Theology is a traditioned practice: it is pursued and passed on within traditions of study, worship, and life. These traditions are of different types. The most conspicuous are denominational; that is, traditions that shape a particular church over an extended period (5.1). Others are more broadly spiritual, crossing denominational lines; these include liturgical traditions, holiness traditions, evangelical traditions, mystical traditions, and charismatic traditions (5.2). Yet others are contextual, shaping theology through the geographic or demographic contexts within which it is practised (5.3). This section briefly introduces these types of traditions, indicating their central features and aspects of their development.
5.1 Denominational traditions
The most visible traditions are denominations: large church groupings bearing a common name, sharing common beliefs and practices, and organized within a common administrative structure. Denominations have their historical origins in successive divisions within Christianity: the eleventh-century schism between Eastern and Western Churches; the sixteenth-century division of the Western Church into Roman Catholic and Protestant churches during the Reformation; and subsequent divisions between Protestant churches continuing to the present day. Notwithstanding these divisions, denominations understand themselves as ‘the church’ in one or more of several ways: as its fullness, as its local manifestation, as a movement for its reform, or as its faithful remnant.
Denominational traditions are shaped by a denomination’s origins, especially if these are marked by conflict; by its foundational figures, especially if these are outstanding theologians; by its local conditions, especially if it is established in a particular country; and by factors such as size and antiquity. The following subsections briefly outline the distinctive traditioning elements of the largest denominations or groups of denominations in the Christian world: the Eastern Orthodox Church (5.1.1), the Roman Catholic Church (5.1.2), the Lutheran churches (5.1.3), the Reformed churches (5.1.4), the Anglican churches (5.1.5), and the Free churches (5.1.6).
5.1.1 Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church dates the origin of its order, teaching, and practice to the Apostolic and Patristic eras. Its theological tradition is governed by the biblical canon, the Nicene Creed, and the seven ecumenical councils, and guided by the writings of exemplary theologians (see 4.1 and 4.6 above). It consciously distinguishes itself from developments in Western theology and intellectual culture, especially postdating the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054.
Eastern Orthodox theology is decisively traditioned by the church’s spiritual practices, above all the divine liturgy and daily office, the veneration of icons, fasting and other ascetic practices, and deference to monastic guidance. The divine liturgies of the Orthodox churches date with some variations from the fourth to sixth centuries. They form the centre of wider practices, especially the veneration of saints and icons at church and in the home, and communal fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, during the Nativity Fast and Great Lent, and in preparation for other feasts. These spiritual practices are often seen as led and sustained by monastic communities, which provide exemplars and spiritual direction.
As a communion of autocephalous (i.e. not subject to the authority of an external patriarch or archbishop) churches broadly coinciding with national boundaries in eastern and south-eastern Europe and northern and central Asia, the Eastern Orthodox Church also displays notable local traditions; among these, the Russian (as the most populous) and the Greek (as linguistically continuous with the early church) exert worldwide influence. In the USA, significant communities of converts without ethnic ties to the East have also emerged.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in Eastern Orthodox theology include:
- the seven ecumenical councils and synodality
- the dogmas (especially christological and trinitarian) agreed at the ecumenical councils
- monastic and ascetic traditions and their continuing influence
- the place of icons in Orthodox liturgy and spiritual life
- Hesychasm (the Orthodox tradition of seeking inner quietude through ascesis and contemplative prayer) and related mystical-spiritual practices and associated debates
- relations with the Western Churches, including church-political tensions and theological disagreements (especially the filioque)
- relations of the Orthodox Church to local political powers
- the relationship of Orthodoxy to modernity, especially Western modernity, prompted by the twentieth-century dispersion of Orthodox faithful throughout the West.
5.1.2 Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church traditionally dates the origin of its order and teaching to the Apostle Peter as the first bishop of Rome. Its theological tradition is governed by the biblical canon, the ecumenical creeds, and the magisterium – that is, the authority of the pope and of councils of bishops, under set conditions, to pronounce doctrinal and moral teachings that are binding for members of the church. These include ecumenical councils, which the Roman Catholic Church enumerates beyond the widely recognized seven to include fourteen further councils; most recently, the First and Second Vatican Councils (1869–1870 and 1962–1965). Catholic theology is also guided by exemplary theologians, above all Thomas Aquinas, who was the first post-Patristic theologian declared a Doctor of the Church (in 1567), and who was proclaimed its central theologian in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879).
