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Theology going “public”

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This is PART THREE of excerpts from a commencement address I gave in March at a seminary. Click here for PART ONE and here for PART TWO. in the academic sense is necessarily public, in that as a scientific practice it engages the totally of our existence from the angle of faith, whether it concerns the inner practices or the external expressions of being a Christian in the world. Theology in the second sense is public, because our creedal confessions address not only the church but also the world. Theology in the first sense, considering the third and second senses of the world, cannot but be public.

Hence, my discomfiture with the current academic fashion to speak of a “public” theology, as if theology is by nature private, and that it must somehow step out of its comfortable confines to confront public issues of the day. I understand there is a certain heuristic to talking of a public theology when discussing how theology may speak on concerns that intersect with the public sphere, the common good, or public justice. But to begin with, the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption is cosmic in character.

The very definition of the Gospel we derive from this narrative, in the words of Herman Bavinck who speaks of God the Father reclaiming creation that is His own through Jesus Christ, the true King, and with the Holy Spirit, to establish his Kingdom that will never end. The theological articulation of this grand narrative necessarily will have public, if, cosmic implications.

No, we do not want a public theology for the sheer sake of being relevant. In addressing the currents of the day, it must be a theology faithful to that grand narrative – yes, against all defeatist postmodern claims – beginning with the Book of Genesis and ending with the Book of Revelations; in other words, it must be founded on the Alpha and the Omega of our faith, Jesus the Christ, as revealed in Scriptures.

The best test of relevance for me is how well our academic theologizing serves the needs of the Church as it serves Christ in the world. More often than not, fashionable theologies do not do that; instead, they only serve to undermine the very purpose for which the Church exists – as a witness for Christ, as a bearer of the Gospel for the whole world. Relevance for relevance’s sake more often than not commits the Church to a pattern of life that destroys its witness and robs it of spiritual power – “having a form of Godliness but denying its power”( 2 Tim. 3:5, NIV) But certainly our theology, if it must follow the confession that Christ is Lord of all, has political implications.

Indeed, the weight of our Christian confession breaks through history and shapes its direction. Christ, the true Lord, is Risen as the True Sovereign and one day, every pretender to power, every ruler who has set himself up with the power to decide over life and death, every corrupt and immoral leader, will be exposed and judged by the One who comes to claim the world as His own, rightful, kingdom.

This all ties up with our confession, as the book of the Psalms says, that “[t]he earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1, NIV). In the language of the Nicene’s Creed, God is the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” All authority in heaven and on earth, in the sheer diversity of the institutions and responsibilities established to exercise such authority, comes from Him and are now given to the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19; Phil. 2:1-11).

We understand the call to justice to be normative; that is, justice is rooted in God’s creational design and the normative obligations that come with nurturing institutions, societal structures, personal and social relationships, for human flourishing. Following our biblical and confessional commitments, social and political institutions are never mere human constructions.

We recognize them to be our God-given responsibility, to be developed as offices exercised according to a particular God-ordained telos unique to each institution and relation. By this confessional commitment, we know that state and statecraft cannot be an all-embracing reality, absorbing to itself every other institution and relation. Yet, since the 19th century, the idea of the state has been dominated by political theories that elevated the state over every other institution and relation in society. This, to me, is contrary to the biblical witness.

If justice – and statecraft (the art and science of just governing) – is a biblically normative calling, neither can we abide by the idea of government that is instrumentalist or absolutist. The first tendency treats statecraft as no more than a pursuit of ends by whatever means necessary. The second transforms state and statecraft into no more than an exercise of naked, unbridled power.

But they are really related. The absolutist is almost always instrumentalist (that, is he will do everything to achieve his purposes, no matter what the cost, and without recognizing legal limits), because he can, with all the means and power at his disposal.

If statecraft is biblically normative, we cannot abide by a leader who claims he alone has the discretion to say who is a friend and who is the enemy, what is law and what is not, when there is a state of emergency and when there is a normal state of political affairs, or worse, who is human and who is not. Thus, when we hear leaders say that in order to uphold the law, it becomes necessary to break it, we should immediately jump on our feet and raise a howl of protest.

The bloody drug war launched by President Duterte, which has already claimed thousands of lives since it was launched in July last year, should give much pause to Christians serious about their confessional and biblical commitments.



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Written by Romel

June 14, 2018 at 3:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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