Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World
I often tell my students that theology does not mean much if it is not used for the good of the people. What I mean is that theology should not just stop inside the walls of seminaries or theology departments of colleges or universities. It must be brought to the people sitting in the pews who face life’s realities day in and day out. Theology should function as the foundation of people’s thoughts and actions as they navigate through the challenges of the time. The collection of essays, Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World, edited by Matthew Kaemingk, provides an example of how theology should work. It is a wonderful, well-constructed wealth of 23 theological papers built on the central theme of how Reformed Theology should and does contribute to the conversations on how Christians—particularly Reformed Christians—give answers to the world we live in. The topics presented in this book are both timeless and timely. They are timeless because they bring alive many areas within Reformed theology that have become the foundation of the church for centuries. They are timely because they boldly address the issues of systemic racism, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and many other events and dynamics in the United States. But the scope of the papers is not limited to the problems that the U.S. sees, because it also covers several struggles that the global world is facing, including the political issues in the Philippines under president Duterte (the essay by Romel Regalado Bagares), religious pluralism in Indonesia (the essay by N. Gray Sutanto), euthanasia in the Netherlands (the essay by Margriet and Cornelis van der Kooi), arts and aesthetics in Japan (the essay by Makoto Fujimura), and sexism and racism in South Africa (the essay by Nico Koopman). In the introductory chapter of the book Kaemingk states that the issues presented in the chapters are real and practical, and intended to answer the question: “What does Reformed theology have to say in these moments?” (1). Readers of this book can see that the essays in this volume are meant to create a two-way interaction as they offer thoughts from within Reformed theology to help the readers deal with the world’s issues and learn from the world as they engage with these problems.
The book is divided into six parts, with each part containing three to five essays. The essays are relatively short, averaging about 10-12 pages each. The length of the essays is ideal for the readers to be able to digest and think through the thoughts offered in each chapter with some ease. The authors of the essays range from very seasoned and well-known theologians and thinkers in the Reformed circles including Nicholas Wolterstorff and John Witvliet, as well as younger generation and budding scholars such as Alberto La Rosa Rojas and Jessica Joustra. Not all the authors are professors or faculty members in academic institutions. Some of them are practitioners, Reformed believers whose callings put them in various public spaces, such as Stephanie Summers who is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Jeff Liou who is the national director of theological formation for Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, and Katherine Leary Alsdorf who is senior adviser to the Global Faith & Work Initiative at Redeemer City to City, in New York City. Many of the essayists are individuals of color whose places of birth are outside the United States, but all of them are bound by their love and commitment to Reformed Theology and their strong belief that their Reformed conviction can and does help us to bring about goodness in this troubled time. Fully aware that the book cannot be comprehensive in covering all the topics of public theology in the Reformed tradition, Kaemingk says that this volume is intended to be a “taste and see” introduction of some of the areas where Reformed theology intersects with public life (18). The authors’ task, therefore, was to discuss how Reformed theology positively informs their engagement with public life, with the main focus of “constructively building on the generative resources that they have found within the tradition” (19).
The six parts of this book cover the following themes: Public Culture, Public Markets, Public Justice, Public Aesthetics, Public Academy, and Public Worship. Because the book is not intended to be an academic work on the most recent scholarships on Reformed public theology, but a conversation between Reformed theology and public life, general readers will find this book accessible. The essays are all based on high quality research works that the authors conducted, but the style in which they are presented is simple enough that non-specialists of any of the fields being discussed can follow the discussions of each chapter without any difficulty. The first part leads the readers to think about the issues of immigration and asylum seeking, hospitality to others whose languages are parts of the minority linguistic groups, residue of the colonial period, euthanasia in the Netherlands, and pluralism in a country as complex as Indonesia. The second part contains papers exploring the question of how Reformed theology helps us think about works, economics, and labor rights. The papers in this part invite the readers to think about the application of Reformed theology in New York, a Reformed response to the political economy in Brazil, and the problems with workers’ rights in China. The third part takes the readers to rethink the Reformed approach in addressing questions of modern political ideologies, the populism of the current president of the Philippines, and Reformed activism. The fourth part guides the readers into looking at the interactions between Reformed theology and beauty in various art forms, including fine arts, poetry, fashion, and urban design. In the fifth part the book highlights the place of Reformed in higher education, as it discusses the complexity of today’s higher education in a pluralistic culture, Reformed concept of scholarship, and Critical Race Theory in schools across America. The last part brings together Reformed theology and public worship. This part looks at crucial areas of worship including the significance of the Lord’s Supper for immigrants, the importance of public prayers that specifically deal with actual problems in the world, baptism in the presence of racism in South Africa, the place of confession in public worship, and a call to imitate Christ as expression of piety.
As they read through the chapters in this volume, the readers will again and again encounter some of the authors’ interpretations or reinterpretations of Abraham Kuyper’s famous “square inch” statement. It is indeed right for the authors to restate Kuyper’s strong conviction that Christ is the Lord of all creation, given that Reformed theology in its engagement with public life reflects how Christ is sovereign despite the entangled webs of problems we encounter daily. While this book can be a good source in college courses focusing on the application of Reformed theology in daily life, I also believe that it can be beneficial for churches in their efforts to help the congregation to conduct their daily lives that are founded on Reformed theology. They can use this book in their adult Sunday School discussions or book club meetings to help the church members dig deeper into the actual, everyday situations that they encounter so that they can come out informed, enlightened, and challenged to practice their Christian faith.