Practical Theology

Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Historical Context


I’ve noted before that today really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.

Next semester, Whitley College will again host the Rev Dr Keith Clements, a leading international Bonhoeffer scholar, who will teach an intensive course on Bonhoeffer and his theology. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most courageous theological minds, and to wrestle with how some of his convictions might inform our own faithful witness in the world today.

When: Fridays 6pm–9pm | Saturdays 9am–1pm | 14–15, 21–22, 28–29 July and 11–12, 18–19 August
Where: Whitley College, 50 The Avenue, Parkville
Cost: $300 for audit enrolments (normally $500). Discounted Rate available until Thursday 31 May.
Enquiries and enrolments: 03 9340 8100 or email

Conference: Being Christian in the South Pacific — Kiwi Christian Practice

The Pastoral/Practical Theology Group in Aotearoa New Zealand is organising a conference around the topic Being Christian in the South Pacific — Kiwi Christian Practice.

Here’s the details:

The Date: 8—9 November, 2010
The Location: Knox Centre Seminar Room, Hewitson Wing, Knox College, Arden Street, Dunedin
The Cost: $10 donation to cover morning and afternoon tea

The Blurb
Pastoral/practical theology stands at the intersection of Christian ministry and academic research. In pastoral/practical theology, we critically examine the practices of Christian ministry using theological and historical analysis as well as humanities and social science research methods. If you wish to register for the conference, please email Mary Somerville.

The Call for Papers
We are seeking presentations that address a wide variety of topics related to congregational life in Aotearoa. We hope that graduates and current students of MMin, MTheol, DMin and PhD programs who studied topics related to congregations will consider presenting a summary of their research or one aspect of their research. We are seeking papers for 20- and 40-minute slots. In a 20-minute slot, please plan on speaking for 15 minutes and allow 5 minutes for discussion. In a 40-minute slot, please plan on a 30-minute presentation and 10 minutes for discussion.

In submitting a proposed paper, please

  • indicate what sort of time slot you are applying for, remembering that most of us suffer from the occupational hazard of nearly always saying more than we think we’re going to;
  • include a 50-100 word abstract of the proposed paper.

Proposals should be emailed to Dr Lynne Baab or, if necessary, posted to her at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, and should be received by 30 July.

[Image: bluebison]

The Triune God and the stratification of truth

My previous two posts invite some reflection on where theological thought begins. Here I want to suggest (taking my cues from TF Torrance, and drawing heavily on McGrath’s less-than-brilliant biography on Torrance) that theological reflection, or theological science, begins by immersion within the Christian community and its practices of worship and prayer. Here the believer absorbs the grammar of Christian faith, shares what Torrance calls its ‘evangelical and doxological’ experience, and begins to appreciate the ‘evangelical pattern or economy of the redeeming acts of God in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, 98, 91). In other words, the basis upon which Christian theological reflection takes place concerns ecclesiology, christology and soteriology.

Consider the following statements about levels – or layers – of truth in the natural sciences:

… knowledge is gained not in the flat, as it were, by reading it off the surface of things, but in a multi-dimensional way in which we grapple with a range of intelligible structures that spread out far before us. In our theoretic constructions we rise through level after level of organized concepts and statements to their ultimate ontological ground, for our concepts and statements are true only as they rest in the last resort upon being itself. – Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), 136.

We start with our ordinary experience in which we operate already with some sort of order in our thought which is essential for our understanding of the world around us and for rational behaviour within it. We assume that the world is intelligible and accessible to rational knowledge … we operate on the assumption that by means of thought we can understand in some real measure the relations between events and grasp their orderly sequence and consistent structure. – Reality and Scientific Theology, 147.

This initial perception of orderedness and structure, however, turns out, for Torrance, to be a starting point for a more penetrating and discerning investigation in which successive layers of truth are identified and uncovered, and their inner relationships established. One of the most helpful areas explored by Torrance concerns how our knowing God differs from how we know anything else. Consider this (lengthy) quote:

[When it comes to our knowledge of God] we have to reckon with a considerable difference between the kind of knowledge that obtains in physical science, for the created universe does not disclose or declare itself to us as God does – otherwise it would not be the creaturely or contingent reality that it is. The universe does reveal itself to our inquiries in its own limited reality, in correspondingly limited ways, but it is quite unable to explain itself or to yield any final account of the fact of its astonishing intelligibility, and so at these limits the universe by its finite nature simply turns a blank face to our questions. In contrast, God opens himself to us and informs us of himself in a way that no created being can. Even though he retains behind a veil of ineffability the infinite mystery of his uncreated Being, he nevertheless unveils himself to us as the transcendent Source and sustaining Ground of all created being and created intelligibility, and therefore of all our knowing of him as well as of the universe he has made.

