Practical Theology: Part I


I am going to run a series of posts on ‘Practical Theology’. The main purpose is the outline the method and background to my PhD research, which is based upon practical theology, and in particular theological reflection. So as I try to locate my own research methods and practices, this will help sift my thoughts and maybe provide something of interest to others.

Practical theology is usually associated with ‘applied theology’, whereby once the serious work of biblical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology has been done, we ‘apply’ that to a practical context. More usually ‘practical theology’ has been about pastoral care, and christian education, and less to do with theology, as usually understood. The separation between beliefs and practice, came over time reaching its zenith in modernity.

Whereas there was once a direct connection between what we believed (and reflection on that belief) with what was a ‘moral/ethical life’, and a life forming process, we have the almost complete separation between what we believe, and who we are and what we do.

Or at least, in practice we ‘think’ and conceive first, whilst taking action around those beliefs comes second in terms of method. It’s one of the ongoing problems of how we try to deal with church, we keep trying to think of new and better ways of doing church, focusing on ideals, that never lead to practice (I’ve blogged on this problem here). So how did we get to here?

Elaine Graham and Heather Walton provide a historical overview over of how theology developed to where we are today (Theological Reflections: Methods, page 2).

1. Early Church: During the first two centuries of the church, theology, was primarily concerned with the care of Christians and their community, and to inspire their faith and community formation. 2. Clergy Pastoral Care: Moral theology emerges in which the focus is the care of an established Christian community under church authority. We see this in Roman Catholic theology today. This period last until the end of medieval europe. 3. Post-Enlightenment Systematization: Frederich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the 18th century, establishes ‘applied’ theology as a separate academic discipline. 4. Professionalization: The rise of the professional pastor, leads to the practical and applied theology to continued to separate from other areas. 5. Secular Theology & Therapies: Ordained ministry becomes dominated with secular therapeutical theories, and the focus of practical theology 6. Hermeneutical Questioning: There is a questioning some 25 years ago, and continuing today, of this process and the focus of practical theology as application to practice from real theology. Instead the drive to see the pastoral context of the church as one that addresses questions back to theology takes place.

In my next post on this, I'll outline some of the possibilities of this kind of practical theology (no 6.) that is opening up.