Signs and Wonders | Harvey Cox

Harvey CoxSome pentecostal preachers I have heard and watched are so fascinated by sensational displays of rapture that they appear to have forgotten the original meaning of the “signs and wonders” which were seen as tokens that a new day was coming, that the reign of God was breaking into history.

—Harvey Cox. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995, 313.

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.

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