The Necessity of Public Theology

As someone who has recently graduated from theological college I am sometimes asked about the most formative aspect of my theological training.  Was it thinking about how God relates to time until I got giddy and my ears bled? Was it mastering verbal aspect or discourse analysis in Greek and Hebrew? Was it crafting the master plan to bring revival and a mega church to Chalfont St Peter? Was it developing a mastery of ping-pong (or whiff-whaff) that will earn the respect of ‘da yoof’?

All of those things were, in differing degrees, formative, useful, prayer and worship inducing, and enjoyable (I leave the reader to work out which response goes with which activity – let the reader understand). Perhaps one of the most formative courses I took at college was a course on public theology. I know, I’d never heard of it either! Our lecturer, Dr. Daniel Strange, gave this definition:

“Evangelical public theology concerns the theological reflection on the relationship of and responsibilities between evangelicals and their society/public environment (economic, political and cultural spheres), and their engagement within that society/public environment.”

In many ways it is another assault on an old discussion – the extent to which Christians are to be ‘in the world, but not of the world.’ Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work, Christ and Culture, is now sixty years old. However, there has been something of a resurgence in scholarly engagement with the topic. Don Carson, in 2008, published his book, Christ and Culture Revisited, and contemporary authors like Tim Chester and Tim Keller have bought many of the issues to the forefront of our thinking once again.

I think I arrived at College with an undue suspicion of Christians getting involved in the public square. After all, our task is evangelism, and it’s all going to burn anyway isn’t it? Social action is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic right? Wrong! It was time to get munching on humble pie as my views and ideas were challenged. I recall becoming aware that I couldn’t even spell, let alone articulate, a coherent eschatology. My understanding of common grace was inadequate and unapplied. My view of the scope of redemption was also limited – salvation was, in my understanding, a ticket to the sky when you die.

Thinking through issues of public theology began to put some of the pieces of the puzzle together. First, recognizing that Christ’s redemption touches every area of our existence (Col 3:17), that his kingdom has broken in to our world (Mark 1:15), and that his reign was universal (Phil 2:9-11) persuaded me that there is no area of life outside of his authoritative word. As Kuyper famously said, “there is not a single inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[1] Christ, as Lord, has something to say to not only the church and the individual, but also the state qua state (Rom 13:1-7).

Second, recognizing that any solutions to our world’s problems would be his, and that any good achieved by unbelievers came from his grace (Rom 2:14-15) and ‘borrowed capital’, began to convince me that there is no sphere where Christians should not have something positive to say.  It was Van Til who spoke of the idea of ‘borrowed capital’. In essence he is asking the question of how unbelievers do good. Do politicians make good laws because they’ve had a fine education? Do nurses care for people because they’re lovely people? Do parking attendants uphold the law because they’re upstanding moral citizens? Van Til would answer all those questions in the negative. People do good things because they’re made in the image of God, living in God’s world, sucking in God’s air, benefiting from his undeserved common grace. In other words, people do good things using God’s capital – borrowed capital. No-one can function independent of God or outside his rule and authority. All men live in God’s house, exploring its many rooms, enjoying the facilities, raiding his fridge, whether they care to admit it or not (Acts 17:22-31).

Thirdly, eschatology, rooted in the belief that history, under God’s guiding hand, is going somewhere explores what the in-breaking of the kingdom looks like.[2] The Lord Jesus Christ inaugurates the kingdom on earth in his earthly ministry (Luke 4:18-19) conquering Satan (Luke 4:31-36), bringing healing, restoration and new life (Luke 4:38-41; 5:12-26; 7:1-17). His death and resurrection deal with the great enemies of man – sin and death. As Christ ascends (Acts 1:9) a piece of the new creation goes into heaven, and then in Acts 2 heaven comes down to form new creations at Pentecost. Pentecost is the place where heaven and earth meet, and the subsequent chapters in Acts show the advancing kingdom – the ‘ouranification’ of earth (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). The Church exists in the present age as salt, as a city on a hill, a light to nations (Matt 5:13-16), yeast working through dough, a growing tree in which nations roost (Matt 13:31-33).  The divine mission is to restore Eden (Rev 21-22) and the Church in the last days exists as a visible (and imperfect) outpost of what God is beginning to do.

Therefore Christians occupy the position of the prophet. They tell the rich where their riches came from (and who to thank, and how to use them) and the poor where to find riches (this is a metaphor, not an apology for the prosperity gospel!). Christians have the answers and therefore need to speak and act in the public square. It may be on politics, economics, education, family, the arts, social justice or the environment. Christians have something constructive to say – more, only Christians really know the ways, means and motives of loving neighbours and desiring that they sin less heinously.  If humanism is about maximising human potential and happiness,[3] Christians are the only true humanists. Only Christians can speak with authority on how humans fulfil their potential for dignity, honour, stewardship and glory in every area of life. This is not an optional extra – it is the gospel applied.  As John Murray says:

 “The church lives in the world and it lives within the domain of political entities. If it is to be faithful in its commission it must make its voice heard and felt in reference to public questions.”[4]

Relating public theology to the public square is a minefield to be sure, but one which I believe we need to enter and navigate if we are to be faithful servants of the sovereign Son.


[1] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

[2] N.T.Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), 134.

[4] John Murray, “The Relation of Church and State” in Collected Writings of John Murray Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 257.


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