The Revival of Practical Theology

by Don Browning

Don Browning is professor of religion and psychological studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1984, p. 134. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Although the phrase “practical theology” has been associated in recent decades with the least prestigious theological disciplines, there are several authors now trying to rehabilitate its meaning. Much more work needs to be done to establish practical theology as procedure and as method before it can become more central to theological education.

As Don S. Browning notes below, several scholars are currently doing creative work in the area of practical theology. For this year’s theological education issue, we asked Dr. Browning, who is one of those scholars, to comment on his own research as well as that of others in the field. He has paid special attention to a book that has provoked considerable discussion in seminaries and divinity schools, Edward Farley's Theologia (Fortress, 1983), which received an initial Century review in the August 17-24, 1984 issue, p. 754.

The question of the fundamental integrity of theological education has been raised with new force in recent months, and what some theologians call practical theology” is being put forth as a possible new foundation for theological education. Although the phrase “practical theology” has been associated in recent decades with the least prestigious theological disciplines, there are several authors now trying to rehabilitate its meaning.

Thomas Ogletree, David Tracy, Dennis McCann and James Fowler have written groundbreaking articles on the subject in the recent book I edited titled Practical Theology: The Emerging Field in Theology, Church, and World (Harper & Row, 1983). John Westerhoff in his Building God’s People in a Materialistic Society (Seabury, 1983), after making the standard distinction between fundamental, systematic and practical theology, further differentiates practical theology into the liturgical, moral, spiritual, pastoral and catechetical. Although Thomas Groome in his widely celebrated Christian Religious Education (Harper & Row, 1980) does not actually use the term, he does in fact present a powerful practical theology of Christian education that constitutes the major reason for the book’s success. The idea of a practical theology of care is also set forth in my recent Religious Ethics and Pastoral Care (Fortress, 1983). And earlier stimulation to this discussion came from Evelyn and James Whitehead in their Method in Ministry (Seabury. 1980).

The liberation theologians in general can be understood as practical theologians, but to date few of them have addressed the issue of theological education. In Germany, under the leadership of Rolf Zerfass and Norbet Mette, there has been an important revival of practical theology But a very powerful recent statement pointing to its revival can he found in Edward Fancy’s recent book, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education

At first glance, one might think that Farley’s Theologia is a devastating critique of the possibility of practical theology. He is certainly critical of the traditional view of practical theology associated with the standard division of the theological disciplines in the Protestant encyclopedias. The encyclopedias arose in the 18th and 19th centuries; Schleiermacher’s Brief Outline of Theological Study (1811) is one of its more enlightened forerunners. This literature gave rise to the standard fourfold division of theological studies into Bible, church history, systematic theology and practical theology. At its best, practical theology in this model simply applied the results of exegetical, church historical and systematic theology to the concrete operations of church life or, more narrowly, to the activities of the clergy. At its worst, especially in more recent times, practical theology has been used as a catchphrase to refer to the practical training of candidates for the clergy -- a training or pedagogy largely divorced from theological foundations and dominated by assumptions, knowledge and technologies taken over from the social sciences.

In either of these expressions, practical theology has been seen as the problem of theological education rather than the solution. It has been seen more as the cause of fragmentation and incoherence than as the source from which the restoration of integrity might flow.

On the surface, practical theology certainly gets this kind of press in Farley’s Theologia. But at a deeper level, the entire book can be understood as a call for the rebirth of practical theology; i.e., as a making of theologia into a thoroughly critical and practical enterprise, effecting a renewal of both university theological studies and the seminary education of the clergy.

Great similarities exist among the authors writing about practical theology. In varying degrees, most of them want practical theology to become more critical and philosophical, more public (in the sense of being more oriented toward the church’s ministry to the world rather than simply preoccupied with the needs of its own internal life), and more related to an analysis of the various situations and contexts of theology. Most of these authors want practical theology to transcend what Farley aptly calls the “clerical Paradigm.” By this he means the tendency to center both practical theology and theological education on the skills that professional ministers need in order to run local congregations effectively. And most of them want practical theology to continue its close relation with the social sciences, but to do this in such a way as not to become overidentified with these secular disciplines. The social sciences -- psychology, sociology, economics and, increasingly, cultural anthropology -- are seen as crucial tools. But although practical theology must use them, it still retains the primary task of critically appropriating and testing its own sources: the central events, stories and themes of Judeo-Christian history.

