What is Public Theology?
Updated: Oct 2, 2022
It is no secret that we live in a culture that is rapidly changing in its posture towards Christianity. Whether at work, school, civic functions, or even in their own neighborhoods, Christians increasingly feel under pressure when it comes to integrating faith with public life. One resource the local church can provide to help in this area is to coach its people in the area of public theology.
Definition of Public Theology
Public theology is concerned with how Christian truth and theology answer societal questions, and also with communicating the goodness of those answers. Public theology deals with the application and communication of Christian truth in matters of public interest. Many areas of life can fall under the category of matters of public interest. These can range from something as small as the interactions between neighbors to something as grand as global trade or international relations.
The primary distinction of public theology is that it pertains to matters applicable outside the community of the church. Theology is the study of God, and the study of God is broadly applicable to every area of life. However, there are many particular theological points and distinctions that are only going to be of interest to Christians. The administration and meaning of the sacraments in the church matters, but not to the broader public. All Christians should study the attributes of God, but these are not matters of public theology. Such theological questions can inform public matters, but making such a connection would be the work of public theology. Public theology answers questions about the ordering up public life and the nature of mankind that are applicable to all people in a society, not merely to the redeemed church.
Christians and Public Life
The universal truth claims of the Christian faith imply a public concern for theology. The truth revealed in Scripture is not a mere philosophical truth for Christians alone but is truth that aligns with the reality of the nature of the world. Thus, Christians believe that living in light of this truth is good for everyone. Love of neighbor compels Christians to advocate for theologically informed answers to public issues and questions. Christians believe they have a role to play in public life because they believe Christian truth should have insight for the best way to organize public life.
At Village Church, in all of our discipleship environments, we consistently ask the question, “How do we apply this Scriptural truth to everyday life?” Public theology can be thought of as an extension of this question from the personal to the public. Public theology asks the question, “How should this biblical and theological truth inform public issues or questions?” The Christian motivation for working out answers to this question should come from a place of desiring the well-being of the larger society.
The Myth of the Neutral Public Square
Some question if the answers derived from Christian truth have any place in a secular society. After all, Christians cannot expect non-religious people or followers of other religions to accept the premise of Christian truth. There is often an underlying assumption that the public square is neutral, and public issues must be addressed without consideration of any religious truth claims. However, even when it comes to matters of the public good, neither religious nor non-religious people neutrally approach the topic.
The idea of a neutral public square is a myth. Everyone approaches questions about what is good for society with underlying worldview assumptions. Religious worldview assumptions are just as valid to bring to a public discussion as secular worldview assumptions. When addressing public issues, all truth claims should be evaluated based on their appeal to what is best for society and the outcomes produced. The reality that no one approaches public issues neutrally should give Christians the confidence to advocate for what they believe is best for human flourishing, informed by biblical truth.
Communicating Public Theology to Non-Christians
The goal of public theology is to bring theological truth and insights to bear on those issues that are of interest to the broad public, Christian and non-Christian alike. This is not to say that Christian truth will always be palatable to non-Christians. In fact, public theology often involves communicating Christian truth to those who are not receptive to it.
How does one communicate Christian truth regarding public matters to a public that does not share underlying Christian truth commitments? This is the work of public theology, and will be a unifying theme this blog going forward. The answers to this question are not always straightforward. If public theology is to be done in love, it must be concerned with how it is communicated. Indeed, this distinguishes public theology from Christian ethics. Public theology is not merely concerned with having the right answer to a societal question, but also with how best to communicate that answer to the society. The challenge for the Christian public theologian is to maintain the concern for communicating truth without downplaying or hiding the full reality of that truth.
Public theology is a resource that wise local churches will learn to utilize as they seek to teach their people how to live out their Christian faith in public. As Christians enter the public square, they will be compelled by love of neighbor to advocate for what is good for society. Public theology gives Christians the tools to do this effectively and with a confident understanding of the place of Christian truth in the broader culture.
 Aaron M. Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” First Things, February, 2022, accessed September 26, 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism/.  Westminster Theological Seminary, “Westminster Q&A: What Is Public Theology?,” June 2, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3m0EOlhewI.  Youn, Chul Ho, “The Points and Tasks of Public Theology,” International Journal of Public Theology 11, no. 1 (January 2017), 69.  Angus Menuge, “Human Flourishing and the Myth of Religious Neutrality,” Christian Research Institute, accessed September 26, 2022, https://www.equip.org/articles/human-flourishing-myth-religious-neutrality/.  Youn, 66.