Theology Glossary

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 2
March/April 2016

This theology glossary, excerpted from The Fourth R 29-2, pages 22–23, is not meant to be comprehensive but rather to offer a neutral overview of approaches to theology for the curious. This is a resource for the Westar Institute’s Seminar on God and the Human Future.

Perspectives on God

Theism—Belief in the existence of a God who is understood in some sense to be personal and possessive of qualities that evoke worship and call for obedience or human conformity to divine will and purpose. Traditionally, God so understood is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly good, perfectly free, and the creator and sustainer of the universe. Unlike deism, in which God is often characterized, by analogy to a watchmaker, as the creator of the components and mechanisms of the universe who set them in motion but who has no further involvement in human or earthly affairs, theism regards God as One who continues to act in the natural world and human history.

Pantheism—The view that sees God as the totality of reality, such that God and nature are essentially identical. The general meaning of the word is evident from its parts: “pan” = all, “theos” = God. In short, “all is God.” Historically, there are varieties of pantheism that differ based on their understanding of reality. A key difference between pantheism and theism is that pantheism obliterates any distinction between God and the world, and thus between the creator and the creation.

Panentheism—This is the view that “all is in God,” and usually, conversely, that “God is in all.” In contrast to pantheism, panentheism does not obliterate the God-world distinction because it claims that the reality of God is not exhausted by God’s inclusion of the world. In contrast to theism, however, panentheism views God and the world as inseparably related, such that the world is not external to God, nor God external to the world. The view that God and the world are external to each other follows from traditional theism’s claim that, given God’s omnipotence and perfect freedom, God cannot be dependent in any way upon the world. In panentheism, the qualities of divine omnipotence and freedom are redefined such that God is not arbitrarily free or omnipotent, but perfect in relationality, responsiveness, and dependence 1.

Supernatural—A term to denote the attribution of some form of exceptional causation for an event or events, generally assumed to be the work of a higher spiritual being or power—whether benevolent or malevolent—with the capacity to intervene within and disrupt or alter what would otherwise be considered the natural course of events. In popular Christian thought, the term “miracle” is typically employed to denote what are presumed to be manifestations of God’s supernatural power.

Realism, theological—The view that God exists independently of the human mind. Even though the idea of God may, in many respects, be a human construct, a realist view of God maintains that God exists whether or not one believes God exists, and whether or not one apprehends that existence.

Non-realism, theological—The view that language about God refers only to conceptions within the human mind. A theological non-realist might say not only that we concieve God in our own image but also that, apart from our activity in conceiving God and relating ourselves to this conception, there is no entity or actual referent we can call God.

Areas of Philosophy

Epistemology—The theory or methodology by which anything can be claimed to be known. Epistemologists seek to answer the question of how we know what we know or claim to know, including the manner and extent to which we may justified in making knowledge claims.

Metaphysics—The study or theory of the structures or features of ultimate reality. As physics is the study or theory of what we call the natural or material or physical world, metaphysics is the study or theory that encompasses all things, all events, all entities—all of reality—by seeking to understand and characterize in a comprehensive way the nature or essence of all being.

Modern Theologies

Neo-orthodoxy—A theological movement that predominated in Protestant Europe and the United States throughout much of the mid-twentieth century, also known in Europe as theology of crisis or dialectical theology. Neo-orthodoxy arose in the aftermath of World War I, in large part as a critique of the theological liberalism that prevailed in academic circles through the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. The movement never possessed a unified or homogenous character. Generally speaking, however, neo-orthodox theologians sought to re-appropriate the teachings of the Protestant Reformation in the light of historical-critical study of the Bible, and typically placed great emphasis upon God’s transcendence, the reality of human sin, and revelation as divine disclosure mediated by Scripture and Jesus Christ, the Word written and the Word made flesh.

Liberal theology—Specifically, a theological movement within Protestantism of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but more generally, a form of Christian theology that seeks to be fully conversant with, and receptive to, contemporary thought, including the physical and social sciences, arts, and humanities. Liberal theologians seek the truth wherever it may be found, in the conviction that there is continuity between secular truths and the truths of Christianity. Reason and experience count as much or more than scripture and tradition as sources of authority, and there is no radical disjunction between reason and revelation. Liberal Christianity has tended to focus on ethics and the character of Christianity as a way of life, often to the neglect of any comprehensive theological framework. Contemporary process theology is a notable exception.

Post-liberal theology—A theological movement that seeks to reclaim the language and thought of the Christian faith, in part by distinguishing itself from the language and thought of the larger culture. Great emphasis is placed on the “grammar” of faith, and the ancient creeds of the Church are accepted as normative precisely because they are regarded (even more so than scripture) as definitive of the Christian faith. To be a Christian is to speak the right language, with the proper grammar, and to regard and interpret one’s life and the world through the cultural-linguistic lens afforded by orthodox Christian tradition. Post-liberal theologians seem largely unconcerned about the ontological status of the referents of their theological language, and often appear to be non-realists, though one can hardly be certain about this given their relative silence about the nature of reality or the ontological status of God.

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1  See John Cobb, Panentheism, in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Westminster Press, 1983), p. 423