Despite some of these broad similarities, there are also important differences among the major speakers in this emerging dialogue. There are disagreements about just how philosophical, public and dialectical practical theology should be. Here Tracy, McCann and I probably would want to go further than, for instance, Farley, Fowler or Westerhoff. There is also variance on the centrality of theological ethics for practical theology and, in addition, there are different ideas about how theological ethics should be conceived.

For instance, when Fowler and Westerhoff think about theological ethics, they tend to think in terms of an ethics of virtue or disposition, in contrast to a theological ethics emphasizing principle and procedure. This is especially true of Westerhoff, who is attracted to the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, with its emphasis on how the Christian story functioning through Christian communities shapes the character and forms the virtue of the faithful. On the other hand, Tracy, McCann and I (and possibly Groome and Ogletree) would want to abstract from the Christian story a more philosophically identifiable set of principles and procedures which could be used in public debates over the common good. The Christian story would still inform and enrich these principles and procedures, but they would be stated and defended to people in our pluralistic society who do not necessarily begin with Christian presuppositions. Both principle and procedure (method) and virtue and disposition are important for these thinkers. But theological ethics as principle and procedure is crucial if practical theology is to equip the church to take a thoroughly critical role in public life.

Farley is actually somewhat difficult to pin down on this set of issues. On the whole, he seems to emphasize both sides of the discussion. He characterizes theologia as both a habitus and a dialectic. Under the rubric of habitus, he speaks of theology as both wisdom and science. It is also a paideia, an excellence of areté or virtue. Farley depicts theologia as being characterized by a certain objective cognition, as well as being a highly existential enterprise that shapes our lives and characters. This should be true for the theology taught in the university just as much as for the theology taught in the seminary. His heroes in this respect are Jewish scholars such as Abraham Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, Jacob Neusner, Lou Silberman, Samuel Sandmel and Emil Fackenheim. As he writes, “The notion that specialized pursuit of scholarship would exclude the possibility of being a theological interpreter of Judaism would be utterly foreign to all of these figures.” Farley believes that not only Judaism but Christianity and the other major religions of the world should be taught in the university with this twofold attitude of criticism and appreciative interpretation; i.e., with both a hermeneutics of suspicion and a hermeneutics of restoration.

Under the rubric of Farley’s vision of theologia as dialectic, more of what I have called practical theology as procedure begins to emerge. (It is not clear, at least in Theologia, just where Fancy stands on the question of practical theology’s need for an ethics of principle.) In fact, it is precisely in Farley’s discussion of theologia as dialectic that one can see how Farley is trying both to bury the old practical theology of the fourfold pattern and to replace it with a practical theology of an entirely different kind.

Theology as dialectic is what turns Farley’s recommendations about theologia into a truly practical theology. The dialectical aspect of theologia involves several different steps or procedures. Something similar to these procedures can be found in Groome’s five movements, the Whiteheads’ four aspects of method, or my four steps of practical theological thinking. First, Farley points to the primacy of the situation, interpreted, to be sure, both from the perspective of faith and from the perspective of the relevant social science disciplines. Second, he denies the normativeness of the existing situation or, as I take it, the various autonomous and distorted cultural interpretations of the situation.

Third, Fancy applies a similar hermeneutic of suspicion to the tradition, in an effort to cleanse it of its distortions and ideologies. Fourth, a more restorative moment occurs when the truth, reality and normativeness of the tradition are discerned. The final stage is a return to the situation to give it a more theonomous interpretation from the perspective of the central themes of the tradition, especially the symbol of the Kingdom of God. These five aspects of theologia as dialectic are a step in the direction of going beyond practical theology as habitus and paideia (and their leanings toward an ethics of character), and toward practical theology as procedure.

