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Our Subject Terms

Definitions of academic and practical subjects were not static in the period we study, so we have endeavored to be flexible and general in applying these terms, rather than trying to pinpoint exactly what the difference between (for example) scholastic theology in the 16th vs. the 18th centuries.  In addition, as you will note from the spreadsheet, some texts concern more than one subject.  In other words, take these as baseline ways to categorize the texts so that we can begin to interpret our collection.  There is no guarantee that a particular text was purchased or donated to be used in a specific way, and indeed, even in the same decade, different institutions might have acquired the same book for different reasons.


These definitions were written by William Hastings, our Fall 2022 public history intern, and edited by Kathleen Comerford.

Apologetics: This word’s origins trace back to the Greek word apologia (which meant “speaking in defense”). Unlike the contemporary understanding of the word apology, apologetics in Christianity serves the purpose of defending against accusations, rather than acknowledging an offense or failure. Apologetics uses intellectual discourse to uphold the doctrines that are called into question. Apologetics can also be identified by various names in theological and historical scholarship, including “Christian Evidences” and “Defense of the Christian Religion.” 

SEE: Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. "Apologetics,", accessed August 13, 2022. 

Ascetical Theology: Ascetics means abstaining from physical pleasures in lieu of a spiritual goal. Ascetical theology is an organized field of study that Christians used to help themselves attain “Christian Perfection,” which is the process of spiritually maturing to attain union with God, as well as personal holiness and sanctification. Ascetical theology originates from the Christian form of asceticism, which is the cultivation of the robust character that makes a person virtuous, such as self-control, patience, chastity, temperance, etc. The process involves many physical challenges, such as fasts, and abstinence, as well as spiritual challenges like penance and mortification. 

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Ascetical Theology,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Asceticism,”, accessed September 4, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Ascetical Theology,”, accessed September 4, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Asceticism,”, accessed September 4, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Christian Perfection,”, accessed September 4, 2022. 

Astrology: In the twenty-first century, astrology is considered a pseudoscience; although in the Middle ages it was a necessity in higher education. Dominican philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE) believed the celestial bodies governed the imperfect body while God governed the soul.   that focuses on determining the impact of the stars and the major planets on everyday life. Astrologers would seek to explain human affairs by observing extraterrestrial events, they would do this by attempting to correlate celestial events with things like human personality, and unusual behavior. Famously, astrologers would determine the robust character traits of a person by studying when and where they were born. 

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Astrology.”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Astrology,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Christian Views on Astrology,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Canon Law: Canon law derives its name from the Greek word kanon (“rule or practical direction”). It refers to sets of regulations and ordinances issued by ecclesiastical authority. In the Catholic Church, the corpus of canon law organizes the activities of Catholics to direct daily activities towards the mission of the Church. The tradition dates back to the original apostolic canons and constitutions issued by the beginning of the second century CE.  The 1917 Code of the Canon Law is one modern example: it is a set of codes to follow, issued by the church leadership. This code contains written obligations for numerous aspects of life, such as baptism, marriages, and forms of worship, as well as punishments for those who violate canon law. Those who violated canon law were censured by the church, which included being suspended from church functions and excommunicated, which prevented a person from being involved in church rituals and stripped them of any power and position they might have had in the church.

SEE: Wikipedia, s.v. “Canon Law of the Catholic Church,”, accessed September 22, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Legal History of the Catholic Church,”, accessed September 22, 2022.

Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Canon Law,”, accessed September 4, 2022.

Catholic Church, Code of Canon Law,, accessed September 4, 2022. 


Conciliar Law: Church councils or synods (both local and ecumenical) consider and sometimes issue authoritative statements on theology and governance.  We are designating any decrees or canons from such meetings “conciliar law,” to distinguish it from canon law, q.v.


