What is Practical Theology?

I’m looking forward to meet Tony Jones next week … 🙂 I thought I’ll just catch up with some reading – and check out all his posts on “What is Practical theology?” (for the links … he put in you have to go to his posts .. I’m trying to multitask here) The following will be bedtime reading for me … or to some make them sleep … (just kidding) I have a gut feeling that lots of stuff will resonate with our concerns to see the words “practical” & “theology” not divided or divorced in our Asian context.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? Part I
I do get asked on occasion, “What is practical theology?” Lots of people are pretty sure they know what systematic, dogmatic, and biblical theology are, but less are sure exactly what practical theology is.

At Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Osmer has developed a model of doing practical theology that is extremely helpful in this regard, so I’ll describe it over the course of a few posts. His is what a philosopher would call a “wide, reflective equilibrium model” — that is, he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel but to describe the field of practical theology as it currently stands.

But before that, a little history: the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher “invented” practical theology in the 18th century. At the time, the German research university model was being born — that’s what all of our higher education now is reflecting, for better and worse — and the work of theology was being broken up into what is called the “theological encyclopedia.” The volumes in that encyclopedia were 1) biblical studies, 2) systematic theology, and 3) church history. Schleiermacher proposed that a fourth discipline be added, called “practical theology,” that would develop “rules of art” for Christian life and ministry.

Over the course of three hundred years, however, practical theology devolved into, basically, application of the findings of the other three disciplines. That is, you’d take all your weighty courses in seminary from the other three, then you’d get a class on preaching or Christian education or pastoral counseling that was basically a “nuts and bolts” class.

Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a renaissance in practical theology, spurred on by the University of Chicago Divinity School, Princeton, Emory, and several European universities. During this time, practical theologians have staked their claim as doing constructive theology, not merely applying the findings of other fields of study. What sets practical theology apart from the other three disciplines in theological education (and what I find most compelling) is that it’s grounded theological reflection. In other words, practical theologians attempt to deal with issues that are a part of life in the world, not to solve abstract theoretical problems.

So here’s a working definition: practical theology is theological reflection that is grounded in the life of the church, society, and the individual and that both critically recovers the theology of the past and constructively develops theology for the future.

posted by tony at 5:36 AM

Friday, February 25, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? Part II
Practical theology (PT), as a discipline, takes a great deal of interest in empirical information. In fact, there is an entire school of thinking within PT — found mainly in the Netherlands and Germany — that’s called “Empirical Theology.” Practical theologians, because of the importance of the groundedness of the discipline, are often well-versed in a social science, the way James Fowler was in developmental psychology when he developed his Stages of Faith Development.

(An aside: to all of you pissy commentors, I never said that practical theology was the only type of theology that is grounded, just that it is the most committed to being grounded. Contextual theologies like liberation, feminist, and black theologies surely blur the line between systematics, PT, and biblical studies.)

Other practical theologians take other disciplines as their dialogue partners, often social psychology, social theory, and sociology. All of these are important to the practical theologian who is trying to determine what’s going on in God’s world. Thus, we turn to social scientists who specialize in figuring out the “what’s going on?” question. And more and more, practical theologians are taking up the instruments of empirical research and gathering data themselves.

This does lead to two interrelated questions: 1) What is the practical theologian’s mode of interdisciplinarity? It’s intellectually dishonest to raid other disciplines for their fruits, especially when they’re saying what you hope they’ll say. So one must enter humbly and respectfully into dialogue with a field that is not one’s primary are of expertise. And 2) Who sets the agenda for theology? It seems odd to let psychologists or sociologists dictate what we should theologize about. On the other hand, when a dramatic social change happens (e.g., globalization), or something happens in the natural sciences (e.g., discovery of the “gay gene”), it does seem incumbent upon theology to respond. Again, these are not decisions to be entered into lightly.

Ultimately, this is what it means for PT to be “grounded.” It means that there’s a descriptive moment to PT that does, indeed, set it apart from other types of theologizing.

posted by tony at 9:03 PM

Wednesday, March 02, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? Part III
Practical Theology is a self-consciously hermeneutical enterprise. Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think that all of life is, essentially, a hermeneutical endeavor. Each of us is an interpreter, of our surroundings, our traditions, our conversations, the media we engage, etc. In the words of one philosopher, “Interpretation goes all the way down and all the way back up.”

PT engages hermeneutical theory constantly, especially in an effort to mediate between the empirical-descriptive moment (as described below), and the normative theological moment (to be described in the next post). Thus, with a hermeneutical understanding, practical theologians will work with an interdisciplinary “dialogue partner,” like a particular school of thought in psychology, sociology, social theory, political science, etc.

For example, for my dissertation, I am performing an in-depth field study on eight “emerging church” congregations. Using a method of phenomenological research, I’m using focus groups, one-on-one interviews, participant-observation in the worship setting, and a congregation-wide census survey to uncover the core practices in each congregation.

