One need not look beyond the first chapter of the Bible to see that biblical theology is a public theology. We might even note that God’s acts of bestowing authority on certain elements of his creation and calling them to fill the earth are public theological declarations (Gen 1:18, 22, 26, 28). In this first chapter, we also find God creating humanity itself in his image and, in doing so, inaugurating the human race as a sort of theological statement in itself. Like it or not, we engage in public theology just by being human, made in the image of God, and this witness continues today, distorted by the effects of the fall, but being restored through the gospel.
The Implications of Image-Bearing
The implications of being made in God’s image provide for a rich dialogue about who we are as humans and what that means for interpersonal relationships, public discourse, and general flourishing. Upon their creation Adam and Eve are called to work out their status as image-bearers by filling the earth and subduing it. Confronted with the formlessness and void, God shows his desire for substance and order by creating a livable world and filling it with living beings. As the Creator’s image-bearers, we too are infused with a deep instinct to bring order and substance, what we might call an industry of service and product, making the earth inhabitable through technology and innovation and filling it with God’s images to his glory. In this way, we hope to prosper as tenants responsible for God’s creation.
Throughout the Scriptures this public dimension of theology is reiterated. For instance, in Deut 6:4-9, a passage generally considered the greatest commandment of the Old Testament by both Jesus and Jewish tradition, Moses commends the notion of God’s unity (“The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.”) as the foundation for human worship and activity (“You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.”). This passage reminds us that, in our desire to emphasize the importance of personal salvation (heart), we must not forget that the redeemed heart must bear fruit in the outward, indeed public, life. In Deut 6:4-9, there is a notable inward-outward movement from the inner person (“heart”) to the whole person (“soul” or “self”) to their effect in the world (“strength”), a term which would include material, relational, intellectual, and moral capital.
In other words, the inclinations of biblical faith must take root in the heart and find expression in public life. This is what James calls the “pure and undefiled” religion (James 1:27).
Biblically Based, Gospel-Centered, Trinitarian
As we have seen, the image of God provides one of several unifying categories around which an effective and generative public theology can be developed. The problem with a good bit of discussion about public theology in Christian circles today is that the dialogue tends to revolve around various “hot button issues” and opinions that are loosely sourced in biblical passages often abstracted from their context. The end result is that Christian public witness can come across as reactionary and somewhat ad hoc.
To resist this tendency, the church needs a biblically based, gospel-centered, and Trinitarian theology of the public life.
First, this approach should recognize the authority of Scripture in the human life as the well-spring of human knowledge about God and the world.
Second, it will be rigorously honest about human sinfulness and the need for God’s redemptive work through the power and message of the cross of Jesus Christ, the image-bearer par excellence who reigns in heaven (Col 1:15-20). Without his restorative work, all public theologies are doomed to failure.
Third, this approach must be based in the character of the Triune God, particularly upon the loving relationship between the three persons of the Godhead. By his grace, God was pleased to bestow these relational qualities upon humanity and thus created the foundation for the common good in human society. We desire to flourish in community because our communal God has appointed such a desire in our hearts.
I am convinced such a public theology is attainable for the contemporary church, which is why we are launching the Institute of Theology of and Public Life at RTS Washington. If you would like to know more about the Institute or contribute to the conversation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.