Why Public Theology?

The legacy of Westminster Theological Seminary encompasses the public concerns of faith and morals. The tradition of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and pastors who led in this way include such luminaries as John Witherspoon, Abraham Kuyper, and Westminster’s founders: J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, and R. B. Kuiper. Machen addressed the impact of government encroachment in his day. He wrote:
No interference is resented today, no menace to family life, no government monopoly, if only it be thought to confer physical benefits. Why is the healthy hatred of being governed, formerly so strong in the American people gradually being lost?[1]

     He asserted that this “had its roots in a fundamental deterioration of the American people. . . the people has come to value principle less and creature comfort more; increasingly it has come to prefer prosperity to freedom.” Public theology, then, has been a concern at Westminster throughout my service at the seminary, beginning in 2005. I have often had the opportunity to address the issues of the Christian’s and the church’s privileges, duties, and opportunities in the public arena.

Recent History of Public Theology at Westminster

During the last few years, the discussion of these concerns has become more intentional due to several influences:

  • The urging of Board members, and alumni
  • Donor support for Westminster’s Real State of the Union Conferences
  • Global questions from donors and friends of the seminary as to the seminary’s stance on cultural issues impacting the church
  • Growing opposition to historic Christian positions in academia, media, and government
  • Overt hostility to Christian teaching evident in efforts to truncate the freedom of speech and of the press through so-called politically correct speech norms and the misapplication of hate speech laws

     Additionally, the matter of public theology at Westminster was greatly clarified by our concern to maintain our position on the sanctity of life in the face of the pro-abortion demands of the Affordable Care Act. Our consciences compelled the seminary to go to court. Indeed, we went to the court, all the way to the US Supreme Court, and by God’s kindness, we ultimately prevailed.

     In the last seven years, various Westminster meetings, documents, and discussions have explored the concept of the seminary’s role in engaging public theology through preaching, leadership, and theological considerations of the issues raised in public theology. This has now officially found a home in our program, Framework: Public Theology from Westminster.

The Need for Students to Be Trained in Public Theology

     Among American Presbyterians, there has been, I believe, a misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching concerning the spirituality of the church. When this concern is overly emphasized, it has the potential to disconnect the church from the culture so that the church becomes an island separated from culture, resulting in what could almost be viewed as a form of pietistic isolationism.

     To engage the culture seems inescapably important today as weighty challenges face students when they prepare for ministry in this time of cultural chaos—the melding of world cultures by technology, the rise of ideologies that oppose Christian faith such as secularism and Islam, and the ubiquity of non-biblical media and governmental influences. Furthermore, theology develops today in a milieu of politically correct speech that rejects and even strives to silence what is unacceptable to sound theological commitments.

"Theology develops today in a milieu of politically correct speech that rejects and even strives to silence what is unacceptable to sound theological commitments."

     As a specific example, “Statism” asserts that the supremacy of government is the highest good and that it ought to be seen as the ultimate standard for societal good. The Leviathan of an all-encompassing state is a common tenet of atheism. If there is no God, then government is the only transcendent point in life. Without God, government becomes god. But this is a direct challenge to the notion of freedom, and more specifically as it impacts ministry, a direct challenge to religious liberty. Earlier generations of American leaders proclaimed, “A government that’s big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”

     These realities were previously less obvious and hence less addressed in the traditional seminary curriculum. To appreciate why, consider the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Students today are studying at the conclusion of a long cultural process in the West that has moved from faith to unbelief. Taylor describes this intellectual movement, echoing language from Augustine.

There was once a time when it was impossible to not believe—the Medieval and Reformation worlds. Then there was a time when it was possible to believe or not to believe—the Post-Reformation modern world. Now the time has come when it is not possible to believe—the post-Christian secular world.

     We can observe the reality of this third intellectual era, the one we occupy now, in the changes that have occurred in corporate America. Thirty years ago, if a person was identified as homosexual, he would lose his job. Today, if a person identifies another as a homosexual, that person will lose his job. The once celebrated call for tolerance has morphed from merely accepting the divergent to an unyielding non-tolerance of any disagreement. Tolerance has become unidirectional.

     Students prepare for ministry in a time of unbelief marked by accelerating hostility to the Christian faith, witness, and activity in the world. Three stages have been identified to mark the escalating assault on Christians.

     The first stage is the loss of privilege and prestige. This occurs through marginalization and non-recognition.

     The second stage is the loss of position and power. The person impacted by this is deemed unqualified to lead.

     The third stage is the onset of ostensible persecution. This happens through assault on property, reputation, association, and ultimately even physical well-being or life itself.

     These three stages have been memorably summarized as (1) the loss of one’s privileges, (2) the loss of one’s job, and (3) the loss of one’s head.

