Tag Archives | Practical Theology

Practicing Theology | Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds.

The cover of Volf and Bass' Practicing TheologyWhat does theology have to do with the so-called real life? Are theologians doing anything other than splitting hairs? Volf and Bass, along with all the contributors to this volume argue that theology is intimately connected with life. This connection is discerned through the concept of practice.

In general use, a practice is a dense cluster of ideas and activities that are related to a specific goal and shared by a social group over time. . . . Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God known in Jesus Christ. (3)

By engaging in theological reflection on Christian practice, the contributors to this volume—all academic theologians—demonstrate how important theology is for living faithfully in a changing world.

The various essays in this volume reflect on a diverse range of practice including healing, hospitality, theological education, and worship. Tammy Williams is particularly insightful in her essay, “Is There a Doctor in the House? Reflections on the Practice of Healing in African American Churches.” By examining the practice of African American churches, she uncovers three models of healing: care, cure, and holism.

Volf closes the book by arguing that while “Christian beliefs normatively shape Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs,” beliefs take logical priority.

Since we identify who God is through beliefs—primarily through the canonical witness to divine self-revelation—adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God. (260)

Practicing Theology functions on two levels. On the ground level, each article has something insightful to say about Christian practice. On a higher level, the book shows that theology is not a withdrawal from the world but a way to engage the life and practices of the Christian community more deeply.


Volf, Miroslav and Dorothy C. Bass, eds. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and PRactices in Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Transforming Practice | Elaine L. Graham

The cover of Graham's Transforming PracticePostmodernity has challenged modernism in every area. Positivist views of reality are being replaced by constructivist views. Modernity’s emancipatory mission to bring humanity out of superstition is now criticized as a new totalitarianism. Industrial capitalism is giving way to design flexibility. Universalism and metanarratives are being rejected in favor of fragmentary worldviews. How can pastoral theology exist in such an age? Is it possible to ground theology in something other than traditional metanarrative?

Using Gadamer’s practice theory, Graham argues that pastoral theology can be grounded in an understanding of faithful practice. She uses Gadamer’s habitus to describe “not merely ‘rule-governed behaviour’, but symbolic, purposeful strategies with many layers of meaning” (101). Habitus accounts for both human agency and cultural conditioning.

Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated . . . as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history.” (110)

Graham uses feminist criticism to show how foundationalist understandings of theology rooted in modernism do not account for the heterogeneous experience of gendered people. In the end, Graham roots her pastoral theology not in a text or a tradition, but in the habitus and orthopraxis of the faithful community. Therefore, pastoral theology is not a “legislative or prescriptive [discipline, but an] interpretive” (208) task.

Elaine Graham is flat-out brilliant. She not only articulates her own views, she brings an encyclopaedic knowledge of various ethical, sociological, philosophical, and theological fields to the task. Her interpretation of Habermas’ Critical Theory in particular was incisive without being reductive.

I do fundamentally disagree with Graham’s conclusions, however, due to ontological and epistemological differences. When Graham roots pastoral theology in a hermeneutic of the situation, she removes it from the scripture and any historic understanding of God. For Graham, “not even the canon of Scripture thus inspired is definitive for all time, . . . no text embodies the truth absolutely and finally, but is merely a blueprint for, and prefiguration of, a reality still to come” (197). While I would agree that no text can embody truth absolutely, I do believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through text-as-inspired by the Spirit. If I understand Graham correctly, the normative role of scripture is gone with modernism and “the only vocabulary available to Christian communities in articulating their truth-claims is that of pastoral practice itself” (203).

Graham’s Transforming Practice has accurately described the uncertain state of theology as it tries to reformulate itself in a postmodern context. Her use of Gadamer’s practice theory enables her to accurately and faithfully observe and interpret the community of faith. Ultimately, however, her grounding of theology exclusively in the situation is unconvincing for me. My task moving forward will be how to relate the normative influence of scripture to a hermeneutic of the situation in a way that is dialogical and fruitful.


Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.

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.

The Mediation of the Spirit | Mark J. Cartledge

The cover of Cartledge's The Mediation of the SpiritMark J. Cartledge straddles two worlds. On the one hand, he is a Pentecostal/Charismatic (P/C) scholar, a member of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. On the other hand, he is a member of the Academy of Practical Theology. In his entry in Eerdman’s Pentecostal Manifestos series, Cartledge brings his worlds into dialogue by offering a P/C perspective on practical theology.

Cartledge’s argument centres on the concept of mediation. After identifying a desperate lack of substantive scriptural engagement in the field of practical theology, he takes a close look at the Spirit-reception texts in Acts, uncovering five different forms of mediation (109):

  1. “Christ mediates the Holy Spirit to the church.”
  2. “The Holy Spirit mediates Christ and the Father to the church.”
  3. “Creation mediates the Holy Spirit to the church.”
  4. “The church mediates the Holy Spirit internally (via individuals, groups, worship, and practices).”
  5. “The church mediates the Holy Spirit externally (via individuals, groups, public worship, and practices).”

Cartledge then applies this understanding of mediation in two different ways. On a practical level, he reviews a congregational study by Mary McClintock Fulkerson, identifying ways the study could be improved through a deeper understanding of mediation. On an academic level, he uses his understanding of mediation to challenge the weak soteriology which exists in the field of practical theology.

The Mediation of the Spirit functions on two levels. Cartledge first provides a valuable addition to P/C studies and practical theology through his scriptural understanding of mediation. On a more theoretical level, he uncovers some systemic oversight in the field of Practical Theology and marks the trail for P/C scholars to continue to contribute to the field of practical theology.

—Mark J. Cartledge, The Mediation of the Spirit: Interventions in Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

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