Grounding Theology in Practice

by Thomas W. Ogletree

Thomas W. Ogletree is professor of theological ethics and former dean at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 14, 1992, pps. 904-910. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Browning’s emphasis on ethics reflects his judgment that contemporary churches are disposed to avoid the ethical import of the Christian message, offering care without accountability.

Book Review: A Fundamental Practical Theology.

By Don S. Browning. Fortress, 324 pp., $ 29.95.

Don Browning’s provocative study A Fundamental Practical Theology offers the most concerted account yet of how the churches’ practice might organize theological inquiry as a whole. Browning does not attempt to work through many of the systemic and conceptual problems generated by his project, and in this respect his book is more exploratory than definitive. His explorations are rendered somewhat diffuse, moreover, by his penchant for position-taking on a wide range of philosophical, theological and ethical controversies. Despite these caveats, he has opened up important lines of inquiry which merit further investigation.

Browning’s central purpose is to show that all authentic Christian theology is governed by practical interests. Theology begins and ends in the collective practice of living communities of faith—communities which seek clarity about their mission in the context of the contemporary world. A critical grasp of theology requires us to pay systematic attention to the way practical concerns initially give rise to urgent theological questions, and then press us toward proposals that foster more faithful and effective Christian living.

To establish his claim, Browning reconceives the whole of theology as "fundamental practical theology." The term "fundamental" underscores the point that every facet of theology, however specialized or esoteric it may appear to be, is finally practical in its import. Browning divides fundamental practical theology into four submovements: descriptive theology, historical theology, systematic theology and "strategic practical theology." Although not without precedent, the most novel feature of Browning’s proposal is his isolation of an initial phase of inquiry called "descriptive theology." Descriptive theology proves to be primary and pervasive in Browning’s program. It portrays the "contemporary theory-laden practices that give rise to the practical, questions that generate all theological reflection." Browning believes that description has always informed, at least tacitly, all branches of theology. His intent is to insist that it become fully self-conscious and critical.

The emphasis on description prevents practical theology from being reduced merely to an exercise of application—application to practice of the results of historical and systematic theology. In Browning’s terms, it displaces the habit of "theory-to-practice" thinking. By speaking of "theory-laden" practices, Browning also calls attention to value orientations and beliefs about the nature of things that already reside in practice. Just as there is no such thing as theory that is not about something practical, so there is no such thing as practice devoid of all theory whatsoever. Describing practice includes tracing and recounting the beliefs it presumes, whether they be naïve, illusory or critically informed.

Descriptive theology sketches out the hermeneutical context that governs historical and systematic theology. Since contemporary practices profoundly shape both historical retrievals and systematic articulations of Christian faith, studies in these branches of theology properly proceed by way of a prior movement of description. The task of these other branches is to present, at a high level of generality, the basic themes that belong to a Christian understanding of reality. In Browning’s account, historical theology includes biblical theology, and systematic theology includes theological ethics, philosophical theology and the philosophy of religion.

The general work of description leads finally to strategic practical theology. This theological submovement is governed by problems that occupy the churches in their search for clarity about their mission. It too begins with description, but of a more concrete sort—"thick description," Browning calls it. Such description brings into focus the collective practices of congregations in their social, cultural and natural settings. It critically examines those practices in light of themes that have been elaborated in historical and systematic theology. The goal of strategic practical theology is to devise, and then to defend and communicate, specific recommendations for congregational ministries.

Browning demonstrates his idea of strategic practical theology through analyses of three congregational studies. The first two studies—one of a suburban United Methodist church, and the other of an established Presbyterian congregation that became a sanctuary church—were conducted by interdisciplinary teams that included Browning. The third, the study of an urban, African-American Pentecostal church with strong family ministries, was conducted by Browning and his assistants. A third of the book is devoted to these studies.

Browning conveys the impression that his fourfold scheme has a logical and temporal order: first descriptive theology, then historical theology, next systematic theology, and finally, strategic practical theology. In suggesting such an orderly procedure, however, he may pass too lightly over the complications and difficulties we face when we seek to discern what is going on in contemporary situations especially those in which we ourselves are involved. Indeed, our comprehension of the present has more the character of an imaginative construction than of straightforward description. We devise ways of representing to ourselves the contours of our own reality so that we might better cope with its challenges. Our formative traditions play no small role in such representations.

As Browning makes clear, however, none of the submovements of theology can be completed without the other three. He intends to challenge all branches of theology to pay heed to the social and cultural locus of their inquiries. At no point does he argue for a new group of specialists called "descriptive theologians." What matters is a lively dialogue among the branches of theology, with full appreciation for the practical interest that governs them all.

Browning’s second purpose is to advocate a particular way of doing theology, one positioned between historicist and foundationalist approaches (what George Lindbeck terms, respectively, "cultural-linguistic" and "apologetic" perspectives in his book The Nature of Christian Doctrine). Historicist approaches interpret discrete streams of normative tradition, while foundationalist approaches strive to ground theological claims in tradition-transcendent appeals to reason and experience. Citing David Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order, Browning characterizes the middle way as a "critical correlational approach" to theology. While the central aim of this approach is to mediate critically the churches’ normative traditions in the present context, it involves as well "a mutually critical dialogue between interpretations of the Christian message and interpretations of contemporary cultural experiences and practices." Such a dialogue requires Christian theologians to advance an apologetic which will argue for the truth and goodness of their traditions in language that is intelligible within a broader culture.