Roman Catholic theological tradition has also been shaped by the Mass of the Roman Rite, which constitutes the Church’s central liturgy, and by the daily offices of prayer said or sung in monastic and other ecclesial contexts. These liturgical traditions were codified and harmonized at various times, especially the sixteenth century (associated with the Council of Trent), and undergoing significant change in the late twentieth century (associated with the Second Vatican Council). Similarly, since the twelfth century, Roman Catholic order, practice, and consequently also theology were distinctively shaped by the church’s canon law, collected in the Corpus Juris Canonici (‘Body of Canon Law’). This too was significantly revised in the twentieth century (1917 and again 1983). Among common devotional practices with a shaping influence on Roman Catholic theology are a heightened veneration of Mary, associated with feast days, rituals, prayers and hymns, and a widespread and often locally concentrated devotion to the saints.
The Roman Catholic Church is the state church or dominant denomination of a large number of countries, especially in Central and South America, in western, southern, central and eastern Europe, and in parts of western and central Africa and of South-East Asia. Because its ecclesial governance is firmly centred in the Vatican, itself a sovereign city-state in Rome, Roman Catholic theology and practice have often been shaped by the shifting relationships between national and ecclesial authorities.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in Roman Catholic theology include:
- the relationship of revelation and reason, and the question of a philosophia perennis (universal or perennial philosophy)
- the relationship of nature and grace
- the seven sacraments: baptism, holy communion, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and anointing of the sick
- the role of Mary in salvation history and in personal devotion
- the identity, example, and teaching of the saints
- the role and authority of the magisterium, especially the pope
- relations with the Protestant churches formed during the Reformation, and with the Eastern Orthodox Church
- relations of the Church to local political powers
- the relationship of Roman Catholicism to modernity, especially its intellectual, moral, and political culture.
5.1.3 Lutheran churches
Lutheran Christianity comprises a range of church bodies which originate in Martin Luther’s organizational, doctrinal, and liturgical reforms of the Western Church. The Lutheran theological tradition, which remains in close contact with the work of its founding theologians, especially Luther, is governed by the biblical canon as containing the unique revelation of God, above all in Christ. The creeds and the Lutheran Confessions are also held as governing expressions of the scriptures, as are the traditions of the church. Among these traditions, calendars and lectionaries, formulations of councils or significant theologians, and liturgical orders are largely continuous with their earlier Western forms. Some mediaeval Western traditions, such as conciliarism, shape Lutheran more distinctly than Roman Catholic theology. Lutheran theology draws on biblical concepts of God’s ‘living word’ to see the proclaimed scriptures as God’s power active in the world, convicting and absolving sin, empowering the sacraments, and accomplishing his purposes.
In light of this emphasis on the word, a natural goal of the Lutheran reforms of the sixteenth century was a raising of the educational standard of the clergy and thereby the laity. The products of this effort, in the shape of catechisms, sermon collections (postils), and biblical commentaries, continue to shape Lutheran Christianity.
The Lutheran Reformation was also accompanied by a new attitude to church music, exemplified by the introduction of vernacular hymns alongside existing chant. Beginning with Luther, the authorship and deployment of these ‘chorales’ has been one of the most distinctive features of the Lutheran churches; hymns remain a focus of Lutheran piety. Lutheran composers, above all Johann Sebastian Bach, drew on this tradition to create sacred cantatas which elevate the common language of worship to sacred art.
The Lutheran Reformation was accepted and advanced at the state level in much of northern Europe, beginning with the Augsburg Confession (AD 1530), presented by German rulers. Lutheran Christianity is therefore also the bearer of local traditions, especially in and relating to Germany and Scandinavia.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in Lutheran theology include:
- the primacy of God’s action and will
- the centrality of Christ
- the sufficiency of scripture, grace, and faith for salvation
- the proclamation of the Word, often focused on the principles of law and gospel
- the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist
- the vocations of ordinary believers
- the excesses and aberrations of the Roman Catholic Church
- the omissions and contractions of the Reformed churches.
