Archive | Theology

Practical Theology and Qualitative Research | John Swinton & Harriet Mowat

The cover of Swinton & Mowat's Practical Theology and Qualitative Research

Practical theology and qualitative research are two very different disciplines. Neither are easy to summarize, let alone define.

Swinton and Mowat begin with with practical theology:

Practical Theology is critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, and for the world. (7)

The church reflects copiously and rigorously on the interpretation of scripture. Practical theology offers rigorous theological reflection on the actual practices of the church.

Next up: qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat survey a few definitions before settling on McLeod’s:

Qualitative research is a process of careful, rigorous enquiry into aspects of the social world. It produces formal statements or conceptual frameworks that provide new ways of understanding the world, and therefore comprises knowledge that is practically useful for those who work with issues around learning and adjustment to the pressures and demands of the social world. (30)

Qualitative research is rooted in rooted in a methodology, typically constructivism, that views reality as constructed by the subject. Qualitative research with a constructivist ontology and epistemology then uses various methods, “specific techniques that are used for data collection and analysis” (69).

There is a key tension between the worlds of practical theology and qualitative research. Many theologians hold a view of ontology and epistemology (i.e. God exists outside our sensory world and makes himself known through revelation) that contradicts the constructivist foundation of qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat acknowledge this tension and attempt to demonstrate, through definitions and case studies of specific theological qualitative research projects, how these tensions can be resolved.

Our task has been to lay down some foundational understandings of how Practical Theology can utilize qualitative research in a way that retains the integrity of both disciplines and allows theology in general and Practical Theology in particular to remain faithful and confident in its identity and task. (265)

In the end, qualitative research is a tool to help theologians discern and interpret situations rigorously and faithfully.


Swinton, John and Harriet Mowat. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. 2nd Ed. London: SCM Press, 2016.

From Ministry to Theology | John H. Patton

The cover of Patton's From Ministry to TheologyA pastor’s life is never boring. In any one week I may counsel someone on how to pay their gas bill by stretching their grocery budget with the foodbank, shovel snow from the walkway, pray for the mourning, and preach God’s word. Each of these events can be interpreted theologically (yes, even shoveling snow), but it doesn’t happen automatically.

Patton makes the case that “theological conceptualization does not grow immediately out of pastoral experience. At its best the process is slow” (13). In From Ministry to Theology, Patton describes how ministry and theology are related.

Pastoral practice and theology are related through the imagination and its empowerment of pastoral theology’s three essential elements: action in ministry, relationship in community, and interpretation of meaning. (21)

In order to get to theological interpretation, Patton employs a phenomenological approach which first immerses the person in the details of the actual situation itself while bracketing out the human desire to ascribe meaning to the event. This enables the person to avoid the error of slotting diverse experiences into presupposed categories of meaning.

This type of reflection may seem antithetical to the fast-paced demanding life of the pastor, but it produces genuine theological insight into the daily life of ministry.


Patton, John H. From Ministry to Theology: Pastoral Action & Reflection. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1995.

Practical Theology | Richard R. Osmer

The cover of Osmer's Practical TheologyPractical Theology is no mere one way application of Systematic or Philosophical Theology to the present situation: it’s a serious exploration of the situation itself. In order to do justice to the situation we need to approach it with just as thoughtful a hermeneutic as we would apply to ancient texts.

Osmer describes his hermeneutic of the situation in four tasks which form an interpretive spiral.

  1. The Descriptive-Empirical Task: Priestly Listening. What is going on in the situation? Before rushing to interpretation we need to research and grasp what is happening.
  2. The Interpretive Task: Sagely Wisdom. Once the data has been collected we need to interpret it. We use various theories from appropriate fields of knowledge to interpret what we have researched.
  3. The Normative Task: Prophetic Discernment. It’s not enough to describe what is happening—we need to grasp what should be happening.
  4. The Pragmatic Task: Servant Leadership. Here is where we apply the normative task. The knowledge which was uncovered through research, interpretation, and discernment is now applied.

Illuminated by gripping case studies, Richard Osmer’s text brings concrete form to the ever-changing field of practical theology.


Osmer, Richard R. Practical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

For Life Abundant | Dorothy C. Bass & Craig Dykstra

The cover of Bass and Dykstra's For Life AbundantThrough thoughtful engagement with and within situations of personal, ecclesial, and societal existence, practical theology seeks to clarify the contours of a way of life that reflects God’s active presence and responds to human beings’ fundamental needs. It also seeks to guide and strengthen persons and communities to embody this way of life. (13)

Practical theology is not easy to define, as the above quotation may suggest. Consider the verbs in that brief statement alone: practical theology engages, clarifies, responds, guides, and strengthens!

In For Life Abundant, Bass and Dykstra pull together a collection of essays from academic practical theologians. The topics vary widely across four main categories: the overall goal of practical theology, the way that practical theology can improve theological instruction, the discipline of practical theology in the university, and the way in which practical theology intersects the life of the church.

The essays in this volume taken as a whole demonstrate both the breadth of the practical theological field as well as the rigor and depth of each aspect. For Life Abundant is an engaging overview of practical theology in its various forms.


