Exploring Practical Theology

Like many theological disciplines, Practical theology can leave you feeling like there’s more questions than answers.

As the title suggests, Practical theology deals with areas where theology meets the practice of everyday living.  If we act in a certain way, what theology is behind that?  If our theology is distant from those practices how can they be reconnected?

This makes sense and it’s hard to determine how theology can exist without practice and vice versa.  But soon we can become engulfed with questions around the nature of this theology, distracted by which practices should be influenced by our theology and which practices are just practice.

Faith Seeking Understanding

This leads us to some profound questions.  It makes sense to initially suggest that our study of the Bible should centre on its words and how the text was created.  However, theology is far more nuanced that that. St Anslem, (one of the most important Christian thinkers of the eleventh century)  suggested theology was “faith seeking understanding” … that we begin with personal belief and embrace understanding from the concept that God wants to show Himself.  Personal experiences and our context are therefore bound to play a massive role.

Andrew Root argues that this “Anselmian call for “faith seeking understanding” may start and gather its energy not in rational study of past theological points but in the pursuit to make sense of our concrete and lived experiences of Jesus who finds us in a hole, knocks us from our horse, or comes to our daughter in her sleep.”[1]

Theology is both a scandal and a privilege.  As human beings we can speak about the nature of God and seek to understand who God is.  The good news is that God reveals himself to us and allows us to speak of Him, He even gives us metaphor and ritual to help with the process.  The beauty of communion and of being broken, received and sent out is a beautiful reminder of the nature of Jesus Christ and His salvation.

Be Warned!

But practical theology comes with something of a health warning too as we explore our own practice.  Karl Barth once said that you cannot say God by saying “man” in a loud voice.

Theology without a speaking God is anthropology, it’s just our way of understanding the world.

So Practical Theology also involves the mystery of God, the things we don’t know.  Here again we are both helped and left confused.  There’s never been a theological consensus in our faith.  There’s always been different opinions and always been an unsettledness to faith.  Our doubts and questions, the mystery of God is part of faith seeking understanding.  We can explore with confidence and without worrying, yet we will be disappointed if sure answers are what we’re after.

Practical theology therefore needs some guide posts, and Christoph Schwoebel[2] is one of many to suggest some.  These five signposts give us a great deal of help as we navigate the connections between our theology and our practice and the lessons we can learn.

Theology is Christocentric

Christian theology revolves around the life and person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh (John1:14.)  What does Jesus say to your practice and to your theology?

Theology is Historic and communal

Theology follows on from those before, it’s rooted, it has origins. It’s not a view from nowhere and even if we feel untraditional we speak out of a tradition.  How does your theology relate to the story of faith and the story of the church?

Theology is appropriate to present

The format of Christian theology has to be understood in the present time.  The life of Jesus speaks to us from the 1st century AD but it connects with a 21st Century human.  We can have confidence that theology has much to say to the internet, new technologies, high-rise cities and climate change.

Theology is Intelligible, meaningful and coherent

Systematic theology teaches us (e.g. Emil Brumer) that our ideas should be coherent and connect with each other.  If I have a certain standpoint on the trinity for example, my practice should not contradict it.

Theology is Applicable to reality as a whole

Theology does not only seek to speak to our private realm of our Christian faith.  It seeks to connect with world as a whole and to be universal.  Our practical theology therefore encourages the idea that our beliefs need to be compatible with other forms of ‘truth’ such as the safeguarding of children or our experiences as people.

If we explore our theology and practice as “faith seeking understanding” we can embark on a wonderful journey of exploration.  It can be hard but the rewards for the way we live, and work will be wonderful.

[1] Andrew Root “Christopraxis: A Pratcial theology of the Cross”

[2] Systematic Theology Vol1 ‪Colin E. Gunton‪, Paul Brazier, Robert Jenson, Christoph Schwbl, Continuum International Publishing Group, Limited, 1 Nov 2012


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