The Different Branches of Theology

Recently, a question was posed to me about the different branches of theology. Since I haven’t posted in a while, and since this is a good medium for this kind of answer, here we go.

There are several branches of theology, and unfortunately there is sometimes some unhealthy competition between the branches. However, in reality the various schools of thought need each other, and a competent theologian should be comfortable working within each branch.

Biblical Theology (BT) – Generally speaking, BT seeks to take a particular theological subject and ask “what does X say about this subject?” X in this question can sometimes be a single book (What does Isaiah say about Consummate Eschatology?), a clump of books (What does the Pentateuch say about Soteriology?), or it may trace a theological subject throughout the whole Bible. Conservative BT sometimes struggle to maintain the consistency of Scripture as they lose sight of the Scripture as a whole or do not have other doctrines in view as they do their work. Liberal BT has no problem with this since they have no presupposition that the Bible is a unified whole.

Exegetical Theology (ET) – ET can be understood as sort of drill down of BT. It seeks to understand what a very narrow portion of Scripture says about a particular doctrine, and works particularly using the rules of exegetical analysis to draw out this meaning. If you have ever read someone make an argument about a theological point based on the tense of a verb, or the case of a noun in a clump of verses, they were doing ET. One of the pitfalls of ET is that without a foundation of BT or Systematic Theology, ET can sometimes come to conclusions that do not cohere with the broader theological framework of Christian Faith.

Redemptive-Historical Theology (RHT) – RHT can be seen as a particular school of BT. Specifically tracing the historical events of Scripture which lead directly to salvation, they tend to be experts in drawing out Typology. For example, understanding that Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac is a type of the Father being willing to sacrifice the Son is a classic example of RHT typology. Furthermore, they excel in drawing out soteriological implications and truth from a variety of Old Testament historical narratives.

Systematic Theology (ST) – ST is a school of thought which attempts to summarize and define what the Scripture as a whole says about every theological topic, and to construct a system of theological points (loci) which are internally consistent. Because of this attempt to construct a coherent system, if not tethered by BT and ET, ST can often unintentionally distort the teachings of Scripture by not considering properly the exegetical and hermeneutic soil from which a doctrine is drawn.

Dogmatic Theology (DT) – DT is a theological method which attempts to do ST from within a given tradition. So, a Reformed theologian who is limiting their theological canvas to ideas which are consistent with the Westminster Standards would be doing DT. While it is true that all persons doing ST come from a tradition, not all self-consciously restrict themselves to conclusions that adhere to that tradition.

Historical Theology – HT is in some ways very similar to BT. HT is an attempt to understand the development of theological insight in one of two ways. The first is to ask “What did X believe about Y?” The X can either be a group of people, an individual, or a given era, with Y generally being a particular doctrine. For example, someone might ask “What did Martin Luther believe about atonement?” or “What did 4th century Arab Christians believe about suffering?” The second would be to trace the development of a particular doctrine throughout the history of the Church. For example, one might follow the development of angelology from the earliest Christian documents in the sub-apostolic era to today.

Analytical/Philosophical Theology (AT/PT) – AT/PT is a serious attempt to do theology utilizing the resources of human reason. Generally, this school of thought begins with what we can know about God using reason, but fencing their conclusions based on revealed doctrines. A danger of this is that it does not always properly recognize the noetic effects of the Fall, and additionally may stray from revealed doctrines.

Natural Theology (NT) – NT is a serious attempt to do theology beginning with general or natural revelation. Generally, this method begins with observations of creation and reasons that since God created in a way that is consistent with his own nature and character, that we can infer genuine truths from our observations. A danger in this position is that, like AT/PT, it does not always recognize the noetic effects of the Fall. Additionally, it does not always give serious weight to the fact that creation itself is influenced by the Fall and is not necessarily reflective of God’s original design.