Practical theology

Practical theology is an academic discipline that examines and reflects on religious practices in order to understand the theology enacted in those practices and in order to consider how theological theory and theological practices can be more fully aligned, changed, or improved. Practical theology has often sought to address a perceived disconnection between theology as an academic discipline (also known as dogmatics), and the everyday-life and practice of the church.

Articulated by Richard Osmer, the four key questions and tasks in practical theology are:

1.     What is going on? (descriptive-empirical task) -- Gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.

2.     Why is this going on? (interpretative task) -- Drawing on theories of the arts and sciences to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.

3.     What ought to be going on? (normative task) -- Using theological concepts to interpret particular episodes, situations, or contexts, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “good practice.”

4.     How might we respond? (pragmatic task) -- Determining strategies of action that will influence situations in ways that are desirable and entering into a reflective conversation with the “talk back” emerging when they are enacted.[1]


It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition for Practical theology because many Christians utilize it without even realizing that they are doing so. Many theologians simply assume that their readers understand what it is, thus adding no definition of their own.

In his book, The Shape of Practical Theology, Dr. Ray Anderson offers quite a few definitions for Practical theology.  Anderson writes that the first person to give Practical theology a definition, C.I. Nitzch, defined it as the “theory of the church’s practice of Christianity.” Gerben Heitink defines it as “the empirically oriented theological theory of the mediation of the Christian faith in the praxis of modern society.” John Swinton says that Practical Theology is “critical reflection on the actions of the church in light of the gospel and Christian Tradition.” Don Browning defines it as “…the reflective process which the church pursues in its efforts to articulate the theological grounds of practical living in a variety of areas such as work, sexuality, marriage, youth, aging, and death.”[2]

In essence, Practical Theology is how the theological perspective of a Christian/church meets reality and drives them to act/react in a given situation.


Practical theology was first introduced by Friedrich Schleiermacher as an academic discipline encompassing the practice of church leadership in his work Brief Outline of the Study of Theology[3] in the early 1800’s. Schleiermacher viewed Practical theology to be one of three theological sciences, along with Philosophical theology and Historical theology that together make theology whole.[3]  

Some theologians, such as Elaine Graham, believe that Practical theology has evolved over time.  Originally focused more towards church leaders, she argues that it has become more personal and autobiographical.[4]


Theologians like Elaine Graham in “On Becoming a Practical Theologian: Past, Present and Future Tenses”[4], Heather J. Major in “Context Is Key: A Conversation between Biblical Studies, Practical Theology and Missiology”[5](47-61), and Glenn Morrison in “Practical Theology from the Heart”[6] have argued that Practical theology looks different for every person. They say that one’s context and past are key to successful application. This means that Practical theology can manifest itself in any number of ways.

Other fields of theology have been influenced by and/or benefit from the usage of Practical Theology such as: applied theology (missions, evangelism, religious education, pastoral psychology or the psychology of religion), church growth, administration, homiletics, spiritual formation, pastoral theology, spiritual direction, spiritual theology (or ascetical theology), political theology, theology of justice and peace and similar areas.[7] It also includes advocacy theology, such as the various theologies of liberation (of the oppressed in general, of the disenfranchised, of women, of immigrants, of children, and black theology). The theology of relational care, which concerns ministering to the personal needs of others, may also be discussed as a field of practical theology.[citation needed]

"Convergent practical theology" has emerged from the combined studies and practice of missiology with organizational development since the publication of Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.[8] This new perspective is described by Christian Boyd as "living our theology (primary and secondary) and practicing social science theologically, [so that] our minds are renewed and the community formed nurtures a new imagination for being and doing church."[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Osmer, Richard (2008). Practical Theology: An Introduction. William B. Erdmans. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8028-1765-5.
  2. ^ Anderson, Ray (2001). The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis. InterVarsity Press. pp. 23–26. ISBN 0-8308-1559-7.
  3. ^ a b Chang Kyoo Lee, "Practical Theology as a Theological Discipline: Origins, Developments, and the Future." [1]
  4. ^ a b Graham, Elaine L. (2017-04-21). "On becoming a practical theologian: Past, present and future tenses". HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies. 73 (4): 9 pages. doi:10.4102/hts.v73i4.4634. ISSN 2072-8050.
  5. ^ Major, Heather (2018). "Context Is Key: A Conversation between Biblical Studies, Practical Theology and Missiology". Foundations an International Journal of Evangelical Theology. 75: 47–61 – via EBSCOhost.
  6. ^ Morrison, Glenn (2016). "Practical Theology from the Heart". Compass. 50: 30–34 – via EBSCOhost.
  7. ^ Gerben Heitink, Practical theology: history, theory, action domains: manual for practical theology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999) [2]
  8. ^ Darrell Guder et al., Missional church: a vision for the sending of the church in North America (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998)
  9. ^ Christian Boyd, "Formed and Always Being Reformed as a Community Under the Cross," Luther Seminary, Doctoral Thesis, May 30, 2010. p. 9-11; 30-34.

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