“Could someone please explain to me what public theology is?’
The question came from a well-known evangelical author at a recent national gathering of church leaders in the Netherlands, after the term had been used from the platform. My wife, who has been living with the phrase for some time now, was surprised by the question from an author of over a hundred books.
Later, when she suggested a helpful book to introduce the topic, he replied, “I don’t read books. I only write them.”
To be fair, public theology is a term needing explanation. Few talk about it outside of academic and theological circles. Even theologians don’t agree on its definition. Some argue that all theology should be public, contributing to the life of the world, addressing the fundamental question of what makes life worth living. Jürgen Moltmann wrote that theology, as the theology of God’s kingdom, had to be public theology: ‘public, critical and prophetic complaint to God – public, critical and prophetic hope in God’.
Public theology informs the faith community when moving beyond personal discipleship and church life into the public square of business, education, healthcare, journalism, politics, government, international relations and environmental issues. It is the topic of books, for example, by Rowan Williams (Faith in the public square) and Miroslav Wolf (A public faith).
Public theology is about faith in daily life, from Monday to Saturday. My late father would have called it faith for ‘the other hundred hours’: the hours in each week (168) minus the hours sleeping (56) and those engaged in church activities (12 – which is a lot!) leaving 100 hours where you live your life. Once when his business was in trouble, he asked his pastor for advice and was told: ‘Don’t ask me. I only studied theology.’ ‘So what good is theology,’ thought my dad, ‘if it doesn’t help you live your daily life?’ He was searching for a public theology.
A striking absence
A Christian tradition of theology inspiring engagement with socio-political issues can be traced through the centuries from the church fathers through to the Reformers and the Evangelical Revivals. Yet today public theology remains a neglected field among Evangelicals. For much of last century, evangelicalism was preoccupied with the task of defending the ‘historic biblical faith’ against the ‘social gospel’ of theological liberalism.
In Issues facing Christians today, John Stott lamented that a ‘half-century of neglect has put us far behind in this area.’ Stott was drafter of the ground-breaking 1974 Lausanne Covenant which affirmed both social and evangelistic dimensions of the gospel. Keen to correct the attitude that politics was a dirty business Christians should avoid, he argued that a Christian ‘salt and light’ presence was essential in all areas of life broken by sin.
Stott referred briefly to government at local and national levels in his watershed book. Yet ironically, none of it’s four editions touched on Europe or European integration, the very topic that has recently so polarised British opinion.
My own recent research of evangelical views on European integration for a masters dissertation has revealed a striking absence of evangelical engagement since World War Two. On the other hand, Catholics and mainstream Protestants have been proactively and constructively engaged in the integration process, at times even shaping the agenda. (Over future weeks I plan to describe the different responses of European Evangelicals to European integration and the sources of those responses.)
My research also explored evangelical engagement in the socio-political life-spheres generally in Europe today and confirmed that, indeed, public theology was a neglected field among Evangelicals. My survey of websites of the sixty-nine members of The European Council of Theological Education yielded only one European programme on public theology or European studies: taught by Schuman Centre Senior Researcher Evert Van de Poll at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Heverlee (Leuven).
This week I was invited to share European perspectives on a zoom meeting with Asian, Latin American and African theologians. I discovered one of my interlocutors to be Professor Sunday Agang, editor of the recently-published African Public Theology, to which I referred in my dissertation. Inspiration for the book was the African Union’s Agenda 2063, subtitled The Africa we want. As I perused the wide variety of articles from scholars across Africa in my hastily-ordered copy, I had wondered what a European public theology would look like. What kind of Europe do we want?…does God want?
We urgently needed a European, evangelical, missional, public theology, I concluded, shaping a vision for a Europe reflecting God’s purposes.
Join us online as we seek such vision over the next three Wednesday evenings, studying Jim Memory’s report, Europe 2021. Write to me and I’ll send a link.
Till next week,