Toward a More Faithful Public Witness

Here at Until Zion, we intentionally draw from the Reformed tradition. Though we are deeply formed by other traditions (for myself, I was a Pentecostal pastor for many years), the resources housed within the Reformed tradition shape how we view public theological engagement, ministry, and pursuits of mercy and justice. What then are those resources?

In the collection of essays, Reformed Public Theology (yes, I know I previously drew from this book. I will likely continue to do so. Go buy it!), Matthew Kaemingk provides an introduction addressing the unique contributions of the Reformed tradition to public theology, engagement, and discourse. As he reflected on the diverse contributions of those in the book, several unifying themes and distinctives came to the fore. These distinctives are worth addressing, as they provide insight into why we all, Reformed or not, can learn from and draw on the tradition.1 (Note: Kaemingk also provides key distinctives of public theology before addressing reformed public theology. These are worth considering as a foundation if one is new to the concept).


Additionally, I want to suggest practical questions concerning how we might utilize each distinctive in practical ministry settings. As practitioners, we constantly want to apply the richness of our tradition to the very real-life ministry realities of leaders and congregations.


Consider these 9 distinctives (see p. 13-18):


1. Listening to Laity: Kaemingk notes the importance of laity in developing and executing Reformed Public Theology (RPT). No one particular group represents the totality of RPT, especially academics or theologians. A robust RPT is developed by activists, artists, painters, philosophers, lawyers, business leaders, chaplains, and more.


Why? In the words of Richard Mouw, “We would all think it odd if a lifelong resident of Paris wrote a book about how to live a life of discipleship in Latin America…similarly, there is something odd about an attempt by clergy and professional theologians to speak with authority about the situations faced by mechanics, insurance agents, and farmers” (p. 14).


Questions to consider:

  1. For pastors and leaders: To what extent are the experiences, training, and expertise of laity profoundly shaping your understanding of how the Spirit of God is at work in your context? To what extent are we helping laity see how dependent we are on their expertise for knowing how to engage, develop, and embrace culture most faithfully? To what extent do laity help us understand the issues and injustices within our communities?

  2. For laity: Do you realize the importance of your contribution to faithful public theology and discourse? Do you realize the extent to which the Spirit of God is working through your work to reflect His restorative and redemptive power?

2. Dispersing Power: A proper utilization of Reformed theology, in the words of Kaemingk, ought to produce an allergy to the dominance of the state, marketplace, or the church. A holistic embrace of God’s creational intent and the fallenness of man ought to produce a resistance to consolidated power and/or influence. The distribution of power, resources, and giftings honor God’s creative purpose to reflect Himself in all humanity and recognizes our collective fallen impacts, not just on individuals. Our fallenness extends to every structure and system we create––systems that lead to public evils such as racism, colonialism, economic oppression, and the like.


Questions to consider:

  1. To what extent do we assume our public witness, and the change we hope it provides, are tied to acquisitions of power and influence? Do we believe that getting a political advocate into office, at all costs, will result in a faithful Christian witness? Do we functionally assume large quantities of money will produce faithful Christian mission?

  2. Can we acknowledge that unjust systems and structures were established due to our fallenness and through historically unjust acquisitions of power and resources? Is our view of the fall robust enough to recognize the far reaches of its impact?

3. Temporal Awareness: RPT is concerned about “what time it is.” That is, RPT insists we acknowledge and embrace the divine epoch in which we live. We live in an already/not yet relationship with the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom––a Kingdom that has come. As a result, the Holy Spirit is alive and active within our world, including within every social structure and system. Whether inside or outside of the church, the Spirit is both empowering that which is God-honoring and confronting that which is not. In every epoch, redemption and restoration occur within individuals who trust in Jesus, but also occurs within creation. The Gospel is a message of cosmic restoration, not just personal conversion.


