Practical Theology

Running the Race of the Christian Life

Running involves mental concentration. You have to be focused. I do not run, but my friends who run talk a lot about the mental state they have to be in before they run and while they run. However, running certainly is not all about the mind. You need to worry about your heart and feet as well. If your mind, heart, and feet are not working together, you are going to trip. The Christian life is the same way. We have to keep our minds, hearts, and feet all in check. It is not enough to merely think about running. You need to want to run and you actually have to run.

As students of theology, it is really easy to think about theology but not actually put it into practice. It is a lot of fun to read heavy tomes over coffee and bagels. It is stirring to our minds to locate theology in God. But if we don’t put what we study into practice, we are like runners who never run. The Christian life is far more than intellectual understanding or knowing; it is practical living as well.

What Is Practical Theology?

This portion of the blog is going to dedicate itself to the discipline of practical theology. Practical theology is “apply[ing] the text to yourself, the church, and the world.”[1] This involves conveying mental comprehension (often referred to as “head knowledge”) to your heart and feet. First, this means taking a concept, which can often be ethereal or distant and bringing it to your heart—so that you love God and others more because of it. Finally, the concept must move to your feet and hands—so you move and act differently because of it. The disciplines of theology and Bible study are merely the first essential portion of application. Before we can apply, we must know.

Why Should You Do Practical Theology?  

Knowing is certainly an essential beginning to application, but it is not enough to merely come to memorize a flash card or a list of verses. As can be seen from many Sunday schools, even a child can memorize portions of Scripture. However, our understanding is not complete until that knowledge transforms us. God’s word, which is authoritative to the Christian life, should make a marked effect on our day to day lives. May we not be like the children who can repeat “Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right,” yet are unable to behave in such a way throughout their week. Knowing should move to application.

Since knowing should yield action, all theology is practical. Yet, while all theology ought to yield to application, often it does not.[2] This is usually people’s greatest aversion to theology. They hear the egg-headed discussions, the multiple languages, and the logical progressions, and feel like it has no bearing on their day to day lives, and therefore is of little use. Since they don’t see immediate payout, they resist spending the time and energy to truly learn. Yet, whether we mean to or not, what we think about God affects the way we live. After all, we are all theologians.[3] In fact, regardless of how few theological books you have read, you “have a working theology that shapes and informs the way you think and live.”[4] A poor or incomplete understanding of theology is inconsistent with the Christian life. God has revealed himself in Scripture, and the Bible has authority over the Christian life. If we fail to hear God’s word and fail to apply it, we are ignoring God’s word. Therefore, we should be all the more diligent in pursuing rigorous theological study and complete application to our lives.

How Do You Do Practical Theology?  

In order to do practical theology, you do not need a B. A., M. Div, or a Ph.D. Those degrees are certainly helpful (I am grateful for my own degree, and for many others who have gotten others), but they will not guarantee that the text will affect your heart. The Spirit must do its work. Therefore, practical theology rests on prayer and the Spirit’s work. Apart from the Spirit’s stirring of our hearts, we cannot come to love God’s words or desire to apply them to our lives. Apart from the Spirit’s enlightenment, the sweet, deep truths of Scripture will be cold and bitter to us. Therefore, the first step of practical theology is prayer. Every time we open our Bibles or a theology book, we ought to pray that the Lord would move our hearts to love and respond in faith.

Practical theology is not divorced from the other disciplines. In fact, all the other disciplines (Bible reading, systematic theology, historical theology, and Biblical theology) find their end in practical theology. It is through reading the Bible and doing other exegetical and theological disciplines that we find ourselves at practical theology. Our daily Bible reading should end with applying the text to our lives. In Biblical theology, viewing how themes in the Bible are fulfilled in Jesus, we will come to a better understanding of how texts apply to our lives. Our daily Bible study should lead us to the other disciplines, and the other disciplines should lead us to practical theology.

Conclusion

Practical theology is essential to the Christian life. As we read through the Bible, we will find areas that we must systemize in order to make sense of it, and other times we will have to look to our fathers of the faith and seek to understand how they applied and interpreted the text. All of this should bring us to asking the final question, “How shall I live in light of all this?” Once we understand how the text applied to the immediate context (the original audience), we can then seek to understand how the text should be applied in our later context. As we run the race of the Christian life, we must engage not only our minds but our hearts and feet as well.




[1] Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2017), 3.

[2] Ibid, 312. Here Naselli bemoans the fact that there are very few works on application, despite the plethora of books on interpretation.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Pennsylvania: Maple Press, 2014).

[4] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciplines (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 13.