Browning does not attempt to construct such a critical correlational theology. Rather, he suggests features of such a theology by playing off of the strengths and weaknesses of his polar extremes. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty, Alasdair Maclntyre, George Lindbeck, Johannes Baptist Metz and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, represent the historicist or cultural-linguistic stream; Jürgen Habermas, Alan Donagan, Alan Gewirth, Ronald Green and perhaps Gene Outka are some of those who represent the foundationalist or "apologetic" stream. Browning would have a little bit of each: more appreciation for the formative power of tradition than the foundationalists display; more insistence on the authority of reason and experience than the historicists allow. His stress on the latter reflects his sense that appeals to reason and experience are more at risk. Though a middle way has intuitive appeal, Browning’s own thought remains eclectic, more a set of assertions about what he likes and does not like than the formulation of a cogent position.

Browning’s most important task in A Fundamental Practical Theology is to elaborate the inquiries that compose his fourth submovement, strategic practical theology. In doing so he makes five highly plausible claims.

First, we do not have to invent strategic practical theology. It is already a feature of congregational practice. The challenge is to do it better, and to incorporate it with greater rigor into theological education and scholarship.

Second, strategic practical theology does not merely apply historical and systematic theology to practice. It is an original inquiry with its own form and substance. Though it draws upon the other theological subspecialties, it makes essential contributions of its own. Indeed, it uncovers the decisive locus of authentic theological inquiry.

Third, strategic practical theology begins with "thick description" of theory-laden congregational practices. Description includes theological and ethical convictions, since they are embedded in congregational practices. These convictions guide, authorize and rationalize practice. Though these convictions may conceal what is going on in a situation, they also furnish resources for critically assessing concrete practice.

Fourth, the human sciences have a crucial role to play in "thick description." They alert us to constraints upon congregational practices, and they help us identify certain nonmoral goods relevant to theological and ethical reflection.

Fifth, the human sciences can serve strategic practical theology only when they are reconceived as hermeneutical inquiries. Scientists as individuals and developed patterns of scientific thinking both have specific value orientations and cultural biases. To assess scientific research, we must show how these biases and values shape its methods and qualify its results. We must subject the sciences themselves to the dialogue that takes place within critical correlational theology.

In regard to all of these matters, Browning is on solid ground. Conceptual weaknesses begin to appear, however, in his exposition of the inquiries that make up strategic practical theology. Browning is aware of his limitations. He is attracted to Jürgen Habermas’s model of "reconstructive science," in which one derives certain "validity claims" from communicative action itself—claims that must be "redeemed" in a public discourse. By "validity claims," Habermas has in view presumptions that already reside in any communicative act whatever and that we must be prepared to defend under questioning by others. To "redeem validity claims" is to furnish arguments in support of these presumptions. Similarly, Browning would like to derive from the collective practices of congregations "validity claims" that must be "redeemed" in strategic practical theology. Yet Browning sees no way to proceed in this task with the necessary rigor, so he resorts to an autobiographical account of how various inquiries gained importance for him in the course of his intellectual pilgrimage. He invites the reader to "try out" his proposed categories, emphasizing their "open-ended and modest" character.

The reader is invited, then, to consider five "dimensions" or "levels" of inquiry pertinent to strategic practical theology: vision, obligation, tendency/need, environmental/social and rule/role. The first two refer to theological and ethical ideas. Browning suggests their relation with a mixed image: theology is the "outer envelope" and ethics the "inner core" of strategic practical theology. The latter three are illumined by the human sciences, though they play a role in ethical reflection as well. Thus, tendency/need is the province of psychology; environmental/social, of environmental sciences and sociology, respectively; and rule/role, of sociology. Cultural anthropology sheds light on the functional significance of vision and obligation. Browning makes little or no substantive use of the "rule/role" dimension. His detailed studies revolve, then, around the other four dimensions.

Browning’s aim is not systematic completeness. He seeks instead to consider how inquiries appropriate to strategic practical theology may be related to one another. He offers a selection of representative investigations, all of which are open to modification and enlargement.

At one point, Browning notes the usefulness of Talcott Parsons’s theory of action for organizing the human sciences. Parsons does strive for systematic completeness; he outlines distinctions and interconnections among four subsystems: the organic, the personal, the social and the cultural. He then relates these subsystems to the natural environment on the one hand and to the ultimately real on the other hand. The former furnishes action its elemental preconditions; the latter, its overarching framework.

Parsons’s theory suggests six lines of inquiry. We examine congregational practices in terms of organic, personal, social and cultural dynamics, attending to important distinctions and interrelationships. We then examine these same dynamics in relation both to environmental processes and to normative articulations of the ultimately real. The latter introduce theological and ethical views, mediated perhaps through metaphysical or cosmological speculations.