5.1.4 Reformed churches
Reformed Christianity comprises a range of denominational groups, including Continental Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and some evangelical Anglican. These originated in the organizational, doctrinal, and liturgical reforms of the Western Church led by Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and others. The Reformed theological tradition is governed primarily by the biblical canon and secondarily by the creeds; the first four ecumenical councils; and by various confessional documents, especially the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession. Although it is guided by exemplary theologians, Reformed theology is traditioned less by exegesis of its founding figures than by the development of their methods, formalized in the Reformed Scholasticism that dominated the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Reformed theology is shaped by characteristic, restrained liturgical practices focused on biblical elements, including confession, psalmody, and the reading and preaching of scripture. The Eucharist is celebrated less frequently and understood in memorial or receptionist terms. The constant assurance and joy of salvation is emphasized over against distinct feast days and seasons, which are sometimes regarded as distracting or indulgent.
Besides baptism and Eucharist, Reformed theology typically regards discipline as the third mark of the church. The Reformed churches are therefore organized in polities that lend structure to such discipline. They are led by ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament and by Elders; more widely, they are overseen by presbyteries (local groups of ministers), regional synods, and national general assemblies with elected moderators (or, in some cases, episcopal oversight, as in the Hungarian Reformed Church and historic Anglican churches). This plurality of leadership creates distributed centres of discipline and theology, also reflected in the Reformed confessions as products of plural voices. As a loose association of churches and groupings, Reformed Christianity is also locally inflected, especially where national identities were decisively shaped by its reformatory zeal, including in Switzerland, Scotland, and the United States of America.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in Reformed theology include:
- doctrinal themes, especially divine election or predestination, human sin (understood as complete depravity), the means of salvation (often understood as penal substitution), and the ordo salutis (‘order of salvation’: calling, justification, regeneration, sanctification)
- the sovereignty of God
- covenant theology
- the significance and place of natural theology, and the inspiration and authority of scripture
- elements of church order and practice, especially the Eucharist (often understood in receptionist or memorial terms)
- questions of individual and communal conduct.
5.1.5 Anglican churches
Anglican Christianity (since 1867 organized as the Anglican Communion) comprises a range of national and regional churches, or provinces, historically in communion with the See of Canterbury. The forty-one provinces continue or emanate from the Church in England as jurisdictionally distinct from the rest of Western Christianity since the Reformation, and mediatory between its theological divisions. This includes the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Anglican Churches especially in North America (most prominently the Episcopal Church of the United States of America), South America, Africa, South-East Asia, and Australasia. Anglican theology is governed by the biblical canon, the creeds, four or seven ecumenical councils, the statements on doctrine and practice that comprise the Thirty-Nine Articles, and episcopal oversight.
More than by specific teachings, Anglican theology is traditioned by distinctive patterns of prayer and worship, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer (in its various recensions since 1549, especially that of 1662) and the King James Version of the Bible (published in 1611). Anglicanism understands itself to be part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church whilst at the same time refusing the centralized authority of the Papacy and the Roman magisterium, and the confessional systems of the European protestant churches. Whilst Anglican theology is often thought to receive its classic expression in the so-called ‘High Church’ tradition of seventeenth-century England, it remains a broad tradition encompassing elements of evangelical, catholic, and liberal Christianity. The rise of evangelicalism amongst Anglicans in Britain and the United States in the late eighteenth century emphasized its roots in Reformed theology. The Tractarian or Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century revived catholic Anglicanism through an emphasis on the centrality of the sacraments and ritual worship, and the continuity of the Church of England with the primitive church. Under the influence of the Tractarians, Anglicans returned to patristic theology as a vital source for Christian teaching. Whilst remaining rooted in the Book of Common Prayer, the influence of a moderate catholic tradition in Anglicanism led to a return to patristic liturgical patterns in Anglican churches and a consequent alignment with Roman Catholic liturgy following the vernacular reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in Anglican theology include:
- the nature of authority (often expressing a conciliar and dispersed understanding of authority rooted in episcopal oversight)
- the relationship between church and state, and between the Christian community and wider society
- ecumenism and the role of Anglicanism within the relations between churches, often understood as the via media (middle way)
- the importance of critical reason and of various traditions in theological enquiry.