However, though the Kingdom has come, we still await the fullness of that Kingdom, which has not yet come. I think about it in this way; until that day when Christ returns, we have a gap between how things are and the way things will be. That being so, our calling is to address and engage all areas of brokenness that still exist in that gap.


Questions to consider:

  1. Do we recognize the Gospel includes the redemption of individuals but also extends to the cosmos? Do we see our mission in this world to not only point individuals to Christ’s salvation but also testify of the fullness of his Kingdom to come––a Kingdom of righteousness and justice?

  2. Do we implicitly, or maybe explicitly, believe we can “usher in the Kingdom of God,” even though the Kingdom has come? Consequently, do we unrealistically believe the fullness of the Kingdom of God can be experienced now through conversions, Christians in power, or attempts at creating a Christian culture?

  3. Are we functionally unconcerned or apathetic toward addressing the “gap” between how things are and how things ought to be? For example, when we see injustice, disparities, or inequalities, are we satisfied, especially in the West, to say, “well, things are better than they used to be?” Or do we feel compelled to address the continued “gap” as a way to testify to the restoration that comes when Christ returns?

4. Historical Humility: As is evident in the essays of the book, RP theologians are willing to quote and draw on both 16th-century voices of theology and 21st-century critical race theorists, fashion theorists, and urban designers. Kaemingk notes though RP theologians recognize “the vast historical chasm that exists between these worlds,” they are convinced “that historical voices within the reformed tradition have something important to offer Christians in public life today.”


For me, I continue to find that the Reformed tradition has much to say about the cultural issues of the day in a way that 1) honors intellectual engagement of ideas but 2) also understands those issues well enough to properly assess. In other words, if the Reformed tradition is to be rightly applied in contemporary public life, we must know the contemporary context well enough to know how to engage, assess, and affirm (for more on a necessary posture of cultural engagement, especially on issues of justice, see my previous post: “Bavinck & an Approach to Justice Dialogue. Additionally, for one of many examples of this posture, see Bavinck’s, Christian Worldview, and his engagement of Marx and Kant). RPT assists those efforts.


Questions to consider:

  1. Are we doing the necessary work of engaging a plethora of ideas with a posture of historical humility?

  2. Do we trust that the imago dei in others may result in their ability to see what we cannot see, even if we end up disagreeing with them on key issues?

5. Aesthetic Neighborliness: Though RPT often focuses on politics, economics, and culture creation, Kaemingk acknowledges the importance of an RPT approach to art and public aesthetics. Christians can love and serve their neighbor through public aesthetics and art by telling the stories and experiences common to humanity. In his essay, “Japanese Aesthetics and Reformed Theology,” Makoto Fujimura, reflecting on his art and his Japanese heritage, notes that, though many may not be aware of the Holy Spirit’s work within Japanese culture, it nonetheless “contains cultural works that bear witness to the invisible work and wisdom of God” (p. 167).


In my experience, Christians can easily assume that “Christian art”––art with explicitly Christian imagery or themes––is where the Spirit most actively works. However, from a Reformed perspective, the Spirit is at work in all art that points to the “invisible work and wisdom of God.” Thus, there are opportunities for redemption and restoration when art is used to communicate such ideas in our various contexts.


Questions to consider:

  1. Do we see art and other public aesthetics, whether created by Christians or non-Christians, as a means by which God might be bearing witness to his invisible work and wisdom?

  2. If not, how can we join the work of the Spirit in our communities through the arts and public aesthetics?

6. Cultural Making: Though RPT tends to focus on verbal and intellectual forms of public discourse, Kaemingk notes there is also a focus on nonverbal ways that laity communicate and engage in the public square. He argues that raising children, beginning business ventures, writing novels, developing investment strategies, etc. are all ways Christians impact public life by offering their neighbors “...new ways of living and being in the public square” (p. 17).


In this season of culture wars, we desperately need theologically-informed ways of seeking the good and betterment of our neighbors, including those with whom we disagree. An RPT approach to culture helps us properly situate our theological convictions––convictions we ought to maintain––in the landscape of other culture-creating and culture-defining entities.


