Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The scholarly and critical study of religious beliefs.

There has been an increasing use of the social sciences within academic theology during the twentieth century. Traditionally, theologians have related to the dominant philosophies of many ages and cultures and, at least since the nineteenth century, to academic historical and textual scholarship. However, during the last two decades, the social sciences increasingly have been seen as directly relevant to theology. This can be traced in four distinct areas: in the writings of some of the classical sociologists, in biblical studies, in systematic theology, and in applied theology.

Among classical sociologists, Max Weber showed a profound interest in theology. Influenced by the theologian/historian Ernst Troeltsch, Weber exhibited this interest in a number of ways. Most obviously, his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribner 1930 [1904-1905]) advanced the possibility that theological differences may have been socially significant. He argued that notions within popular Calvinism may have been important in developing the culture in northwestern Europe that assisted the rise of rational capitalism. Unlike Karl Marx, who tended to see theology either as epiphenomenal or as a dependent social variable, Weber argued that theology also might become an independent variable within society. His later work showed other theological interests—notably in charismatic prophecy—and demonstrated a considerable knowledge of contemporary biblical scholarship.

Weber's writings had a major influence upon several theologians in the first half of the twentieth century. In America, H. Richard Niebuhr's The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929) was influenced by both Weber and Troeltsch. In Germany, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio (SCM 1963 [1930]) was similarly influenced. Paul Tillich, a German emigré to the United States, was also a part of this trend. However, the growing dominance of theologians such as Karl Barth—with his radical stress upon revelation and the "Word of God"—strictly limited this influence. Sociology came to be seen as dangerously "secular" and a force for relativization.

In biblical studies, these fears may have delayed the use of the social sciences, although there were always some biblical scholars who used them. Radical biblical critics such as Rudolf Bultmann used ideas with many affinities to the social sciences—especially in his development of form criticism, which tried to identify the ways that particular communities shaped stories and sayings that eventually appeared in the Gospels. However, biblical scholars tended to make little direct use of social theory. Even Weber was often treated as an amateur by Old Testament scholars. Textual, historical, and exegetical issues tended to predominate.

During the last two decades, on the other hand, there has been a radical change in biblical scholarship. A new focus upon social origins and another upon hermeneutics have raised sociological questions more directly. For example, John Gager's Kingdom and Community (Prentice Hall 1975) made direct use of cognitive dissonance theory to understand better the millennial expectations in parts of the New Testament. He argued that this theory, drawn from social psychology, helped to understand the drive toward mission among the earliest Christians, despite the death of Jesus and the nonarrival of the Parousia. Richer still in sociological nuance is Wayne Meeks's The First Urban Christians (Yale University Press 1983). In this highly influential book, Meeks made considerable use of anthropological and sociological theory to understand the shift between the rural world of Jesus and the urban world of Paul. Finally, in Germany, the New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen's work has made extensive use of sociology and psychology.

In recent systematic theology, there also has been increasing use of the social sciences. Liberation theology has been a major influence upon this. Gustavo Guttiérrez's seminal book A Theology of Liberation (Orbis 1973) argued against an understanding of theology as being concerned with timeless "orthodoxy." Instead, he argued for a notion of "orthopraxis," stressing that the way Christians behave and whether they argue for the rich and powerful, or assert the "preferential option for the poor," should be central theological concerns. This understanding of theology has frequently seen Marxism as an ally rather than as a foe. Within modern theology, the social sciences' influence has now extended into feminist theology and into postmodern theology. All of these tend to give the social sciences a dominant role both in identifying more accurately the nature of modern culture and in understanding theology as a social reality within that culture. Within feminist theology, for example, the social sciences often are used to understand the ways that patriarchy has shaped both theology and the culture within which theology is set.

The increasing emphasis upon social context and praxis within modern theology have tended to blur a traditional distinction between systematic and moral theology. For Karl Barth, systematic or dogmatic theology attempted to establish the doctrinal framework within which ethical decision making could then be done. Within many forms of liberation and post-liberation theology, by contrast, ethics and belief constantly interact; therefore, a rigid distinction between theology and ethics seems no longer viable. Influential Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have championed, instead, a stress upon the formation of Christian character. Theological ethics attempts to identify the ways that Christian living is distinctive in a "secular" world. For many Christian ethicists, such identification involves an extensive use of the social sciences. Heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (Duckworth 1981), they, like him, often make extensive use of sociology as well as philosophy in attempting to identify theological virtues.

Within applied theology generally, there also has been increasing use of the social sciences. The study of church structures and strategies has proved particularly open to this influence. For example, the Dutch theologian Mady Thung's The Precarious Organization (Mouton 1976) made extensive use of both the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of organizations to understand the "mission" of churches. Other works, such as E. Mansell Pattison's Pastor and Parish (Fortress 1977), have used systems theory to understand the social dimensions of pastoral ministry. Management theory is similarly increasingly used by churches, and in many parts of the Western world, theories of church growth have made extensive use of descriptive forms of sociology—especially in membership and attendance statistics. Worship and liturgy also have become a focus of sociological interest, as in Kieran Flanagan's Sociology and Liturgy (St. Martin's 1991), and symbolic interactionist/constructionist approaches have been applied to pastoral care in George Furniss's The Social Context of Pastoral Care (Westminster 1994).

Robin Gill


G. Baum, Religion and Alienation (New York: Paulist Press, 1975)

R. Gill, The Social Context of Theology (Oxford: Mowbray, 1975)

R. Gill, Theology and Sociology (London: Cassell, 1996)

D. Martin et al. (eds.), Sociology and Theology (Sussex: Harvester, 1980)

J. Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

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