Chapter 3: Theological Value of Empirical Information 

Schleiermacher suggested that there are three levels in theological study.  The foundation is philosophical theologyThen comes historical theologyFinally, as the ‘crown of theological study’ comes practical theology, which is the ‘technique’ of church leadership  (Forrester, 2000, p. 36).

There may be some who imagine that to talk of theology and statistics, or theology and data is to produce an idiom similar to ‘chalk and cheese’.  That, however, would be to fundamentally misunderstand the nature, role and function of theology within the realm of practical theology.  In this chapter, I have set out a short history of how practical theology has been understood since Schleiermacher, in its relationship with the insights that came from the ‘sciences’.  In particular, I have drawn attention to the development of appropriate praxis through the pastoral cycle offered by Richard Osmer (Osmer 2008).

Practical Theology and Statistics

Practical theology, as it was traditionally taught in universities in Scotland, had as its particular focus the practical application of systematic theology within church liturgy, pastoral care and homiletics (Woodward, Pattison, & Patton, 1999, p. 61).  This practice orientated focus was the standard pedagogical strategy advanced amongst my peer group as we engaged in the prescribed training for ministry in the Church of Scotland.  The key concern within practical theology at that time, was still preparation for parish ministry, with a variety of courses providing the tools to translate the broad principles of theological thinking into specific practical action.

This manner of approaching practical theology within theological education found its origins with Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Gräb explains Schleiermacher’s view that

Practical theology had to provide technical instructions or ‘rules of art’ (‘Kunstregeln’) for those who are active in leadership positions in the church, in order for them to be able to fulfil their leadership tasks expertly and in a well-considered way (Gräb, 2005, p. 188).  

Schleiermacher, in his book, Brief Outline on the Study of Religion however, also proposed that practical theology needed to connect with both historical and philosophical theology in order that lived Christianity might feed into an understanding of the whole (Schleiermacher & Tice, 1966).  At this early stage, there are indications that Schleiermacher also ascribes value in connecting with ‘sciences’. In addition to areas such as sociology and anthropology, Schleiermacher proposed a specific place for church statistics, which he views as representing the social circumstances of the church over a historical period (Niebuhr, 1962; Schleiermacher & Tice, 1966, p. 82ff).[1]  Though only fleetingly mentioned by Schleiermacher, empirical, or quantitative aspects of theological thinking within practical theology, has developed as a means of charting and interpreting religious behaviours and practices, both internal and external to the church.

Schilderman explained that,

Practical Theology as an empirical discipline corresponds to practical reasoning.  It helps to interpret the existential, moral and religious significance of texts, belief and practices and it supports the clarification of our questions about what to accept and what to discard on rational grounds (Miller-McLemore, 2011, p. 124).

This ‘practical reasoning’ looked towards the insights and tools afforded through the social sciences and the field known as ‘empirical theology’ was born.[2]  The aim was to connect theology and practice through the reality of research (Heimbrock, 2011).  

In essence, empirical theology is concerned with those kinds of theological data that are properly amenable to empirical investigation.  While many theological notions say those concerning an invisible and immortal transcendent deity, rightly elude empirical investigation, many other theological notions, say those concerning the relationship between God and the created order, rightly demand empirical investigation (Francis, Robbins, & Astley, 2009, p. xv).

Empirical theology, therefore, takes seriously the well-known formula of Anselm, ‘faith seeking understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum), with the scientific empirical method providing some of the insights necessary for ecclesiological praxis.  

Historically, the relationship between theological thinking and ‘concrete’ evidence provided by the sciences has led to a number of key theoretical developments from the method of correlation set out by Paul Tillich, in his Systematic Theology (Tillich, 1978), where theology and science are viewed as equal partners. This was later adapted by David Tracy who expressed a more dynamic and reciprocal relationship, 

practical theology is the mutually critical correlation of the interpreted theory and praxis of the contemporary situation  (Tracy, 1983, p. 76).

