Working Towards a Definition of Public Theology.


Public theology tasks Christians to stand up for the oppressed, welcome the stranger (Whelan, 2014), and resist evil (Whelan, 2014). It fights segregation and discrimination (Smit, 2007: 148) while also demonstrating Christian convictions in the public square (Koopman, n.d.: 2). Just as Jesus transforms individuals on a personal level public theology attempts to transform society at a larger level. For example, Christians are to highlight the contemporary culture of mass consumerism to demonstrate its misguided desire. The more Earthly material goods we have does not factor into the equation of our eternal destinies (Ballew, 2006), hence why apologist Tim Keller dubs consumerism a “counterfeit god” (Keller, 2011: 23-24).

Public theology further illumines the reasonability of the Christian faith (Koopman, n.d.: 1) as well as interacts with the public on contemporary issues via demonstrating Christian values (Whelan, 2008). It is a non-violent form of engagement and can be implemented by acting out in public as a form of “theatre” (Whelan, 2008). It is essentially to love the enemy with the goal of avoiding additional conflict (Whelan, 2008). Although Christians fight for a just cause they are to remain calm and gentle (Smit, 2007: 142). In one case several Christians, through the act of non-violent civil disobedience, prayed for asylum seekers in an electorate’s office (Whelan, 2014). They were eventually removed by police but were successful in arousing “the conscience of the nation over this injustice.” The group remained non-violent, performed theatrically, and demonstrated Christian values. Like the Apostle Paul this group believed that the gospel message is able to transform culture and people.

Public theology is also politically orientated (Backhaum, 2011: 30); Koopman argues that priestly public theology inspires churches to overcome political alienation (Koopman, n.d.: 12). Bauckham draws on both the Old and New Testament to shed light on how Christians are to view, and engage with, politics in contemporary life. Since many of Old Testament laws, laws specific to ancient Israel, do not apply to Christians today they still have relevance. Such laws are not “instructions” but still remain “instructive” (Bauckham, 2011: 33-34). Likewise in the New Testament Jesus’ teachings have political relevance for us today (Bauckham, 2011: 36). Here Jesus’ pedagogics, via his Sermon on the Mount, on anger and murder, giving to the needy, avoiding hypocrisy, and applying wisdom all well apply to the political context (Wax, 2011).

Finally, this is to be conducted by Christians with genuine intentions without ulterior motives (Smit, 2007: 140). This is because of God’s goodness, kindness and mercy (Smit, 2007: 142). It is also noted that public theology isn’t expected to be perfect since humans are often unfaithful, mistaken, and fail. However, the goal ought to remain being a living witness to Jesus’ love and kindness (Smit, 2007: 155). Christians and churches, for instance, are to give necessities to the poor because they want to embody Jesus’ message and change lives (Ireland, 2015), and not because they want fame or prestige which are powerful temptations.

I believe that this gives good grounds to David Bromell’s simple definition: “What is s public theology? It’s critical thinking, with others, about religious faith and public life” (Bromell, 2011).


Whelan, J. 2014. Why I prayed for asylum seekers in Scott Morrison’s office. Available: [7 May 2016]

Whelan, J. 2008. Christian Nonviolent Direct Action as Public Theology. Available: [8 May 2016]

Smit, D. 2007. Essays in Public Theology: Collected Essays 1. Stellenbosch: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA.

Bauckham, R. 2011. The Bible in Politics, Second Edition: How to Read the Bible Politically. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2nd Edition).

Koopman, N. n.d. A Public Theology of Global Transformation in challenging times? Available: [7 May 2016]

Wax, T. 2011. Applying the Sermon on the Mount to Politics. Available: [7 May 2016]

Ballew, R. 2006. From Lord to Label: how consumerism undermines our faith. Available: [8 May 2016]

Keller, T. 2011. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. New York City: RIVERHEAD.

Ireland, D. 2015. 5 Reasons Christians Should Be Generous.

Bromell, D. 2011. What is Public Theology? Available:

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