The Rise of Cultural Marxism in America Calls for Public Theology

     Moreover, students are studying at a time when there has been a new sexual revolution, but one far different in nature than the sexual revolution of the twentieth century. The cultural change today has been a shift from the earlier pragmatic sexual revolution calling for tolerance of individual lifestyle choices to what is today an authoritarian insistence on the recognition of, celebration, and participation in sexual expression, or otherwise face a totalitarian-like imposition of punitive ostracism and silencing.

     Historically, fascism was an authoritarian insistence on compulsory conformity. Totalitarianism, however, does not seek mere conformity, but rather pursues the defeat, and even destruction of, any view that is inconsistent with its own. It is not the fascist desire for acquiescence that the totalitarian seeks, but the absolute embracing and celebration of the totalitarian’s values and practices—or else.

     And so history and previous cultural values do not matter. Examples are replete: taste has triumphed over truth; psychology has trumped propositions; gender is a matter of decision, not DNA; personal offense is now the higher authority—including at prestigious Ivy League Law Schools. Free speech and First Amendment rights are offensive to the new hegemony of self-gratification expressed preeminently through sexuality.

"Taste has triumphed over truth; psychology has trumped propositions; gender is a matter of decision, not DNA; personal offense is now the higher authority."

     This all fits into the agenda of Marxist ideology, but in a newer form. When classic Communism failed in the West, Marxists in the “Frankfurt School” developed a political philosophy often known today as “Cultural Marxism” developed by philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci. Cultural Marxism does not focus on the classic Marxist economic struggle. Rather, its concerns are the struggle over cultural values.

     Christians and citizens alike are all too often unaware of the cultural Marxist methodology. When socialist ideology assaults a culture shaped by the Reformation and the Judeo-Christian tradition, its main enemies are the Church and the Family. To put it another way, Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on the sphere sovereignty of family, church, and state is collapsed into the absolute sovereignty of only the state. The undermining, marginalization, or destruction of the family and the church enable the absolute totalitarian state and its culture to prevail. Without the family and the church, the state reigns supreme and seeks its ever-increasing growth as the only god a secular world can know.

     Further, in the Marxist conception of revolution, there is always the revolutionary overthrow of the oppressor by the oppressed. When this power move occurs, there will not, however, be an equitable redistribution of rights as might be expected in the moral understandings of the Western tradition shaped by Judeo-Christian values of equity and human dignity. Instead, the conqueror possesses by absolute revolutionary victory all rights, and distributes them as he alone deems best.

     This is in contradistinction to historic Judeo-Christian ethics that honors the rights of all individuals as those created in the imago Dei, the self-determined application of the conqueror’s power is the only rule of justice. In the Marxist view of revolution, such a use of power to establish the interest of the victor over the vanquished is not tyranny but is simply the triumph of justice. This was true in the Communist victory over the Czars of Russia. This is true in the contemporary homosexual triumph over classic American cultural mores. This is the triumph of what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci described as the “long march through the institutions.”

     Thus, the new hegemony of homosexuality and the LGBTQ movement does not celebrate tolerance, but insists on the complete revolutionary control over the vanquished. The attorney for the gay marriage debate stood on the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court’s steps when the first victory was won several years ago and in essence declared, “Let it be known that from this time forth, sexual liberty will always triumph over religious liberty.” Indeed, the will to power now triumphs over the will of “We the People.”

     A simple summary of the key concepts for culturalchange to advance Marxist ideals includes:

  • Politically correct speech that limits the force of words
  • Critical theory such as critical race theory
  • Cultural pessimism that encourages devaluing one’s own country and its heritage
  • Sexual redefinition that rejects the traditional family as seen in the omnipresent letters LGBTQ

Public Theology at Westminster

     What will happen to seminary graduates when they begin to minister in the contexts outlined above, and do not advance or cherish the expected norms of what has been mandated by cultural Marxism? Will they be equipped to face the regulatory state whose finger is already in the pulpit’s Bible declaring that a passage on homosexuality cannot be preached without incurring the ire of the state and allegations of hate speech? Are young pastors ready to face the litany of obstructions that are likely to arise in the near or distant future, such as the loss of zoning privileges, the loss of tax exemption, the refusal to accredit the church’s school, the refusal to allow the church to use public facilities and public property, the restriction of speech in public and perhaps even private space, the mandate to perform same-sex marriages, the requirement to have gender-neutral bathrooms and locker-rooms? We believe that pastors will be well equipped for these challenges by their public theology training at Westminster.

     Students must be trained to preach gospel-saturated sermons that also pointedly confront unbelief and cultural and governmentally mandated sinful behavior. And as they engage in the debates of a morally declining culture and address the state, they must not lose the gospel for politics. They need the confidence to preach on “controversial” issues directly from Scripture, knowing that they may well face opposition to their message both from within and from outside the Church.

     We must train them effectively so that they will not simply make a quietistic retreat to a pietism that never speaks of the world’s assaults on the Church. Such a view of the spirituality of the Church places personal safety or comfort before one’s calling to be salt and light in a fallen world.