In a more recent unpublished document, Farley has much more directly addressed the issue of practical theology. He points out that from its early usage in Catholic theology, where it was strongly associated with moral theology, the concept gradually underwent a series of narrowings in Protestant circles -- first, to the idea that it dealt with the theology of the church’s activities; second, to the idea that it dealt primarily with the theology of the cleric’s activities as leader of the church. In both of these strictures, the role of theological ethics or moral theology in practical theology was minimized, and the idea that practical theology dealt with the church’s attempt to influence the order of the public world subsided. In the old fourfold model, practical theology was confessional, applicational, parochial and clerical. It lost its dialectical relation with situations and contexts, and thereby diluted the church’s mission to the world. It failed to provide the church with a genuine practical theology for the laity. And it isolated the specific regions of practical theology -- pastoral care, religious education, homiletics, liturgics, etc.--from both fundamental and systematic theology on the one hand and critical engagement with world situations on the other.

It should not be thought, however, that Parley, in his efforts to liberate theologia from its captivity to the clerical paradigm, is uninterested in making it relevant to ministerial education. In depicting theologia as more practical than is generally thought to be the case, he is simultaneously making it more relevant to clerical education and not allowing it to be exhausted by those demands. He is simply interested in bringing theologia as a practical enterprise into all the traditional regions of practical theology -- education, care, worship, preaching, spirituality, etc. Educators, counselors, preachers and liturgists must always and everywhere, time and time again, re-establish the critical theological grounds of their ministries just as they must, time and time again, listen to and re-establish a theological interpretation of the situations which they address. One does get the impression, however, that if Farley had his way, there would be in many of our seminaries much less preoccupation with education for the professional tasks of the clergy and much more concern with learning how to discern theologically the meaning of “ecclesial presence” in the various situations of life in the world. This task, Parley would claim, can be done in the seminary, can even occur with laypeople, but also can be accomplished in departments of religion in secular colleges and universities.


Farley has accomplished much in his thoughtful book and in other writings on theological education. He has made theologia simultaneously more praxis-oriented and more appropriate for the university and college classroom. If we followed Farley’s suggestions, education for the tasks of the professional clergy would have more theological integrity and theology could be taught as a respectable university discipline. In addition, if seminary education were informed more by theologia as he conceives it, ministers would be better equipped not only to run their churches but to relate them to the major issues being debated in the public realm.

Farley’s book should be seen as a major step in the direction of rehabilitating practical theology. It will not be the last word, nor does he present it as such. But one sometimes wonders if Farley fully realizes how far we must yet travel before we arrive at a thoroughly practical theology critical and philosophical enough to fit in the university and fine-tuned enough actually to give direction to the church’s ministries in the public world.

In brief, I would like to see Farley do more with what I have been calling practical theology as procedure. I fear that much of what he has said about theologia as habitus and paideia will be absorbed by many readers into the current widespread interest in a theological ethics of virtue, character and disposition. Not that this emphasis is wrong. but it is not enough. Good people, even good people living out of the same story, can come up with vastly different judgments on the major issues being debated in the public world. A practical theology of virtue and character must be supplemented and supported by a practical theology of procedure and one, I believe, that also builds an important role for ethical principles in theological reflection.

Farley attempts to refine, in the last sections of his book, what he means by the dialectic of theologia. There he goes further than at any other place in building a central role for theological ethics in his understanding of theologia and practical theology. Theologia is fundamentally a matter of appraisal. He writes:

The life of theologia is a dialectic of interpretation impelled by faith and its mythos occurring in and toward life’s settings. It is faith’s way of self-consciously and critically existing in the world. It has, accordingly, the general character of appraisal. . . . All theological education, the paideia of the community of faith, be it for church leader or believer, is centrally an education in theologia as an appraising, assessing activity [p. 186].


But Farley’s account of the dimensions of appraisal is still relatively molar and seems not to be fine-tuned enough to carry the church very far into the dialogues and conversations of the public world. Appraisal, he tells us, involves discerning (1) the ontological features of the human, especially in its relation to the divine, (2) what is “enduring, true and real” about the tradition, (3) what this truth implies for concrete “choices, styles, patterns and obligations” of life, and (4) the connection between these different levels of truth in the tradition and concrete situations that we confront in our everyday life.

All of this takes theologia very decisively into the realm of theological ethics, and into its method and procedure. It is clear that although his emphasis includes, it also goes beyond, an ethics of virtue or disposition. It is also clear that Farley wants theological ethics to be part of a larger description of the essential features of the church. But even if this is true, I still want more clarity about the nature of practical moral thinking than Farley seems interested in discussing.


