What is practical theology?

Those engaged in so-called ‘practical theology’ typically struggle to articulate, let alone agree on, any definition of their discipline. David Lyall, who prior to his retirement taught Practical Theology at Edinburgh University and whose book The Integrity of Pastoral Care is one of the texts I have set for my students, offers an attempt at a definition in a recent editorial:

‘So what is practical theology? … It is concerned with practice and it is an academic discipline; it seeks to serve both the mission of the Church and the needs of the world; it touches that which is most personal and engages with that which is most public. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that practical theology cannot be defined too precisely – nor should we try to do so’. – David Lyall, ‘Editorial: So, What Is Practical Theology?’ Practical Theology 2, no. 2 (2009), 158–9.

What’s your working definition?


  1. I agree Bruce. But ecclesiology is Christology. See Emile Mersch, SJ, Morality and the Mystical Body of Christ.


  2. For the final exam for a class I just took with Chris Huebner the single question was “Against the background of the readings and conversations of this class, what is the relationship between theology and truth?” Part of my thesis (which is really Chris’s thesis) was that theology names a discourse of truth that turns upon an understanding of the Pauline virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as embodying and practicing a radically different way of knowing than held by much of contemporary epistemology.
    I want to resist the distinction between theology (as such?) and “practical” theology. Theology is a discourse, a practice, and these are not separate from each other. St.Paul makes no distinction between the body and the mind so that one does (for example) analytic theology and the other does practical theology. Rather, in St.Paul we find an understanding of knowledge that in inseparable from habit or virtue.


  3. Hi Kampen. I’m deeply sympathetic to your reading of St. Paul’s epistemology, and to your desire to resist the distinction between theology and what is called practical/pastoral theology. Ellen Charry made a very similar point in her exceelent book By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. But here’s the question: is it possible to allow an intimate connection between discourse and what Pierre Hadot calls “a way of life”, even to allow our understanding of knowledge to be reworked in light of the Christian conviction not only that knowledge is inseparable from virtue, but that in the end, to know God and to love God is one and the same thing… and, at the same time, to still insist that the life of the mind is not simply reducible to the exigencies of the body. In other words, is it possible for us to reject cartesian dualism and still retain a grammar of the soul? Perhaps such a grammar is not worth having in the end. But the fact that both Augustine, on the one hand, and John Donne, on the other – neither of whom were Cartesian dualists, and both of whom saw knowledge and love as intimately bound up with one another – were nevertheless dualists (albeit non-cartesian ones) should, I think make us pause a little.


  4. Andre,

    I’m sure I entirely understand what you mean by insisting that “the life of the mind is not simply reducible to the exigencies of the body.” Whether or not it is possible, however, to hold these things in tension together, I think it may very well be a necessary work of the church. Could you clarify the non-Cartesian dualism you find in Augustine (post-conversion)?


  5. Hi Kampen,
    Yes, I agree… it was a silly way of putting things. I’ll try to think of a better way of expressing what I have in mind…
    Re: Augustine. De trin. 3.2.8ff is a good example, where A. distinguishes between the body as a “coordination of various parts” and the rational soul that governs it, and which itself is capable of participating in “that supreme and changeless good which is God, and his wisdom and his will”. A. here makes an interesting point that isn’t wholly irrelevant to our discussion. Presenting the case of the wise man, whose soul participates in “the unchanging and eternal truth”, A. says: “Only if he sees in it that something must be done does he do it; and so by submitting to this eternal truth and obeying it he acts rightly”. So there is an order here: the wise man’s actions follow from his perception of the truth. But this needs to be set in the broader context of de trin., with its recognition that none of us are wise; that on account of our pride and ignorance we need to submit to the disciplines that God has provided in the church. In order to know God, we need to learn to love him. But, as A. also recognises, in order to love him, we need to know him.


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