Academic Theology

Theology can be defined many ways, but two definitions are perhaps most significant. The first could be described as “God-talk”: It is logos (speech) with theos (God). In this way, prayer is seen as theology proper.

In time, this led to a second definition — that theology involves the study of God. The early Christians, after all, were facing new questions both from fellow Christians confused about Church doctrine and from non-Christians who challenged believers to credibly explain their faith. Origen, in many respects, is considered the founder of this kind of theology (though we can find precedents from St. Clement of Alexandria and the apologists before him). This, then, became speech (logos) about God (theos).

Of course, those who engaged in talk about God were assumed to have a relationship with God. Indeed, the combined fruit of prayer and study led them to write theological documents, and the liturgy — the prayer of the faithful — significantly influenced dogmatic theology. One who was engaged in theology was expected to be humble, never going beyond what he knew either from experience or authority. Speculation was possible but was to be kept to a minimum, and any speculation should be tested by the Church before it became readily accepted.

When the Church Fathers confronted Arius, for example, one of their chief criticisms was that his spiritual life was lacking, and so his mistakes came about because he spoke beyond what he could possibly know. He should first have known himself, said St. Anthony of Egypt, because then he would have known his own limitations. 

During the scholastic era, things began to change. There we saw the beginnings of academic theology proper, where one studied what others had said about God, without such study having any necessary contact with one’s own spiritual life. While the method of study improved, it did so at a cost — theology became more abstract and cut off from the needs of the Christian Faith. Certainly much good fruit came out of this, as we see from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. But for every Aquinas there were more prideful scholars — Peter Abelard comes to mind — whose great learning instilled in them a sense of superiority.

Both Sts. Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux considered this shift in theological discipline a major threat to the Faith (and a source of grave scandal to the Church). Bonaventure, who was himself involved with the universities of his day, nevertheless wrote harshly about the new methodology.

Nonetheless, it was widely understood that theology, even when involving speculation, sought to preserve the teachings of the Faith. What was new was how one engaged those teachings, not the teachings themselves. Commenting upon the past was a way to make sure one kept the tradition alive.



Today, we have a major crisis in theology: Theologians are trained to be academics. There is much good in this training, no question about it, but it should not be an end in and of itself. One should study and discuss what others have said, not because what they say is a curiosity, but because one finds something important in their work — something that offers meaning to our meandering world. Theologians, because they are tied to universities, are required to write according to the dictates and expectations of academia. This can be problematic, as academia loves novelty, while theology should be about preserving the faith and avoiding empty novelty.

To establish oneself and justify one’s unique contribution to his field, the academic must reject what has come before, by either proving it wrong or incomplete. But how can one sustain faith in the midst of that?

Theologians need to reconsider their relationship with academia. Of course, they should have a place in it, but they should also see that academic study should be carried out for the sake of faith. Theology should help the faithful feel enriched about their faith. How is this possible if theologians confine themselves to projects that only undermine that faith?

I fear that many who began their theological training to enrich their faith ended up losing it. What Bonaventure saw in his own day is happening again, and worse. Many who have studied theology do not preserve their faith; they have sought knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and nothing more. They have eaten of a new tree of knowledge, and its fruit is bitter. In 19th-century Russia, the seminary was the greatest source of atheists. Their problem is our own: The academic who has lost his faith will pass that on to his students.

It’s time for academia to open back up to theological reflection, to let those who study theology write positive theology, and not just critical material. There are places where this is being done, but in general, academic theology today is little different from any secular field. We need scholars who will combine the critical work of academia with a well-nourished spiritual life. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that theology proper can only be done on one’s knees. His work, which often reads like poetry, shows that one can faithfully engage theology today.

Those within academia need the freedom to continue this tradition. They shouldn’t be required to “publish something new” or “perish.” Theology should be concerned with the continuation of the Faith, not simple novelty. Until this happens, theologians will continue to be trained to do something that runs contrary to the very notion of theology itself.



Henry Karlson is a doctoral candidate in Historical and Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America. He has taught at Georgetown and Catholic University, and is a contributor at Vox Nova.

  • Tito Edwards


    Congratulations on posting this article on InsideCatholic!

    Forgive me if have done so in the past, but it bears repeating that you are writing for one of the Catholic Web’s top commentary websites!

    And a fine apologetic on the field of Theology!

