Theology and ‘practical’ theology: Both-and, not either-or

Monday, April 16th, 2012


“Theology” is a term that you are probably, at the very least, somewhat familiar with. You probably remember hearing, seeing or reading it at least once before in your life. And whether you are a Christian or not, if you are reading this paper it is very likely that you are in some way affiliated with Azusa Pacific University. APU is a Christian university, which I make clear just in case that fact had by some inexplicable means escaped you. And if you are in some way associated with APU, I would make the well-founded assumption that you cannot be around here for very long or be around Christians in general for very long without coming into contact with this term, this theology.

So, what is it? Apparently, it is something that is rather prevalent here on campus. After all, we have theologians as professors and we have a Department of Theology. It is mentioned in sermons, in chapel, in our daily reading and in our conversations with our friends. There is even an entire library devoted to theological books. This is significant in that while other fields have their share of books, they lack their own distinct libraries.

Thus it seems, from an empirical level, to be a very significant part of the academic and intellectual life here at APU. By extension, we can reason that it is a significant field of study for Christians as a whole body. It seems to me, therefore, that it is rather inescapable and we must come to terms with what it is, what it means, and how we practice it.

Now, you may know all of this quite well and I am sure that you do. I mean only in writing this way shows that it is from a logical standpoint very nearly impossible to think that theology has little place here at school or in our lives. I hope to show later that it has an even greater presence than we realize. At any rate, let us return to figuring out what exactly theology really is.

Literally, theology is the study (-ology) of God (theo-). However, I think it is important to arrive at a more specific and helpful definition. C.S. Lewis, whose writing and thinking has significantly shaped my own, defined theology as “the science of God.” I would agree with him on this definition. It is simple, straightforward, and to the point. But it is, to some degree, inadequate and so I want to qualify it and explain myself further.

The way that I see it, theology is the science of God insofar as that it is a systematic, logical and extensive field of study. It is based on data, the events of our lives and the occurrences of the natural world. But for all its conceptual similarities to science, it is not like science in a good many ways. It, on the one hand, studies what science cannot. Science, and any scientist worth his or her salt, would laugh at the idea that science can

be used to study God. It is simply not within the scope of science to study God the way that theologians do.

However, I still think this is a good word to use; I still think of theology as the science of God. Let me explain further.

Scientific experiments are carried out, by and large, with the use of certain instruments that can measure a certain quality or occurrence. This, I think, is true, too, of theology. We analyze experiences, texts and events with instruments and interpret the results. However, the instruments are far, far more complex than any microscope ever conceived. The primary instruments for conducting theological study are namely you and us. I say “you” to mean that your whole body, all that it encounters, reasons and feels, can be used to study God. It is the foremost and primary instrument in any study, really. I think the holistic nature of yourself, the fact that you are able to grapple with truth in a myriad of ways, is what is the key advantage.

Some people might argue that we ought to prop up reason as the only means of studying God. I think doing so leaves quite a lot out, however. In a strictly-reduced rationalistic system, where is there room for mystery, for joy? They seem to be rather important aspects of our lives and in understanding God. This is not to mention other fields of study wherein a strict rationalization would rob them of their meaning and efficacy: the humanities, the arts.

That notwithstanding, there is something better than yourself for studying God. It is, rather obviously, many “yous;” it is us. We, the Christian community, are the best instrument available to the history of the Church and all her members, is the best instrument for studying God.

This all leads me to what I think follows rather nicely from our present discourse. If theology is a prevalent field of study that has great importance for you as a Christian, and if you and I are the best means for performing this study, then several implications follow.

Firstly, we are, whether we like it or not, theologians. In fact, all people everywhere and at all times are theologians in some sense. We are all theologians in that we all engage and interact with God and formulate beliefs about Him. Even an atheistic stance is still a theological stance. But funnily enough, when you take God out of theology, you are left with just -ology, which makes just about as much sense as atheism does. Humor aside, we are all theologians, even if some of us are rather bad ones.
Secondly, I think this renders our popular and contemporary understanding of theology rather dull, boring and even no longer accurate. It is apparent to me that there is a widely-held belief that theology is not the most exciting discipline. Some of my friends and many students at APU would shrink away from doing theology. They think of it as a dry, tedious field of study entirely comprised of ancient manuscripts and Greek and Hebrew nonsense. How utterly false! If what we have seen about theology is true, if we are really the best tools to engage in this field of study, then how very exciting that must be! It means that, as Christians, we are in the business of doing theology in every aspect of our lives. It is freed from these connotations, or at the very least ought to be.

Finally, it means that there is a semantic problem with the distinction between theology and “practical theology.” Now, I want to be careful to tread lightly here. What I am not saying is that our Department of Practical Theology is in any way flawed in calling itself as such. Neither do I mean to any degree to insult or cast aspersions upon our Department of Theology.

What I do want to do, however, is perhaps correct a misconception. That misconception is namely that there is a disparity between theology and practical theology. If you have even been in a room with theologians and practical theologians, you will know that there is a marked difference in the demeanor and type of people that make up each group. Most people see theology and nonpractical theologians as being more academic and even theoretical than ‘practical’ theologians. Practical theologians, on the other hand, are generally understood to be more ministry-oriented, more involved in the outworking of theology.

I think there is a problem with this delineation. Firstly, there are the words themselves. In the strict linguistic interpretation of what it means to be a practical theologian there is the implication that “just theology” is somehow nonpractical. As we have seen this is entirely untrue. Every aspect of our lives is involved in theological study, even if we fail to acknowledge that. Additionally, there is the matter of what this distinction creates. It has the potential to create a gap between those who are involved in ministry and those who are more academically oriented. However, it is clear to me that we as Christians are to be both-and people. Academics who study theology ought to be that much more encouraged to serve and serve well. And those who are called to ministry ought to seek to think and understand deeply while serving lovingly. Both-and, not either-or.

In closing, I want to say that it is my hope that several things happen. Firstly that people realize that we are all theologians. We are all interacting with God, regardless of what it is that we think we are doing. There is not a single thing we do or think that is not in some way making us more or less like God. We always are interacting with Him and engaging in theology. It is my hope that we eliminate the distinction in our lives between practical and nonpractical theology.

Finally, it is my fervent hope that we become both-and Christians. I hope that we become pastors with Ph.D.s, missionaries with masters degrees. I hope that we become scholars who serve, theologians whose depth of knowledge is matched and exceeded by the degree to which we sacrificially give of ourselves in Christ-glorifying service. I want us — myself included — to think deeply, serve lovingly and in all of it give glory to the God who loved us so much that He sent His Son to be the end to all our sin. Jesus, the Lord, is worthy of both-and living and thinking; He is worthy of our all!
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Mark Thomas is a junior English and economics double major from Burbank, Calif. He enjoys coffee a little too much (according to some people) and has a particular affinity for sloths. Follow the blog that he and Reed Woodyard run at www.rantifestos.org.