a basis for movement toward other modes, or a particular mode can be understood as the telos of others. There is a lot of flexibility here. My descriptions below, however, will refer to what these modes tend to mean when adopted as the primary theological mode.

(1) Biblical Theology

This mode of theology is interested in unpacking the theological meaning of the biblical text. It can function at the level of canon, author, book, chapter, verse, phrase or word. It can be pursued with varying degrees of attention to the history of the text, whether history of development or history of reception.

(2) Confessional Theology

Confessional theology takes as its starting point the theological affirmations of a particular theological tradition, often identified in terms of denomination. It seeks to develop the particular insights of that particular tradition and to provide a compelling expression of that tradition in light of the contemporary situation.

(3) Constructive Theology

Innovation and idiosyncrasy are prized in constructive theology, where the goal is to take the theological tradition – broadly or narrowly conceived – in heretofore undeveloped or underdeveloped directions. It is often individualistic and academic in orientation.

(4) Contextual Theologies

Contextual theology takes the contemporary situation with utmost seriousness, and looks for ways to address that situation. Liberation and feminist theologies are fine examples, but postmodern theologians and American evangelical theology would fall broadly within this designation as well, although the latter perhaps not in terms of intent. Indeed, all theology ought to be contextual to some degree.

(5) Dogmatic Theology

Pursued in a Barthian style, Dogmatic theology is concerned with doing theology in service of the church. In this sense, it is similar to confessional theology. Torrance understands this to be related, also, to a particular version of scientific theology. Pursued in a Roman Catholic style, Dogmatic theology is similar to normative theology. One’s understanding of Dogmatic theology relates to how one parses the relationship between dogma and dogmas.

(6) Ecumenical Theology

Ecumenical theology is similar to confessional theology except that it works with a much more broadly defined tradition, namely, Nicaea, Chalcedon and their derivative councils. It looks for paths toward unity where the various sub-traditions need not give up their emphases, even if they must learn to appreciate and incorporate the emphases of other sub-traditions.

(7) Philosophical Theology

Philosophical theology seeks to bring theology into conversation with philosophy. This can be done in two ways. First, it can be done by bringing the tools of philosophical analysis, as well as philosophical modes of thought (philosophical topics: metaphysics, etc), to bear critically upon theology. Second, it can be done by bringing theology to bear constructively upon philosophical analysis and modes of thought.

(8) Natural Theology

Natural theology attempts to establish knowledge of God without appeal to specifically Christian revelation. It traditionally depends heavily on certain forms of metaphysics, cosmology, and ethical theory.

(9) Normative Theology

Undertaken from by a certified authority within a particular ecclesial polity, Normative theology is pursued whenever theological statements are made by which a particular ecclesial identity is constituted or delimited. Nicaea and Chalcedon are examples of such statements, as is the Augsburg Confession. It is operative for Roman Catholics whenever the Pope speaks ex cathedra.

(10) Scientific Theology

How one conceives of scientific theology depends on how one understands science. For instance, Charles Hodge – working with a more or less Baconian understanding of science – described theology as the collection and ordering of facts found within the biblical text. Another example is TF Torrance, who – working with a more or less Einsteinian conception of science – describes theology in terms of being confronted by and in turn expressing in a limited way the reality of God.

(11) Systematic Theology

There are different ways for theology to be pursued in a systematic mode. It can be understood in terms of a logically deductive system, where a single first principle or a collection of such principles are analyzed and synthesized in the production of a system. It can also be understood in a loci communes way, where various theological topics are ordered and discussed, usually in a creedal sequence. In either case, and most basically, systematic theology is concerned with penetrating to and explicating the relations inherent between the various loci of Christian doctrine.

(*) Historical Theology

A mode of theological engagement that focusses on theological texts, thinkers, and schools from the past. In keeping with the dictum that those who do not know the past are bound to repeat it, all modes of theological inquiry should have their historical elements. In this way, historical theology - like biblical theology - provides vital raw materials for further theological deployment as well as helps to elucidate the context within which theological inquiry is pursued in the present.

(*) Pastoral Theology

While theology is inherently practical, it is possible to do theology with greater or lesser attention to particular pastoral situations and the way in which theology’s claims are made concrete in individual and community life. This is the task of pastoral theology. Practitioners in this discipline often use tools and approaches from the social sciences.