5.1.6 Free churches
Many other churches trace their distinctive identities to the Reformation or to subsequent reforms of the churches that emerged from it. These churches prominently include the Methodist (originating in an eighteenth-century revival within the Church of England), Baptist (originating in seventeenth-century dissent from the Church of England or, some argue, in the Radical Reformation), Adventist (originating in the nineteenth-century Baptist Church) and Pentecostal (originating in nineteenth-century Methodism and wider early twentieth-century revivals).
These churches generally reject any association of the church with state authority, and any central authority within the contemporary church. They place a strong emphasis on the authority of scripture and, in some cases, the indwelling and personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, as well as on personal holiness and discipline. They generally regard the creeds as normative and the ecumenical councils as informative, and draw widely but often unsystematically on various textual, liturgical, and spiritual traditions. Their theological traditions are strongly shaped by personal and communal practices, above all biblical reading (guided by sermons, commentaries, informal teaching, and group discussion), communal worship (including, besides traditional liturgical elements, the public examination of conscience and giving of testimony, spontaneous praise and prayer, and extended practices of preaching), and practices of piety (including study and support groups, charitable work, and public witness through prayer, testimony, evangelization, and practical aid). These churches are often theologically shaped for certain periods of time by influential individuals or movements, particularly charismatic leaders, preachers, or writers.
In line with these traditioning elements, recurrent themes in free church theology include:
- biblical commentary and reflection
- the character, will, and intentions of God
- guidance for personal devotion and piety
- the Christian life in the contexts of Christian community and secular modernity
- theological interpretations of current events, trends, and ideas.
5.2 Spiritual traditions
Theology is also shaped by spiritual traditions that cross denominational lines and are found across a range of churches at various times in history. Sometimes, these traditions develop at the same time in different churches, in response to shared wider contexts; sometimes, they flower at characteristic stages of a church’s life, and therefore become manifest at different times in history. Many such traditions can be identified, among which the following are especially notable: liturgical traditions (5.2.1), holiness traditions (5.2.2), evangelical traditions (5.2.3), and mystical and charismatic traditions (5.2.4).
5.2.1 Liturgical traditions
The Christian churches’ liturgies of divine worship share roots in the early church, from which originate both the traditional elements of worship and specific forms of words. These elements of worship include confession of sins, adoration, recitation of psalms and canticles, readings from scripture, sermon, prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, offering, Eucharistic prayers and actions, and blessing. Early and Patristic forms of words include the Gloria Patri, the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Te Deum, and the Sanctus, as well as liturgical renditions of biblical canticles, above all the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis.
These shared elements and words have been developed in a wide variety of ways, not only between but also within some denominations, showing a wide range of realizations especially within Protestant churches. In terminology adapted from Anglican usage, these liturgical realizations are often grouped into ‘high’ and ‘low’. ‘High’ liturgies display highly elaborated forms of ritual (especially sacramental ritual), music, vestments, vessels, and other artistic artefacts; ‘low’ liturgies emphasize simplicity, authenticity, and communality of word, gesture, music, and decoration. This division is formalized in the Anglican church, but present in other Protestant churches including Lutheran and Reformed; although ‘high’ liturgical practice is traditionally associated with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the liturgical reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council have introduced ‘low’ practices within much of the Roman Catholic Church. These liturgical traditions often inspire, and are inspired by, theological sensibilities that shape the development of theology in manifold ways.
5.2.2 Holiness traditions
The Christian churches share roots in the formative work of the leaders and theologians of the early church, who regarded the gospel as divine teaching that imparted true knowledge and demanded a life lived in its light. The lives of holiness or sainthood pursued by early believers were among the most significant factors in the spread of Christianity and shaped the foundations of many of its lasting structures, texts, and ideals. Across denominations, distinctive forms of the pursuit of holiness have been passed on and in some cases formalized. These may be oriented either towards an otherwise ordinary life or away from ordinary life; a prominent theological theme throughout Christian history are the relative merits and risks of these orientations.
