Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people?

Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people?

By Leah B.

Hello, everyone!

This past Thursday, our class ended with the question of, “How are we defining public theology?” I was curious about that, so I did some very quick research (if you find more information, please contribute!) to see if the word and tradition histories of the term could be helpful.

Word History:

Public: a mid-15th century word meaning “pertaining/open to all the people” (French public, from Latin publicus, from Old Latin poplicus from populus)

Theology: a mid-14th century word from the French theologie “philosophical treatment of Christian doctrine” from L. theologia from Gk, theologia, “an account of the gods,” from theologos, “one discoursing on the gods.”

So a very technical definition could be…

Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people.

How public theology has been traditionally used:

The phrase “public theology” is quite modern and may have been coined by UChicago’s Martin Marty. According to (a site sponsored by the ELCA), Marty was unsatisfied with the terms public religion and civil religion because public theology was “closer to experienced religious identities,” and public theology could provide a better critique and challenge to citizens’ “commitment to their specific churches, synagogues and mosques.”* I couldn’t find any primary documents of Marty claiming this, so I would regard it loosely. However, if it is accurate, it seems that public theology is less about the public and more about religious communities. The Encyclopedia of Christianity comments further that the tradition of public theology was one that “presumed that theologians, clergy and committed laity” should use their theological resources and training to address issues of faith and justice in society (done through teaching, preaching and organizing).**

Here are some of the questions that are raised for me. I would love to hear others thoughts and/or questions that emerge for them:

– What does this definition mean?

– What are the implications of defining public theology this way? Is it helpful?

– What does one do with the difference between the broad, technical definition and the more narrow traditional usage?

Just an observation…

– The technical definition with it’s “account of” and “discourse” makes me think of storytelling as a means of public theology. Agree/disagree? What stories have past public theologians told effectively? What stories are current public theologians telling? Are the storytellers the true public theologians?


** The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4; Erwin Fahlbusch, Geoffrey William Bromiley


7 thoughts on “Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people?

  1. Olivia says:

    Thanks for your great post, Leah!

    I just had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, who plans to go to rabbinical school to become a rabbi in the Reformed tradition. He said two things after I defined Marty’s conception of public theology: (1) “Abraham Joshua Heschel is the coolest cat who ever lived”; and (2) “Heschel is a modern Jewish prophet, continuing the prophetic tradition from the Hebrew bible, not a public theologian.”

    Which raises the question: What’s the difference–if any–between prophecy (in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets) and public theology?

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