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Oct242011

Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology

Anderson-Shape-of-Practical-Theology Amazon.com

Ray Sherman Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry With Theological Praxis. IVP Academic, 2001.

Referenced in: Pastoral Theology

LifeandLeadership.com Summary

This is a highly respected text in pastoral theology. Though the title says “practical” theology, it is limited in scope to one area of practical Christian expression, the pastoral role. I would not recommend it as a first read for busy ministers. It is dense and steeped in the language of theology. This makes it less accessible to the average reader, but does not overshadow its value. Even for the untrained reader and for those who do not share all of Anderson’s convictions, there are gems throughout, especially in the third section.

Anderson states several “theses” throughout his work. Two are especially helpful in describing the thrust. First:

My purpose in this book is threefold. First, I define more clearly the shape of practical theological enterprise rather that the mastery of skills and methods. Second, I demonstrate the praxis of practical theology as critical engagement with the interface between the word of God as revealed through Scripture and the work of God taking place in and through the church in the world. Third, I offer some essays dealing with practical pastoral theology from the perspective of those who are on the “field of play” of life and ministry, where preaching, counseling, and teaching does affect for many persons the outcome of the game. (8)

Thus he believes that theological reflection must shape ministry so that the skills and methods are informed by something more fundamental. The word of God must be brought to bear on the nature of the work of God. And it is helpful when theology is directed to some of the specific tasks of ministry.

Another key statement:

“One fundamental thesis will control this discussion – the thesis that ministry precedes and produces theology, not the reverse. It must be fundamentally added, however, that ministry is determined and set for by God’s own ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world, beginning with Israel and culminating in Jesus Christ and the church.” (62).

Here he points out that God’s ministry, historically and today, is the basis of theology, and theology is shaped in the context of our continuation of that ministry. In this respect, Anderson does not accept the distinction between “pure” theology and “applied” theology. He asks,

Can the church tolerate the separation of the theoretical task from the concrete situation of its own existence? Will theologians be permitted to work in the cool absentia while pastors sweat our their existence in the steamy space of the church in the world? Does theological training end where practice begins? (61)

He answers that this tendency is dangerous for two reasons:

First, when theological thinking is practiced in abstraction from the church in ministry, it inevitably becomes as much unapplied and irrelevant as pure; second, when the theological mind of the minister is being educated primarily through experience, an ad hoc theology emerges that owes as much (or more) to methodological and pragmatic concerns as to dogma. (61)

He divides the book into three sections.

Part 1, The Shape of Practical Theology, discusses the history, scope, and definition of practical theology as a discipline. It also presents the Trinity and the revelation of God in Christ as the essential theological foundations of ministry.

Part 2, the Praxis of Practical Theology, discusses the resurrection of Jesus as the interpretive key for engaging ministry. The eschatological hope secured by that event changes everything. He also discusses how the Spirit’s indwelling and empowerment enlivens us with the hope of liberation from evil, and instills courage to engage the contexts where bondage is most evident in our present experience. He describes the church’s ministry as the latreia, or “service” of Christ, through which we incarnate the world just as Christ was God incarnate and empty ourselves in continuation of his self-emptying. Central to this is our understanding of the second great commandment of loving neighbor as self, and how our ministry must become the exemplary display of this neighborly ethic. This reflects Christian ministry’s unique view of man as his dwellings, even cities, and the kingdom visions we seek to realize in human contexts.

Part 3, the Practice of Pastoral Theology, is the most helpful section of the book, laying out some of the more pastoral implications of this theology. Here Anderson assumes a more traditional definition of the ministerial role, focusing on issues such as pastoral care, the church’s ministry to families in postmodernity, ministry to homosexuals, and the journey of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. He also discusses how theology addresses clergy burnout, calling burnout “a symptom of theological anemia.”

Each essay is thoughtful and balanced, offering a larger theological engagement of the issues.

From the Publisher

Too often in the life of the church, theological reflection and the practical matters of leading and serving have been considered independently. The result has been the impoverishment of both Christian faith and Christian practice. In this groundbreaking book Ray Anderson reflects theologically and practically on preaching, worship, ethics, social justice, therapy, family, homosexuality, burnout in ministry, reconciliation in relationships and theological education itself. The result is The Shape of Practical Theology, a new and renewing foundation for engaging in Christian ministry. Anderson lays out his threefold goal as follows:

  • To define more clearly the shape of practical theology as truly a theological enterprise rather than mere mastery of skills and methods
  • To demonstrate the praxis of practical theology as critical engagement with the interface between the word of God as revealed through Scripture and the work of God taking place in and through the church in the world
  • To deal with practical pastoral theology from the perspective of those who are on the “field of play” of life and ministry, where preaching, counseling and teaching does affect for many persons the outcome of the game.

Illuminated by stimulating discussion and helpful case studies, The Shape of Practical Theology is aimed at seminary students, at Christian educators, and at working pastors and counselors. Anderson’s work, fascinating and fruitful, brings together the Word of God with the Spirit of God in the ever-changing context of real-life ministry.

About the Author

Ray S. Anderson (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is senior professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he has taught since 1976. He is also a contributing editor to Journal of Psychology and Theology.


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