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Matthew Kaemingk – Reformed Public Theology [Feature Review]

Reformed Public TheologyThe Image of God in our Common Humanity

A Feature Review of

Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World
Matthew Kaemingk, Editor

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2021
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Reviewed by Andrew C. Stout

In 1978, reviewing a book by Allan Boesak, a Black Reformed theologian from South Africa, Richard Mouw reflected on the importance of attending to the particular social location out of which a particular piece of theology is written. In his review of Farewell to Innocence, Mouw observed that “It would be especially ironic if those of us who have spoken much of the importance of ‘the whole man’ should ignore the social and political context out of which theology issues arise,” noting that “we must be sensitive to how various aspects of that wholeness enter into the substance of theological reflection” (29). In this new volume on a global Reformed vision for public theology, a new generation of Reformed thinkers can be observed taking Mouw’s challenge to do justice to “the whole person” (as I imagine he might state it today) seriously.

In Reformed Public Theology, a volume dedicated to Mouw, Matthew Kaemingk assembles a chorus of voices drawing inspiration from the Reformed tradition to address issues of global public concern from a variety of social and cultural contexts. Fuller Seminary, an institution which works to center non-Western theological voices, is particularly well represented among the contributors. As the former president of Fuller, Mouw continued to serve as a doctoral mentor to students, including several of the contributors. His influence is evident in both the content and the spirit of their work.

Not only a tribute to Mouw, the book is a significant contribution to the field of public theology. “Public theology” is a growing theological subdiscipline, as evidenced by the existence of a journal like The International Journal of Public Theology. In the Introduction, Kaemingk acknowledges the diverse character of this emerging discipline, which concerns itself with drawing out the implications of Christ’s Lordship for a host of public concerns, including politics, immigration, aesthetics, education, markets, and social reform – to name just a few of the areas into which this book ventures. While noting nine “marks” of this multidisciplinary approach to theology, the book demonstrates that the Reformed tradition is uniquely positioned to contribute constructively to this emerging field. Kaemingk notes that “As a multinational phenomenon,” the earliest Reformed leaders “had to wrestle with the public consequences of their theology in diverse contexts” (13). Cultural diversity and thinking theologically in public are part of the Reformed tradition’s DNA.

Immigration is one issue that receives attention from multiple authors under the headings of “Public Culture” and “Public Worship,” respectively. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez’s strikingly relevant chapter highlights Calvin and the Reformed tradition’s legacy of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, while Alberto La Rosa Rojas reflects on how the Lord’s Supper enacts a Reformed theology of homecoming as one who has lived in America as an unauthorized immigrant. These essays ground theological reflection in historical contexts, demonstrating that, at its best, Reformed theology integrates the horizontal plain of human experience with the vertical plane of reflection on the person of God.

As might be expected from a book that deals in Reformed political thought, the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper is a dominating figure. Kuyper’s understandings of common grace, sphere sovereignty, and principled religious pluralism are described and applied frequently by different contributors. Lucas G. Freire and Agnes Chiu discuss these ideas under the heading “Public Markets.” Freire employs Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty to indicate how Brazil’s corrupt political economy could be reformed to encourage Brazilian entrepreneurship. Chiu explores how Kuyper’s understanding of common grace could help facilitate a dialogue between Christianity, Confucianism, and Communism with the goal of strengthening Chinese labor unions and protecting China’s industrial workers. Under the heading “Public Justice” Romel Regalado Bagares takes the thuggish populism of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as demonstration of the need for an understanding of sphere sovereignty in statecraft. In the discussion of “Public Culture” N. Gray Sutanto argues that a neo-Calvinist understanding of principled pluralism can help us to appreciate and defend the constitutional pluralism of a religiously diverse country like Indonesia. The diversity of these applications of Kuyper, along with their contextual specificity, go a long way toward demonstrating the global reach of the Reformed tradition.

Sections on “Public Aesthetics” and “Public Academy” similarly focus on how common grace – or “commonness” as Mouw sometimes states it – provide the theological foundation for appreciating the common humanity of artists and ideas that are not explicitly Christian. Chapters from Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura, philosophers James K. A. Smith and Nicholas Wolterstorff, and theologian Nico Koopman, all lend maturity and credibility to the book’s project. Each of these individuals has an entire body of artistic and/or scholarly work that models the way that Reformed convictions can fruitfully contribute to public life.

Public theology has been criticized by some for its globalizing tendency, and some of these debates have played out in South African circles. Tinyiko Maluleke has argued recently that despite the attention that public theology pays to particular cultural contexts, its ultimate goal is a totalizing one. Rather than pursuing what he identifies as the imperial ambitions of public theology, Maluleke chooses to focus on the concerns of indigenous Black and African theologians. He would rather mine the wisdom of his people’s own marginalized and indigenous theologies than work toward a hybrid “public theology” that gleans lessons from various cultural contexts while ultimately becoming context-less in its global ambitions.

While rightly emphasizing “commonness,” Reformed public theologians would do well to heed Maluleke’s warning. A figure like Allan Boesak can serve as an example of how an emphasis on commonality can be maintained alongside a robust engagement with marginalized voices. The contrast between the approach of Boseak and Nico Koopman is instructive. Koopman’s South African public theology has drawn on the insights of Black theologies. However, while Black theology tends to allow one’s racial identity to set the agenda for one’s theological agenda, his version of public theology has focused on the ways that various racial and cultural identities interrelate. Boeask’s more radical reading of the Reformed tradition, developed in the midst of the antiapartheid struggle, has kept the cultural identity of Black South Africans front and center in his theologizing. While he engages in a progressive reading of the legacies of Calvin and Kuyper, Boesak’s work never loses sight of the particular identities of marginalized peoples. In this volume, Jeff Liou’s engagement with Boesak in his discussion of critical race theory on university campuses serves to remind us that “the best Reformed theology has always been done in the streets, whether in Geneva or in Cape Town” (249).

In many ways, Reformed Public Theology, following in the footsteps of Richard Mouw, maintains a healthy tension between our common humanity and the particularities of our cultural contexts. While Dutch theologians provide most of the theological concepts explored in the book, those concepts are deployed to address situations in the Scottish Highlands, Cape Town, Jakarta, New York, Hong Kong, Quezon City, Tokyo, and the United States-Mexico border. In this international dialogue, there is danger of centering Western theological concepts and figures in ways that effectively dictate the terms of exchange. The contributors to Reformed Public Theology don’t always avoid that pitfall. However, on the whole, their vision of the Reformed tradition illustrates that the image of God in our common humanity is collectively revealed in our cultural particularities.

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Andrew C. Stout

Andrew C. Stout is the Public Services Librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the journals Religion and the Arts, Pro Ecclesia, Presbyterion, and The Journal of Reformed Theology. Find him on Twitter: @ThomasACStout


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