  • Karl Cooper

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Theologians certainly ought to seek to have an impact among other academics (and not just other theologians). But they also ought to seek to have an impact among the general public; and they ought to contemplate the long-term results they genuinely are aiming for.

    St. Paul (who seems to me to be a theologian) made tents as one way of maintaining himself; and he was careful about the source of his income in other ways. If theologians maintained an income that did not directly result from their theological “productivity” (as indeed some do), it might make it easier for them to refrain from publishing something “new” and wait until they were ready to publish something of long-term fruitfulness.

    Also, if non-academics sought to befriend theologians, it would be mutually beneficial.

  • Henry Karlson


    I hope it is only the beginning. And, as you can see, what is being done in modern theology is very much a concern for me. Doing theology is a very important vocation; one of the things I’ve found in academia (and it goes back to the foundation of universities) is that one easily falls into the temptation of pride (Abelard is a great example here) when one becomes “famous” or “important.” While such pride should be avoided by anyone, in the field of theology, this is doubly-so. The theologian should be working as St Anselm did, with faith seeking understanding. The problem in academia is it seeks new ideas to displace the old. For the academic theologian, the answer to this should always be humility; speculation, which has a role, should be secondary to the presentation of the faith and its preservation. When the Vatican investigates someone, the response should be humble, not boastful or proud. The theologian should be willing to work with the Vatican instead of seeing it as an issue of persecution (the second might make one famous and rich, but it makes for questionable theology). If more academic theologians understood this, I think we would be better off today — it is one thing to propose new ideas, it is another to be ready to accept one can be mistaken. For the theologian, the second is a very important disposition, because if one holds it and is ready for correction, then it shows one is really working for the faith instead of one’s opinions.

  • Henry Karlson


    You are right, the relationship between theologians and the rest of the academic world should change, in a way that the theological process (in a proper sense) can and should question the academic enterprise as a whole. And theologians, working within academia, should really note that their work is not for fellow theologians and academics (which, alas, is how so much of it stays), but for the Church and anyone and everyone within it.

    I really like what you said that a theologian should consider the impact of what they write and say. This is true. Too many are into what they perceive about the faith, they forget the challenges they might make for others. I’m sure I fall into that category from time to time, because, well, I am trained as an academic and I do fall for the errors I know to be problematic from time to time (who doesn’t like the idea of thinking something new, after all?). It’s one thing to be correct, it is another thing to know how to present it and interpret the facts properly.

    I also liked how you suggest theologians and non-theologians alike should work together. This really is a must! The theologian must not be distanced from the rest of the faithful but a part of them. They must not think themselves as above them, but as one who is working for the promotion of the faith they hold in common with everyone else. This means they must know the people themselves and no just “academic facts.” It’s a very hard lesson to learn, especially when theology is treated as an academic discipline. But I think things are changing — there are more lay theologians today than many other times in history, and I think we have yet to see the impact of this. Being married to someone who is not a theologian (for those who are blessed by marriage) should help ground such theologians (or so I hope).

  • Stephen Wise

    It would also be helpful if theologians and other “professional Catholics” did what doctors do, with respect to offering full disclosure of where their money comes from.

    When doctors speak at conferences, the documentation usually includes notes about which Pharmaceutical companies they receive money from.

    It’s easy to see how “money” coming from various organizations and government agencies has influenced the thinking and teaching of many prominent Catholics today (often times not for the good).

  • Melissa

    Hi Henry,
    How do you feel attending CUA has influenced this post, either positively or negatively? I am strongly considering CUA for reentry into academics (can’t decide on Moral Theology or Catechesis), and wanted your feedback on this. Also, what do you hear of other Catholic institutions and how they approach this?
    Good luck in your pursuits, and God Bless your efforts!


  • Henry Karlson


    I can see some value in that; however, we must understand for most theologians, they are not really making much money or gaining much support from outside influences individually; where it lies is with the departments and institutions, and that could be something which is worthwhile to point out.

  • Henry Karlson


    When I got to CUA, it was right after they reorganized the School of Theology, and there was much confusion going on with what is expected or not expected. The dean died in the middle of the changeover. The new dean, a nice priest and a scholar, was not wanting the new system, but had to work to promote it. The school suffered greatly in this time, as the whole system of expectations was getting confused, and no one knew exactly where things were going.

    Since I’ve finished comps, it seems some of those problems are now being fixed. There have been some great new professors there — young and dynamic — though, for anyone doing graduate studies at CUA, one must understand it does have the financial aid one would expect, and the bureaucracy involved with dissertation work can cause many a headache!

