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.


Blogger EL MOL said...

genius . . .

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6:34 AM  
Anonymous jon myers said...

that seems like a good working definition to me. is that your definition or someone else's? i suppose it doesn't really matter. the question i really have about practical theology, and i hope this will make it into your series, is practical theology a kind of corrective to systematic theology (or any other type of theology), or should it be seen and treated as something altogether different and held alongside the other types of theological work?

7:46 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

So where is the practice?

The theological seminary movement in the United States, which predates Schleiermacher’s Kurze Darstellung des Theologischen Studiums (1811), was based on the premise that the practice of ministry (preaching, teaching, pastoral care, etc.) depended upon a sound biblical, historical, and systematic foundation. While specialization (and departmentalization) did occur--especially as the German university model became more influential in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--I don’t think that professors of Bible, Church History, and Systematic Theology would appreciate their work being characterized as “ungrounded” or concerned only with solving “abstract theoretical problems.”

10:06 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Two questions:

1. What is theology?

2. What does it mean to "develop" a theology?

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

c'mon man....schleiemacher didn't really "invent" "practical theology."

This is, in other words, "existential theology." it goes back as far as Aquinas and Augustine, and even Socrates. Yes, existential theology is about what is, but it is also "grounded" in terms of commanding the question, "great, now what are you going to do about it?" So, moral theology is also in there as well. Really, practical theology has been around forever whether you call it practical, pastoral, existential, moral or whatver - let's not create polemics here...

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack - you said it. How is existential theology not grounded.

Tony - you need to reword your definition. You shouldnt say "practical theology" is grounded to the exclusion of all other theologies. Perhaps you don't mean to say that practical theology is the only "grounded" theology. Isn't liberation, contextual, existential, transcendental, (hell, even evangelical) theological methods and theologies grounded as well. Really, all theologies are grounded for the one doing the theology. You really need to define "grounded." You make it sound as if practical theologians have the authority to deem themselves grounded and others ungrounded. How do they know? Who gave them authority? What is the criteron for groundedness? I would expect an "emergent" postmodern evangelical such as yourself to have seen this coming...

grounded? What is grounded

-Pontius Pilate

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

question: based on your working definition, how does systematic theology not fit this?

"practical theology" is a BS term that really is trying to "reinvent the wheel." the method it employs is no different than a hermenutical method of critcial correlation, which indeed is very systematic and existential as the other commenter pointed out.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't all good theology practical theology? and all impractical theology bad theology?

9:37 AM  
Blogger Ecclesial Dreamer said...

I am really looking forward to following your thoughts here. I deeply appreciate your perspective on ecclesial dreaming and expect your thoughts here to challenge my own thoughts on this subject which are highly influenced by Edward Farley's work.

By the way, thanks for sharing your thoughts in this venue. I find your contributions to be very gracious, intelligent, reflective, and formative and I appreciate your willingness to lay it our here.


8:21 PM  
Blogger Dean C said...

"Practical theologians attempt to deal with issues that are a part of life in the world, not to solve abstract theoretical problems."

-Shouldn't all theology be informed with what is going on with issues that are part of life in the world? If Non-practical (impractical?) theology merely tries to solve abstract theoretical problems without dealing with issues that are part of life in the world, particularly with life issues in the church, it seems to me nothing more than intellectual masturbation.

12:21 PM  
Blogger RobeFRe said...

so, How would a practical thelologist approach questions of purity vs innocence as opposed to a systematic theologist or a DMin or DD; or some poor layman(religionist?) out there trying to spread some kinda new fangled solution/Word about an old fashioned Word/solution?

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dean c said

Shouldn't all theology be informed with what is going on with issues that are part of life in the world?

I think its the role of the theologian to comment and site the experience of the divine against what is going on with issues that are part of life in the world.

That is what I would call practical theology; for example, Australian theology addresses how I experience divine self communication here in Australia, vis-a-vis what is happening here in society.

12:41 AM  
Anonymous fernando said...

"...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."

that's pretty much a summary of the definitions used by a number of the most abstract thelogians I have met. a huge part of the problem is a lot of theologians who never get past prolegomena or doctrinal formulations still define themselves in this way.

it seems to me that if you want to distinguish practical theology from dogmatics or systematic theology, you need a more radical definition.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Mathetos said...

I would also say that the working definition is really more applicable to theology in general.

We're really dealing with shades of gray here. If theology is theological reflection as relates to society, church, and individual using the past to shape the future....
then "pastoral theology" would be the same but with the life of a congregation as the end application. Therefore it is more concerned with discipleship, worship, individual ethics, etc...
and "practical theology" as bringing both society and Church into applicability, but from a more global community pespective. Therefore it is more concerned with public ethics, ecumencism, inter-faith relations, etc.

3:54 AM  
Blogger Tony D. said...

Practical theology began in the Garden with Adam and Eve. The basic question is - how do we find God's perfect will and plan for our lives, in a world filled with advesaries.

I am more prone to the teachings of Bishop T.D. Jakes at the Potters House in Dallas Texas, or Joyce Meyers of St. Louis Mo. than the work of Schleiermacher’s Kurze Darstellung des Theologischen Studiums (1811).

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is practical theology and pastoral theology the same thing?

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you please give a concrete example of the full process of doing practical theology? If you can't it's okay. Thanks anyway.

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your definition of practical theology. It is a good one though I wonder if you would like to furnish it with more wording fiting the practice of the recovered theology of past and shapes the future theology or practical theology.

1:03 PM  
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