Impractical Theology — Does It Exist?

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, July 12th, 2010

If you are a seminary student, chances are you are pursuing a degree in “practical theology.” Chances are, also, that you deliberately chose that degree program over other choices. Somehow the term, the idea of pursuing something with practical implications appealed to you. If you are teaching at a seminary, chances are good that you are teaching courses in a practical theology curriculum. After all, this emphasis on “praxis” is a significant aspect of the character of a seminary. But what does that phrase imply? Does it mean that those who choose a different course of study may not get what is practical? Honestly, this way of labeling begs the question: Is there such a thing as “impractical theology”?

If the label fits, then I teach “impractical theology.” As a professor in systematic theology, I often get asked, “What does this have to do with real life?” Particularly when we discuss the complex world of the doctrine of the Trinity or any other subject matter that does not immediately show its application to ministry. “Praxis” here becomes synonymous with “real life”–as if reflecting on God, meditating on the Scriptures, and pursuing a deeper knowledge of God do not have anything to do with “real life.” As if life is somehow suspended when it comes to systematic theology. Or in other words, as if those who pursue that direction surely do something — but they do not practice anything.

This exclusion of the theoretical, the systematic, speculative, constructive dimension of the Christian life is often apparent in degree programs that require very few courses in doctrine and emphasize instead studies in preaching, counseling, scripture, and other topics that seem to relate directly to the life of ministry. The problem is that most seminary students do not come with the intention to go into the pulpit ministry (a place particularly closed to women). As a result, the majority of students who do not pursue a professional ministry (i.e., clergy) leave seminary ill-equipped for the practices of the non-clergy Christian life. And even among those who enter the ministry or continue in a clerical position, graduates are often better equipped to exegete a biblical passage or understand the psychology of congregations than to explain the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

A popular definition of “practices” is given by Alasdair MacIntyre: “Practices are … any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (After Virtue, 187). According to this definition, systematic theology is a practice; knowing specialized vocabulary is not. Reading the Bible is not a practice, the liturgy of the hours is. Exegeting a biblical passage is not a practice; preaching is. Breaking the bread is not a practice, but the Lord’s Supper is. Prayer is not a practice; worship is.

MacIntyre’s definition is helpful, but incomplete. It neglects a decisive factor: the question who or what the establishes the cooperative human activity that we call theology. The answer, unfortunately, is a divided one: society, church, and academy. These three publics are not one but are rather radically divided. And as a result, what is considered “proper” theology is divided as well. In other words, what is practical to the academy appears rather difficult to apply to the church and often quite theoretical and speculative to the general public. Where do we begin the reconciliation? My starting point is a new course at the School of Divinity in the Fall semester called “Practicing Theology” that addresses these questions.

I wonder who will enroll in this kind of course? Am I perpetuating the division I am trying to overcome? I cannot see an alternative to the title: all theology is practical. What needs to change is the way we slot our activities and judge them based on performance, productivity, and expectations that may betray us. There are a lot of questions. Perhaps we will find some answers. I will post them on the blog — even if they are not practical.

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Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Monday, July 12th, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Faith & Culture, Renewal Studies, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Impractical Theology — Does It Exist?”

  1. Stephen Hightower says:

    Dr. Vondey -
    I’m sure the class will be a huge success. Bravo for pointing out an erroneous distinction and developing a class in which our students can explore these things. This issue was the crux of my Sunday School lesson yesterday. I used an entire classroom whiteboard to diagram connections from just one “everyday” Christian concept to about a dozen points of doctrine that would be covered in a Systematic Theology course. Seeing the diagram was helpful for people to understand how important it is to be conscious of the integration of our theology in every aspect of our lives (and how we often do it without thinking about it in that way). I’m convinced that one of the many benefits of intentional integration is that it forces us to think critically about our faith and to be less judgmental and argumentative. To borrow (and paraphrase) from a much wiser man than I, any theology (practical or “impractical” if such a thing exists) that does not leave us on our knees crying, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, IS THE LORD GOD ALMIGHTY,” is useless.

  2. Dr. Vondey,

    I love this post! I have been saying something similar for years now. Here in the SOD I hear many people say things like , “well I’m a practical student, so I’m not really into those kinds of classes.” Normally this comment is a reference to theology or biblical studies courses. I often ask, what good is a surgeon if they have not studied anatomy and chemistry? Who would want a doctor who simply learned techniques but knew nothing of theory? While my angle of attack is different than yours, it certainly shows that there is a real problem both in the academy and the church. The idea that theology is not practical needs to be done away with. The very fuel behind my benevolence and compassion for the hurting and lost, for example, is my theology. And when I act in way that are compassionate and loving – I am living theology!

    Part of the problem is that many in the church have come to believe that theology is just common sense. You simply “believe” some set of principles or ideas that you memorize and that is your theology. Thus, the Bible is inerrant, check. Jesus is God in the flesh, the incarnate son of God, check. God is a trinity, check. There is very little thinking going on. Far too few in the church today spend time wrestling with God like Jacob and are resigned to sit back and let someone else tell them what faith is about.

    I hope that your class is a starting point for a transition that is imperative.

    Thank you.