Public Theology and the Bible as Gift

Last summer at the Winchester conference, Andrew Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, presented a brilliant paper entitled, “The Bible and Public Theology,” and was kind enough to send me a copy of the paper afterward (and permit me to share some of it here).  I have been intending, for the past four months, to post something here summarizing and reflecting on some of the most fruitful and provocative insights of the paper, and at last I am getting around to it.  


Bradstock began with the vexing questions that have lain at the heart of my own work for the past three years: “Is it appropriate to introduce the Bible into public debate and, if so, how, when and to what purpose? Is it sufficient . . . simply to quote texts and assume that that makes your point or ‘clinches’ the argument? Can we take it for granted that, because we may invest a degree of ‘authority’ in Scripture, others will too?”  As someone deeply engaged in the project of “public theology,” Bradstock is eager to put the Bible back at the centre of this project, while avoiding the pitfalls that accompany many naive attempts at Christian forays into the public square.   

What is “public theology,” though?  Bradstock offered the following definition: 

“public theology is concerned with bringing a theological perspective to bear upon contemporary debates in the public square, drawing upon the insights of the Christian faith and offering its contribution as ‘gift’ to the secular world.”

However, despite a widespread interest in making use of a “theological perspective” and the “insights of the Christian faith,” many public theologians, he said, had been reticent to say too very much about how the Bible relates to the public, perhaps because Scripture is rarely perceived as a “gift” by the secular world.  However, Bradstock argued forthrightly “that a genuine public theology must emerge from an honest and open engagement with Scripture” and that “it is surely difficult to define as authentically ‘Christian’ any form of theology which accords no significant place to the text held by all the main Christian traditions as to some degree authoritative with respect to faith and practice.”

This should not be difficult, Bradstock contended, since, as he quotes David Neville, “A collection of texts that begins with the creation of the cosmos and ends with its renewal in the form of a city can hardly be said to focus on the private, rather than public, sphere”–the Biblical narrative, and the kingdom that is established in the course of it, have profound and pervasive implications for political life.  


But having established all this, we are still left with the very difficult question of how a collection of texts written thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural and political context can have anything concrete to say to public issues in our own world today–either Scripture remains concrete and specific, and hence fails to correspond to anything within our own political lives, or else it is abstracted to such a level of generality that it becomes vacuous, and capable of supporting thoroughly contrary political programs.  

But perhaps our dilemma is not quite that insoluble: “what public theology will want to argue is that, while of course the specific contexts from which the Bible narratives emerged bear little or no resemblance to situations we encounter today, the essential nature of the world, and humanity, has not changed” and hence we will not need to look far to find analogies between problems our own world faces and problems addressed by the Biblical text.  The goal will then be not to try to “apply” Scripture “willy nilly to contemporary situations,” “but rather . . . to engage the two in a dialogic, conversational and altogether more ‘dynamic’ way.”

Such a dialectic, it seems, is necessary if Scripture is to genuinely become alive for our own world in our own day, but of course, it certainly risks privileging our own modern perspective in a way that silences the voice of the Biblical text.  I was particularly struck by this when Bradstock approvingly cited Bauckham, cautioning against arguing “that since education in biblical times was not a government responsibility it should nowadays be left purely to parental responsibility, as it was then, [which] makes no more sense than to argue that in accordance with biblical precedence governments should not legislate for road safety.”  

Of course, while I would tend to agree that in this particular example, the argument from Biblical precedent is illegitimate, I know a great many people who really do argue in this sort of way.  And the problem is that they do have a bit of a point.  How much can we really separate the form of Biblical political life from its content?  Can we take principles of justice for a decentralized, agrarian society and employ them in modern nation-states, while discarding the form of ancient political organization as entirely irrelevant?  Theonomists reject this form/content distinction, arguing, for instance, that it is not merely the list of crimes that is normative, but the penal code that addressed those crimes.  This is altogether too wooden, and yet one does not want to hastily cast out the idea that we can learn something about how a community should be organized and what sort of things a government should do by looking at the Biblical narrative.  For instance, can the Jubilee law simply be abstracted from its agrarian context into an ethical principle to be used in modern debt relief, or should we also be willing to consider the possibility that it has something to tell us about better forms of social organization–that perhaps we need to recover aspects of agrarian life?  If we are too careless with discarding the form in favor of the content, we risk “plundering the Old Testament ‘as though it were so much raw material to be consumed, in any order and in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of [our] own theological artefact’” as Bradstock quotes O’Donovan warning.

Nonetheless, as Bradstock points out, “Scripture itself is subject to a constant process of reinterpretation and redefinition” and, again quoting David Neville, he says “within Scripture itself ‘traditions are often preserved while also being reinterpreted… the Bible itself witnesses to a process in which the preservation of tradition goes hand in hand with interpretative innovation.’”

In our own innovation, however, it is important that we be guided by a clear hermeneutic, one ruled by the texts’ own interior logic, if we are “to enable public theology to avoid simply choosing those parts of the Bible which suit its case.”  Bradstock does not want to rule out any sort of picking and choosing, however.  Rather, if public theology is to offer its contribution as “gift,” this will shape what resources of the text we decide to draw on.  “If an objective of public theology is to reflect the exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah (29.7) to the exiled community in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city’, its choice of biblical resources will be shaped by that intent.” 

Here again I have some misgivings.  For although this text is frequently quoted, it is rarely observed that, though Jeremiah might advise this to the exiles in Babylon, he does not advise those in Jerusalem to seek the welfare of Jerusalem (at least, except in a very long-term sense), and he is certainly not seen by the authorities as interested in offering any kind of “gift” to the society.  Rather, his message is all one of pessimism and judgment.  Although this would probably not be a fair indictment of Bradstock’s own actual practice, I do worry that the principles he articulated could perhaps have a tendency to screen out the more unpleasant and challenging bits of Scripture and dwell too much on the more obviously appealing and “useful” bits.  There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, and the Scriptures have an essential role to play in both. 

In short, we must indeed offer the contributions of the Bible as “gift” to the secular world, but ever mindful that some of the truest gifts may seem painful and unwelcome at first.  


In any case, this reflection only skims the surface of Bradstock’s paper, and does not even touch on some of the richest insights of the latter part of his paper.  The full version will be appearing in the forthcoming The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society (the same volume as my essay “Sola Scriptura and the Public Square”), so I highly recommend checking it out there.

3 thoughts on “Public Theology and the Bible as Gift

  1. Andrea Francine

    When I learned of this resolution (via Rod Dreher) by Kentucky Baptists calling for stricter regulations on payday lenders to cap interest at 36% I was reminded of this post. (Thirty-six percent still is awfully high, and still technically usury, but all the same this is an encouraging example of Christians using biblical principles as a gift to the world.)


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the links, Andrea.Now the question is whether the Kentucky Baptists are willing to put their money where their mouth is. The payday lenders have argued, of course, that only being able to charge 36% interest would put most of them out of business, and that may in fact be true. Free-marketeers argue that, terrible as payday lenders are, they're better than the alternative, which would be the poor having no access at all to money when they needed it. Of course, that argument rings hollow, given the self-perpetuating cycle of slavery that these interest rates induce. But the fact remains that, with the passage of this law, many folks accustomed to living on credit would lose their access to it, and would be temporarily in fairly desperate straits. That's where the church needs to be ready to step in and "lend without expecting anything in return" until these people can get back on their feet and survive without such regular recourse to credit.


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