Is Theology Practical?

This address was delivered at Theology Matters’ first conference on Hilton Head Island, Feb. 19, 2020.

I made an off-hand comment to Richard Burnett one day, about three months into pastoral ministry, that my theology courses in seminary were proving to be far more practical than the so-called “practical theology” courses I had taken. His interest in that comment resulted in this paper. I’m still very new to pastoral ministry, and believe me, I feel every bit of the irony that in this paper I’m addressing many people who have decades of experience in congregational leadership on me.

However, I’m not proposing to teach you something you don’t already know, or to lecture you. Rather, I want to bear witness to what I’ve seen and learned as I’ve attended and finished seminary and begun to work in a congregation, and why what we normally think of as academic theology matters to the people of God. I’ve come to think of my theology courses as not only the most important courses I took in seminary, but also as the most practical.

For the sake of full disclosure, I will confess that from the beginning of my time in seminary I was far more interested in theology or history of doctrine courses than I was in practical theology, even though I felt a little bit guilty about it. I had the impression that a good pastor, a real pastor, would be excited to take the required courses on pastoral care, and would jump at the chance to take classes on youth ministry or ministry to older adults. And I will freely admit, now that I have a sliver of experience, that given more time those classes would have been very helpful. But my time in seminary was limited, and I took as few as I could get away with. The sense of mild guilt persisted. From what I knew, good pastors took pastoral care courses. Theology courses were for the people who wanted to be theologians, who were looking at Th.M. or Ph.D. tracks.

The first hint that I might have been wrong about this came my middler year of seminary, when my father died suddenly. Only two things could speak with any conviction into the chasm that had opened in my life, and they were the 130th Psalm and the eighth chapter of the 1541 Institutes, which I was reading for class at the time.

Calvin says:

So it is a wonderful comfort to understand that the Lord holds all things in his power, governs them by his will, and regulates them by his wisdom, in such a way that nothing can happen unless He has destined it. Moreover, he has received us into his protection and committed us to the charge of his angels, so that there is no water or fire or sword or anything that can harm us except inasmuch as His good pleasure allows. … From where does the faithful person get such an assurance which can never be taken away, except that, there where it seems that the world is capriciously turned upside down, he believes that God is working to lead him, God whose works he expects are all salvific and wholesome for him?

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans.Elsie A. McKee(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 454–55.

Is this academic and cerebral theology? Sure, in one sense. But it’s also a great comfort, that even though the worst thing I could imagine had in fact happened, it came to me from the hand of a loving and kind God who meant good for me. I didn’t have to know why it happened. I didn’t have to make sense of it. I didn’t have to tell myself that the grief wasn’t really that bad, that things were really going to be okay in the end. I could be as hurt as I was and still, in the end, trust that the gracious and benevolent God was in control. No amount of psychologizing or therapy or Listening-with-a-capital-L (you know the kind!) could have done for me what the doctrine of providence did.

Despite this experience, I managed to come out of seminary with the idea that even though theology is important, it wasn’t something my congregation was going to be inherently interested in. I thought that if I were to teach any theology in my congregation––and I did think it was important to do so––I thought I would have to slip it in here and there, packaged or maybe even camouflaged in a covering of something more “practical.” I wondered if the questions that traditional, old-fashioned theology asked weren’t a little irrelevant for the average person whose life didn’t revolve around the church and its thinking.

But as I got to know people and they got to know me, as we started talking about scripture or current events or the joys and sorrows of daily life, I found out to my shock that this wasn’t true at all. I had people asking me in plain words, without much provocation, the basic questions that theology has sought to answer for years. Because of the way our classes had been split between “theology” and “pastoral care,” I thought that these were two different things. But it turns out, in this vaunted “real life” I heard so much about, where the rubber hits the road, where people are dealing with the deaths of their children or their husband or their own impending death, where people are struggling to figure out what their Sunday morning activities have to do with the rest of their lives, theology is pastoral care. What we call “pastoral care” courses aren’t bad, but they can only ever offer temporary or preparatory solutions to let people hear the real and final Word of God. They are useful tools, but regarding them as the real content of preparation for pastoral ministry seems to me to be a mistake. The things I learned in my required pastoral care courses––something about how the human psyche works, something about how to speak so that people are able to really listen to and hear what I say––those things are very helpful. I’m not trying to say that they don’t matter. But they’re primarily useful insofar as they clear the ground so that the work of the gospel can take place.

What the Creed means when it says that Jesus descended into hell matters when people are going through hell. What we mean when we say that Christ defeated death matters when a widow is aching over her husband’s death, or when someone decides to stop seeing specialists for their congestive heart failure, or when a father is facing the possibility of losing the fourth of his five children. When the woman who has attended church faithfully for years wants to know how she can be sure that God won’t change his mind about her, that she won’t one day sin one too many times and make God give up, then the previously hopelessly academic statement that God has no parts is suddenly the life-giving, earthy, practical gospel. Because if God is simple and God is for her, then no part of God is hanging back, waiting to see what she does with her life. All of God is with her and desires to save her. And when people are tired, as of course they are, and anxious, as of course we all are, and worn out from trying to put out all the fires in their life, God’s aseity comes as joy and rest. Because of course, if God is enough in himself, if he’s independent from the world, if he needs nothing from it, then the reason that any of us exist is simply and purely because God delights in us. We don’t have anything to prove.

There might be a world in which theology wasn’t practical for the church or to an individual soul in crisis, but only if the God it told us about were not our highest good and our chief end. But thanks be to God, that’s not our world, or our God. Theology, and the classes and books and conferences that teach it to us, matter because they teach us about the God who loves us (and what it means for God to love us), and who despite everything has chosen not to be without us (and what it means for God to be with us) and who will redeem the world that he has made and sustains.  Theology is practical because at its best, it expounds on the encouragement we hear from the Psalmist, to put our hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Sara Jane Nixon
Sara Jane Nixon
Sara Jane Nixon is the pastor of New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Dublin, Virginia. She is a graduate of Princeton Theology Seminary.

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