“Practical” Theology?

I have been talking with one of my new colleagues at Huntington about the nature and tasks of “Practical Theology” and its relationship with other theological subdisciplines (systematic, biblical, historical, etc.). Steeple_croppedShe teaches in the department of Ministry and Missions and wonders if the theological work she does there is best characterized as “practical theology”. In some sense it boils down to how you define practical theology, and that in turn has implications for how you understand the roles of other modes of theological reasoning.

For sake of clarifying the issue, consider the following definitions and weigh in: Which do you find more satisfactory? And, does either map the relationship between practical and “systematic” theology in a compelling way?

As a theological discipline [Practical Theology’s] primary purpose is to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically address the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister … [Practice theology] extends systematic theology into the life and praxis of the the Christian community (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, pp. 22-3).

[Practical theology] begins and ends with inquiries focused on practices. The ground for this focus is an understanding of faith as a lived entity. Our task is to think through faith and “belief” in terms of their embodiment in life. Thus the primary reference of our theologizing is the lived life in all its contemporary forms. This contrasts with biblical studies’ focus on texts, systematics focus on doctrines, church history’s focus on the history of the community of faith, but relies on these forms of inquiry in understanding what it means for faith to be lived (Brock and Swinton, The Aberdeen School of Practical Theology).

Another part of my interest in defining practical theology is my concern that systematic theology not be understood as a practice sequestered from the lived existence of the church – from “practical” matters. I have an increasingly difficult time understanding the craft of Christian systematic theology in isolation from biblical studies, apologetics and, in this case, from the practices of the church (these divisions being a decidedly “modern” characteristic of theology when compared to its pre-Enlightenment forebears). Consider Ellen Charry who, in the preface of By The Renewing of Your Minds (1997), reports that as she worked through a variety of classic (pre-Enlightenment) texts

the divisions of the modern theological curriculum began making less and less sense to me. I could not longer distinguish apologetics from catechesis, or spirituality from ethics or pastoral theology. And I no longer understood systematic or dogmatic theology apart from all of these. In the older texts, evangelism, catechesis, moral exhortation, dogmatic exegesis, pastoral care, and apologetics were all happening at the same time because the authors were speaking to the whole person. Our neat divisions simply didn’t work (viii).

My thoughts are still forming on this, but I am leaning more steadily in this direction all the time.


4 thoughts on ““Practical” Theology?

  1. Kent,

    Ever since I’ve been reading Edwards I’ve had the same sense. For Edwards, there was only theology, and theology just happened to include what we now call biblical studies, hermeneutics, polemical theology, practical theology, philosophy, science, etc., with systematic theology being the engine that drove the whole endeavour.

    While I don’t think this is possible today, the sheer amount of learning it would take would be impossible, I think we need to do more to share a common jargon and a common goal of interdisciplinary interaction. The fact that most biblical studies guys I now don’t think they have to worry about systematic issues, or, even worse, “Pauline” scholars who don’t think they need to worry about issues in the gospels, is incredibly disconcerting.

    You know that I think seminaries, in part, are to blame for this (not to mention the modern university in general), but the more important question is what to do about it that it now exists, which is what I hear you asking.

  2. Any good interdisciplinary models available for theology? That would integrate not just all elements of Church-centered activity, but also integrate theology into the larger, working community? And other academic disciplines?

  3. I prefer the first definition, simply because it’s the only one that seems to accurately employ the term ‘practical.’ It seems to me that the first definition contains an active understanding – practical theology does something, it ensures something, extends something. The other definitions seem to me to just be furthering inquiries and expanding knowledge, and so to me they are not yet practical theology. I feel that practical theology could be understood as applied theology. Without application it can’t sensibly be called practical.

  4. I think that both definitions are adequate to describe the nature of practical theology. To your point Kent, my wife and I had this conversation just yesterday after hearing the sermon from our church. I tend to lean towards your point on the modern development of parsing disciplines at the expense of a holistic understanding. Kyle is spot on in his comments about what we could call “disciplinary hubris” for lack of a better term. The actual concept that each discipline exists in a vacuum without dialogue with other disciplines is empty and ultimately dangerous.

    As a novice historian, there is no way that I can understand the movement of history without an understanding of how the biblical hermeneutic of the day drove the theological development which in turn drove the social, political, and economic developments of societies.

    How can any of us understand our discipline without being tied into other disciplines? The practice of theology makes theology alive in our hearts, communities, and lives. Consequently, all disciplines need to be practical in nature. The development of the practical theology discipline is a much needed corrective to the modern fragmentation of the theological discipline.

    Am I on target or way off here?

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