The New Christians

The New Christians

What Is Practical Theology? Part One

Among my most popular posts from my old blog were those on my working definition of practical theology.  As I am engaged in the section of my dissertation in which I establish my version of practical theology, I’ll repost the series here at BNet.  Enjoy!

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

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posted March 20, 2009 at 1:02 pm

and is the theology of the present…in the moment where Christ messes us up in our encounter with the neighbor. It is theology that emerges from life as lived in the non-scholastic reality of the sinner.
After a degree in religion and and MDiv I find myself ONLY interested in practical theology any more. Thanks for the definition

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Patrick Oden

posted March 20, 2009 at 2:11 pm

“Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of humankind and also therefore that part of humankind–gathering into ecclesia–which openly confesses Christ. This is a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed. It is a theology which is open–in the protest against trampled human dignity, in the struggle against the plunder of the vast majority of humankind, in liberating love, and in the building of a new, just, and comradely society—to the gift of the Kingdom of God.”
~Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.

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Drew Tatusko

posted March 20, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Osmer’s a good cat! I worked with Loder on this before he passed away God rest his soul.
Looking at the last bit, I have reformulated this quite a bit:
“constructively develops theology for the future.”
I have wanted to drive this deeper into the behaviors that help people learn, believe, and act. For Loder, all human action should drive towards a fundamental transformation of the human spirit to connect with the Spirit of God. That’s his strange spiritual loop.
What I am looking at now is how to reform our understanding of why it is that we think theologically at all before we even get to a discussion of method. That is to say, what if we look at theological thinking from a functional view? What starts to emerge (if you will) is a clearer picture that some theological thinking is ostensibly rather useless to engage the transformation of the spirit and some of it is profoundly useful. Now to be sure it depends on the person thinking about it. But if we read The Pilgrim’s Progress compared to Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, it is clear that the first is designed to meet a wider segment of the population while the latter will only be of interest to a few intellectual elites.
Which brings us to another task of the practical theologian. If something that you as an elite thinks is of value, part of your craft is to find a way to ground it in tangible human experience. Practical theology is a theology that one can actually live. It is a theology that works. It is a theology that is fundamentally pragmatic in the sense that William James brought to the term. There are socio-cultural limits to this theology. It is by nature self-consciously bounded and limited to social conditions. But is not that how we received the Scriptures that form the biblical canon?

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posted March 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Working with kids…is there any OTHER kind of theology?

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jeremy bouma

posted March 20, 2009 at 3:05 pm

I like you’re definition…especially what I perceive to be the ‘hinging word':grounded. In PT the way we frame, talk about, perceive God, gospel, Scripture, Jesus is ‘grounded’ in the stuff of life. Maybe it should be called ‘incarnational theology,’ but cause the theological reflection is rooted in real life in the way God-in-Christ was rooted…I dont know, just a thought.
Something else occurred to me: maybe the other disciplines (biblical, systematic, historical, and philosophical theologies) should revolve around PRACTICAL THEOLOGY, instead of the other way around. Maybe that way we’ll begin to have a discourse on “the things of God” that are actually ‘existentially connection,’ instead of being so disconnected from reality.
Just some thoughts; look forward to more posts!

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Your Name

posted March 22, 2009 at 11:27 am

I believe in PRACTICAL THEOLOGY.The Bible is written as our guide but
i believe they were not written in a short period of time but were written as the people in the Bible experience life,obtaining answers to questions through discoveries and experiments, receiving guidance and help through their faith and answered prayers,responding to needs according to the measure on how
much they could give and many more of life’s practical events.Yes,practical theology never stand in condemnation.

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Patricia Ward

posted March 22, 2009 at 2:45 pm

What you have said is very interesting. As a Christian community worker, who is currently in a mission field this makes good sense.
I am currently unpacking a bit about what it means to have a biblical worldview.
Jesus was inclusive, he hung around with all the socially unacceptable of His time.
He also was very practical and reflective in his teaching. It makes sense that we ourselves have to reflect on issues in our society and adapt whilst making sure that we retain a biblical world view.
Therefore critical reflection is necessary.

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posted March 22, 2009 at 8:23 pm

It seems to me that ALL “practicing” Christians learn and believe in Practical Theology. This is the “theology” that drives humankind in his relationship with others. The Lord, of course, is our template on how to act/react to everyday situations. To me, Practical Theology should be the MAIN discourse instead of being held for last.

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Cheryl Toliver

posted March 23, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Seems to me, at least for most of us who never go to seminary, our theology has to be practical, to be applicable to what we do every day and how we interact with people, or it isn’t useful. I personally enjoy the contemplative part of theology and examining theological subject abstractly, but, at some point, if I can’t apply it or see how it relates to my life, there’s no point to it. Definitely – theology has to be real, as real as God Himself!

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posted March 24, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Would that not mean that Practical Theology must then be very similar to “life application bible studies”. After all, if it won’t redeem in the street, where else is there to take it?

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Theresa Seeber

posted April 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm

I think my fav post from your old blog was the one with the cartoon depicting trickle-down-education (which didn’t go over very well with the conservatives I shared it with).

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Tab Wright

posted October 26, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I disagree! You say that “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 is only half of the definition. While in seminary I asked two of my theology professors what we (the students) needed to do to take their information and apply it to our ministry. Neither of them could answer the question! They were mighty seminary professors who were stumped by a very common question on the minds of students in every area of study. After earning my MDiv I finally answered the question for myself. We take what we learn and use our knowledge, skills, gifts, etc. to apply it to our own form of ministry. We take the high and lofty theological reflections of academia and translate them into the vernacular in word and deed. Please, don’t forget that in order for a theological construct to have any positive effect it must be understood on all levels by the people in society. This is the basis for incarnational ministry.

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Awon Shanglai

posted June 20, 2012 at 12:37 am

Thank You Tony Jones! you gave clear & brilliant summary on the topic I have been wanting to know.

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