In some of my own recent writings. I have argued that practical theology can and should be the center of theological studies (both in the seminary and the university) and that this practical theology needs a clear understanding of the nature of practical moral thinking (practical reason). I also have argued that it should go beyond the clerical paradigm, although, as Farley argues, it should still be able to include it. I have argued that there should be both an ecclesial and a public expression of each of the traditional regions of practical theology.

But to make theology genuinely practical and able to address issues in the public world, I have thought that a far more rigorous method or procedure of practical moral reflection is required than is called for, not only by Farley, but by most of the other writers working for the renewal of practical theology. In an effort to help establish such a method, I have introduced the idea of levels of practical moral reason. It has seemed to me that practical moral reason has (1) a metaphorical level, (2) an obligational level, (3) a tendency-need level, (4) a contextual or situational level and (5) a rule-role level.

The metaphorical level is the most explicitly religious level and refers to the metaphors and stories we use to represent the ultimate context of our experience. Embedded in these metaphors and stories, but often somewhat independent, are rather general principles of obligations. In Christianity, the principles of agape and justice generally are thought to be the preferred principles of obligation. The fact that these principles have such great similarity to principles of obligation found in other religions and philosophies has led many theologians to believe that what is unique about Christian principles of obligation is not so much their context as the particular view of the world that follows from the metaphors and stories which surround them and which are found in the Christian drama. This simple observation suggests the usefulness of seeing at least a partial autonomy between the preferred metaphors of the Christian faith (for instance, the metaphors of creator, governor and redeemer applied to God) and its preferred principles of obligation.

When correctly understood, these principles of obligation help Christians discern what they should do and lead them in both actualizing and mediating between various tendencies and needs (the third level) which Christians believe are essential for human existence. Even important human needs can conflict with one another, not only within an individual but also between individuals and groups. It is also known to Christian theology that humans tend to make stronger claims for their own needs than they do for their neighbors’. But it is precisely the task of our Christian principles of obligation both to actualize lovingly and to mediate justly between these overstated and conflicting needs. But however this goes, it is clear that even a religiously informed practical reason must have some theory, knowledge or intuition about these needs if it is to serve the purposes of a practical theology

Fourth, practical reason must have some knowledge of the contexts and situations which it is addressing. Of course, as Farley, Groome, the Whiteheads and many others have pointed out, knowledge of the situations of praxis and awareness of their problems, crises and challenges is the first step in engendering practical moral reflection. Practical thinking flows from a sense of the tensions of these concrete situations and returns to them after some necessary theoretical clarification. But the situations themselves do not provide us with the metaphors, theories of obligations and indices of needs that are required to address them normatively. Every situation of praxis must have within it that theoretical interlude during which answers relevant to these higher levels of practical moral thinking are achieved.

When some reflection has produced clarity, we return to our situations and try to develop new rules and roles for concrete action. This is the fifth level of practical moral thinking. Of course, all of these levels of moral reason require more interpretation than I can provide here. I have tried to do this in my Religious Ethics and Pastoral Care. These levels clearly have some analogues in Farley’s understanding of the four dimensions of appraisal. But what we are both trying to do -- Farley in his understanding of the dimensions of appraisal and I in my five levels -- is the kind of thing I believe is necessary in order to provide practical theology with the theory of practical reason that it needs. Doubtless both of us will need to do more work, especially on the logical relation that exists between our various levels. This work is necessary to provide for practical theology a method and procedure (built at least in part on an ethic of principles) and help it to avoid the danger of associating the ethical core of practical theology with an ethic of virtue and character.

Unless our new practical theologies can advance reasons for the positions they take in their public debates, they will not be effective. An ethic of virtue and character -- either in its more Christian form, as in the theology of Stanley Hauerwas (A Community of Character [University of Notre Dame Press, 19821), or its more secular form, as in Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982) -- can never advance convincing reasons in public conversation. Its ethic must necessarily be an ethic of example.

As much as this ethic is needed, as much as we are all indebted to the new clarifications which have come from the contemporary ethics of virtue and character, and as much as we must never lose its accomplishments, the new practical theologies must strive for something more rigorous. Farley’s work points in the right direction, but more work needs to be done to establish practical theology as procedure and as method before it can become the center of theological education.