History and Sources

How did the term “theology” develop as a concept in the third-century Mediterranean world?

The term “theology” was generally used by the Greeks to describe the character of theogonies and to designate critical studies of Greek mythology. Plato in The Republic, Aristotle in his Meteorology, and Cicero in The Nature of the Gods, came to approximate the later historical use of the term. The Neoplatonists, however, seem to have been the first to consider theology as the science of God. The term is altogether missing in the New Testament and in the apostolic Fathers. Early stirrings in the development of the concept of theology are to be found in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. The former was one of the first Christians to attempt to impose a rational economy upon God in his recapitulation theory, and the latter’s Stromata was an early attempt to impose order upon divine revelation in general. The apologists, themselves educated as philosophers or lawyers, especially felt the need to present the educated pagan world with a philosophically coherent expression of faith. While Justin Martyr attempted judiciously to weave Platonism into the Christian scheme, Tertullian developed the technical terminology to be employed by subsequent theologians. Hippolytus, the first Christian to employ the word “theologian,” was seriously concerned about launching an orderly investigation into the psychology and economy of God.

In the third century, Origen (c. 185-c. 254), molded in the concepts of Middle Platonism and to some extent of Stoicism, greatly influenced the emergence of theology as a sophisticated, philosophical pursuit. The Apostles, he felt, left the grounds of their statements to be examined by those who had the charismata of the Spirit: knowledge of the divine world, wisdom, skill in technical tools, and holiness of life. His express aim was to erect a clearly stated connected body of truth based on illustration and argumentation and arrived at by the “correct method.” Even the title of his great work, On First Principles, betrays his intention to deal intelligently with God and heavenly beings and with men, the material world, and free will and its consequences. Origen was forced to rely heavily on the use of allegory to resolve contradictions, explain difficult passages, and correct misstatements purporting to be facts.


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