In the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches, the most visible holiness tradition oriented away from ordinary life is monasticism. Monasticism is the formal dedication to a life of work and prayer, sometimes solitary but usually communal, renouncing the pursuit of ordinary human satisfactions including autonomy, ownership, sexuality, and offspring. Subject to repeated critique and reform within and across denominations, monastic traditions have nevertheless been instrumental in preserving, shaping, extending, and communicating theological work throughout Christian history.
In all churches, there are also traditions of holiness pursued within an otherwise ordinary life: that is, a life lived within wider human society and its mores, though in partial resistance to it. These have a wide range of manifestations and theological frameworks, the most explicit and prominent being found in the cross-denominational Holiness movement originating in nineteenth-century Methodism.
5.2.3 Evangelical traditions
The Christian churches share roots in Jesus Christ’s commission to his disciples to proclaim the gospel, the good news of God’s kingdom, throughout the world (Matt 28:18–20). In all churches, especially in Protestant denominations, there arise sustained and recurrent calls to return to this founding gospel and ‘great commission’. These evangelical traditions usually emphasize personal devotion to Christ, adherence to the words of the Bible simply understood, evangelistic outreach, and communal forms and practices modelled on the New Testament church. They resist ecclesial traditions and structures of authority not attested in the Bible. Theologically, they tend to be suspicious of theological system-building that is perceived to be removed from the Bible in its presuppositions, substance, or form, e.g. in scholasticism or philosophical analysis.
Evangelical impetuses arise at various times in all churches, and consolidate into traditions in many. Examples in the historic churches include the Franciscan movement in thirteenth-century Catholicism, the Pietist movement in seventeenth-century Lutheranism, the Evangelical movement beginning in eighteenth-century Anglicanism, and the Tolstoyan movement in nineteenth-century Orthodoxy. Evangelical impetuses have also engendered or decisively shaped many Protestant denominations and non-denominational movements, often referred to collectively as ‘evangelicalism’ or ‘evangelical Protestantism’.
5.2.4 Mystical and charismatic traditions
The Christian churches share roots in the New Testament church, which was characterized by the experience of a direct and transformative presence of God, and by the exercise of spiritual gifts including prophecy, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), healing, and exorcism. In most churches, such presence and powers are experienced in renewed form at various times in history or among certain groups. Although institutionally channelled through sacraments and ordinances, especially baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick, God’s presence may also be experienced and his gifts exercised directly and spontaneously. The preparation for, experience of, and reflection on unmediated communion with God is often described as ‘mystical’; the experience of divine presence habitually issuing in prophecy, glossolalia, or other gifts is sometimes described as ‘charismatic’. Traditions of mystical practice and writing have been attested since the early church and have remained highly regarded and influential in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Protestant churches. They have engendered distinctive forms of theology, sometimes called mystical theology, and have influenced other theological as well as artistic forms. Wider charismatic experience and practice are more sporadic and contested, but in the twentieth century gave rise to Pentecostalism as well as charismatic movements within many historic churches.
5.3 Contextual traditions
Theology is also traditioned by its wider contexts, especially geographical, demographic, and political. Many geographic regions have developed distinctive theological traditions shaped by indigenous concerns, transnational interactions, and by their cultural and socio-economic histories more generally.
The scope and impact of these and other contexts is the immediate subject of contextual theologies, which have assumed central importance in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christianity, when expanding globalization and forms of emancipation, including postcolonialism, foregrounded radically diverging social and religious experiences. In de-emphasizing canons of texts and ideas, and delineating the unique experiences and traditions of particular groups (especially those marginalized in Western political, social, and intellectual history), contextual theologies seek to rebalance what they perceive as theologically distorting social, intellectual, and religious hierarchies. Among contextual theologies, those concerned with gender, sexuality, geographic region, and race have been among the main shaping powers of twenty-first-century theology, especially in North America and Europe.
Where geographic contexts entail significant interactions with other locally practised religions, such interactions may shape a theological tradition in distinct and sometimes creative ways. Historical examples include first- to third-century encounters with classical paganisms, twelfth-century debates with Islamic interpreters of Aristotle, sixteenth-century appropriations of Jewish mysticism, the inculturation of Christianity in native contexts, and twentieth-century encounters with Buddhism.