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The Study of Theology

The Study of Theology

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Published by Philip Kariatlis

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Published by: Philip Kariatlis on Mar 18, 2011
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56
The Study of Theology:An Intellectual Inquiry or Existential Encounter?
“It is one thing to speak of God; it is quite another to know God”
Staretz Silouan of Mount Athos
Introductory Remarks
The word ‘theology’ - θεολογία - as it is used today,is a very broad term understood as one among a myri-ad of academic disciplines studied within a universitycontext and covering a whole range of topics. A diction-ary denition usually considers theology to be just likeany other academic eld of study. And so, in preciselythe same way that every branch of knowledge, namelyall ‘academic disciplines’ such as those ofscience, medicine, engineering or historyconsist of a multitude of subjects - sepa-rate units of an entire program of studies- that are specialized and thereby shedmore light on the general object of study,so too, one would expect to nd the samein the study of theology. In this regard,the term ‘theology’ today for many issimply akin to words such as ‘medicine’,‘economics’, ‘engineering’ or ‘architec-ture’.More specically, just as one wouldexpect to encounter a whole variety ofsub-disciplines within ‘medicine’ - suchas, anatomy, physiology, psychiatry etc- so too, in the study of theology, it isthought that one would be expected tohave to focus upon dierent theologicalareas (Patristic or Systematic theology,Church History, Old and New Testamentstudies, Pastoral theology, Liturgics etc).In other words, for many at rst glance,theology is all about the study of God, an intellectualinquiry, in much the same way that geology or biologyis the study of the earth or life respectively. Right fromthe outset, however, one needs to ask: is theology infact simply another area of knowledge just like biology,anthropology, psychology, psephology, geology etc....?How is theology similar to the other elds of study wend in a university? How is it dierent? To what extentmust theology assimilate to the methodologies of thesetertiary studies? Or does it have its own? It is preciselythese questions upon which this article will seek brieyto focus its aention.
Etymology
Now, etymologically, the word ‘theology’, de-rived from two Greek words ‘Θεός [God]’ and ‘λόγος[word]’, means the study of God in much the same waythat cosmology is the study of the world or in much thesame way that sociology is the study of societies andcommunities. In other words, from its etymology, wewould expect theology basically to be concerned with‘God-talk’ - discourse about God or the study/doctrineof God - and as such would want to aim at leading theone inquiring into some ‘understanding’ of who God is.But we will see that theology is much more than a meredetached or objective study about God. The aim of the-ology is not simply to give somefacts about God but is somethingmore than that. Broadly speak-ing, it aims at equipping a per-son with all the necessary ‘tools’or means in order that they maybe in a position to be initiatedinto the mysteries of God, name-ly, not only to formulate someteaching about God, but also andmore importantly to approachand experience God.Before further reection onthis vision of Orthodox theol-ogy as an existential encounter,a point needs to be made re-garding the content of theology.Again from its etymology, wewould expect theology to be con-cerned only with God. However,theology is a wide ranging termand is not exclusively concernedonly with God, but also with theworld that God has created and the world’s relation-ship with God. Or put another way, theology, in thissense, is a discipline that seeks to speak about: 1) God,more particularly God’s revelation; 2) God’s relation tothe world and 3) the world’s relation to God. In oth-er words, theology is concerned about ‘all things’ foronly such a focus will do justice not only to God whomwe believe is the source of all things, but also humanbeings whom we believe are involved in ‘all things.’Now, even though, at rst sight one may question thebreadth of inquiry in theology, nevertheless insofar asit is claimed that God is the ‘maker of heaven and earth’[Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] then theology asthe study of God and his world and the world’s rela-tionship with God must be considered in the study oftheology. In this way, theology must not be content insimply studying God devoid from the world in which
Dr Philip Kariatlis
 
