Teach theology long enough and you’ll face countless forms of the same basic question: What does this have to do with real life? Will it affect the way we do ministry, how we share the gospel, or what we do every day? How is it relevant to the problems and challenges the average person faces? You know, is it practical?
And the deep suspicion lying behind such questions is that most theology is rather impractical. Theologians spend all their time wrestling with things like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and whether we should say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone. Unless we can explain why these things matter for the everyday lives of regular people, we should stop wasting our time and get on with more important issues.
I’ll admit that part of me resonates with such concerns. If we can’t explain why theology matters, we have a problem. And it should matter for everyday life. After all, that’s where we do all our living. So there’s a sense in which I want to say a hearty “Yes!” to the question of whether theology should be practical, but only if we carefully redefine what that means.
4 Reasons for Thinking that Theology Is “Practical”
1. Theology as Worship: Theology is fundamentally about knowing God. After all, that’s what the term means: the study of God. But we err when we think of this kind of knowing in purely cognitive terms, as though knowing God could be limited to some set of right statements we make about God. Knowing God more deeply necessarily leads to both love and worship. As beautiful and amazing as God is, how could we possibly come to know him better without falling more deeply in love with him while at the same time falling on our knees in awe before him? Knowledge, love, and worship are the inseparable triad of good theology.
To some extent, I think we worry about theology being impractical because deep down we also suspect that worship itself is impractical. It may be important and powerful, but ultimately worship is something you do on Sunday morning in isolation from the pressing realities of everyday life. But such worries fail to understand that worship is the business of humanity. We were created to glorify God by living as his image bearers in the world, and this is something that should characterize every minute of every day. And when God’s people gather to worship him together, they are doing the very thing for which they were created. Thus, if theology deepens worship, then theology is inherently practical—i.e. relevant to the everyday reality of being human.
2. Theology as Transformation: There are some kinds of knowing that leave you relatively unchanged. For instance, I could look up the name of some random star on the internet and accumulate an additional fact about the universe without having my life impacted in any meaningful way. Other kinds of knowing, however, are much more transformative. For instance, I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life getting to know my wife better. It has not left me unchanged. How could it? Is it possible to know someone deeply and not be altered by the experience? I doubt it. (Unfortunately for her, the effect goes both ways. I’m just hoping that God manages to fix anything that’s gotten twisted from 25 years of knowing me!) That’s the kind of knowing we have in mind when we talk about theology. If you are truly knowing God and being known by God, you cannot stay the same. You will be shaped by that experience.
So, once again, we see that theology is inherently practical in the sense that it affects who you are and therefore how you live in the world. Even if we can’t always see the direct connections between some specific belief (e.g. the procession of the Spirit) and some specific practice (e.g. feeding hungry people), theology remains practical in that it shapes us as the ones performing the practice.
3. Theology as Service: At their best, questions about the practical relevance of theology press us to remember that theology plays the role of servant in the life of the church. One of its fundamental jobs is to help the church think well and carefully about how best to understand, articulate, and live out what it believes. Theology does not exist for itself, only for the church. And in that sense, theology, as long as it remains faithful to its calling, must always be practical (i.e. inseparably related to the practice of the church). Questions like these, then, pull us away from the ever-present temptation to a kind of theological complacency, that which remains content to wrestle with admittedly difficult theoretical problems in relative isolation from the messy realities of living and ministering in a broken world. Theology as servant will always be an eminently practical theology.
4. Theology as Inquiry: I wonder if scientists have to deal with the same questions about practical relevance. If you’re studying some minute quantum particle that seems impossibly far removed from anything resembling everyday life, do people bug you about why your research really matters? They probably do. But I think they’re also willing to cut you some slack because they understand that it’s simply one part of a broader inquiry into the nature of the universe. And that’s an important process. So even if we can’t see how one part has direct relevance, we’re willing to give quantum physicists the benefit of the doubt.
We should do the same with theology. If theology is an inquiry into who God is, and if God is as transcendent and mysterious as we believe him to be, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that theology wrestles, at times, with questions that don’t clearly relate to specific practices. But they are still part of the broader process of knowing God, which is eminently practical in the best sense of the word. Similarly, when I’m getting to know my wife, I don’t stop to ask if this is “practical,” as though I should stop learning about her unless I can explain how any specific piece of information relates to specific things that I will do as a result. That’s not how it works. Knowing her is a complex package, the totality of which shapes how I live my life even if I can’t explain how each individual piece of knowledge does so.
So Is Theology Practical?
We return to where we started. Must theology be practical? If by “practical” we mean that theology should relate to the everyday lives of regular people, then absolutely yes! If theology is the attempt to know God more deeply, and if this means that theology at its best leads to deeper worship, greater personal transformation, and more effective ministry in the church, then theology is deeply practical even when wrestling with questions where its not entirely obvious how they connect to everyday issues.
But people often mean something else by this question. They seem to have something like this in mind: Can you draw a direct line between this particular theological issue and some specific practice? And here the answer will often be no. But that’s only because it’s the wrong question to ask in the first place.
Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Visit him at marccortez.com.