The basic subsystems are each open to elaboration. Parsons focuses on the social system and its differentiation into economic, political, social and cultural subsystems. The economic subsystem orders the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services necessary to sustenance. The political subsystem allocates authority, legitimacy and power in their bearing on collective decision-making and public order. The social subsystem provides for socialization and for the maintenance of social bonds, and it furnishes procedures for resolving societal conflicts. The cultural subsystem preserves, enriches and transmits social values and understandings.

According to Parsons, these processes are fully operative only in a total society, yet they appear in qualified ways in smaller social units. Though dependent on the wider society, congregations themselves display economic, political, social and cultural dynamics that merit study in strategic practical theology.

My intent is not to canonize Parsons’s theory, but to note that he undertakes the systems-thinking that Browning’s view of strategic practical theology may require. Browning would have done well to follow his lead. Parsons disposes us to question Browning’s special association of the environmental with the social. This association apparently arises from the fact that Browning’s interest in social dynamics primarily concerns not processes internal to congregational life, but rather the operations of the larger society within which congregations are located. Parsons also stimulates us to elaborate psychic, social and cultural processes in the collective practices of human beings in ways that surpass Browning’s own accomplishments.

For Browning, strategic practical theology is at its core an exercise in theological ethics. The emphasis on ethics reflects his judgment that contemporary churches are disposed to avoid the ethical import of the Christian message, retreating from the public arena to a safer private sector, and there offering care without accountability ("cheap grace"). As a corrective, he explicates his five dimensions in terms of theological ethics. There is, of course, a more general form of theological ethics that appears within historical theology and systematic theology. Browning’s purpose is to show how these general understanding might figure in strategic practical theology as well. In his case studies, he

likewise features ethical issues.

Browning lifts up Reinhold Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man as

a successful integration of vision and obligation in theological ethics. Niebuhr shows how substantive Christian understandings ("vision") qualify ethical interests, while also dramatizing the ethical thrust of the Christian message ("obligation"). Browning rightly objects to Niebuhr’s identification of "agape" with sacrificial love. Following Gene Outka, he interprets agape as "mutual regard," adding that mutual regard cannot be sustained without sacrifice. Mutual regard emerges as the paramount Christian moral principle.

Because Browning closely identifies mutual regard with principles of justice widely discussed in contemporary philosophy, he believes that its normative standing can be sustained in a mutually critical discourse. Thus, he puts forward a foundational principle of obligation deeply rooted in Christian tradition that can be "redeemed" by appeals to reason and experience. The Christian "vision" that frames this principle disposes practical thinkers to adopt a "realist" stance in public life, resisting both naïve illusions about the possibilities for human goodness and cynical dismissals of moral accountability.

Mutual regard is a "thin" principle, highly abstract in form. It becomes more concrete by way of the remaining three dimensions. Psychological treatments of human tendencies and needs alert us to important nonmoral goods that fill in the content of mutual regard. They lead us to resist any reduction of moral action to volition guided by practical reason alone, for the same tendencies and needs also enter into the motivation of action. Similarly, the environmental/social dimension discloses external constraints on practice, pressing us to be realistic about the impact of mutual regard on social existence. Finally, the rule/role dimension delineates moral rules suited to the enactment of mutual regard in concrete social reality.

Even in concrete settings, Browning argues, the principle of mutual regard continues to preside over all Christian moral judgment. It determines the moral status of nonmoral goods and it furnishes the ultimate basis for the assessment of practice. By insisting on this point, I would contend, Browning’s thinking tends to revert to the "theory-to-practice" model that he otherwise rejects. If a more complex, multidimensional pattern of moral reasoning is to be enacted, that pattern must also be reflected in the general account of ethics to which it is related. Otherwise, the dense interconnections of the branches of fundamental practical theology will be lost.

Here too Browning is better at identifying elements that belong to a theological ethic than at working through the problems a coherent theory must solve. Instead of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man , the better model for an ethic pertinent to strategic practical theology might be H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self. The latter Niebuhr takes account of theories of obligations and theories of value, yet he connects both to historically formed social situations. The result is an ethic of responsiveness that begins with "thick" description and ends in concrete patterns of practice. The general norm is a "fitting response" to "what is going on."

Browning’s book bristles with interesting questions. My wish is that he had maintained more disciplined focus on his central project, the explication of fundamental practical theology, and that he had attended more patiently to the systematic and conceptual problems residing in that proposal. His case for a critical correlational theology would have been the stronger had he limited himself to its connections with strategic practical theology. Likewise, the ethical dimensions of practical theology would have been more persuasively developed had their integral relation with the communal life of congregations first been fully established.

Finally, without wanting to diminish the importance of congregations, I think it would be most unfortunate if strategic practical theology left out of consideration other organizational aspects of church life, such as denominations, ecumenical associations and church-related institutions. Notwithstanding these limits, Browning’s book remains a highly valuable study. He uncovers crucial issues that cry out for attention.