Pete Ward’s Introducing Practical Theology: Mission, Ministry, and the Life of the Church presents an overall framework that practical theology is “a kind of theology that takes seriously both practice and theology.” But this is offered less as a definition but more as a “rule of thumb” that shapes his inquiry process. Ward allows this rule, and his unpacking of it, to guide the understanding of his approach to understanding practical theology. As a definition on its own, it leaves much to be desired, but when understood as Ward develops it, much fruit can be gained. These three themes weave their way through his entire project.
In Chapter one, Ward endeavours to locate practical theology within its proper context, the life of the church. He builds off Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s understanding that practical theology is at play in both the academy and the church while also being both studied and a method of thought. He also offers, as a corrective to the vision that theology is impractical in general, that theology is embedded in the practices of faith. As Miller-McLemore says, theology happens in the classroom but what is of primary concern is how what is learned edifies the “life of the Christian community. Ward aligns these practices with five broad areas of remembering, absorbing, noticing, selecting/editing and expressing.
Chapter two is rooted in Saint Anselm’s famous dictum that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” For Ward, this is the lens by which we should understand and approach theological study in the context of practical theology. Here faith is in God, and his self-disclosure and an attempt to understand it through “expression into concrete, social, and cultural forms.” It is also given and can only be appreciated within the “relational dynamics of believing.” Further all-knowing, theories and reasonings are also rooted in Christ; this includes non-theological disciplines as practical theology is interdisciplinary. Ward locates practical theology in the long tradition of prayer as the critical calling of the theologian and argues it is “best seen as a deep and enduring spiritual practice.” Finally, tradition plays an essential role in providing sources of wisdom and an authorizing force.
Ward enters the liberal, conservative or experience doctrinal debate and offers a third way to emphasize the centrality of the gospel as the proper lens to understand practical theology. Bonnie Miller-McLemore and Andrew Root represent each of these approaches, respectively. Their approaches both show concern for the gospel, even if they approach it from different perspectives. For Ward, however, the gospel is “more than doctrine or theology” but “the work of God in the world and how this work is understood and experienced.” Ward frames this understanding in John’s gospel and “sees the origin and content in the person of Jesus Christ.” Here, Jesus is the way, truth and life because all questions about them are answered in him. This shapes practical theology as it leads us to understand how God, through Jesus, is active in the world. This may be one of Ward’s most important theoretical contributions to this book.
Chapter 4 introduces lived theology, recognizing that practical theologians must account for how theology is experienced and lived to reflect the Christian community’s reality accurately. Although others provide the foundation for this, the four theological voices developed by Helen Cameron and her team suggest that theology is embodied in the church’s practices and the various ways it is expressed. Ward’s lived theology reminds us that practical theologians are shaped by their communities, and this is their baseline for new insights because it shapes the way they look at life. Lived theology is also enacted and multivalent as different ideas can coexist in tension or even contradiction. Nevertheless, attention must be given because it can provide understanding, draw attention, and uncover patterns that can be altered into richer practices.
Ward moves in Chapter five to engage with four theories about the interaction of theology and practice and the methodological perspectives undergirding them. These are “ministerial education,” “correlational approaches,” “interpreting action,” and “theology and tradition.” The first approach offered new approaches to inform the work of the clergy that was influenced by the social sciences. This provided unique insight but left many unanswered questions, specifically in the relationship between empiricism and theology. Correlational approaches took this further by incorporating the social science approaches into theological understandings. There is an interplay between the human and the divine, and discern the significance of the overlap. Elaine Graham dominates the third category, which suggests expression of theological practices of communities offers more insight than their words about God. Theology is embedded within a community, where authority is derived. Finally, there has been a recent call to a return to emphasizing the Christian and theological roots of Christian practice. This is not to reject the previous approaches but to ensure traditional self-understanding is not omitted.
Theological reflection is the focus of Chapter six and flows out of reflection on the pastoral cycle of see, judge, act and other related models. Paul Ballard and John Pritchard offer a four-fold model of works from experience, exploration, reflection and action. An interruption creates a tension that leads to exploring or analyzing what is going on. This creates possibilities for action that would lead to discovery or change, leading to informed decisions and initiatives. Ward suggests these cycles are worthwhile, but there are some potential limitations; reflection often exists during the action, and the cycle can be a dislocation of “theological reflection form the ordinary ways in which the Christian Church is continually engaged in connecting theology and practice.” Ward also outlines different approaches to reflection that do not use the cycle and then offers his own guidelines for theological reflection. First, it is a normal part, rooted in life and ministry, and ambiguity is expected. Second, a specific problem should launch and dictate the most appropriate method. Third, this method should be chosen wisely and make use of a proper structure to enable good final discourse. Fourth, reflection cannot be done without involving yourself in the process, and it is helpful to assess your work intentionally. Finally, it must and should exist to serve the church, as all practical theology must.
