Thursday, June 02, 2005

Theology, Theory, and Practice

A friend currently in seminary has told me about disagreements that sometimes arise between students preparing for the pastorate and those looking forward to an academic vocation. Members of the former group don't always appreciate the benefit and/or necessity of theoretical, abstract study whereas future academicians can overlook the necessity to relate their subjects of interest to concrete people, situations, and relationships. Most of my Christian life has been spent swinging between the two poles in search of equilibrium. There are aspects of both academic and church life that appeal to me. Likewise, there are elements of both I find frustrating. I don't think I fit squarely in either environment and I'm disheartened by the compartmentalizing that frequently pits them against each other, confining singing to the sanctuary and scholarship to the classroom.
I gravitate to Christian authors who are discontent with the all too frequent division between the life of the mind and life in the Spirit, between theory and practice. While I understand the need to make distinctions for the sake of categorizing, I can't stand the segmenting of theology into systematic and practical realms as though the former is not practical and the latter is not systematic.
John Frame is one of my favorite authors. My seminarian friend gave me a copy of an article he wrote in the Winter 2002 issue of Reformation and Revival Journal called "Studying Theology as a Servant of Christ." He offers the following helpful explanation of the relationship between theory and practice:
The broadest term I know to describe everything theology does is the term "application"; hence my slogan, "theology is application." Of course, the term "application" is susceptible to some misunderstanding. It has suggested to some a type of theology that abhors anything "theoretical" and focuses only on the "practical." So let me say here that that is not at all what I have in mind. Theoretical work in theology is very important. My only concern is to point out that even the most theoretical sort of theology falls under the label "application." For why do we develop theological theories, after all? Only because they address real questions people have on matters of spiritual importance. So theory is part of application.
So this way of looking at theology does not elevate the practical over the theoretical in any general way. On the other hand, neither does it elevate the theoretical over the practical. Theoretical and practical questions are on a par with one another, all fair game for the theologian
I also resist the notion that theory is somehow the basis of practice. A much more biblical view is that Scripture itself is the basis of both theory and practice, and that, under the authority of Scripture, theory and practice serve one another.
Theology is not a hindrance to the real work of the church. Theology, understood as Frame describes it, is the work of the church.

1 comment:

Sarah Flashing said...

Amen. Great theology can't exist apart from application. Without application, dare I suggest its just philosophy?