Don Browning, an advocate of what is known as the ‘revised critical correlation method, explained,   

The view I propose goes from practice to theory and back to practice.  Or more accurately it goes from present theory-laden practice to a retrieval of normative theory-laden practice to the creation of more critically held theory-laden practices (1996:7).

The stress Browning places on the term ‘theory-laden’, highlights his belief that engagement in practical theology is situated within a culture and place and that we come to any study with assumptions and understandings which are often unexamined. Browning builds on the work of David Tracy with his aim to work towards a

fusion of horizons between the vision implicit in contemporary practices and the vision implied in the practices of the normative Christian texts (Browning 1996:51).   

Further developments continue to be proposed, amongst them the revised praxis method of correlation’ by Rebecca Chopp.  Chopp links ‘scientific understanding’ with ‘faith seeking understanding’ explaining that,

By using the term ‘scientific understanding’, we are not raising issues of comparison between theology and natural or social sciences but rather emphasizing that theology has an interest in theoretical clarity.  This clarity pertains not only to its beliefs but also to the way it analyses its contexts and methods.  In addition, this interest in theoretical clarity includes Christian thinkers’ interests in presenting their claims as truth, according to contemporary views of truth (Chopp & Taylor, 1994, p. 12).

Each development and revision brought theology and the sciences into a closer inter-relatedness for the purpose of greater knowledge and better praxis.  

Van der Ven, a central exponent of empirical theology, suggests a dialectical spiral of movement from theory to empirical research of praxis back to theory as the best method through which this engagement is made. (J. A. Van Der Ven, 1988).[3]  The key consideration is to avoid simple deductive reasoning based on idealist principles.  Bazzell likewise argues for an empirical ecclesiology based around an epistemology which locates itself in specific locality and context rather than what he takes as ‘blue-print ecclesiology’, a term coined by Healy (Healy, 2000) to describe normative images or ideas of the Church (Bazzell, 2015).

Empirical research may, methodologically, involve quantitative and/or qualitative elements.  Within the arena of science, quantitative information is often considered to be the most objective[4] and precise, whereas, within the area of the social sciences, qualitative data is often highly valued for its ‘thick description’[5] nature in that it contains a wealth of often multi-layered meaning and significance.  In empirical theology, both quantitative and qualitative elements contain methodological aspects, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses, as well as the ability to complement one another towards the construction of an holistic understanding (Francis et al., 2009).  Therefore, we find theologians such as Van der Ven calling for the sciences to be used within theology in an intradisciplinary approach as a way of engaging in a hermeneutics of praxis (J. Van der Ven, 1993).[6]

To clarify, the point is, that practical theology needs to both carefully investigate and then to deeply reflect on the connection between faith and life in order that there may be engagement in the transformative potential of the process for the ‘Misso Dei’ (Woodward et al., 1999).

Osmer’s Pastoral Cycle

A general mechanism proposed for ecclesial reflexivity involving empirical theology is contained in various versions of the ‘hermeneutical’ or ‘pastoral cycle’.  In relating church statistics to the work of mission at local, regional or national levels, it is instructive to consider the pattern provided by Richard R Osmer (2008).  Osmer presents a basic outline of a pastoral cycle as four key tasks which are both clear and easily grasped by practitioners. 

The first task is one of orientation towards answering the question, ‘What is happening?’; Osmer terms this the ‘The descriptive-empirical task’.  The task is one in which attentiveness plays a crucial role; hence he typifies it as ‘priestly listening’ which 

involves attending to others in personal relationships, it also includes investigating the circumstances and cultural context of others in more formal and systematic ways (Osmer, 2008, p. 37).  

It is in the formal actions of ‘attending’ that empirical research, both qualitative and quantitative, finds its locus as the primary movement within locality.  Listening, of necessity, must come prior to any attempt at understanding a situation or context.  Attending also must give due regard to the subjective awareness and response of the researcher in the interaction so that consideration and regard can be given to the theories and the values being imputed.  It is important to remember that no observer is able to be wholly neutral in their environment.

