Why I Have a Problem with the Phrase “Practical Theology”
Most seminaries in America have a department or unit of the curriculum (and professors who teach those courses) called “practical theology.” There are Christian scholars who specializes in “practical theology”—who write books that fit into that category and who speak and inform professors, students, pastors and lay people about this subject or some part of it.
What does “practical theology” usually include? Usually it includes such subjects as congregational leadership, youth and student ministry, spiritual formation and discipleship, etc.
Let me be clear so there is no knee-jerk reaction: I fully support these subjects being taught in seminaries. My only qualm (to put it mildly) is the phrase “practical theology” to describe them.
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Inevitably, calling these subjects “practical theology” implies—whether intentionally or not (and it is usually not intentional but nevertheless has this effect on students’ minds)—that systematic theology, dogmatics, historical theology, the study of doctrines is impractical. We might as well call the departments or units or faculties that teach these subjects “impractical theology” or “theoretical theology.” Because that is what people automatically think when they see and hear that “practical theology” does not include these traditional theological subjects.
As a historical and systematic theologian who also teaches ethics I find these subjects eminently practical even though I find it increasingly difficult to convince students and pastors and lay people in churches that they are practical.
Why are these subjects in which I specialize and to which I have devoted over forty years of my life practical?
First, God cares what we think about him. Thoughts about God that distort who he is/who they are (the Trinity) sadden the heart of God—especially when they are believed and taught by people who claim to be “Bible believing Christians.” How can it not make God sad when he sees and hears people who claim to belong to him believing and teaching heresies?
Second, it is part of the Christian churches’ duty to inform Christians about what the Bible teaches and train them to read the Bible and study at least the major contours of Christian history with some degree of astuteness. This is part of discipleship! How can it not be practical?
So what do I recommend calling the disciplines now lumped together under the label “practical theology?” I suggest “Theology Practiced” or “Applied Theology.” These are not perfect, but they would not be as likely to imply that my disciplines are not practical.
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