Moreover, the Being of God is made known to us as Subject-being, not just as Object-being over against us. As Subject-being he is the Creator and Ground of all other subject-beings, who sustains them in relation to himself as personal rational agents enabled to have communion with him. That is to say, God interacts personally and intelligibly with us and communicates himself to us in such a personalising or person-constituting way that he establishes relations of intimate reciprocity between us and himself, within which our knowing of God becomes interlocked with God’s knowing of us. In fact our knowledge of God thus mediated is allowed to share in God’s knowledge of himself. An ellipse of knowing, so to speak, is set up within which God’s uncreated Intelligibility and our creaturely intelligibility, God’s self-witness and our human understanding, are correlated, so that there arises among us within the conditions of our earthly and temporal existence authentic knowledge of God in which God’s self-revealing is met by human acknowledgment and reception, and in such a way that our knowing of him, however inadequate, is made to repose ultimately on the free creative ground of God’s own Subject-being.

Nevertheless when all this is admitted it still remains the case that God confronts and interacts with us as he who is utterly transcendent over all our knowing of him, infinitely inexhaustible in the Truth and Intelligibility of his own eternal Being. As such the Reality of God ever remains the Source of all our authentic concepts of him and the unchanging Ground of all our faithful formalisations of his revelation. God himself does not change, and in his unchanging Being is open to ever deepening understanding on our part, while our forms of thought and speech in which we articulate our knowledge of him are ever open to further clarification, fuller amplification, and change. The Truth of the divine Being cannot be enclosed within the embrace of our finite conceptualisations. In that God admits of recognition and understanding on our part we may indeed grasp him in some real measure, but we cannot contain him in the forms of our grasping. We may apprehend God but we cannot comprehend him. In so far as our concepts of God derive from him and terminate upon his Being, there is much more to them than the concepts themselves, more than the formal truths of conception, for the Reality conceived transcends conceptual control. Before the Reality and Majesty of the divine Being whom we are graciously allowed to know, we know that all our knowledge of him is at a comparatively elementary level, and all our articulation or formulation of divine revelation is a relatively insignificant reflection of its Truth. The knowledge and understanding of God, however, which we are allowed to have, and which in some measure we may bring to systematic expression, are what they are in their lowly forms because, in spite of their utter inadequacy, as the human end of the ellipse of knowing established by God and maintained between us and himself, they are locked into an infinite range of truth and intelligibility grounded finally in God’s own eternal Being.

The development of our knowledge of God evidently involves a multi-levelled structure in which our thought moves through various levels of concepts and statements, to the levels of created being through which God makes himself known to us in space and time, and then through them ultimately to the supreme level where God is the transcendent Source of all truth in the Truth of his own uncreated Being. Each lower level is governed by reference beyond itself to the level with which it is immediately coordinated, so that together the lower levels constitute a coherent semantic frame of reference through which we are directed to the ultimate Truth that God is in himself. Thus every lower level, in so far as it is true, must have the character of an open structure pointing us away from its own limited and relative status to its ontological ground in God who is ‘the norm for the truth of all beings’ [Clement of Alexandria]. In clarifying and deepening theological knowledge, therefore, we must learn to penetrate through the various levels of rational complexity that arise in the process of inquiry to the ultimate ground upon which they rest in the Being of God. Just as we do not think statements or even normally think thought but think things through them or by means of them, so the structures of the reason which arise in the process of gaining knowledge have to be treated as refined conceptual instruments through which we let reality shine across to us, in order that its own truth of being and inherent intelligibility can operate creatively in our understanding of it.

What are we to understand by ‘truth’ in a context like this? – Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology, 138–40.

What are the implications of this for the task of theological reflection? At the very least, it means that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s gracious self-unveiling, i.e. epistemology is grounded in the divine economy and particularly in Jesus Christ who comes to us ‘clothed in the gospel’ (Calvin). Jesus Christ is the ‘cornerstone of all authentically Christian theological reflection’. But this process of reflection, like all scientific enquiry, is also is multi-levelled. Torrance identifies three levels: (i) evangelical and doxological level; (ii) theological level; and (iii) higher theological level.

The first level is the evangelical and doxological level. (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 88–90). This might be thought of as the basic level of Christian experience and living, ‘the level of our day-to-day worship and meeting with God in response to the proclamation of the Gospel’. At this level, God is apprehended intuitively, ‘without engaging in analytical or logical process of thought’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). At this level, the Christian believer has an experience of the reality of God as a ‘basic undefined cognition which informally shapes our faith and regulates our trinitarian understanding of God’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). The Christian experience of worship, reading of Scripture, and an intuitive awareness of the reality of God constitute the point of departure for further theological reflection.