Controversial Theology: In theology, controversies, derived from the Latin word controversia (a dispute, altercation, discussion), refers to a literary discipline that serves to defend the dogmas of a denomination against criticisms and heretical and heterodoxical ideas. Controversialist theology is distinct from apologetics (q.v.) in that apologetics defends the faith against non-believers, whereas controversialism deals with disputes within the faith.  Arguments within controversial disputes can be considered polemics (q.v.).

SEE: Friedericke Nüssel, “Apologetics,” Encyclopedia of Early Modern History Online, ed. Graeme Dunphy and Andrew Gow., accessed September 22, 2022.

Albrecht Beutel,“Controversial theology,” Encyclopedia of Early Modern History Online, ed. Graeme Dunphy and Andrew Gow,, accessed September 22, 2022.


Cosmography: Cosmography is the protoscience of mapping and determining large features that occur within the cosmos. Unlike astrology (q.v.), cosmography seeks only to observe the universe and learn from what can be observed, whereas astrology seeks to also determine observable features in the cosmos, but then correlate them to human affairs. Cosmography in history has served as the science for star charting, an extremely important development in the science of transportation, both naval and land.  Unlike cosmology (q.v.) which focuses on deepening the understanding of the nature of the universe 

SEE: Wikipedia, s.v. “Cosmography,”, accessed September 27, 2022. 


Cosmology: Cosmology is the field of study that attempts to understand the universe and its origins based on both theoretical and observational developments. This is different from cosmography (q.v), in which cosmologists would attempt to make sense of the universe with a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe than cosmography, which observes and record based on what’s observable. Astrologists and cosmologists share a similar goal of seeking a richer understanding of the heavens; however, astrology (q.v.) focuses on what the universe does for humans. Cosmology as a discipline can be traced back to ancient Greece, long how people attempted to understand the cosmos. 

SEE: Christopher Smeenk and George Ellis, “Philosophy of Cosmology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed September 27, 2022.

Hagiography: Hagiography is the literary genre that primarily identifies as the biographies of saints, princes, and other venerated people. Hagiographies date back to the second century CE, and have since served the purpose of glorifying the events of these saints.  Unlike biographies, hagiographies often exaggerate to greater lengths to develop a more divine image of the saint. Often associated with martyrologies (q.v.), hagiographies focus on a particular saint and on their lives and venerations, instead of focusing on the key events of multiple saints.

SEE:Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Hagiography,”, accessed October 5, 2022.

Encyclopæedia Brittanica, s.v. “Hagiography,”, accessed October 5, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Hagiography,”, accessed October 6, 2022.


Heresy: Heresy derives from the Greek word hairesis (which simply means “holding of opinions”). Once adopted by Christianity, the term developed connotations of disapproval.  Heretical opinions are ones that are contrary to the dogmas upon which the opinion is being spoken. Heresy is not the outright rejection of faith, nor is it the adoption of a different faith. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE) defined heresy as “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas.” Aquinas comments in the Summa Theologica that the difference between heresy and sectarian belief is in the intention: heresy works to undo what is from pride and covetousness.

SEE: Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Heresy,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Heresy,”, accessed September 4, 2022. 

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II-II, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, second revised edition (1920). copyright 2017; accessed September 7, 2022.


Martyrology: A martyrology is a catalog of martyrs and saints, arranged in the annual calendar by the dates of their feast. The history of martyrology goes back as early as 1583 when the first edition of Roman Martyrology appeared in Rome 1583. Local churches once kept their own martyrologies, exclusive to their own customs, but by the fifth century, the Catholic Church consolidated these memorials into general collections. These churches often held Hagiographies (q.v) which focused on the life of one saint, instead of the calendar of feasts in martyrologies. Martyrology is the accepted term in Latin churches. For the Eastern Orthodox Church, a similar collection is called the Synaxarion and the Menologion.

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Martyrology,”, accessed September 27, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Martyrology,”, accessed September 27, 2022. 


