Practicality and Ethics

In 1855 the Presbyterian theologian Henry Boynton Smith noted in his inaugural lecture as the professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York that "theology, unlike philosophy, is a practical as well as a theoretical science." No statement about theology was more frequent in early America. The demand that theology be practical reflected not only the imperatives of revivalist religion and widespread assumptions about the relation between theology and ethics but also a long history of reflection that had its roots in ancient philosophy.11

In trying to convince fifth-century Athenians that the political life was not the highest good, Plato had distinguished between theoretical and practical knowledge, defining theoria (contemplation) as reflection on unchanging truths, which brought the greatest possible happiness. Aristotle also contrasted theory and practice, arguing, like Plato, that theoretical knowledge came from the contemplation of unchanging realities, while practical knowledge consisted of the principles that guided choices and actions. When Christian theologians adopted the distinction in the third century, they used it at first to reflect on the way in which specific practices, or good works, might help prepare one for the highest end of the contemplation of God. By the twelfth century, they were using it to define theology itself.12

To say that theology was speculative or theoretical meant that its aim was the beholding of God as an end in itself, an intrinsic good. To call it practical meant that it consisted of knowledge that led to a good beyond itself, specifically to the end of blessedness and union with God. Most theologians believed that the discipline was both speculative and practical, but they differed in emphasis. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century viewed it as primarily, though not exclusively, speculative or theoretical because it dealt more with divine things than with human acts. His younger contemporary Duns Scotus viewed it as mainly practical, arguing that revelation was given chiefly as a guide to salutary conduct that would enable believers to attain their final end.13

By the seventeenth century, a few theologians defined theology as entirely practical, designed only to teach the faithful how to live piously and well and to attain blessedness through the light of God's divine truth. This was the position of Jacobus Arminius, the Dutch theologian whose criticisms of one form of Calvinism became an inspiration for various later ''Arminian'' rejections of Calvinist theology. An understanding of theology as fully practical, however, also attracted such Calvinist scholastics as Bartholomaus Keckermann in Heidelberg, who contended that everything in theology was directed toward the end of ''living well'' and loving God in a saving manner. Most thought, however, that theology was both theoretical (speculative), providing knowledge of God as an end in itself, and practical, teaching the truths that enabled the faithful to ''live unto God.''14

An understanding of theology as practical governed the discipline in America from the outset. Influenced especially by the French Protestant Petrus Ramus, who defined theology as entirely practical, the covenant theologians of seventeenth-century Europe and America would emphasize its function as a guide to living unto God. American theologians drew, moreover, on another tradition extending back into the third century, in which ''speculation'' referred to a vain curiosity extending beyond permitted limits. Some would follow in the path set by Martin Luther, who defined the ''speculative'' as a form of knowing that lacked an inner experience of the truths known. Others, also in the tradition of the Protestant reformers, would define it as any effort to go beyond biblical revelation. Gradually, theologians in America would use the term speculative only to dismiss a position with which they disagreed.15

The meanings assigned to the concept of the practical in America would vary. Some retained the medieval sense that the whole of theological truth could be viewed as a practical guide to salvation. Others restricted the use of the term to religious teachings about repentance, regeneration, and the Christian life. The practical doctrines described Christian experience. Still others restricted the term even further, referring to doctrines as practical only if their lively presentation from the pulpit could elicit conversion or guide ethical decisions.

Almost from the beginning, theologians in America emphasized the close connection between the practical and the moral, and even though some — usually designated by their critics as "antinomians" — questioned the closeness of the connection, the ethical side of theology became increasingly prominent. By the eighteenth century, some redefined the practicality of theology to mean simply its usefulness as a guide to a life of virtue, and even those who retained older notions of the practical became engrossed in the issues presented by the emergence of moral philosophy. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was common among theologians to include a section on moral philosophy within theology textbooks.

The emphasis on practicality merged almost seamlessly with the prevailing conceptions of theological rationality. Edwards Amasa Park noted by the mid-nineteenth century that several of the American "systems" of divinity were "in the form of sermons," and he argued that theology in America was "eminently practical" because everyone agreed that "the theological system, which is best fitted to be preached, is on that account most entitled to be believed." Park came close to saying that practical usefulness was itself a criterion of rational truthfulness. The harmony of the rational and the practical was especially visible in the evidentialist argument that the consistency of biblical teaching with the highest moral insights of humanity provided evidence that the Bible was a divine book. Even more important as a sign of the unity of the rational and the practical, however, was the confidence that the evidences had the power to generate conversions. The proofs of evidential Christianity functioned as arguments against deism, but they functioned also as means of converting the unconvinced. The experience of Thomas Whittemore, converted by evidential arguments, exemplified the ideal blending of the rational and the practical.16

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