Theology – A Working Definition


How Theology Serves Revelation

Aidan Nichols, in his book The Shape of Catholic Theology, commences the rather daunting assignment of explaining the theological task by stating that ‘the task of theology is the disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation.’[1] He then informs us that these terms must be explained to be understood.

Revelation itself is no small matter to explain but Nichols does so by boldly stating ’We are committed from the start to the position that at the origins of the Church, an authentic revelation of the one true God took place’[2] So we are aware from this statement that revelation is God revealing Himself to us in our dual roles of Christians and theologians. Nichols then succinctly describes Theology as ‘a ministry carried out in the service of revelation’[3]  Nichols believes that theologians are ‘consecrated’ to the interpretation of revelation. This means that it is a sacred, hallowed and noble task that the theologian undertakes when he/she embarks on their ministry; and so the call to be a theologian must consequently be lived with a profound degree of conscientiousness and faithfulness to the task at hand..

The author lists five categories of Theology which he believes all have a part in helping theology serve revelation beginning with:

Fundamental Theology– What is our faith based on? Fundamental theology helps us to help others by explaining why we believe what we believe when they experience doubts or have questions regarding the faith.

Historical Theology– What has been passed down to us through history? Historical theology helps us to understand Jesus’ life, the times He lived in and how knowledge of His teachings have been passed on and preserved by the Church through the centuries.

Systematic Theology– How to explain all revelation as an organized unified whole? Systematic theology is organizing the teachings of the Bible and the Church into categorical systems. A way of taking what appears separate and showing the unity of all the parts.

Moral Theology– What is the implication of the revelation towards how we should live? Moral theology is learning about morality. Nichols describes it as ‘a way to show people how they might be growing personally in relation to God and their neighbor.’ [4] (The implication being that when one is in relationship with God it effects our behaviors in a positive way and consequently we will become more aware of right and wrong, good and evil, sin and virtue and not only aspire to but also live to the highest Christian moral standards.)

Practical Theology – How will this impact our current understanding? Practical theology is the relevance we find that religion has in our work, social and private lives.

Nichols informs us that ‘Theology is bound up with revelation and is a form of service by some individuals on behalf of the whole Church.[5]. The primary sources of revelation are Scripture and Tradition. In fact Nichols stresses this point by telling us that ’Scripture and Tradition are the font of theological knowledge.[6] He further elucidates that to become theologians we must be willing to undertake the search to read and understand, both Old and New Testaments, we must learn of Church traditions, such as studying the liturgy (this pertains to church services, rites, ceremonies, prayers and sacraments) He recommends that we read and learn about the Early Church Fathers. Nichols further emphasizes the importance that we know and understand the creeds of the Church, and also develop an appreciation for Christian art and architecture. He believes our faith will grow when we listen to the witness of other believers. To become theologians it is necessary for us to have a good grounding in all these areas.

Our faith is what has carried us thus far on our journeys, and our faith will often help us to discern what we believe to be the truth found in theology and also what we believe to be a contradiction or departure from truth. To help us in our quest for understanding we also have the teachings of the magisterium to guide us. So through the implementation of Scripture, Tradition and Christian experience, (both our own and that of other Christians), while also benefiting from what Nichols terms ‘the teaching office of the Bishops’ [7] we come to the realization that theology is intertwined with revelation which itself is accompanied by God’s grace which is generously imparted to both the individual seeking the truth of revelation and also to the Body of Christ as a whole which is similarly seeking.

Theology as Disciplined Exploration

Theology is described by Aidan Nichols as ‘an exploration of what is not at first obvious, even to someone who knows and accepts the faith of the Church.’[8] He tells us that the ‘exploration which is theology has to be disciplined exploration.[9] For discipline to take place there must first be structure, a theological methodology. Nichols describes that methodology as being ‘two-fold’; firstly we come with a philosophical question which revelation throws light on. It is stated by the author that each culture comes to explore revelation with some previously formed convictions pertaining to what is real.

‘One cannot conceive anything so strange and so implausible that it has not already been said by one philosopher or another’. Rene Descartes [10]

So using that which is already known to us we investigate the sources of revealed truth using Scripture and Tradition, our own experiences as a Christian, the teachings of the Pope and Bishops and philosophical principle.

