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The New Christians

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
future.


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