The interpretive task which follows draws on the appropriate theories of the arts and sciences to better understand and explain why certain patterns and observations have been recorded.  This moment within the hermeneutical circle asks for discernment, judgement and wisdom for its effective operation

Prophetic discernment becomes the key component of the third movement in Osmer’s scheme which he calls ‘the normative task’, where 

Theological and ethical interpretation is the most formal dimension of the normative task,  Just as attending in the descriptive task opens out to empirical research and sagely wisdom in the interpretive task, to dialogue with theories of the arts and sciences, so too the normative task opens out to form of theological and ethical reflection (Osmer, 2008, p. 139).

The hermeneutic circle closes with a movement towards action with Osmer’s ‘Pragmatic task’.  The practical and transformative nature of the exercise is now in view with strategic outcomes being found and implemented.  Osmer couches his call for effective praxis within the language of ‘servant leadership’, a reminder of the essential nature of the role of those who lead the process of change within congregations and Christian groups. 

Osmer’s scheme is presented here to underline and to understand that the process of practical theology comprises several essential stages, which require the need to take evidential information seriously and to treat it appropriately.  The operation of this pattern in practice can take a variety of forms.  In chapter nine, for example, two different schemes for congregational development are discussed, each seeking renewed praxis though lacking explicit theological expression.  In such instances Osmer’s scheme assists us in framing an understanding the dynamic at work behind a proper working of, in this case, Drucker’s ‘Five Questions’ or the ‘Local Church Review Process’ towards praxis. It also provides church leaders with an appreciation that what, at first, may appear to be simple management tools can, with the correct application, be helpful mechanisms for genuine praxis.


Quantitative information, including statistical data of various kinds, is an often-undervalued component of the practice of attentiveness in which ecclesiastical practitioners must engage.

Shilderman observes, 

Empirical scholars in practical theology study a domain that is often left uncharted by behavioural and social scientists, namely the conceptual and empirical characteristics of moral and religious signification of practices (Schilderman, 2011).

In light of the growing impact of sciences as part of the discipline of practical theology, Pattison asks the question: ‘Practical Theology: art or science?’ The answer given indicates that there are elements of both. Pattison’s warnings against an understanding of the sciences as containing a panacea of true, unbiased knowledge and wisdom serves as a helpful reminder that whilst it has its place within a descriptor of reality experienced, it is not without reservation and certainly not complete in and of itself (Pattison, 2007).

Having set down some foundations justifying the place of data, as at least one component within practical theology, I turn now to assess some incarnations of church based data gathering and assessment processes.  

Chapter 4

[1] Schleiermacher has his section on church statistics in his chapter on ‘historical theology’ but Van Der Venn notes that in a letter to a student Schleiermacher says that it can also be placed within ‘practical theology’ which was the place afforded it by some (J. A. Van Der Ven, 1988, p. 15).

[2] In Europe Werner Gruehn invented the label ‘empirical theology’ though in application it was contextualised within the field of psychology of religion.  Earlier in the 20th century Douglas Macintosh, as part of what was known as the ‘Chicago School’, had attempted to bring the disciplines of scientific logic to theological thinking in a different development of empirical theology (MacIntosh, 1919).

[3] This being a development of the theory – practice – theory movement as proposed by Don Browning ((Browning, 1991)

[4] Objectivity is science should be understood as a general concept since all measurement and human involvement necessarily introduces elements which would negate any absolute form of objectivity.

[5] The term ‘thick description’ was first used by the philosopher Ryle and applied by Geertz in the field of ethnography.  It not only involves detailed accounts of what is experienced but also relates this to wider relational connections setting these within the larger lived context (Holloway, 1997).

[6] ‘The term intra-disciplinary refers to the idea of borrowing concepts, methods and techniques from other disciplines and integrating these into another science’