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What’s Your Theological Type?

January 15, 2015


An element of my (ongoing) seminary education that I’m particularly thankful for has been a steady dose of the works of Cuban American theologian and historian Justo González. In Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology, González provides a brief history of Christian theology and outlines three types contained within orthodox Christianity and the perspectives that shape each.

As we continue the journey into a new millennium and into the reality of Post-Christendom, many western Christians are feeling perplexed and anxious about a changing world, faith, and church. The previously dominant theologies and forms of Christianity do not seem up to the task of providing a way forward. Into this reality González writes,

It is my contention that in the early church one finds, besides the distant ancestors of modern-day fundamentalisms and liberalisms, a third type of theology; that this third type leads to a different reading of the Bible and its message; and that this different reading is particularly relevant to our present day perplexities. Therefore this essay is addressed primarily to Christians who, amidst the perplexities of the transition into the third millennium are searching for an understanding of their faith that will lead them, with hope and obedience, into the future. (xiv)

González labels the three theologies “Type A,” “Type B,” and “Type C,” all of which had originated by the 3rd century (C.E.). Types A and B have historically been more dominant and are probably more familiar to the average western Christian today. He lays these two theologies alongside an older form (Type C) for comparison. I’ll give a brief overview of each.

Type A is associated with the Christianity that emerged from Carthage in Northern Africa, and it’s main advocate is Tertullian. The basic theological concern in this perspective is “Law” (6). This type primarily views God as a judge (20), salvation as the satisfaction of a legal debt (33), Jesus as a new lawgiver (34), and interprets scripture as a legal text (49). This kind of hermeneutic leads to more literal and fixed interpretations. It is concerned with law and order, and is interested in being “right” (69). This type of theology helped to prop up the merging of church and empire in Christendom, and became the dominant form of theology in western Christianity.

Type B emerged from Alexandria, an intellectual center containing diverse philosophical and religious thinking, especially Platonism. The main advocate of this form is Origen. The basic theological concern for Type B is immutable and transcendent “Truth” (11). This type emphasized distance between God and the material world, and spirit over matter (material creation was a result of sin). In this perspective, the problem is that human beings need illumination so that they might be able to contemplate the transcendent God and return to a (spiritual) heaven (37). Jesus, the Logos, was sent to provide this illumination. Scripture was often interpreted in allegorically in this type.

Type C emerged from the Northeastern Mediterranean (Asia Minor/Syria; Antioch). González names Irenaeus as the chief exponent of this theology. In contrast to the other two forms the theology from this type is pastoral, which makes sense since, of the three church fathers mentioned in this schematic, “only Irenaeus was actually the shepherd of a congregation” (14). The central theme of this kind of theology is “History” (15). God is the great Shepherd who is moving history toward God’s future. Therefore God (Father, Son, Spirit) relates directly to the world (28). The problem human beings have is that we are subject to Satan and tarnished by sin, and we are in need of liberation. The work of Christ is victory over the evil powers that enslave us. “Jesus recapitulates humanity” (41; see also Ephesians 1). The consummation of history is God’s communion with humanity and creation in an everlasting kingdom. Type C theology generally uses a typological approach to interpreting scripture (56).

Some highlights from the book include:

1. A discussion of the social setting and perspective of each type of theology. As González noted, “We can look at each of these theologies and ask what sort of social agenda they would serve” (61). The Christian faith of Type B sought to show that it was compatible with Hellenistic philosophy, an influential element present in its context. Tertullian “wished to prove that his [faith] was compatible with the best Roman moral achievements” (69), and therefore Type A theology, “a theology of law and order,” (70) created a bridge that made it easier to turn Christianity into a support system for Rome (which is what happened when Constantine came to power). Irenaeus’ Type C recalled connections to a persecuted church in Asia Minor, and had no desire to be compatible with the reigning powers. From this situation and perspective there was interest in promoting obedience to a God who was the “loving parent, shepherd, and teacher” (71). This was not theology for the powerful, and had no interest in compatibility with the empire or of gaining its respect.

2. The mention of liberation theologies (black, feminist, and others) as evidence of the recovery of Type C theology in contemporary times. This kind of theology comes from those who have been excluded by the powerful, deeply values historical truth, has a “keen awareness of the powers of evil,” and characteristically uses typology in its hermeneutic approach (138). “Christianity does not consist in a series of doctrines or rules, but in the action of God incarnate in history” (138). Personally, I want to commit to engaging with more forms of liberation theology in my faith and practice to further explore Type C theology.

3. Thoughts on liturgical renewal and its contemporary significance. “Historians of liturgy, as well as historians of theology, have long been aware that there is a connection between the way the church worships and what the church believes. Worship both expresses and shapes theology. In recent times, the rediscovery of worship as it was practiced in the ancient church has given the new forms of Type C theology a vehicle for expression and a nurturing atmosphere” (138). I have found this renewal to be of particular interest in my ministry contexts, and am thankful for serving in a congregation that embraces experimentation and discovery in this vein.

This book also helped me gain some greater understanding of my own theological journey over the past twenty years-a period which saw me move from Reformed/Evangelicalism to Anabaptism. I had become restless within a sort of generic, suburban, Evangelical expression of church and faith, and was feeling motivated to seek out other theological paths. I think I became most fully aware of this need for exploration upon completing a book study with the youth group I was pastoring at the time. We were studying some of Lee Strobel’s A Case for… books. But by the end of the study I found that I was not really convinced by the arguments presented. The book’s arguments were reasoned well and highly logical (very Type A), yet I was still looking for something more. I wrestled with what that meant for me, and wondered what these younger students were thinking about the material.

I think what I was searching for at that time was what González called “Type C” theology. Making a move to Anabaptism hasn’t totally realized this desire-my experience in the Mennonite context I inhabit seems to be quite Type A in some ways. But I have been encouraged by ongoing theological and liturgical conversations happening within Anabaptist contexts, which has felt theologically life-giving.

I recommend this book to all who wish to explore how we think theologically and who are willing examine and reimagine how we live and express our faith as followers of Jesus today.

As we now stand at the beginning of a new millennium and the end of modernity, this rediscovery of Type C theology may well provide the church at large with unexpected possibilities, and even open the way to new (and the rediscovery of ancient) understandings of catholicity and Christian unity. (123)

Justo González, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1999). Print.


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