"We must train them effectively so that they will not simply make a quietistic retreat to a pietism that never speaks of the world’s assaults on the Church."

     Given Westminster’s commitment to public theology, I conclude by clarifying what public theology means for our ministry to train specialists in the Bible to proclaim the whole counsel of God for Christ and His global church:

     Public Theology is an outgrowth of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. Public theology can be an ambiguous term. By theology, we mean the teaching of Scripture, God’s Word, as it is developed historically, systematically, and biblical-theologically, and as it is informed by our confessional standards. By public, we mean not just the public seminary community and our constituent churches and organizations, but also the broader world, whether believing in Christ or not, often termed the “public square,” or the sphere of free speech and the free press.

     Public Theology is not a code word for partisan politics. At Westminster, public theology is not a code word for political activity or partisan politics. Rather, it is the recognition of what has been called the declarative power of the church through its proclamation of God’s Word through pulpits, publications, and courts.

     Public Theology is historically rooted in Westminster’s heritage. Public theology has been best summarized in the classic words of one of Westminster’s founding professors, John Murray. The following is excerpted from Murray’s article, “The Relationship of Church andState.”[2] It is an excellent balance of the church’s proclamation of biblical moral principles in light of public issues touching family, church, and state. He writes,

To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions. While the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions such as the state and the family; nevertheless it is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are, and the lines of demarcation by which they are distinguished. It is also charged to declare and inculcate the duties which devolve upon them. Consequently when the civil magistrate trespasses the limits of his authority, it is incumbent upon the church to expose and condemn such a violation of his authority. When laws are proposed or enacted which are contrary to the law of God, it is the duty of the church to oppose them and expose their iniquity. When the civil magistrate fails to exercise his God-given authority in the protection and promotion of the obligations, rights, and liberties of the citizens, the church has the right and duty to condemn such inaction, and by its proclamation of the counsel of God to confront the civil magistrate with his responsibility and promote the correction of such neglect. The functions of the civil magistrate, therefore, come within the scope of the church’s proclamation in every respect in which the Word ofGod bears upon the proper or improper discharge of these functions, and it is only a misconception of what is involved in the proclamation of the whole counsel of God that leads to the notion that the church has no concern with the political sphere. When it is maintained that the church is concerned with civic affairs, it is under obligation to examine political measures in the light of the Word of God, and is required to declare its judgments accordingly, the distinction between this activity on the part of the church and ‘political’ activity must be recognized. To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in “politics.” Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church.

"When the civil magistrate trespasses the limits of his authority, it is incumbent upon the church to expose and condemn such a violation of his authority."

     The spirituality of the Church is essential for a sound Public Theology. Public Theology at Westminster maintains the foundational importance of the spiritual character of the church without stripping the church of its declarative power so eloquently articulated by Westminster’s John Murray. To distinguish this, we might consider the distinction between what I term the declarative/activistic spiritual view of the church and the silent/inactivistic spiritual view of the church.

     Public Theology is an expression of divine grace. Public Theology is understood at Westminster to be an expression of divine grace. The exploration of the role of common grace in relationship to special grace is one of the tasks of Public Theology. Our efforts in public theology have no merit in our salvation, but are motivated by the Holy Spirit’s enablement of grateful obedience to God and His Word, the seeking of His glory, and serving our neighbors in love and truth.

     Public Theology is intended to prepare students for the escalating cultural hostility targeting the Church. Public Theology at Westminster is especially concerned with preparing our students and members of the Christian community to respond to the escalating opposition and potential persecution rising against the church. The public theology program seeks to develop educational content and opportunities to enable our constituencies to address statist views of government that seek to silence and marginalize the church. It strives to provide wise counsel to the church to be effective in the inevitable confrontation of a hostile and secular culture to the life and ministry of the biblically faithful church.

     Public Theology addresses the vital issues confronting the church that arise in the public square. Public Theology addresses the growing opposition to the church. It seeks to provide vital biblical teaching concerning controversial issues that confront the church such as Marxist critical theories, the sanctity of life, sexuality, gender, poverty, racism, and immigration.

     Indeed, help us by praying and supporting our ministry to train the next generation of leaders for the Church here in America and around the globe. Consider learning more about Framework: Public Theology from Westminster. Framework’s mission is to equip pastors and church leaders by deploying a biblically faithful theological framework to engage the challenging moral, civic, and cultural issues the church faces in society.

     We are committed to pursuing public theology—not political partisanship—because we are convinced that Scripture is true and sufficient, and that good theology should be public theology. The urgent need in the church today is for pastors with a clear gospel witness who are unafraid to confront the issues that assault believers. Join us in equipping students and pastors to impact the public square and to prepare their churches for whatever may next come to challenge the people of God.

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State (Trinity Foundation, 1995), 138.

[2] The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth, 1976), pp. 253–259.

Rev. Dr. Peter Lillback (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also serves as the president emeritus and founder of The Providence Forum and senior editor of the new Unio cum Christo: An International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.