57
God is experienced and in which God has le ‘indica-tions’ - not proofs - of his existence.
The Diculty of the Task at Hand
As you would imagine, the task of theology is con-siderably a dicult one: not only does the breadth ofsuch a study seem impossible to follow but we are atthe same time essentially trying to become familiarwith the Trinitarian God. How is God known? Can Godreally be known? If so, how? In the New Testament, forexample, we read that “
no one has ever seen God
” (1Jn4:12) since God alone “
has immortality and dwells in un-approachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see
(1Tim 6:16). Many fathers of the Church expressed thesame idea: St Gregory the Theologian (4th century),for example, noted: “
to speak of God is impossible and toknow him even more impossible
” and several centurieslater St John of Damascus (7th century) epigrammati-cally wrote: “
the divine is beyond understanding and theonly thing that can be understood about the Godhead is thefact that it is beyond understanding.
” And yet, as we shallsee, since God has revealed himself, not only throughhis Son, Jesus Christ, but also to the world generally,we are able to know him, experience him and subse-quently speak about him. Consequently, in studyingand becoming familiar with the world in general thatGod created, with his Son whom He sent into the worldtogether with his abiding presence in the Holy Spiritwe can indeed come to know God in the hope of par-ticipating in his beatitude. And so, from the outset itis important to remember that it is only through God’sgrace and providence that we are able, indeed have theaudacity, to speak about God, namely to theologize.
 
Theology - an ‘encounter [συνάντησις]’of another order 
 
From all the above, we would expect theology tobe focused upon seeking answers to questions suchas: “what do we believe about God?” or “can God infact be known?”, “If so, how is God known?” And insome sense this is correct; theology does indeed seekto reect upon the mysteries of God [τά περί Θεοῦμυστήρια]. Theology does in fact seek to present, as wenoted above, the most basic or fundamental principlesof faith in such a way that they can be approached, as-similated and accepted.
theology is essentially an encoun-ter [συνάντησις]; indeed one of anentirely dierent order
However, far more than simply coming to an under-standing of some basic truths that make up the contentsof the Christian faith - namely far more than an intellec-tual pursuit or simply ‘faith seeking understanding [
-des quaerens intellectum
]’ according to the classic deni-tion of Anselm of Canterbury (12th century) - theologyis essentially an ‘encounter’ [συνάντησις]; indeed oneof an entirely other order - namely,
created
humanity’sencounter with the
Uncreated
God. Now, in order to ap-preciate the signicance of this simple statement as anexplanation of what theology is all about, one needsto analyze briey the etymology of the term ‘encoun-ter’ in the Greek. The word ‘συνάντησις’ is made upof the proposition ‘σύν’ meaning
together
and the noun‘ἐναντίον’ for
opposite
. In other words, an encounter,according to its Greek etymology is a coming togetherof two parties which are entirely dierent or oppositeto one another [not necessarily against each other as theEnglish etymology of encounter might suggest - com-ing from Old French noun ‘l’ encontre’ which signiesadversary or confrontation].Approached from the perspective of an encoun-ter, theology is essentially understood in terms of anexperience or meeting of
created
human beings - whoare perishable, circumscribable, limited etc - with the
Uncreated
God who is eternal, uncircumscribable andbeyond any limits. The beauty of such a depiction - oreven denition - for theology is not only its broadnessincluding the experience of the entire created realmwith God, but more importantly its existential charac-ter highlighting that theology is ultimately a meeting inwhich one comes to experience the indwelling presenceof God and subsequently comes to trust and believe inGod - something innitely greater than mere intellectu-al understanding of certain propositional truths aboutGod.Reecting a lile further, we would say that theologyis the study of the Church’s experience of communionwith God which subsequently leads the faithful withinthe Church to aempt to give expression to and pres-ent their experience of communion with God. Beforeproceeding any further, however, something must besaid of the word ‘experience’ as it is oen used but lileunderstood. On a popular level, the word ‘experience’has come to refer to a person’s inner feelings and emo-tions. Indeed, in the 19th century an entire philosophi-cal movement emerged, known as existentialism andexemplied in philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard(1813-1855) and Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) whichemphasised the importance of immediate, real-life hu-man experiences. Those who principally object to an ex-periential aspect to theology do so on the grounds that‘experience’ is something vague, almost impossible toverify and dicult to identify its distinctive features [cf.George Lindbeck,
Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theol-ogy in a Postliberal Age
].However, according to the Eastern Orthodox tradi-tion, theology devoid of experience properly under-stood is impoverished; yet this experience must be in-terpreted within the context of the Church otherwise itmay simply be a projection of our idealized conceptionof what we think God must be like but not the real God.And it is precisely the Church which holds the interpre-tative framework. A classic example highlighting theneed for experience to be interpreted within the contextof the Church since it alone is the proper interpretativeframework for our human experiences is the following:if we were to take a journey back for a moment to the

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