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.). She 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.