Dogmatic Theology in/with/as Practical Theology

If there’s ever a charge leveled at dogmatic theology, one that is usually expressed by those more concerned with “on the ground” issues and advocacy, it is that the discipline itself is “unpractical” or not able to meet needs of an ordinary type. Those ordinary types, be they social, political, economic or otherwise, or then moved into a field called practical (or public or political) theology, where the needs — at long last — are addressed.

But this is an odd charge and an even more curious dichotomy. Dogmatic and systematic theologians — or theologians who consider themselves theologians qua theologians — consistently pressed themselves on practical matters. Indeed, whether Paul, Augustine, the Patristics, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, and today through the works of Kathryn Tanner, Willie Jennings, David Bentley Hart, Esther Acolatse — among many other — there was (or is) never a strict niche or boundary between the two. The pastor was often at once a theologian, concerned not only with doing theological work of a high order but making sure that the theology always expressed itself ever concretely into and to the world.

So, why the pause, or why the cleavage? There seems to me two things going on, neither of which help the case of practical theological formation.

First, is the continued decrease of theological language and knowledge in the broader public. One might call this something of an example of Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age.” Bonhoeffer posited that the course of secularization and the rise of scientific knowledge, God will no longer be seen as the “dues ex machina” who is ready to fill in the gaps and intervene when we need God the most and was welcomed by Bonhoeffer and others, myself included.

But that’s not all has happened since.

See this tweet from a current political scientist:

But Bonhoeffer thought that this would present an opportunity for theological education and ecclesiastical communities. Instead, I think, there’s been a hollowing out in both realms — and ecclesiastically maybe more felt in more mainline, Western Protestant contexts — where the gaps have just turned into an existential or subjective knowledge of what and who God is, if one believes in God at all.

Second is the tendency to make any and everything into a religious question. Whether cross-fit, coffee shops, online communities, politics, whatever — we use religious language to project ourselves back onto people who may not be religious at all — or not in any defined or proper sense, which fails to take the claim seriously that when someone says they’re a “none,” an agnostic, or an atheist, they mean it. Let alone what this does to actual religious practice when one makes day to day activities into religious practice; it flattens God out to be anything and everything at once. God then is not both transcendent and imminent, but so detached to anything particular that God becomes manageable. And thus, we’re right back to the Bonhoefferian problem in whatever-type-of-modern age we live.

Here’s the question: if so many are at once very religious in their day-to-day lives, but no longer in need of God, what does it mean to be a theologian today? What we could have is the very promise of what Bonhoeffer describes throughout his work: that this secularity will finally let God be God, and allow grace to be grace.

If my hunch is close to the mark at all, then it is not dogmatic but practical theology that is at the crossroads, and in need of its sister disciplines of biblical, historical, and systematic to bolster its art. Institutions that seek to offer theologically trained students who go out and do the work cannot merely rely on practical, social, or political language to engage the public. Those are all too diffuse anyway. Instead, institutions may serve themselves best by anchoring down on their commitment to their discipline while acknowledging its inherent porousness. This isn’t a brand of counter-cultural niche, and it instead takes seriously the history and warts that come with the tradition, it holds to questions about salvation, it understands that when we interrogate concerns like “who is God?” it is because it has concrete and contemporaneous relevance. What would it mean, both practically and dogmatically, to cleave to the idea that the presence and providence of Christ came to save this world? In other words, what does the dogmatic claim of Christ’s lordship have to say about practical matters?

Of course, this is a question for the church, too. If the theologian needs the church, then the church needs theologians. The church shouldn’t jettison what theologians offer as “impractical” or use homiletic language like “now, some theologians say,” as if theology doesn’t have anything to offer the hearers of the Word. If Barth is right that the task of theology is the Word of God, and if part of the business of preaching and pastoring is administering the Word to the people, one would think that the practicality of dogmatic theology would be self-evident. However, I’m afraid it’s barely evident at all.

To conclude, theological particularity doesn’t make an institution anti-worldly, but instead sees and hears the world through its own historical and always socially constitutive — and changing — grammars, and offers responses based from these sets of questions. So, if we want a theology that is at once relevant and vibrant, it may be time to look past the convenient divisions of labor we have offered ourselves. Instead, the time may be right to view each as a holistic endeavor, partners even, worthy of consistent critique and constant collaboration, and pressing more on our particulars as theologians to set explore the risks this vocation says about us and the world.

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