However, all of this data will do me no good without an adequate interpretation it’ll be nothing but a group of numbers and hours of transcriptions without my analysis. And the way I will analyze the data is to put it in the context of recent work in the sociology of American religion. Using tools like the National Congregations Survey (1998) and analysis by sociologists like Chris Smith and Robert Wuthnow, I hope to show how these congregations are similar to and different than other congregations on the American landscape. In other words: Where do these emerging congregations fit in the ecology of American congregations?

So that’s the essence of the interpretive moment of PT, and it also shows again how important it is for the practical theologian to have a sophisticated theory of interdisciplinarity.

posted by tony at 9:06 PM

Saturday, March 05, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? Wow!
OK, I was all brewing up a great intermezzo post with a provisional definition of PT, then I got this anonymous comment that blew me away:

Practical theology is that theological discipline which is concerned with the Church’s self-actualization here and now both that which is and that which ought to be. That it does by means of theological illumination of the particular situation in which the Church must release itself in all its dimensions.

This practical theology is a unique, independent science, a fundamental one in essence in spite of its reciprocal relationship with other theological disciplines, since its business of scientifically critical and systematic reflection is a unique quantity and its nature is not deducible. For it is reflection oriented towards committal.

The task of practical theology as an original science demands a theological analysis of the particular present situation in which the Church is to carry out the especial self-realization appropriate to it at any given moment.

Practical theology challenges the other theological studies to recognize the task which inheres immanently in them, oriented to the practice of the Church; the second demand it makes is that they should apply themselves to this task.

Anonymous practical theologian, reveal thyself.

posted by tony at 3:39 PM

Wednesday, March 16, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo
For some important background, first read




and, especially,


If you take the time to read these, or at least the third, you’ll see that a lot of water has already passed under the bridge. And over some Chinese food last night, Steve tried to rehabilitate my understanding of Barth, with some success. (I have no trouble acknowledging the extreme importance of Barth, but I think we need to go beyond him, hence my affinity with Moltmann.)

There’s a lot at stake in this conversation; these are not simply the musings of a couple of doctoral students. Currently, there are only a few options available to Christians in a globalized/pluralistic/postmodern society: liberal accomodationism, conservative retreatism, Hauerwasian sectarianism, and the newcomer: Milbankian (Radical Orthodoxy) withdrawal into the liturgy.

I know, that’s a lot of “-isms,” but none of these options offers a Christian the ability to maintain a “robust doctrine of God” (Steve’s words) and a robust understanding of pluralism. In other words, is there a way to negotiate a healthy, dialectical relationship with culture and maintain an orthodox doctrine of God? Steve and I both think there must be, there has to be.

Among practical theologians, there have been a couple major avenues for navigating these waters. Among the University of Chicago theologians (Tillich, Tracy, Browning), there has been an evolving “correlational” model in which theology and culture stand in a dialectical relationship. Tillich said that culture asks the questions and theology provides the answers; Tracy and Browning amended this by saying that each asks questions and each provides answers — i.e., theology and culture stand in a mutually critical relationship.

Among the Barthians (Frei, D. Hunsinger, Loder), the response has been more of what Steve alludes to in his posts: theology has a unique ability to articulate issues of ultimacy, like God’s revelation, which comes from outside of the created order. Thus theology trumps all other disciplines when it comes to issues on which theology is uniquely articulate.

While I appreciate the former’s ability to take culture seriously, it tends to reduce theological reflection to the terms of culture (and can be a mask for natural theology, as Steve points out). The latter maintains theology’s integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination, which I find unacceptable in a pluralistic environment (it’s tough to convince someone to have a conversation of mutual regard if you start out by stating that you will inevitably win the argument!).

That’s why I’m attracted to the model of transversal rationality. I’ll flesh that out in the next post…

posted by tony at 5:34 AM

Saturday, March 19, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo, Part II
OK, I’ll start with a concrete situation in order to illustrate the promise of “tranversal rationality.”

[UPDATE: This is a hypothetical situation; the “boy” is meant to represent a concrete situation or problem. Another analogy could be, for instance, all the people who together had to decide what to build on the site of the World Trade Center.]

You’re a youth pastor, and you get a call from the guidance counselor at the local public high school; she wants you to come to a consultation. There’s a boy in your youth group who is really struggling in school — and in life — and the school is calling together a group of people to brainstorm about what can be done to help him.

A week later, you show up for the meeting; in the conference room at the high school are gathered the boy’s mother and father (divorced), guardian ad litem, court-appointed social worker, psychologist, pediatrician, guidance counselor, school nurse, and homeroom teacher.

