Miroslav Volf is a theologian that is always worth reading. Even when his conclusions are disputable, they are typically drawn from careful reason and charitably expressed. His latest book, coauthored with Matthew Croasmun, is no exception.
For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference takes a critical look at the discipline of theology and how that field of study often misses the mark. In particular, the authors are critiquing the all-too-common reduction of theology to a cloistered, academic exploration. The thesis of this book is that theology ought to be done for the good of the world.
This book uses the term theology to refer to a range of disciplines that includes systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and other disciplines that naturally belong in a seminary or a divinity school.
In part, this book is another reflection on the shallow mind of our age. Too many people expend their numbered days chasing after frivolous goals without asking what is worth striving for. Volf and Croasmun argue that there is such a thing as “the good life” and that the function of theology is to explore what that looks like and communicate it to others.
However, theology is in a sort of existential crisis, as are many academic disciplines, because it has become more interested in scholarly navel gazing than fulfilling the purpose for which the theology was originally designed. For some, theology has become a pure science that is studied for its own sake. Other see theology primarily as a means of gaining power and advocating for their favored groups. When these things become the primary goal of theology, they distort its actual purpose, which is to explore God and discover truth about the world.
The authors explore major themes in theology, including the study of God, redemption, etc. There are many valid themes for theology, but Volf and Croasmun argue that, ultimately, the main theme of theology should be human flourishing and should lead to “robust descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, livable normative vision of human flourishing.” This seems an honest and helpful assessment, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both essential attributes of the proper Christian life.
By making claims to truth and particularity, Volf and Croasmun leave the door open for criticism they are insufficiently broadminded. However, they take on this anticipated criticism by noting that pluralism is, to some degree, a desired end, since true faith is not social conformity by a personal response to the goodness of God. In addressing this topic, they open up the most interesting point for debate. They argue that the Christian life is improvised like an ellipse around two foci: Christ and one’s vocation and location. They state that there are multiple different ellipses that can develop that are all “valid” and that flourishing Christians will look differently based on a different vocation and location.
To a certain degree this is unquestionably true. The life of a first century Christian will, without doubt, look radically different from our own in a number of ways. The way faithfulness is demonstrated will vary based on circumstances. Even between contemporaries, there will be differences. For example, my wife’s faithful Christianity will look different than mine due to our different vocations. At the same time, Volf and Croasmun offer an analogy without noting that the goal of the Christian life should be to make our orbit as circular as possible. There may be multiple “valid” options for the Christian life, but not all are necessarily equally good.
In the same chapter, the authors help explain the why some models of Christianity diverge more significantly from Scripture. They represent the relationship between the Life of Christ, which is the source of Christianity, and Ordinary Christians with a series of circles connected by arrows. The error in their model is found by differentiating the Life of Christ from the Bible and arguing that the Life of Christ influences the Bible, the Church, and Theology in different ways. This is a fundamentally flawed picture of theology, since the Life of Christ can only be mediated to the Church and theologians through the Bible, since the Bible is the only valid record we have of the Life of Christ. Volf is orthodox, and often very helpful, but this distinction helps understand why he and, often to a much greater degree, others find it possible to oppose the “True Jesus” to the rest of Scripture. The model leads to the possibility of prioritizing a part over the unity of the whole of the Bible.
The latter chapters of For the Life of the World offer encouragement for the theologian to live a life that reflects his or her theology and focused on helping others to live rightly before God. They more succinctly define theology here as “a way of life seeking understanding.” Such an approach helpfully breaks down the possibility of theology as pure science. The authors are also careful to anchor their call to theology in a love of God that perceives truth as something concrete that ought to be presumed. Thus, pursuing love, peace, and joy as ends of theology cannot lead to vice indefinitely because these virtues are normed by truth founded in God.
This volume is a helpful book for amateur and professional theologians. Its value can be seen in their concluding sentences: “But though we are theologians for God’s sake, we are not theologians for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need theology. If anyone needs it, human beings do. Let us be theologians for the sake of the life, the true life, of the world.”
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.