Jon Stovell’s Notebook


The theological disciplines: An orientation for the perplexed

Ever been confused about the different academic disciplines broadly grouped under the umbrella of “theology”? Here’s an (over)simplified orientation to what they are and what questions they address.

  1. Biblical studies
    Where did the scriptural texts come from, how did they get to be what they are, and what do they say?
  2. Biblical theology
    What did/do the Scriptures mean?
  3. Systematic theology (a.k.a. constructive theology)
    How do we make sense of our Christian beliefs in a way that is meaningful for our lives today?
  4. Applied theology
    How do we put our theological understanding into practice?
  5. Practical theology
    How do our actual practices inform and illuminate our beliefs?
  6. Historical theology
    How have Christians understood and practiced their faith in the past, why did they do so, and how has that shaped our understanding and practice today?

The borders between the different theological disciplines are open. Each one feeds into the others, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, but always and inevitably. The trick is to be aware of how each one does so, so that we can engage consciously and well in that inevitable interdisciplinary cross-pollination, rather than unconsciously and therefore usually poorly.

Of course, this not a complete list. All these disciplines can be broken down into sub-disciplines. All of these disciplines and sub-disciplines involve interaction with other, independent academic disciplines.1 And how to group and categorize different sub-disciplines is often debatable.2 Neither are the summaries of the essential questions very fulsome—representatives of any of these disciplines would probably want to give a richer and more nuanced description.3