What to Know if You Want to Know Theology

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” —Saint Jerome

Ghirlandaio, “Saint Jerome in His Study” (detail), 1480, Church of Ognissanti, Florence, Italy
Ghirlandaio, “Saint Jerome in His Study” (detail), 1480, Church of Ognissanti, Florence, Italy (photo: Public Domain)

In the previous article, we left off with the a description of some of the various branches of theology that one could study. And, as I mentioned, all of this can seem so refined and so obscure. We can run the risk of becoming too specialized.

When one studies one field of theology or one aspect of theology (or, in most cases in advanced studies, one thinker about one aspect of one branch of theology, in my case, the American 20th-century theologian John Courtney Murray), we can become so familiar with one thought and not know all that much about other areas. For instance, when I need to ask a question about a situation involving moral theology, as someone who spent his advanced studies in fundamental and historical theology, I go and ask someone who studies morals. This is natural and this is good. We need specialists. But in order to become a specialist, we need to have a basic understanding of the whole, vast scheme of what theology is. It would do someone who is beginning their study of theology no good to begin with a highly complex theological treatise. Learn the basics first and get the fundamentals down. Then and only then can one specialize — and then and only then can one speculate.

How does one “get the basics down?” Have faith in Christ in his Church! Yearn to learn all about someone whom you love and who loves you — someone with whom you have a deep, true, intimate relationship with in and through his Bride, the Church. Start with Divine Revelation, as expressed in and through its fonts, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Get to understand the story of the Bible as a narrative first, before you study any exegetical method. Get to know the contents of the great gift of Saint John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Come to an understanding, to the extent that you can, some basic philosophical principles, coming from the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Above all, have faith and that faith will lead to a desire for understanding! A plan of study and some basic books will be part of this series in the future.

Now, back to the different branches of theology. Last time, we discussed two important branches of theology, namely fundamental (the “why” of theology) and dogmatic (the “what” of theology). Remember, the approach that I am giving is only one way to divide the fields. There are many other ways to do so and it all depends on where you study.

One of the most important fields to study is biblical theology. The Bible has been described in Vatican II as the “soul of theology,” and indeed it is. The study of God’s word in Sacred Scripture should lead us to a discovery of God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Sometimes when we think of the study of the Bible, we think we need to have mastered Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and to have complex exegetical, historical and archeological details at our fingertips. Although a formal study of biblical theology can be helpful, what probably would be better for one just starting the study of theology to do is to actually read the Bible itself. Read it as a narrative; get to know the story, both in the Old and the New Testaments. Once you do this, it should be apparent just how much theology is in every inspired word of Sacred Scripture. Perhaps one could read Pope Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini (2010) as well as Vatican II’s Sacred Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) to come to an understanding of exactly how the Church understands Sacred Scripture.

Another key field is moral theology. By delving into the roots of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, positive theology and the Magisterium, a good study of moral theology should be able to equip a student with what is necessary to know what the Church teaches and how it can be practically applied to concrete situations. I would suggest that one wishing a basic overview of the Church’s moral theology could turn to Part Three of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as Saint John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (1994).

Spiritual theology is the study of the history of spirituality in the Catholic tradition, examining some of the great thinkers and “pray-ers” of the Church, like the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as the great Catholic spiritual masters. Spiritual theology also involves a study of the specific states of the Christian life and a practical “how-to” for prayer and spiritual direction. A great book for beginning the study of Christian spirituality would be Jordan Aumann’s Christian Spirituality and the Catholic Tradition (Ignatius, 1985).

Liturgical theology studies the sacred liturgy of the Church and its development throughout history. Pastoral theology is the practical application of theology to the daily lives of people. Historical theology examines the history of the Church, the writings and theology of the great Fathers of the Church, as well as how theological concepts develop over time. A good  general overview for Church history would be James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2012).

As we have seen, there are many different branches of theology and I could have spent even more time examining other important fields, like Canon Law, but, suffice it to say, it is clear we have a great deal more to discuss! Next time, I hope to explore what the Church teaches about Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and how this understanding will aid in our study of theology.