Moving from theological reflection, Ward argues that the interdisciplinarity aspect of practical theology allows it to interact with biblical studies, systematic theology, Church history, and social science-based Religious Studies. I want briefly to highlight his interaction with Biblical Studies. Ward argues that there are many useful, practical theological implications in these other disciples, even if that is not their goal. This is a more recent move in scholarship. Wayne Meeks provides an example of this in New Testament studies as he uses sociological methods to understand the social situation of the early church. Although left undeveloped by Meeks, this could provide fertile soil for a practical theological discussion focused on modern ecclesiology. As practical theology evolves, there is room here to emphasize additional overlap. In my context, Ward’s comments suggest that fruitful work can be done to reflect on Paul’s pastoral theory, using some of the critical insights gained from biblical hermeneutical approaches. For example, Pauline intertextuality and his use of the Old Testament may illuminate how he understood pastoral ministry. Also, understanding Paul as doing theological reflection, using Ballard and Pritchard’s model, may provide insight into how Paul approached pastoral problems.
Ward offers a discussion on culture, and the role contextualization or translation plays in practical theology. This builds off the interdisciplinary element Ward presented in the previous chapter and uses missiology because it takes theology and practice seriously. Ward notes that “cultural interests and perspectives inevitably shape theological expression.” Practical theology exists within cultures, or as Edward Farley notes, within situations that need to be interpreted. Farley notes these situations are not “a neutral series of objects…[but] a concentration of powers which impinge upon us as individual agents or as communities.” Ward presents a similar contextualization challenge, noting the power plays that can be at work. Again, this is relevant inside the church community because they too are cultural constructs, and there is a danger when the church absorbs too much of the local culture that it cannot hold it accountable. These questions of contextualization and power are important ones for practical theology, but, like so much more, they are also interdisciplinarian ones.
The final two chapters deal with a practical outflowing of Ward’s ideas as he offers a glimpse into how empirical research can be done and how practical theology can be expressed in the church. The latter chapter looks at living, action, prayer, singing and preaching as avenues of expression of practical theology in the life of the church. The former chapter provides a good framework for empirical research, both methodological and theological. Ward locates paying attention to your location, specifically in ministry, as part of the call to pray for the world. Still, he also notes empirical research can provide a better means of being attentive.
It is necessary and helpful to engage Ward’s thoughts. He has a dual approach of informing the general reader while still engaging the expert. As a result of the first purpose, there is a great deal of helpful summary. One of the most beneficial elements is Ward’s insistence that Practical Theology is the church’s domain and rooted in active faith. This is pervasive throughout, including adding prayer as the final step in his approach to empirical research. When you combine this with the important understanding of the contextual nature of theology, it provides a helpful entrance point to see theological reflection located in a specific place for a particular purpose. This aspect of Ward’s approach offers a great deal of relevance to my own research goals. As I approach pastoral development and formation through the lens of the apostle Paul, this rooting in the church’s life as the goal for practical theology is helpful. Reading this, along with Farley’s practical theology, opens new avenues to approach pastoral identity’s culture, context, and situations. Farley defines a situation as “the way various items, powers, and events in the environment gather together so as to require responses from the participants.” He includes a church congregation as one appropriate option, which is relevant in my context. Specific questions about what my situations are, how to interpret them and how can I permit this to serve the church are all relevant considering this. This emphasizes what is most helpful in Ward, the embodiment of his ‘rule of thumb’ and initial definition that practical theology takes both practice and theology seriously. Ward has presented what each of these words means tangibly, as I have outlined in the detailed summary above. That is what I appreciated the most; he has opened up a way to comprehend the heart of practical Christian theology in a tangible, comprehensive, and meaningful way for the church. At the very least, he is shown that he takes theology and practice seriously.
. Ward, Introduction, 27.
. Miller-McLemore, Companion, 5.
. Ward, Introduction, 24.
. Ward, Introduction, 21.
. Ward, Introduction, 29.
. Ward, Introduction, 31.
. Ward, Introduction, 32.
. Ward, Introduction, 34.
. Ward, Introduction, 36–7.
. Ward, Introduction, 44–9.
. Ward, Introduction, 48.
. Ward, Introduction, 51.
. Ward, Introduction, 63.
. Ward, Introduction, 58–62.
. Ward, Introduction, 63–7.
. Ward, Introduction, 70.
. Ward, Introduction, 70–7.
. Ward, Introduction, 77–82.
. Ward, Introduction, 83–6.
. Ward, Introduction, 86–90.
. Ballard and Pritchard Practical Theology, 81-87.
. Ward, Introduction, 100–101.
. Ward, Introduction, 114–7.
. Ward, Introduction, 122.
. Ward, Introduction, 137. He quotes Stephen Bevans “There is no such thing s ‘theology’; there is only contextual theology.” here.
. Farley, “Interpreting Situations.” 14.
. Ward, Introduction, 151. He is following Lesslie Newbiggin here.
. Farley, “Interpreting Situations.” 12.