The Shape of Practical Theology
A review of Ray Anderson's, "The Shape of Practical Theology," by Don Payne.
Anderson, Ray S. The Shape of Practical Theology. Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 1999. $18.00 Pap. 305 pp. No ISBN.
This book offers surprises for a variety of readers. For the scholar who suspects that “practical theology” is an academic Trojan horse full of mere pragmatists, it relies heavily on the work of some of this centuries most supple theological minds, e.g. Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. For the practitioner who has lost hope that erudite theological reflection has any bearing on the daily work of ministry, it opens previously inaccessible recesses of a nourishing well.
Experienced readers of Anderson will recognize several chapters as republications of previous articles. With some new material added to lay the foundation and tie the case together, this book consolidates the range of Anderson’s thought as expressed in numerous pieces over the last twenty years. The premise of the book is that “ministry precedes and produces theology, not the reverse,” with the proviso that “ministry is determined as set forth by God’s own ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world, beginning with Israel and culminating in Jesus Christ and the Church.” (p. 39)
Part One develops a Trinitarian structure and Christological basis for ministry. Anderson sees ministry as participation in the Spirit’s ministry of restoring broken humanity, as it has been reconciled into the life of the Father through the incarnation of the Son. He understands competence in ministry through the lens of Aristotle’s concept of “praxis,” wherein the product of an act defines the integrity of the act. With the term “Christopraxis” Anderson outlines three criteria for ministry competence: discernment (“the recognition of the congruence between the Christ of Scripture and the Christ in ministry” [p.33]), integration (“the application of discernment where God’s Word is both proclaimed and practiced in ministry with the result that Christ as truth both touches and is touched by human need” [pp. 34-35]) and credibility (“the transparency of method and lucidity of thought which makes the presence of Christ self-evident and worthy of belief in every event of ministry” [pp. 35-36]).
Part Two identifies the conceptual adhesive that integrates the tasks and challenges of ministry with its Christological foundation. The first integrator is the use of the resurrection of Jesus as a hermeneutical criterion. Anderson claims that conclusions must be drawn from Scripture’s authority in light of the particular ways life is made new by the power and presence of the resurrected Jesus in the work of ministry. He anticipates charges of relativism by anchoring his conclusions to Scriptural “antecedents” that point to a restored dignity, wholeness and parity as the work of God within human experience. What the risen Christ actually does through the Spirit in ministry, he argues, provides a hermeneutical road through some of the exegetical impasses that frustrate the church.
The second integrator is a well-developed theological anthropology. Christ’s taking of our humanity into the Father both validates and liberates us toward lives of responsive love to God and each other. Anderson uses this view to evaluate theologies of liberation, to elaborate on neighbor-ethics and to assess dehumanizing social structures.
Finally, part three is a collection of articles that demonstrate how Anderson has used his theology of ministry through the years to address specific ministry questions. His conclusions will be too lenient for some and too restrictive for others. Yet, his treatment of clergy burnout, homosexuality, forgiveness and family ministry, just to name a few, will provide fresh insight into these complex issues.
Ray Anderson’s The Shape of Practical Theology offers much more than a cursory glance at the title would suggest. His thought does not lend itself to casual reading. His use of Barth in the area of Christology and Torrance in his theological method will be provocative and controversial for many conservative evangelicals. Yet, his arguments warrant serious consideration, not allowing for easy dismissal through mere technical disagreements. Readers will find here a theologian and pastor whose heart has obviously been broken in the trenches of ministry and enflamed by the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Christ. What he offers is thoroughly evangelical, though not at all predictable.
It is unfortunate that this work has not yet seen the broader light of day through a major publishing house, but hopefully that is still to come. The next generation of ministry leaders will be well advised to follow Anderson’s example in redefining effective ministry from the theological inside out. The results, then, may radically challenge the conclusions of what is currently selling well in the area of “practical theology.”
Suburban Training Center Director