    But CUA tries to be diverse, and so you will get a diversity of perspectives. It’s probably more middle of the road, and it’s certainly ecumenical (you have professors involved with the Orthodox/Catholic and Anglican/Catholic dialogues teaching there). I think they want to promote a greater sense of faith than some institutions, but they also have had to deal with the problems of hiring new professors, sometimes in areas where the problems of academic theology here have become great indeed (patristic theology is a great example here).

    I’ve, however, studied at other institutions, and have seen the lack of foundations and where it leads to otherwise well intentioned (nice, even smart) professors. And I think one of the major foundations which is lacking in academia is spirituality. Before I went back to graduate studies, I made a resolution to not neglect that dimension of my life and I think it has helped (it can be different for different people; one of the things I’ve found good for myself is weekly confession, since it helps deal with those issues which could lead to problems in academia, like pride).

  • Melissa

    Thank you for your reply. I have heard about the restructuring, and am happy to hear it’s making progress. Since spirituality is something I am currently working on myself, I will be sure to keep you, and all Catholic universities in my prayers.

  • DW

    The downward spiral of Catholic theology in acedemia has been occuring for too many years now. The once proud Jesuit colleges, for example, have let themselves become secular to their Catholic mission. Some priests and professors seem to worship rebellion and freedom of their own thought over truth. Anything new …. must be better than anything traditional.
    I believe the tide is slowly turing …. but much damage has been done. Unfortunately, they have hidden under the veils of university banners … spewing their believes to the young, while innocent parents are kept in the dark.

    Might it be time to instiute a “Vatican Approved” certificate of teaching? An Imprimatur of sorts for educational quality. Give the market a clear measuring stick that reveals their positions from the get go.

  • DW
  • Marjorie Campbell

    This can be problematic, as academia loves novelty, while theology should be about preserving the faith and avoiding empty novelty.

    Welcome to The entire community is blessed to have you here.

    One of my great disappointments during years as a law professor was observing the extent to which sensationalism in professional legal writing could substitute for traditional legal scholarship. Not particularly talented or well-practiced professors would sit around testing which ideas were outrageous enough to capture the fancy and the acceptance of student editorial staffs at prestige law reviews. Sadly, I saw this strategy work often and repeatedly. The result, in my opinion, was that theoretical legal work was often as relevant to the actual craft of law as, say, an article about the treatment of chickens would be to making a quiche.

    It sounds like academic theology has met a similar fate through its disconnection from faith. Is that right?

  • Henry Karlson


    In theory, a theologian’s bishop should be actively involved in determining their status; in reality, the academic departments often work as go-between, and the theologian and bishop are not as actively engaged with one another as probably best.

    There are universities which are pontifical (CUA is one) and so that means the Vatican has some interaction with what is or is not done, but in general, the Vatican thinks universities should be under the local ordinary (which is just, following subsidiarity).

  • Henry Karlson


    Thanks for the welcome.

    While there are good theologians actively teaching at universities, sensationalism is indeed a problem with the system as a whole. Of course no one is saying that new situations and contexts which needs a sophisticated response, developing upon the tradition and providing something new. However, it would seem that there are two possibilities which I see happening in the field of theology: either one is merely engaged with the study of history and the history of ideas without expressing the value and importance of those ideas (leading to a deconstruction of the faith), or there are those who just want to produce the newest thing, with the newest interpretations, often neglecting tradition to do so.

    The first kind leaves theology dry; it can be substantial, but without life; material without heart. What is needed is to use what scholarship has discovered (since there is some good there) but then infuse it with meaning from faith (so much of it has come out of a skeptical hermeneutic and that, of course, explains the results). The second kind just seems to come as the result of the first — once everything has been questioned, it is easy to ignore tradition.

    There is also a third problem. There are some really good theologians out there. The problem is they are hyper-specialized and are unable to connect what they have studied and learned to the needs of the laity. The hyper-specialization is accepted by academia, but again, it brings to question the purpose of such theological activity.

    There is some good news.

    I know many of my peers have a similar view of the current situation as I, and we all want to help change, and improve the discipline. I hope we will.

  • Michael Iafrate

    Might it be time to instiute a “Vatican Approved” certificate of teaching? An Imprimatur of sorts for educational quality.

