Theology is the “study of God.” We get this term from the Greek word θεός (theós) and λόγια (logia). Theology, in general, is indeed a broad discipline. Subsets of theology proper include systematic theology, which explores what the Bible has to say about any given topic (like marriage), and biblical theology, which examines the entire storyline of the Bible in interpreting any given passage (just like how Jesus does in Luke 24:13-35).
Most people, even most Christians, might think that theology is just something that pastors and seminary students do. But the truth is that everyone is a theologian. Every person alive comes up with a conception of God. Everyone worships something. It’s not a question of whether or not you will be a theologian, but rather what kind of theologian you will be — or how good of a theologian you will be.
Once we establish that everyone, and especially every Christian, is a theologian, it’s important to point out that theology is not just what happens in church on Sunday. In fact, the vast majority of the theology that you will do in your life will happen outside of the four walls of the sanctuary of your local church.
Every day, in countless ways, you are confronted with deep and challenging questions regarding your Christian faith and life in this world. And the practice of this theology has a name — it’s called public theology. So, just like everyone is a theologian, so too is everyone a public theologian, whether they realize it or not.
Then what is public theology? And why is it important?
According to Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan in The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision,
“The standard meaning of public theology is ‘theology in and for the public square.’ The particular public in view is society: the broader polis. Public theology is therefore theology that addresses common concerns in an open forum, where no particular creed or confession holds pride of place. Specifically, public theology concerns the forms and means by which individual Christians (and churches) should bear witness to their faith in the public square (i.e., society at large).”
That’s a good definition. Another way to put it is that public theology is a practice undertaken in recognition of the fact that Christ is the Lord of all of life. Let me repeat that, because I am concerned that what you heard me say was that “Christ is Lord of some of life.” No, what I am said is that “Christ is Lord of all.” I say that because that is what the Bible teaches: Christ is Lord of all — of everyone, everywhere.
Jesus isn’t just Lord of your heart. Or Lord over the Church. He is the Lord of the universe. He’s not just your personal Lord and Savior — He is the public Lord and Savior, too. Philippians 2:9-11 says:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Vanhoozer and Strachan also address this mistaken conception of duality that often presents itself in modern Christian discipleship. They write,
“Christ is Lord over all areas of life, and it is important that Christians avoid dualistic ways of thinking so as not to compartmentalize discipleship (for Sundays and the privacy of one’s home only) from citizenship (for the rest of the week, schools, and the workplace).”
Public theology, then, is the process of arguing for the Kingship of Christ over the public spaces and places of this world, and all the moral, ethical, and spiritual implications contained within that powerful statement of reality.
As pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson has put it, this is the work of applying “All of Christ to all of life.”
Another leading public theologian was a man named Francis A. Schaeffer. I recently commemorated his life and ministry and reflected on his commitment to bringing Christian truth claims to bear on all areas, including the most pressing ethical issues of the modern day, like abortion. Schaeffer, in his exercise of public theology applied to the nature of humanity, warned about the coming evils in a society that denies the personhood of the unborn. In How Should We Then Live, written in 1976, he warned:
“By the ruling of the Supreme Court, the unborn baby is not counted as a person. In our day, quite rightly, there has been a hue and cry against some of our ancestors’ cruel viewing of the black slave as a nonperson. This was horrible indeed—an act of hypocrisy as well as cruelty. But now, by an arbitrary absolute brought in on the humanist flow, millions of unborn babies of every color of skin are equally by law declared non-persons. Surely this, too, must be seen as an act of hypocrisy.
The door is open. In regard to the fetus, the courts have arbitrarily separated ‘aliveness’ from ‘personhood,’ and if this is so, why not arbitrarily do the same with the aged? So the steps move along, and euthanasia may well become increasingly acceptable. And if so, why not keep alive the bodies of the so-called neo-morts (persons in whom the brain wave is flat) to harvest from them body parts and blood, when the polls show that this has become acceptable to the majority?”
These two paragraphs are public theology par excellence. Not only that, they were prophetic. Amazingly — and horrifically — just this week, MSN News reported a story entitled, “Keep brain-dead women alive and use them as surrogate mothers, suggest doctors.”
Whether we are dealing with the assault on marriage, gender, or the unborn, Christians must practice faithful public theology. We must unapologetically apply the truths found in God’s Word to the challenges of our day.
In closing, here are four brief (and not exhaustive) pillars of faithful public theology in the 21st century. It must:
Everyone is a theologian. That means everyone is also a public theologian. As you step into the public square, no doubt you will be confronted by competing public theologies. The postmodernists reject all objective truth claims. The woke argue that “intersectionality” matters more than reality. Muslims argue that the “one true God is Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Therefore, our task as Christian public theologians is to boldly and clearly proclaim Christ as King — and the earth as His footstool (Isaiah 66:1). And we apply all of Christ to all of life — because at the end of the day, it’s Christ or chaos. Even in the public square.
Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.