Practical Theology Today and the Implications for Mission

By Hazle, Dave | International Review of Mission, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Practical Theology Today and the Implications for Mission


Hazle, Dave, International Review of Mission


A. Rebirth of practical theology

Two distinct paradigms of theology co-exist today. On the one hand, there is the paradigm of theology as a set of sub-disciplines, of which practical theology is one. On the other hand, there is the paradigm that sees theology as essentially practical, and the various sub-disciplines of theology as interrelated in order to serve this practical end. (1) For many years, the former paradigm, emanating mainly from Western theological circles, was the dominant one. Practical theology from this perspective was seen as the "finishing school" of theological education. It was concerned with equipping theological students for the practical aspects of the task of ministry, such as preaching and pastoral care. However, over the last three of four decades, this area of theology has undergone what some have described as a "re-birth" (2).

This rebirth has involved, among other things, a re-examination of the nature of theology as a whole, and the place of practical theology within it. Furthermore, it has fostered the development of socio-theological aspects of theology (such as political theology), and challenged the traditional methodologies for theological reflection. In general, the debates that have led to this rebirth have come to see theology as having a more practical orientation. Even those who maintain some notion of sub-disciplines in theology would consider

   ... practical theology, as that branch of theology which is
   concerned to explore the relationship between, on the one hand,
   Scripture and the tradition of the Church and, on the other hand,
   the whole range of Christian praxis in the world. (3)

Practical theologians are careful to point out, however, that this practice-centred approach to understanding theology is not new. Forrester, for example, notes:

   Practical theology as a distinct theological discipline is
   comparatively young but the idea that theology as such is a
   practical science has been there from the beginnings of Christian
   theological reflections. (4)

In this paper, I wish to consider some of the implications of this practical paradigm of theology for mission. I propose to do so in three steps. First, with reference to a schema of the genre of theology proposed by Edward Farley, which is widely acknowledged, I will examine the development of the discipline of theology and the disunity between theology and practice, which has accompanied much of this evolution. Secondly, I will briefly discuss some of the contemporary sources of this practical perspective on theology in general, and of this rebirth in practical theology in particular. Thirdly, I will describe some of the features of this practically oriented understanding or practical paradigm of theology that are emerging. For each feature I will then discuss how this informs the task of mission.

B. Stages of theological evolution and the problem of disunity

Farley posits the view that there are four distinct meanings of genres of theology that he, in turn, associates with different stages of its evolution. For him, these genres reveal an essential ambiguity in the use of the term "theology". First of all, there is theology as the knowledge of God, which is based on an understanding that theology is synonymous with an awareness of God cultivated through the practice of prayer, study, worship and discipleship. Farley refers to this as "habitus", which connotes the idea of theology as a way of life.

In the second genre, viz. theology science, "theology is an episteme, a scientia, an actor cognitive disposition in which the self-disclosing God is grasped as disclosed." (5) This understanding of theology became the framework within which all Western knowledge was understood; during the medieval period it provided the impetus for the establishment of universities. With either of these two genre (habitus or science), theology is understood as a unified whole without division into theoretical and practical aspects.

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