    Perhaps you have heard of the “mandatum” that Catholic theologians are required to have? Not sure why you would prefer an ultramontanist approach to theological policing.

    Henry – Thanks for this post. I share a lot of your concerns myself, especially the need for theology to remain grounded in spirituality, for academic theology to resist the dominant trends in academia, and for theology to serve the church and the world, not simply the academy.

    My only concern here is that you seem to be downplaying the important critical moment of theology, and a lot of your terms go undefined, such as in the sentence “Theology should help the faithful feel enriched about their faith,” as well as the idea of “undermining the faith.” Of course, theology should not be critical in the sense of destroying people’s faith. But it should indeed be critical of the concrete understandings of the faith that we Catholic have, for the sake of renewal, like a pruning of faith so to speak. Theology should build up authentic Christian faith, which is an ongoing project, not simply a matter of transmitting some pure formulations of truth down through the centuries. In that way, there is a sense in which “novelty” must be a part of the theological task. The problem is when we emphasize one — continuity or change — over the other.

    For example, those Catholics who have a very privatized, spiritually-reductionistic, otherworldly view of the faith should not be encouraged in this form of “faith.” That distortion of Christianity indeed needs to be undermined, although many Catholics mistakenly think it orthodox.

    Interestingly, I find Latin American liberation theology to be a key theological “place” where many of your concerns are taken up. It is profoundly rooted in spirituality, as anyone who has read Gutierrez or Sobrino knows. It also has consistently resisted the tendencies of academia, criticizing academic theology for its abstractness and detachment from real ecclesial communities, as well as the way in which it ends up serving the interests of the powerful. A key insight of theirs that is essential for theology today is the option for the poor. Without it, theology is largely bankrupt and indeed pointless.

  • Michael Iafrate
  • Lawrence Coan

    Seems the Pope shares your view points, To find your fine commentary after just finishing the Popes teach today on this same subject was amazing & I want to make sure you & the others here see it.

    Thank you & good Luck with the Doctorate.

  • Lorra

    “Those within academia … shouldn’t be required to “publish something new” or “perish.”

    Unfortunately, this applies to many professions — medical, legal, etc.

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    Helpful distinctions between the meanings of theology, Henry. I wasn

  • John O’Neill

    I heard a theologian once state that when you come to a doubt, trust the Church first not the theologian. Today in America most of the opposition to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic
    Church comes from the theology departments of so called Catholic universities; videlicet Notre Dame. We need men and women of Faith teaching the Faith not narcissistic academics who are more concerned about being well thought of in the Secular academic world rather than the pursuit of personal holiness. One of the great exceptions is the theology department at Franciscan University Steubenville. Scott Hahn has managed to assemble an extrordinary group of faith grounded theologians who also are concerned about personal holiness of themselves and of their students. At FUS the Faith is palpable. at Notre Dame the only thing palpable is the mindless worship of football.

  • Brett Salkeld

    Thanks Henry. Well Done.

    I am wondering if you have any thoughts about the fact that, for most of history, theology had been done by celibates living in solitude or community. We are almost the first generation of theologians who have spouses and families. It seems to me that a spirituality was built in to the lifestyles of previous generations in a way that it is not for ours. Do you know of anyone who has written a spirituality for lay theologians? Do you have any comments in that direction?

  • Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D.

    To establish oneself and justify one’s unique contribution to his field, the academic must reject what has come before, by either proving it wrong or incomplete.

    This is true not only in the field of theology, but in virtually every academic field — and can be as detrimental in the humanities as it is in the sacred science. Before I read this essay this morning, I was musing over the unfortunate fact that modern academia privileges cleverness over wisdom. “Cleverness” is the modern academic virtue: it is snappy, self-promoting, and delights in novelty theories ; wisdom, on the other hand, is perennial and, while it may require a fresh approach to derive fresh insights from new circumstances, aims at recognizing enduring truths that exist independent of the observer or the circumstances, truths that are grasped only after careful (and often long) reflection, and which remain true even as cultural fashions change. In modern academia where “productivity” is expected, cleverness will always be preferred to wisdom; therefore, the scholar who wishes to gain wisdom, and the teacher who wishes to help students gain wisdom, will always be swimming against the tide.

  • Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D.
  • Henry Karlson

    I will reply to comments next week (just check back in); right now I am in Montreal, and will be here for the next few days.

    What I saw were many great points, especially that this is a problem not only for theology, but for academia in general. But for theology, there are dogmatic consequences which cannot be forgotten.