Questions to consider:

  1. Do we see our calling as Christians to resist culture or rather to be part of developing culture? Do we see opportunities to offer our neighbors “new ways of living and being in the public square” without falling into culture-war diatribes, but rather through faithful living?

  2. Are we honoring all aspects and seasons of life, vocations, and ventures as a means through which we can honor God and be part of his redemptive work in culture?

  3. Are we honoring the work and experiences of those in the church so that they view themselves as part of God’s purposes, even in their everyday lives?

7. Public Delight: Through RPT, one might “suspect that God actually takes joy in the cultural wisdom, insight, virtue, and creativity of those outside the church” (p. 17). Through the essays presented, Kaemingk points out that the RP theologians “argue that Christians should not simply learn from their non-Christian neighbors; they should also be grateful for and take delight in their contributions to the global public square.”


Again, in these times of vitriolic culture wars, the ability to appreciate what God is doing amongst others not part of our tribe seems impossible. However, in the words of Herman Bavinck, Christians ought to be “second to none in their appreciation for whatever of the good and beautiful is still being given by God to sinful human beings.”


Questions to consider:

  1. Are we thankful for the contributions of other cultures and experiences, or do we merely tolerate their presence?

  2. How can we ensure we regularly interact with those from very different cultures, experiences, politics, and even religious convictions so that we might appreciate what God is doing amongst them?

8. A Liturgical Life: For Kaemingk, “the best public theology emerges from a robust public life.” That is, “the patterns of grace sung in the sanctuary should reflect the patterns of life lived in the world. Likewise, the public burdens carried by the people in the world should be carried directly into the sanctuary and laid upon the altar. The integrity of both worship and public life depends on it” (p. 18)


I have found this conviction vital to creating meaningful, holistic, and robust worship, as well as foundational to faithful Christian living and practice. Intentional liturgical rhythms within worship that mirror faithful rhythms for life strengthen us to resist a tendency to disembody our faith.


Questions to consider:

  1. Could someone take the rhythms of our worship service and map them over their lives?

  2. Are you giving opportunity for the adoration of God, the confession of and reminder of pardon from sin, the lifting of up our communities burdens, the call to trust the Gospel, the reminder of our true home with Christ around His table, and the reminder that God’s presence is with us in this world?

  3. What is missing in our worship services that would better form the congregation for everyday life, especially with regard to repentance, mercy, and justice (too often these elements are lacking in our rhythms of worship)?

9. A Liberated Solidarity: RPT is constantly wrestling with a two-fold desire to (1) “liberate individuals from oppressive institutions” and (2) “conceive of institutions and communities in which individuals might flourish.” That is, the Reformed tradition provides context for a “nuanced vision of individual freedom found within communities, institutions, and civic structures” (p. 18). Faithful Christian living insists we participate in the life of our church community, the neighborhoods in which we live, and the social structures and cultures we inhabit. At the same time, within those communal spaces, we must demand that all others within those spaces are viewed as individuals worthy of dignity, respect, care, and justice.


Questions to consider:

  1. Are we committed to both individual freedom and corporate responsibility?

  2. Have we truncated the Gospel to be primarily about personal conversion or social engagement?

As I said in the beginning, buy the book! Even if one does not fully subscribe to reformed theology, the tradition reflected in these essays provides necessary insight for our cultural moment in the West.

 

1. It is important to note and clarify, much like Kaemingk does in his intro, two possible misunderstandings that may arise. First, some of these distinctives are not necessarily only found in the Reformed tradition. Instead, they are distinctives to the extent there are distinctly Reformed perspectives of the concepts. Second, none of the following articulations claim these are the only ways to approach faithful cultural and social engagement. Rather, they represent how we seek faithful engagement. In the words of Kaemingk, the following represents “the public habits of the Reformed heart.”