The Real Task of Practical Theology

by Robin Lovin

At the time this was written, Robin W. Lovin was dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

This article appeared in The Christian CENTURY, February 5-12, 1992, pp. 125-128. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Lovin enters into the ongoing discussion of what theological education should be and how “practical theology” is to be understood and included. The author works from the premise that all theology must be practical theology in that it must enable individual faith to be effectively connected to social context. Practical theology’s task is to inform the theological dialogue about the complexity of communicating the gospel and the resources available to help.

"Practical Theology" provides the theme for much of today's discussion about theological education. Experienced voices are calling for a more central role for the practical disciplines--preaching, counseling, education and the like--which are often relegated to the intellectual margins of the seminary. More important, this focus on practice leads to probing questions about the purposes of theological education and the connections between religious faith and social context.

These concerns have antecedents, of course. Already in the 19th century American seminary professors stressed the importance of contemporary scientific studies alongside the classical theological disciplines. The same intellectual currents that led some clergy to founding roles in the social sciences led others to insist that education in those sciences was the key to effective ministry in an urban, industrial society. When the young Reinhold Niebuhr challenged his denomination in 1921 with an article titled "Shall a Minister Have an Education?" the education he had in mind was this comprehensive understanding of the social setting. His concern was shared by many other progressive denominational leaders, who saw the usual education in confessional theology as too narrow for the demands of modern ministry.

But the development of Protestant theological education after World War II turned away from this early 20th century vision. Timeless affirmations of Barthian theology and transcendental questions of modern philosophy dominated theology and ethics, while pastoral studies fostered the professional competences of the counselor. Even courses on preaching and education tended to promote individual self-acceptance and happiness.

Catholic seminaries, for somewhat different reasons, developed a similar curricular schizophrenia. The social vision of John A. Ryan failed to penetrate the institutions of theological education, and the Protestant split between theology and "application" was mirrored in the cleavage between the Thomistic education mandated by Leo XIII and the televised pastoral assurances of Fulton J. Sheen.

The current interest in practical theology may be seen as a return to the earlier effort to develop a comprehensive, integrated understanding of the life of faith in contemporary society. Practical theology continues the emphasis on psychology that has characterized preparation for the ministry since the 1950s. Today, however, the individual aspects of this psychology are often coupled with interests in congregational assessment and education as well as in personal growth.

A more striking change is the significance that practical theology gives to the social context of theology. Practical theologians attend to the sociology of congregations and to the studies of the changing role of religious institutions in American public life. They also make extensive use of contemporary social theology, seeking to understand in the most general terms the ways that societies function, the ways in which ideas are communicated and the ways in which religious concepts can be plausible and authoritative in a modern, secular context. American philosophical pragmatism, French phenomenology and German critical theory all provide important idioms in which practical theologians have explained their own projects. The works of Don Browning, John Cobb or Lewis Mudge are a lively introduction to contemporary psychology, social thought and philosophy, as well as an argument for their own constructive theological positions.

Along with this effort to provide a broader social understanding of religious institutions and a more sophisticated framework in which to explain the dynamics of religious life, practical theologians raise specific questions about education for contemporary religious leaders. Edward Farley has introduced these questions most pointedly, tracing the shape of contemporary Protestant theological education to a pattern that originated in Europe early in the 19th century. The implications of his argument, however, also apply to Roman Catholic theological education.

Farley's point is that the shape of theological reflection has been distorted by the requirements of professional pastoral competence. The key to a more vital and credible theology, Farley argues, is to abandon the "clerical paradigm." What practical theology must provide is an understanding of how faith can guide action in contemporary circumstances. That important task is trivialized when practical theology is reduced to a set of useful skills for the working minister.

Contemporary practical theology is thus more than the "application" of theological concepts to one social situation or another. Theology is fundamentally transformed by the conditions under which the people of faith must live and by the choices through which they participate in shaping the future. We simply do not know what the doctrines of atonement, incarnation and redemption mean until we understand what they mean for persons shaped by this historical milieu. All theology must be practical theology.

While the practical theology movement has provided important new direction to debates about theological education, serious questions have been raised about its approach to theology and ministry. Foremost among these is the question whether the contemporary psychological and social theories that are supposed to provide guidance for interpreting religious traditions have in fact been transformed into standards of theological truth. Is it possible, the critics ask, that what makes the Christian theological task so difficult is just that the message of our dependence on God's grace is not credible to an age that believes in individual autonomy and the competence of human reason? If that is the problem, it will not be solved by a more precise understanding of the forms of reason and authority that have validity for the modern mind. If anything, attention to those standards may lead the theologian to limit the truth of the gospel to what already seems to be true to those who have not yet been grasped by it.

Every practical theologian would, of course, deny that this is what his or her investigation intends, but the critics cannot be easily dismissed. The questions that modern thought raises about theology are penetrating, but they also tend to be generic. They apply to every attempt to think about a framework of meaning that transcends human constructions and every claim to truth that cannot easily be tested in human experience. If practical theologians devote their energies to explaining how modern people can believe anything at all, they may lose sight of the specific claims about God and humanity that characterize Christian faith and distinguish one form of Christianity from another. Much of the meaning of Christianity lies in what it tells us about the details of our lives. To the extent that these details are lost in large-scale theoretical constructions, the relevance to the actual life of faith that practical theology seeks is diminished.