Moral Theology: Moral theology is the branch of theology that attempts to answer the questions of divine nature through morally right human acts, such as kindness. The disciples of moral theology seek to further understand the teachings of the church through developing a deeper relationship with one another. The origins of moral theology can be definitively traced to the work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE) in the Summa Theologica, although the influence of Aristotle’s (384-22 BCE) Manichaean Ethics can be easily demonstrated. The Summa provides an understanding that is still recognized by the Catholic Church: the argument that because humans were made in God’s image and received God’s free will, intellect, and ability to act on their own accord.

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Moral Theology,”, accessed September 7, 2022.


Natural History: Natural history is the study of the natural world by inquiring about information about anything natural within its natural environment. Natural history can be traced back to antiquity in the observation of the natural world. This included disciplines such as astronomy, geography, superstitions, etc. Before the term Natural History was narrowed down to the environment, people of antiquity largely dealt with anything that could be traced to nature, such as astronomy, geography, and human technologies. In the middle ages, academics were split into two groups: the humanities and theological disciplines. The latter primarily taught science through scripture. It was not until the renaissance that the study of nature and natural history became its own discipline, in this period natural history was primarily geological and biological sciences. 

SEE: Wikipedia, s.v. “Natural History,”, accessed September 7, 2022. 


Natural Philosophy: Natural philosophy is the belief that the truth lies within nature and the material world. Often thought of as the beginnings of natural science (q.v.), natural philosophy paved the way for contemporary fields of natural studies (a branch of studies that deal with the physical world, such as physics, biology, chemistry, etc.) such as ethics, moral philosophy, metaphysics and much more. The history can be traced back as far as Thales of Miletus (623-547 BCE), acclaimed as the father of western philosophy. Philosophers such as Plato (428-348 BCE) and Aristotle (384-22 BCE) built much of their ideas on natural philosophy’s fundamentals for example, as in Plato’s Charmides (5th century BCE), which sought to draw a distinction between knowledge produced by physical results and those that did not. Aristotle’s philosophy of the modern world also depends on these ideas, as it is dependent on “the first cause,” that an unmoved mover is an entity without perceptible being, while the material world is the “second cause,” arising from the first. To Aristotle, the first cause can only be observed by investigating the second cause or material world. This opened the idea that God can only be observed through its subjects.  Once natural philosophy began to develop more, disciplines such as physics, mechanics, and probability proliferated and outgrew their parental academics.

SEE: Istvan Bodnar, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed September 7, 2022.

Eva Del Soldato, “Natural Philosophy in the Renaissance,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed September 7, 2022.

Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Naturalism,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

New World Encyclopedia, s.v. “Philosophy of Nature,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Natural Philosophy,”, accessed September 7, 2022.


Natural Science: Natural science as we know it is a branch of science that focuses on the understanding and description of the natural world. The origins of natural science traced back to the medieval period with Persian philosopher Al-Farabi’s (870-950 CE) treatise On the Sciences which called for the study of scientia naturalis (natural science). Spanish philosopher Dominicus Gunissalinus (1115-90 CE) defined the term as “the science considering only moving things un-abstracted with motion” and separated this idea into sciences such as physics, cosmology (q.v.), animal science, etc.  As this science developed, as did its relationship with Christianity: natural science was increasingly viewed as pagan (Greek) science, and Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE) and Albertus Magnus (1200-80 CE) sought to further distance this science away from theology. 

SEE: Wikipedia, s.v. “Natural Science,”, accessed September 28, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Dominicus Gundissalinus,”, accessed September 28, 2022. 


Patristics: A branch of historical theology in the periods from the end of the New Testament to the Second Council of Nicaea (i.e., 100 CE to 787 CE),  the time period in which Christianity that we are most familiar with today began to form.  Those who study patristics study the canon of scripture as well as the “Fathers of Christianity,” such as Augustine (354-430 CE), Ambrose of Milan (339-97 CE), Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), and others. Developments in this branch of theology focus on, but are not limited to, apologetics (q.v.), consistency of faith, the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, etc.

SEE: Oxford University Faculty of Theology and Religion, “Patristics,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Patristics,”, accessed September 27, 2022. 