Bass, Dorothy C. and Craig Dykstra, eds. For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Formation and Reflection | Lewis S. Mudge & James N. Poling

The cover of Mudge & Poling's Formation and Reflection

How is academic theology related to actual, living communities of faith? (155)

This is the question which the essays in this volume attempt to answer. As academic theology, influenced by postmodern deconstruction, has moved away from talking about God to talking about the possibility of talking about God, the academy seems more and more removed from the actual life and practice of the local church. Practical theology could be the bridge to reunite the two. The question is how.

The essays in this book are challenging to read. Each contributor is a respected author in their own right, bringing their own conceptual frameworks and peculiar language to the conversation. The range is broad. The essays cover historical theology, theological pedagogy, postmodern philosophy, hermeneutical theory, and liberation theology.

An interesting feature of this book is its unity—the contributors were able to read each other’s essays and update their own before the final printing. The back-and-forth between the authors helps to situate their viewpoints.

Edward Farley’s lead contribution, “Interpreting Situations: An Inquiry into the Nature of Practical Theology,” is particularly helpful in focusing the volume. If theology is an interpretation of history (tradition and scripture), then practical theology must be an interpretation of the situation. Why is it that we have libraries worth of material on biblical hermeneutics and tradition criticism, but no rigorous framework to guide the interpretation of the present?

This collection of densely argued essays demonstrates how difficult practical theology is to define, let alone to do. However, if we want to reunite orthodoxy and orthopraxis, then the effort is more than worth the reward.


Mudge, Lewis S. and James N. Poling, eds., Formation and Reflection: The Promise of Practical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987. Reprint, 2009.

Exclusion and Embrace | Miroslav Volf

The cover of Volf's Exclusion and EmbraceThen Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:34 NRSV)

We all know that we should forgive each other. We even know how often—seventy times seven (i.e. unending forgiveness). The problem comes not with the knowing, but with the doing.

Miroslav Volf hit this crisis between knowing and doing after at the end of a lecture when Jürgen Moltmann stood and asked, “But can you embrace a cětnik” (9)? These Serbian fighters had been terrorizing and destroying Croatia, Volf’s country. He was torn between “the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty” (9). This question drove him to research and write Exclusion and Embrace.

Exclusion and Embrace is the best book on forgiveness that exists. Period. Volf used the image of the crucified God, arms outstretched with side pierced, to show how those who are offended can make space within themselves to embrace the other. This does not mean that the embraced are exonerated—they can be embraced “even when they are perceived as wrongdoers” (85). This, of course, is precisely how Jesus receives us.

Although written in 1996, this book feels tailored for today. In our culture of “truthiness,” Volf writes of “Deception and Truth.” As geopolitical tensions flair, Volf writes of “Oppression and Justice,” “Violence and Peace.” Even gender identity receives a chapter. It is stunning to see just how broad the theme of forgiveness reaches.

Every paragraph of Exclusion and Embrace is rich. Volf’s writing is a dense and insightful mixture of philosophical acuity, psychological wisdom, and theological insight. Our world needs this book more now than ever.


Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

The Prophetic Faith | Martin Buber

The cover of Buber's The Prophetic FaithBuber is best known for his philosophical gem, I and Thou. He was also an biblical interpreter who translated the entire Hebrew Bible into German. Although published before his translation work began, The Prophetic Faith demonstrates his broad and deep knowledge of the scriptures.

The Prophetic Faith begins with the Song of Deborah before moving backwards through Joshua’s covenant renewal ceremony to Sinai. Buber pays close attention to God’s name and the way at which YHVH and Israel became linked as expressed in the phrase, “YHVH God of Israel” (19).

From this point of origin, Buber traces the prophetic faith through the major movements of Israel’s life: the Assyrian threat, the Babylonian exile, and the return. Buber paints the prophetic faith as vivid and always engaged with the eternal Thou.

We are fortunate that Princeton University Press has just reissued this work. The Prophetic Faith is an inspiring look at the heart of Israel’s relationship with their God.


Buber, Martin. The Prophetic Faith. Translated by Jon D. Levenson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke | Roger Stronstad

The cover of Stronstad's The Charismatic Theology of St. LukeIt is easy to forget that what we call the Bible (singular) is actually a library of many books and letters from many Spirit-inspired authors each with their own story and message. In The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke, Stronstad takes Luke’s book, the historical narrative we know as Luke and Acts, on its own merits.

When you take Luke at his word instead of subjugating him to Paul, certain themes in Luke-Acts become crystal clear. You begin to hear the echoes of the LXX in Luke’s text. You are able to see Jesus as the Spirit-filled prophet who transfers his Spirit to his community. You are able to see the the empowering vocational purpose of Spirit-Baptism.

Pentecostals often speak of Luke-Acts as a “canon within the canon.” I find that sort of language unhelpful in that it depreciates the rest of the biblical witness. I do, however, applaud any effort to allow the Biblical witness to speak in its full diversity.


Stronstad, Roger. The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke: Trajectories from the Old Testament to Luke-Acts. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 1984, 2012.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes

antispam