The principal critics of practical theology therefore advocate a radical rejection of modern questions about reason and practice in favor of a discussion in which the most important questions about the meaning and validity of the Christian message are assumed, precisely so that the details can be intelligently debated. Narrative theologians across a broad spectrum from George Lindbeck to Ronald Thiemann insist that genuinely "practical" theology begins by asking how choices and practices make sense within a community that is already committed to the gospel. Stanley Hauerwas has developed Christian approaches to personal and social ethics from this same starting point. Others, led by theologian Thomas Oden, call for a return to "classical" theology, the great systems in which the thinkers of the early church took all of reality, including their own salvation, into a comprehensive understanding of God's activity. Disputed questions about the nature of Christ's divinity or the details of human salvation are not ancient quarrels that modern Christians ought to forget. They are critical questions about our own existence that can hardly be asked, let alone answered, without knowing the theological context in which they first were formulated.

The arguments for and against practical theology raise

important issues for theological education. The rejection of the "clerical paradigm" in favor of a reflection on Christian practice broadly based in the whole Christian community requires a changed concept of pastoral leadership and a new pattern of preparation for it. While the practical theologians and their critics disagree over exactly how this practical thinking begins, both sides agree that theological education is not primarily a matter of mastering specific skills or acquiring specialized knowledge for which other Christians have no use.

The minister's education cannot consist simply of Bible knowledge, theological concepts and liturgical details that the laity are unlikely to know, although this apparently provides some clergy with a satisfying sense of academic respectability. Nor can ministry proceed only by analysis of underlying social processes--race, class and economic power--although this apparently provides some clergy with a satisfying sense of contemporary relevance. The real task is to figure out what is happening at the nexus between the order of meaning presupposed by Christian faith and the order of events predicted by modern social theory. That is in some sense where all Christians live all the time, trying both to "take no thought for tomorrow" and to figure out whether it will be their department that gets eliminated in the next corporate takeover. The pastor is not someone who has a different concern, but she can provide leadership only if she is able to think about these questions more comprehensively and speak about them more articulately than those other Christians whose practical theology remains more intensely personal.

Education for this kind of pastoral leadership--as our Protestant forebears in the early decades of this century understood so well--must connect individual faith and social context. While the curriculum of American seminaries may have been dominated by a "clerical paradigm," the real life of these institutions has shifted toward an ethos of self-discovery in which many students' are equally bored by theological subtlety and social complexity. The thought that the sparks might really begin to fly when those two apparently inert elements are struck against one another rarely enters their minds.

Meanwhile, congregations and denominational leaders increasingly understand a "practical" theology to be one that communicates the gospel in ways that build loyalty and commitment among a people whose attention is captured by the demands and attractions of a secular society. The urgent need for results in ministry is translated into a demand for result-oriented theological education, and church leaders who are most concerned about reaching the laity become unwitting proponents of the "clerical paradigm." The demand of seminaries today is for pastors with skills to do quite specific things: organize youth groups, start new congregations, attract young adults, and so on.

These objectives are often very important, but few who measure practical theology in terms of pastoral skills recognize how much knowledge is required to do any of these things in ways that will yield more than short-term success. The knowledge, moreover, must be of society as well as theology, for communicating the gospel is as much a matter of knowing how it will be understood (or how it is apt to be misunderstood) as of knowing what it says.

When the religious understanding of society is superficial, the results can be comic. Mystical union takes to the airwaves in lyrics of romantic ecstasy, and cable television presents discussions of sacramental piety in the format pioneered by the "Tonight" show. But superficial understanding can also be tragic, when pastors and people who do not understand the roots of social disorder respond to demagogic appeals to "decency" and "Christian values," or when a genuine religious longing for human community takes anti-Semitic and xenophobic forms that can destroy a pluralistic society.

The urgent task of practical theology, then, is to understand society well enough that the church can truly be the church. A community shaped by the biblical narrative and steeped in classical theology can easily become a gentle anachronism, rather like the clubs that get together to hold costumed jousting tournaments. Or it can become a haven for hatred and resistance to change. It is too simple to suppose that these errors would all disappear if the churches better understood the gospel. Often what churches need is not a better understanding of the faith, but a more adequate knowledge of the society in which they are trying to live it out.

Theological education must prepare persons for religious leadership in those circumstances. Creative, practical skills and theological understanding must be linked to a knowledge of social context. Biblical norms and historical models must be related to contemporary possibilities with an imaginative grasp of what this history is apt to imply for those who see it against the background of their own fears and choices. Practical theologians have no formula that will yield a prescription for each and every one of these situations, but they need more than a bag of tricks with which to capture the wandering attentions of the information age. Knowledge is required, and not all of the knowledge that is needed will be found within the classical theological disciplines.

Not everyone who becomes a practical theologian in this sense will be preparing for pastoral leadership. Indeed, in a complex society where no one can grasp more than a few of the details, some of the most important practical theology will have to be done by specialists in medicine, law or business, or by theologians and ethicists whose training equips them for specialized roles in those institutions. To that extent, practical theology's critique of the "clerical paradigm" is on target. Theological schools must be measured in part by their ability to support serious theological reflection by those who are neither pastors nor professional theologians.

The central task of those institutions, however, must be to sustain pastoral leadership that is truly practical and truly theological. A congregation that is able to live simply and faithfully out of the Christian story is a gift of grace, but that gift must be sustained by some remarkable social creativity. The recent interest in practical theology may help to spark that creativity in the seminaries, where the discussion has been centered, and in the churches, where the conversation needs to be continued.