Revernaculation: Practical Theology

January 7, 2011 | 1 Comment

In the early days of this blog, I ran a short, irregular series called Revernaculation. The idea was to visit some of the language that was common to the vernacular of the North American Evangelicalism I grew up in to evaluate where meanings and understandings had been misguided. I liked that series, and I think I had a number of other drafts for this series I never got around to developing. But I’m going to bring it back for at least this one post (and perhaps more) with a look at the phrase “practical theology”.

Practical theology is a way of describing what it means to actually live out the belief system that we have. It might be used in relationship to systematic theology, which is intended to be a comprehensive look at various segments of Christian belief and how they tie together as a whole. Systematic theology would tend to be more conceptual, leading to an understanding of God and God’s role in history.

Practical theology would serve to shape the understandings that come from systematic theology into actions to be carried out. It might be said that practical theology would be the “how now shall we live” with the understandings that we have gathered from systematic theology. I enjoy reading and studying theology, but find my passion is stirred when I think about how to craft the concepts of systematic theology to the actions of practical theology.

But I would also hope that practical theology could be more than it is, more than how I’ve described it here. It’s not that common of a term, and when it is used, it is usually in the context of a graduate or undergraduate curriculum meant for would-be pastors or church leaders. More often than not, practical theology has come to mean what the day to day (or Sunday to Sunday) life of a church community might look like. I won’t go so far as to say it becomes about programming, but it is most often presented as the territory of the professional, and not of the layperson.

I’m interested in recapturing a practical theology that is both about understanding and practice — practice and practical come from the same root after all. A good practical theology should not focus only on the work of the church leader to shape a community, but on the life of a follower of Jesus, living out their understandings of how to follow Jesus in the every moment, in the meaningful and in the seemingly mundane. It means that understandings are important and the concepts of systematics must be taught, but must be shared in a way that matters on Monday. A practical theology is one that must form understandings and shape how we eat, how we work, how we rest, how we play, how we marry, how we parent, how we shop, how we breathe — how we love.

My friend Jonathan Dodson wrote the following in a response to one of my old posts on local theology. He probably says better in this one sentence what I’m trying to get at in the five paragraphs above:

We are trying to strike the delicate balance between teaching theology and cultivating theologians, between downloading Systematic Theology and discipling Christians who do theology to address issues in our Keep Austin Weird culture.

  • Robert Brewer

    Indeed, there are some truths that cannot be understood without first being obedient to their practices. Or, as Foucault puts it in _Hermeneutics of the Self_ (p15):

    We will call “philosophy” the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and … “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.