From the very start of our believing experience and knowledge of the incarnate economy of redemption undertaken by Jesus Christ for our sakes, form and content are found fused together both in what we are given to know and in our experience and knowing of it. A child by the age of five has learned, we are told, an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he or she has become spontaneously and intuitively adapted – far more than the child could ever understand if he or she turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists. Likewise, I believe, we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into whose Name we have been baptised, within the family and fellowship and living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structure of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell. This is what happens evangelically and personally to us within the membership of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world, when through the transforming power of his Word and Spirit our minds become inwardly and intuitively adapted to know the living God. We become spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of divine order that are beyond our powers fully to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth as it is in Jesus which steadily presses for increasing realisation in our understanding, articulation and confession of faith. That is how Christian theology gains its initial impetus, and is then reinforced through constant reading and study of the Bible within the community of the faithful (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89).

The second stage that Torrance identifies in this process of engagement is what he calls the theological level. This secondary level of engagement involves moving on from the primary level of ‘experiential apprehension’ of God, and towards discerning the structures which lie within it.

By forming appropriate intellectual instruments with which to lay bare the underlying epistemological patterns of thought, and by tracing the claims of connection throughout the coherent body of theological truths, [theologians] feel their way forward to a deeper and more precise knowledge of what God has revealed of himself, even to the extent of reaching a reverent and humble insight into the inner personal relations of his Being. Our concern at this secondary level, however, while distinctly theological, is not primarily with the organic body of theological knowledge, but with penetrating through it to apprehend more fully the economic and ontological and trinitarian structure of God’s revealing and saving acts in Jesus Christ as they are presented to us in the Gospel (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 91).

In the third level (or higher theological level) our thinking ‘enters more deeply into the self-communication of God in the saving and revealing activity of Christ and in his one Spirit’. At this level, Torrance continues, ‘we are explicitly concerned with the epistemological and ontological structure of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, moving from a level of economic trinitarian relations in all that God is toward us in his self-revealing and self-giving activity to the level in which we discern the trinitarian relations immanent in God himself which lie behind, and are the sustaining ground of, the relations of the economic Trinity’. In other words, this level involves a move from ‘a level of economic trinitarian relations’ to ‘what [God] is ontically in himself’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 93, 98–107).

We might map Torrance’s trajectory of trinitarian theological reflection and formulation thus:

Experience of God → Economic Trinity → Essential Trinity

To be sure, Torrance’s distinguishing of different levels of reality must not be taken to mean that he is sponsoring their independence so that one or other may be dispensed with or treated as redundant or superseded. Rather, as McGrath notes, the ontological Trinity cannot be regarded as independent of the economic Trinity, nor of Christian trinitarian experience. Nor is Torrance suggesting that lower levels within the stratification of truth are to be regarded as false or redundant; they are all to be regarded as interconnected responses to their object. A failure to recognise the mutual interconnectedness of these levels of discourse can lead to theological reflection becoming divorced from Christian experience on the one hand, or from its proper ontological foundations on the other (McGrath, Torrance, 174).

Theology for the community

The quote from David Lyall to which I drew attention in my previous post, What is practical theology?, and the ensuing discussion, reminded me of a section from John de Gruchy’s brilliant little book Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, wherein de Gruchy writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’

22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’

17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’

8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’

7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’

4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’

2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’

1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’

0.9% said, ‘Yes.’ (Seward Hiltner, Ferment in the Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 159.)

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one! – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1939-1945 (ed. Edwin Hanton Robertson; trans. Edwin Hanton Robertson and John Bowden; The Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; vol. 3; London: Collins, 1973), 28.

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world. – John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 40–3, 47

And then there’s that wonderful section from Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, a book written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ (p. i) and clearly with an intention to encourage budding pastors. The first lectures of this collection were delivered under the auspices of the Divinity School, the University of Chicago and were the Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures of 1962 at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The section which I was reminded of appears in a chapter titled ‘The Community’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned … – Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (trans. Grover Foley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979, 40–1.

A little later on Barth proceeds to recall that theology – even, one should add, that is as extensive as Barth’s own Church Dogmatics (the word ‘Church’ is crucial here) – ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service. (p. 42)

Who would have thought – dared to think – that a human discipline might have a responsibility beyond its own indulgence! In this case, ‘for the reasonable service of the community’, even for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God … (Eph 4:12–13). Pastors who are serious about serving their communities will be theologians, and unashamedly so.

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?