As the conversation gets underway, you realize that each of these “experts” knows the boy in a very different way, yourself included. In fact, each of you is an “expert” on the boy, but your expertises are quite different. The pediatrician speaks from her expertise as someone who has worked with many adolescents, she uses medical-scientific language, and she wonders if she should adjust his Ritalin prescription. The (Jungian) psychologist talks about the therapy sessions he’s had with the boy, with the progress they’re making, and about the boy’s deep, internal conflict over his parents’ divorce and his own learning disability. The guidance counselor wonders if he should be moved into special ed. classes, the homeroom teacher says he needs to find better friends, the mom says he’s depressed at home and he listens to music that scares her, the dad wonders if the two of them should take a vacation to watch some spring training games, etc., etc., etc.

And you, the youth pastor, what do you say? What do you think the boy needs? Is part of his problem a spiritual problem? Is it entirely spiritual? Is he afflicted by demons? Has he been the object of spiritual abuse? Is your youth group a place where he feels welcomed and loved?

Tranversal rationality takes into account one of the premises of a pluralistic, postmodern, globalized world: there are many different “rationalities” at work in society. And as professionalization and specialization increase, the rationality in one field of knowledge or discipline is that much harder for non-specialists in that discipline.

Would you tell the pediatrician that she is wrong in bringing medical/scientific/pharmacological reasoning to bear on the boy’s problems? Probably not. Nor would you question the guidance counselor’s understanding of when to place a student in special education classes. Nor would you question the mother’s claim to be an expert on the subject of her own son.

And you too, the youth pastor, you are the theological/biblical expert in the room. You bring a distinctively Christian rationality to bear on the situation of this boy’s problems. Happily, in a truly postmodern setting, you can respectfully and sensitively articulate that rationality, and you will be shedding light (“truth”) on the situation that no one else can or has.

So transversal rationality acknowledges the many rationalities at play in a pluralistic environment. As a method, it proposes that we look for intersections between rationalities — “transversal” means “to lie across” — and enter into dialogue at those concrete, situated moments (like around the case of our hypothetical boy). We must do so, however, with “epistemic humility;” that is, we need to be open to theoretical correction. And our results will be judged in moments of “praxial critique,” in which the practical wisdom that comes out of the situation is tested in future, real-life situations.

Writing about the promise of this method, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen writes, “the fact that rationality lies across and links diverse reasoning strategies will also mean that we can step forth into cross-contextual discussion with personal convictions that we find rationally compelling, and at the same time be rationally compelled to open our strong convictions up to critical evaluation in interdisciplinary conversation.””

(For more on transversal rationality, read this and this.)

posted by tony at 6:05 PM

Sunday, April 03, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo, Part III
OK, this is the final part of what was meant to be a brief tangent. But Jimmy brings up an important caveat in his comment below. My not-so-hypothetical situation of a troubled teen in the school counselor’s office was sanitized of the real-life complications of power. Being a trained social worker, and a special ed. teacher, Jimmy knows the power dynamics at work in a situation like this. It should come as no surprise that the pediatrician will come out on top in this hierarchy; not only does she have the most schooling, but physicians — and the scientific reasoning they employ — are highly regarded in our society. In contrast, social workers, psychologists, and youth pastors are often seen as dealing in data that is “soft,” over against the “hard” scientific data of a physician.

However, the postmodern, hermeneutic turn has done a great service, for it has leveled the playing field. Even the “hardest” scientific data is rife with agendas and money from pharmaceutical companies. In other words, no one is capable of delivering a straight, objective account of what’s going on with this boy.

There’s been lots of good work done by postmodern theoreticians about power dynamics. The most famous theorist of power is Michel Foucault; I think that Pierre Bourdieu also deserves serious consideration. Both attempt to deal honestly with power dynamics at play whenever human beings are attempting to negotiate a situation, and both are downright pessimistic about the possibilities of getting through power to the other side. Of course, they’re both lacking the Christian hope that God might have a hand in this negotiation…

posted by tony at 3:42 PM

Wednesday, April 06, 2005
What Is Practical Theology? Part IV
After an all-to-lengthy excursion into interdisciplinary method, it’s time to get back into the four core tasks of practical theology. Having been through the descriptive and empirical moments, the third moment of PT is the normative moment.

It is now, after gathering data and using the best of several disciplines to interpret that data, that the practical theologian makes normative claims for the life of the church. Often, practical theology is in conversation with the other volumes of the “theological encyclopedia” at this time, consorting with the likes of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history.

But remember that the practical theologian is grounded in real-life, empirical data from church, society, and/or individual. In other words, the practical theologian does not think, “I’d like to spend my career studying the doctrine of sanctification” or “I’d like to write my dissertation on the Nestorian controversy” or “The world needs another book on the aorist tense.” (OK, simmer down. This is not meant to disparage those who do perform those important tasks. Without them, we’d never have to pay $75 for a book again!) The practical theologian, instead, is confronted with a problem. It might be a theological response to young women who cut themselves, or how to preach funeral sermons in the African American tradition, or how the emerging church is negotiating its relationship with culture (hey, there’s a great idea for a dissertation!).

So let it not be said that the practical theologian is not in the business of normative theology she is, indeed, and it is normative theology that responds to crises in the life of church and world.

posted by tony at 8:04 PM

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