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What is Practical Theology?

The launch of a three-year Practical Theology Consultation is an exciting new development in the story of the Tyndale Fellowship. ‘Practical Theology’ is still a relatively new category within the history of Christianity, and its designation perhaps says as much about post-Enlightenment developments in theology, academia and culture as it does about what Practical Theology actually is and seeks to do. Practical Theology is especially interested in the intersections between Christian Scriptures, traditions, doctrines, and contemporary contexts, embodied practices, and the church’s witness to the here-and-now activity of God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. It is proudly interdisciplinary: rooted in theology, whilst drawing on methods and insights from other fields – particularly the Social Sciences, but also the Humanities and Sciences – to reflect on pertinent theological questions and inform faithful Christian living. It seeks to straddle the spaces between church, academy, public life and spirituality, desiring to facilitate meaningful conversations between them. It is at home on the margins, joyfully attending to the unheard and overlooked. It revels in complexity, diversity and collaboration, and it aims at equipping the church of Christ towards wise, prophetic, liberative participation in God’s mission to the world.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?! And often it is. As a relatively new sub-discipline, there is a constant need to pioneer new methods, tools, questions, approaches, and sources as we attempt to answer novel questions and bridge uncharted territories. The quest for originality is easy, when the whole scope of human knowing and living is fair game within God’s gloriously broad and diverse creation. The possibilities for creativity, partnerships, new discoveries, and interesting contributions are vast and ever-expanding. However, within this dynamic, activists’ paradise of a research field, my evangelical formation (and my faculty colleagues in other theological disciplines) give me cause to be cautious. Whilst my charismatic commitments delightfully affirm that God, in Christ, by the Spirit is active in the world in tangible, discernible ways which we can encounter and with which we can participate by God’s grace, my evangelical convictions continue to voice some doubt. How does human knowledge about ourselves and the world relate to God’s self-revelation? How are our discoveries about God-in-the-world related to and tested against the witness of Scripture? What does it mean for our theological reflections to proclaim the God as revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth? How does sin impact our human capacity for knowing ourselves and our world? When Christian doctrine seems to be in conflict with the latest psychological insights, how should the church respond? What is the relationship between divine and human action within the study of ‘experience’? What does it mean to affirm the ‘authority’ of Scripture when we’re painfully aware of the oppressive contexts and commitments which have shaped its production and interpretation?

These questions, and many others besides, are part of the motivation for starting the Practical Theology Consultation with the Tyndale Fellowship. The intention is to create a space where Practical Theologians at various stages can explore together how Evangelicalism informs, and is informed by, research into contemporary, embodied lives of faith. The hope is that this process enriches both the discipline of Practical Theology and Evangelical scholarship in other theological sub-disciplines. Why not book into the 2023 conference and be part of the conversation?

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