Friday, December 04, 2020

Defining Old Testament Theology: Sailhamer on Revelation and Religion

According to John Sailhamer's Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach, we may define "Old Testament theology" as theology that makes the Old Testament its focus or chief subject matter. It seems that Old Testament theology ought to be distinguished from New Testament theology. Furthermore, by "theology" we normally mean "the doctrine of God," but just what does that definiens mean?

Michael Molloy (Experiencing the World's Religions) makes the point that theology is more restricted than religion. The term "religion" has a broader scope: it encompasses Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, etc. However, theology seems more restricted to certain religious traditions so that we talk about Christian, Jewish or Islamic theology, and then we discuss various subdivisions of theology like systematic theology or biblical theology. Theology also deals with topics such as ecclesiology and soteriology.

Sailhamer introduces another term, revelation, a word that he juxtaposes with religion by defining the former as God's act, whereas the latter (i.e., religion) is characterized as "a human act." Revelation and religion evidently both point towards theology, the study or doctrine of God--these signifier also motivate Sailhamer to make further distinctions pertaining to theology.

He explains that theology's content pertains to God's revelation about himself and the world. Theology is wisdom from above and deserves to be called a "science" (episteme) insofar as it explicates God's self-disclosure and seeks to precisify revealed theology. By "science," Sailhamer likely means a mode of knowing with God as the primary object: "The task of theology in this sense is the restatement of God’s self-revelation" (Sailhamer, page 14, electronic edition).

Sailhamer argues that theology has an elevated place and special authority; he alludes to the medievals, who described theology as "the queen of the sciences." In order to understand this frame of reference, it is important to understand the university curriculum of the middle ages, the so-called trivium and quadrivium of classical learning. When placed alongside those sciences, theology is the highest form of knowledge and Thomas Aquinas felt that philosophy is theology's "handmaiden" (ancilla).

Near the end of his opening remarks, Sailhamer defines Old Testament theology this way: "the study and presentation of what is revealed in the Old Testament."

He admits that his definition raises more questions that need to be addressed.


Roman said...

I would put it this way, religion is a sociological practice, the old idea was service to the gods, and after Christianity it morphed into more of a community identity, but still one involving some kind of worship.

theology is a science, i.e. systematically studying the nature of God (or the gods) and his relationship to the world and us, either philosophically (natural theology), or by interpreting revelation (revealed theology), in the Abrahamic context: scripture.

I would say religion and theology are related in the same way physical training and anatomy are related, or physics and engineering.

Edgar Foster said...

I like viewing religion and theology as comparable to physical training/anatomy or physics/engineering. Aquinas likewise portrays theology as "divine science" and uses the Latin "sacra doctrina" to describe theology.

Edgar Foster said...

I haven't read this article yet, about Thomas Aquinas and theology, but it looks interesting:

Roman said...

Interesting, thanks.