(+) Political Theology

Here we have a theological mode that brings together many of the others. For political theology, done aright, must be biblical, is necessarily confessional, is always constructive if it is to address the people and problems of its own time and place, which also makes it contextual; normative, systematic, historical, and what could be more pastoral? Etc. Jesus gave his followers two great commandments, and in the sphere of political theology one deals with the intersection of love of God and love of neighbor.

An '*' indicates a mode of theology that the author originally forgot to include or was suggested to him for inclusion in the comments section. An '+' indicates an addition made in 2016.



Shane said…
What about:

Bad Theology.
'Bad Theology' does not have independent being / existence. It is a privative notion. ;-)
James said…
"Every day, in every way, we're getting meta and meta."
Anonymous said…
I'd add something like Comparative Theology, where theology is undertaken with explicit exchange across religious traditions. It seems to be an emerging field of constructive theology. The best example I can think of is someone like David Burrell, although his is slightly more historical (which might be a category) or philosophical.

Comparative theology may be an emerging thing on the constructive theology scene, but - for my money - it is just historical theology being done (often badly) in its own time period. Does that characterization make sense?
Unknown said…
Why am I not surprised, T, that you've entirely overlooked practical theology as a mode of theology?

Ah, the cross we practical theologians bear. When will you all take us seriously?!! :-)

It just isn't in my purview. I subscribe to the notion that the knowledge of God gained in theology is practical and not theoretical, which means I think that the sort of theology I do is very practical, which means that I often fail to think of you and yours.

Mea culpa.
Unknown said…
T --

You know I'm with you there. However, there is a distinction, yes? A different type of practicality?
Can I call it 'pastoral theology'?
Anonymous said…

Thanks for this list. I enjoyed mulling it over. A couple points on this list:

1.) I'm not sure if i agree with your characterization of biblical theology. This is only b/c of i've always understood biblical theology to seek to move beyond individual text segments, chapters, and books to present a coherent picture of the biblical data. I guess i'm confused by your statement that biblical theology can "function at the level of canon, author, book, chapter . . ." I thought BT was integrative in nature, since it seeks to uncover the AIM (author's intended meaning), thus requiring it to uncover meaning each level you mentioned. Am i off base on this?

2.) Can you go a bit more into detail regarding how you understand dogmatic theology being "in the service of the church?"

3.) No section for historical theology? Did i miss it?

Most of this is just nit-picking i promise. Overall i found this to be very helpful, particularly in regards to how you showed how certain traditions favored certain modes.

Grace and Peace,


(1) What that sentence means is that one can conceive of a biblical theology of Paul, or of Romans, or of Romans 5, etc. It can operate at different levels of specificity.

(2) Dogmatic theology is in the service of the church insofar as it is committed to the historical doctrinal commitments of the church. This is less specific than confessional theology, which works strictly within one sub-tradition.

(3) I can't believe I forgot historical theology! I'll fix it at some point - I need to add pastoral theology as well.
Unknown said…
What about ethical theology or theological ethics?
I'm with Barth: 'Theology is ethics.'
Anonymous said…
One that many forget is Mystical Theology!
Fair enough, but I have a hard time imagining what that would look like or how it would work, much less describing it.
Mitchell said…
Thanks for this delineation. It is very helpful to me as a student soon to embark into the vast territory of theology. I am very interested in what you call confessional theology (or maybe normative theology) and am wondering if you have any thoughts to put something together identifying the more-or-less definitive confessional works in each tradition within Christianity. In an attempt to familiarize myself with each tradition, I think your insight and exposure would be very helpful to me.



It would be incredibly hard to identify the confessional constraints of each tradition. They are incredibly diverse, and not ever tradition has the same relationship to its confessional constraints.

As a member of the PCUSA, I have a book of confessions. The Lutherans have their Book of Concord. The Roman Catholics have their catechism, and the various councilliar and magisterial documents bequeathed by history. Finally, the vast majority of Christians affirm the first 6 or 7 ecumenical councils (I think that the Orthodox rest content with these 7) and the closely related Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Anonymous said…
You need "Interdisciplinary Theology." From, You Know Who I Am

I do indeed know who you are...
Unknown said…
well, what about reformed theology? would that be considered as a type? And what is reformed theology??
Reformed theology would most nearly by a type of confessional theology, but it would also fall under historical and dogmatic theologies in certain ways, and of course it makes extensive use of biblical theology.

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