Pastoral Theology: Much like practical theology (q.v.), pastoral theology is concerned with the relationship between practices and belief. Pastoral theology is more concerned with regular church ministry. Often referred to as a practical science, it accepts the apologetic, dogmatic, and exegetic, and then applies these rules to the care of the soul and makes them more effective through the ministry of the priesthood. and scientifically applies these conclusions to the priestly ministry. In practice, pastoral theology serves purely to benefit the people whom the clergy serves through practical ideas and innovations.

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Pastoral Theology,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Pastoral Theology,”, accessed September 7, 2022. 


Practical Theology: Practical theology is a discipline that observes religious practices and their theology in order to strengthen the relationship between theology and the institutional practices of the Church.  Examples include as preaching, church administration, sacraments, etc. The goal of practical theology is to meet the needs of the theology by comparing the needs of theories and practices by aligning and improving them. Richard Baxter is often acknowledged as the first person to introduce Practical Theology into writing. His book A Christian Directory of Practical Theology (London, 1673) breaks practical theology into four parts: Christian ethics (or private duties), Christian economics (or family duties), Christian ecclesiastics (or church duties), and Christian politics (or duties to our rulers and neighbors).

SEE: Madeline Peña, “Practical Theology: Definition, Viewpoints, Why It Matters,” Just Disciple (March 31, 2020),, accessed September 27, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Practical Theology,”, accessed September 27, 2022.

Boston University, Center for Practical Theology, “What Is Practical Theology?”, accessed September 7, 2022. 

Scholastic Philosophy: Scholasticism is a field in theology and philosophy that utilizes the Aristotelian method of logic, coupled with the historical theological field of patristics (q.v.). Christian thinkers in the developing Christian world had to reconcile with pagan philosophy to avoid the inherited wisdom of the pagan world to be flaunted as well as incorporating their philosophies into the truth of the Church. Scholastic theology was pioneered as an intellectual innovation. Scholastic philosophy a related discipline, approaches the same questions differently, by attempting to answer questions of human nature through the truths that can be recorded and/or observed. The sibling field, scholastic theology (q.v.) approaches the truths gained through revelations using the same method. 

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Scholasticism,”, accessed September 7, 2022.

Scholastic Theology: Scholastic iheology is a form of learning that utilizes the scholastic method of Aristotelian logic. Scholastic theology focuses on truth gained through revelation, while its sibling field, scholastic philosophy (q.v.), focuses on truth through reason alone. The existence of these fields appears adversarial. yet Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE), one of the greatest scholastics of the 13th century, argued that faith complements reason and vice versa.  These fields came as a response to pagan philosophies, the response by theology was the reconciliation of the Greek term logos, which simply means “God’s truth.” The argument was that logos and revelation through the gospels were not contradictory to one another. Thus, the fields of scholastic theology and philosophy harmonized together in Christian intellectual thinking.

SEE: Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Scholasticism,”, accessed October 3, 2022. 


Systematic Theology: Systematic theology is a discipline that attempts to rationalize and provide a logical structure to the dogmas of the Christian faith by going back to the core of the Christian text. This method has been utilized since the earliest time in the church’s development. Examples of systematic theology include Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1150 CE), a systematic collection of writings of the Church Fathers (see Patristics).  It is often compared to biblical theology, a field that focuses more on the author and place, and positions the scriptural teachings in the context of scriptural history. Systematic theology takes questions and attempts to deliver concise answers; biblical theology takes the same evidence and follows its historical development to answer the same question.

SEE: Gerald Bray, “Systematic Theology.” The Gospel Coalition,, accessed September 27, 2022. 

Wikipedia, s.v. “Biblical Theology,”, accessed September 27, 2022.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Systematic Theology,”, accessed September 27, 2022.

Jeff Augustine, “What Is the Difference between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology?”,teachings%20within%20their%20historical%20setting, accessed September 7, 2022. 

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