    And Michael I is right in pointing out other aspects of theology: as faith seeking understanding, it must add a critical dimension, looking at what is being suggested, but it must do so for the sake of the faith, not to deconstuct it or to establish novelty (and I know he was not suggesting novelty, but rather, I wanted to add that to what he said).

    One important thing theologians should do is look at the whole of tradition, and highlight elements which have been long forgotten (or at least not as understood as they should be).

  • Henry Karlson

    I will try to be concise and brief (recovering now from the long drive earlier). But I wanted to address a couple things brought out which I did not yet address.

    Brett: the question of lay theologians is a difficult one, and has many aspects to it. One of the things which is quite interesting is that the East has a history of lay theologians in a way the West does not. I think the reason for this is two-fold: the problems the West had to face limited the education of the non-clergy, and the few examples of Western lay theologians presented difficulties of their own (when I was discussing this question years ago with a professor of mine, I brought up the example of Abelard, and we both ended up thinking his history helped establish the very clerical nature of theology in the West). But now we know the change which is taking place is bringing more of us laity into theological circles. I think there are challenges here, but I also think there are things we bring into the equation (we help root theology into the real world, making sure it doesn’t end up gnostic, so to speak).

    John — I think, in all humility, all theologians should follow that idea; we should always submit to the Church, not ourselves. This is not to say we should not point out how we see things and raise questions, but we should also look beyond ourselves. However, there is a caveat here. The theologian should always submit to the Church, but it does not mean a theologian will always be immediately understood, and if a theologian is brought into question, it does not mean they are automatically wrong (as the example of St Thomas Aquinas and the condemnations placed on him show). But the spirit should always be of reverence and submission, instead of pride and assumption.

    Lisa Nichols: have you found a good way to swim against the tide?

    And once again to everyone: thank you!

  • Michael Iafrate

    And Michael I is right in pointing out other aspects of theology: as faith seeking understanding, it must add a critical dimension, looking at what is being suggested, but it must do so for the sake of the faith, not to deconstuct it or to establish novelty (and I know he was not suggesting novelty, but rather, I wanted to add that to what he said).

    I guess I’m still uncomfortable with “this, not that” language. I do think certain forms of “the” faith need to be deconstructed. I also think that reading the signs of the times requires new faith responses, which can look a lot like “novelty.” The creation of “the” Christian tradition involved a whole heck of a lot of novelty. Pope Benedict’s recent gesture toward conservative Anglicans is pretty “novel,” but no one is accusing him of “novelty.” Novelty, rightly understood as faithful creativity in a particular context, is indeed part of how tradition works.

    The problem, I think, is what you earlier called “mere” novelty, or novelty for novelty’s sake.

  • Gordie


    Your comment on “cleverness” being the modern academic virtue really struck a chord. I’m currently reading “Brothers Karamazov” and this quote of Smerdyakov to Ivan fits in to your idea on modern academy:

    “It’s always worth while speaking to a clever man.”

    I think Dostoevsky was about 130 years ahead of you.smilies/smiley.gif

    Thanks for the great article Henry.


  • Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D.

    Lisa Nichol[a]s: have you found a good way to swim against the tide?

    Actually, I was recently caught in an academic rip tide and washed up on the lake shore of my parents’ condominium, where I have been engaged in contemplation and the private pursuit of wisdom. That is just another way of saying I lost my contract at the university where I had been teaching humanities and English and am currently living with my aged parents while I read, think, write, and look for another job — this time, I hope, at a Catholic institution dedicated to helping their students cultivate wisdom through a traditional curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences. If anybody’s hiring, look me up. (I teach Latin, too!)

    I’ve been reading Robert Royal’s book, The God that Did Not Fail, in the introduction of which he expresses optimism that the tide is beginning to turn against the forces of dehumanizing secularism in the Western world. I don’t know if I entirely share his optimism, but I do share his conviction that “religion built and sustains the West” and I want to be a part of the effort to turn that tide. One of the best ways I know to do that is to educate young people in our Western cultural patrimony (literature, philosophy, history, art), which, as Royal amply illustrates, has grown out of (rather than in spite of, or in reaction against) a shared religious identity. I have found that students even (or perhaps especially) at a secular university are hungry for such knowledge, even if university administrators are obsessed with quantifiable “outcomes” and other things they can count (faculty publications, retention and graduation figures, student evaluations, etc.).