All Theology Is Public Theology

“Public theology” typically describes “theology that addresses common concerns in an open forum, where no particular creed or confession holds pride of place,” writes Kevin Vanhoozer in his recent The Pastor as Public Theologian. The “public”: in view is “society at large,” and so public theology takes the form of theological reflection on public policy (17). 

Vanhoozer says that public theology in this form is “first and foremost a reaction against the tendency to privatize the faith, restricting it to the question of an individual’s salvation” (17). While Vanhoozer sympathizes with that effort, he offers a more “radical” vision of public theology, one founded on the original meaning of the term “public”: “Public theology, as we are using the term, means ‘theology made up of people.’” The church is the “public of Jesus Christ,” not only the place where theology is done, but the very content of theology. 

Vanhoozer puts it this way: “This is public theology: children of light being ‘the light of the world (Matt. 5:14), bringing to light ‘the plan of the mystery hidden for ages’ (Eph. 3:9), namely, ‘to unite all things in [Christ]’ (Eph 1:9-10). In Newbigin’s terms, ‘This koinonia is indeed the very being of the Church as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of what God purposes for the whole human family.’ The church, as public spire, is the vanguard of the realization of this plan. As such, the church is the public truth of Jesus Christ, and not only truth, but also the public goodness and public beauty of God’s plan of redemption.” The church is “the public place where what is in Christ is remembered, celebrated, explored, and exhibited” (21).

The pastor’s task is always a public one, since it always has to do with helping a congregation “to become what they are called to be.” 

This is indeed, as Vanhoozer claims, a “more excellent way” of conceiving of and doing public theology.

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