Reformed Public Theology, Edited by Matthew Kaemingk. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.
Summary: A collection of 23 essays by leading Reformed thinkers articulating how Reformed theology bears on various aspects of public life.
One of the things that persuaded me to follow Christ was the discovery of how the Christian faith bore on various aspects of public life beyond the church walls. What stands out as I reflect on important books that have helped me is that many of these have been written by those shaped by Reformed thought. This volume is evidence that there is a robust community carrying on this intellectual heritage
The book is introduced by a marvelous statement by Matthew Kaemingk that articulates the marks of a Reformed public theology:
- Listening to the Laity.
- Dispersing Power–pushing power out and down.
- Temporal Awareness–conscious of “what time it is.”
- Historical humility
- Aesthetic neighborliness
- Culture Making
- Public Delight
- A Liturgical Life
- A Liberated Solidarity
The twenty-three essays that follow are organized into six parts:
Public Culture: Contributors range the world addressing immigration, language, decolonialism, euthanasia, and pluralism. The essay on euthanasia, considering the case of the Netherlands was particularly striking to me in its assertion of the sovereignty of God over medicine, the ministry of prayer, listening, and living with the ambiguity of waiting.
Public Markets: Essays here cover work, economics, and labor rights. Having studied the theology of work, I appreciated Katherine Leary Alsdorf’s essay on a Reformed theology of work in New York, recognizing the rich affirmation of work in Christ’s Lordship over all while challenging the idolatries of vocation.
Public Justice: Writers address ideologies, populism, and activism. Stephanie Summers shares how she was formed through her relationship with Jim Skillen, who helped her root her fiery activism in a framework that saw opponents as potential partners and gave her an understanding of the different institutions or spheres that constitute civil society and saw politics as an avenue to love neighbors. Her narrative is a rich account worth reading by every young (and not so young) activist.
Public Aesthetics: Makoto Fujimura writes on Japanese aesthetics, Jamie Smith on poetry, Robert S. Covolo on fashion, and Eric O. Jacobsen on cities. I was familiar with all but Covolo and have never thought about fashion through the eyes of faith. He looks at fashion as gift, as market commodity, as social force, as aesthetic play, and as social costume and argues for its being worth serious reflection.
Public Academy: As a campus minister, I was particularly eager to see the essays in this section. None disappointed. Bethany Jenkins shows how the Reformed framework enables one to engage every aspect of the pluralist campus. Nick Wolterstorff outlines five themes characteristic of the Reformed understanding of scholarship with a strong encouragement both to engage diverse worldviews as a Christian while engaging in “dialogic pluralism” that both learns from and contributes to the learning of others through active shared engagement. Jeff Liou offers a great service in a thoughtful, nuanced, and Reformed discussion of Critical Race Theory (CRT), explaining it (very necessary, because many fight something they don’t understand), drawing upon Reformed understandings of justice and culture, including neo-Calvinism’s critique of modernity and Western liberalism, and its affirmation of the wealth of every culture. He notes correspondences and differences between Reformed thought and CRT, and highlights the similarity of Boesak’s Reformed critique of South Africa and much of what is found in Critical Race Theory.
Public Worship: The final section focuses on the public of the various aspects of our worship: communion and the welcoming of immigrants, public prayer as a place to give voice to the traumas of the public square, baptism as it bears on racism and sexism, various forms of confession and our civil discourse, and piety, how we imitate Christ in public life. The final essay on piety names the dichotomy between good work and spirituality that has often signaled that work doesn’t matter, only church and argues that ‘the things of earth grow strangely clear (rather than dim)/In the light of his glory and grace.” Our work in the world has eternal significance in and through Christ.
I cannot do all the essays justice in this space. Running through them are the Kuyperian ideas of “every square inch” and “sphere sovereignty.” There is also a Reformed eschatology, emphasized by the Reformed theologian Richard Mouw, to whom this volume is dedicated, of Revelation 21-22, where the kings of the earth bring the wealth of the nations into the holy city. All our efforts in the public sphere gain significance as we look toward that day, and the full revealing of the common grace of God in the world.
There is rich fare to be found in these pages, often as introductions to more extensive works. For anyone looking for alternatives to the political ideologies often baptized as “Christian,” for anyone wanting to engage in public life in whatever way fits their calling, there are good resources that take us beyond being good, little Christians, that help us think about the purposes of God, the nature of human beings and society and institutions, that help us think in biblical categories about justice, and about the meaning of our worship as we look beyond the church doors. The essays bring in voices from every continent and social situation, belying stereotypes of Reformed thought being only white and western. This is the substantive content needed in adult education in our churches, in workplace ministries, among community organizers, among faculty and campus leaders, and Christians working inside the beltway, and not just in the halls of our seminaries.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.