Pastoral Theology Background

There are many ways to categorize theology within the Christian context.

  • Biblical Theology  (Theology drawn from the Bible and its context)
  • Historical Theology (Theology as it relates to the history of the church)
  • Philosophical Theology (Theology drawn more from reason or general revelation)
  • Systematic Theology (Theology that draws from the above sources and then compiles them topically and systematically)
  • Practical Theology (Theology that draws application from systematic theology)

Figure 2. Process of Theology

Some theologies do not fit into this schema very well. Contextual theologies (Black, Dalit, Liberation, Feminist, Minjung, Post-colonial, etc.), for example, are not easily categorizable within this paradigm. Of course, it could be argued that all theologies are ultimately contextual. That is, all theology is true to the extent that it accurately and effectively bridges the gap between God’s revelation, and mankind’s situation (context).

Pastoral Theology, as we are using the term, is a subset of Practical Theology, is more anthropological in focus, and is therefore more tied to the process of action/reflection. This will be elaborated upon further into the chapter.

In the meantime, it is sometimes useful to understand pastoral theology by comparing it to the category of theology that it contrasts the most starkly – Systematic Theology.

Consider the two trees on the following pages. One is a tree based on Systematic Theology – with major branches based on a method of sub-classifying.  Now turn your attention to the Tree of Pastoral Theology – with major branches that could correspond to the major branches of systematic theology.1

Pastoral theology is more anthropological: it is focused less on “Who is God?”, and more on “Who am I in relation to God and others?” It is also more experiential. While Pastoral Theology has similar roots as systematic theology, in terms of Divine Revelation, faith tradition, and rationality, it also draws heavily on personal experience and social sciences.

While all theology is personal, communal, tentative, and dynamic, pastoral care is intentionally so. It is personal in that it seeks to link a person’s actions and spiritual wisdom to gain personal theological insights. It is communal since it is not done in a vaccuum; it is reflection done within the context of a community, based on actions within the community. It is tentative in that theological certainty is never the goal. It is dynamic in that it is tied to life and is meant to change as life changes.2 The two trees shown are meant to have corresponding branches. In Systematic Theology, one studies the Trinity. “Who is God as it pertains to His nature and attributes?” In pastoral care, one seeks to understand “What matters most?” “Who or what is God/holy/sacred?” “What has the highest place in my life or the life of another?”F


Anthroplogy. “What is Man?” corresponds to the the question “How can I be fully human/genuine?” Who am I REALLY as I understand my place with respect to God, Creation, and Others?

Ecclesiology. “What is the Church?” corresponds to the pastoral care question of “Who or What is my Community?”

Epistemology. “What is true/real, and how do I know?” corresponds to “How do I know what truly matters?”

Cosmology. “What is the nature of the world around us?” corrsponds to “How do I understand and relate to the world?”

Soteriology. “What does it mean to be saved?” corresponds to “How can I change?”

Eschatology. “What is the ultimate plan of God?” corresponds to “What happens when I die?”

Mystery. While not a formal part of systematic theology, it must always be an integral part of the formulation – the humble recognition that there are things beyond our knowledge, beyond our capacity to know, and beyond our ability to understand. As true as this is in systematic theology, it is equally or perhaps even exceedingly true in pastoral theology.

Pastoral Theology is an act of Action and Reflection. Each one informs and guides the other. This blog seeks to explore this activity.

This post includes excerpts from the book my wife and I are writing, “Dynamics in Pastoral Care.” This is our second book on Pastoral Care. The first was one is “The Art of Pastoral Care.” It is available on Amazon. Much of this post draws from the class notes of Dr. Doug Dickens, chaplain and diplomate supervisor of CPE. He served for many years at Gardner-Webb University.

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