“Philosophy is man’s quest for the unity of knowledge: it consists in a perpetual struggle to create the concepts in which the universe can be conceived as a universe and not a multiverse. This attempt stands without rival as the most audacious enterprise in which the mind of man has ever engaged: Here is man, surrounded by the vastness of a universe in which he is only a tiny and perhaps insignificant part – and yet he wants to understand it”  William Halverson[11]

We begin our search for truth with philosophy which means ‘The love and pursuit of wisdom’[12] we then look to theology which means ‘The disciplined study of religious questions, such as the nature of God, sin, and salvation[13] we can conclude that both these areas of study are in one way complementary and in another contradictory yet necessary one to the other – to study theology without knowledge or attention towards philosophy would be to attain only a part of the whole revelation being sought after.

Nichols names three other elements to be used in our disciplined exploration of revelation a) sources, b) aids to discernment and c) philosophical principle. He recommends that we ‘interrogate the sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, using our aids to discernment, Christian experience and magisterium, and we come up with a theology, a disciplined or ordered exploration of what is contained in revelation.’ [14] 


Aidan Nichols I believe succeeds in providing a working definition of the theological task. He introduces us to the five categories of theology (fundamental, historical, systematic, moral, and practical theology) which he states will help us to embark on the theological task.

Revelation is from God and Nichols is of the opinion that theology is ‘essentially concerned with revelation.’[15] He emphasizes the importance of using philosophy alongside theology and states that ‘Philosophy has to help theology to get started by showing the basic compatibility of revelation with human rationality’. [16]The Church is the primary witness of revelation and Scripture and Tradition are primary sources in seeking revelation. Nichols emphasizes how important our own gift of faith is in the process of discernment and recommends that we also learn from the teaching office of the Bishops.

Theology is exploring revelation using disciplined methodology. The author tells us ”we interrogate the sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, using our aids to discernment, Christian experience and magisterium, and we come up with a theology, a disciplined or ordered exploration of what is contained in revelation.’[17] Philosophy has an important part to play in the theological task, ‘theology calls on philosophy to help deal with such issues as the existence of God, the problem of evil, the possibility of revelation, and the nature of the claim that the actual revelation we have is historically well grounded.’[18] Without philosophy, theology would as Aidan Nichols states ‘not get off the ground’ [19] so we learn the vital importance of philosophy in our quest of a disciplined exploration of revelation.

Theology has been described as ‘faith seeking understanding’ and I believe that all Christians must seek a deeper understanding of our faith. Faith without reason is blind, and reason without faith is dead. We can never truly know God as He is infinite and beyond all imagining and we are finite and fallible but I take comfort from the scripture, “Seek the LORD while he may be found. Call on Him while he is near.” Isaiah 55:6[20] it says to me that God wants us to seek after Him and learn of Him. I am excited to embark on the theological task and thanks to Aidan Nichols very detailed and thorough explanations provided in his working definition I now know which tools I have to sharpen and employ to aid me and carry with me on my journey of a disciplined exploration of revelation.

 Marion Sinclair-Simpson(C)
















[1] Aidan Nichols The Shape of Catholic Theology, The Liturgical Press,Collegeville,Minnesota, 1991 p32

[2] Nichols, p33

[3] Nichols, p32

[4] Nichols, p34

[5] Nichols, p34

[6] Nichols, p34

[7] Nichols,  p35

[8] Nichols,  p35

[9] Nichols,  p35

[10] Rene Descartes [10](1596 – 1650), ‘Le Discours de la Methode,’ 1637

[11]William Halverson A Concise Introduction to Philosophy (1967. Random House, Inc., p. 18ff)

[12] Philosophy.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com13 Nov. 2008.

[13] Theology. (n.d.). The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. RetrievedNovember 12, 2008, from website:

[14] Nichols, p36

[15] Nichols, p33

[16] Nichols, p37

[17] Nichols, p36                              

[18] Nichols, p37

[19] Nichols, p37

20 Isaiah 55:6 NKJV Blue Letter Bible.1996-2008,9 Nov 2008