The Old Testament and Public Theology

By Nelson, Richard D. | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Old Testament and Public Theology

Nelson, Richard D., Currents in Theology and Mission

I. What is public theology and why should we practice it?

Luther sets the standard for us as a theologian who was never shy about sounding off in the public square. He exploited the new technology of the printing press to expand what one might call the consumer audience for theology in treatises that put forward what today we would call public theology: "Trade and Usury" (1524), "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can be Saved" (1526), and his notorious "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of the Peasants" (1525). A more accessible example is his Large Catechism with its pointed views on the political and social order.

As public leaders, pastors can hardly justify limiting their theological communication to the pulpit and the congregation's adult forum. Opportunities offer themselves constantly, in occasions for public prayer, panels, public forums, meetings of school boards and town councils, high school baccalaureate services, chaplaincy for volunteer fire departments, chances to write a column for the local paper--to say nothing of pastoral leadership at those church-based events that attract audiences from the whole community such as weddings and funerals.

Four perspectives on public theology undergird my conviction that the Old Testament can serve as a resource for public theological leadership.

1) When doing public theology, the church is thinking theologically with the common good in mind and communicating its thinking in public in order to influence public opinion and public policy.

2) Public theology is the church's critical reflection on the specific topic of public life in order to help transform public life.

3) Public theology involves inviting the public into thoughtful conversations with the church about matters of public significance.

4) Public theology does not seek so much to tell people how to behave but to inculcate thoughtful virtue in the citizenry, whatever their religious convictions or loyalties may be.

This last point means that public theology addresses a religiously mixed audience, one that includes the religiously indifferent and adherents of non-Christian religions. For this reason, public theology must be publicly persuasive. To be in any sense effective, its argumentation cannot be based on claims to possess specially revealed truths, nor can it be founded on scriptural proof in any sort of prepositional sense or on appeals to any tradition that is exclusively Christian. The assertion "life begins at conception" is a religiously-derived precept and has little persuasive power except among those already committed to the proposition. However, the argument "we owe humane justice and fairness to the potential for full humanity embodied in every fetus" could serve as an effective argument because it resonates with core values shared by most Americans. As a corollary to this principle, when the Bible is involved in our public theology, our exegesis must be publicly accessible and acceptable.

Public theology remains theology, that is to say, it is founded on and advocates values derived from our religious tradition. However, it seeks to coordinate that tradition with values that an outside audience or public already shares with us, or at least are potentially acceptable to them. The church speaks out of its own tradition and theology, but seeks shared ground around shared core values. The public theologian seeks persuasively to offer a Christian world-view in the market place of options as a reasonable, possible choice, as a genuine option for the public to consider.

Democracies need critical voices to survive and flourish. Christian public theology offers the American democratic experiment a free-standing, outside voice--a prophetic voice, if you will--backed up by publicly accessible arguments offered to the public as a choice they might reasonably embrace.

The goal of public theology should not be seen as limited to the passing or blocking of certain laws or centered only on ethical controversies. …

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