Book Reviews

Book Review: For the Life of the World (Miroslav Volf/Matthew Croasmun)

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a percentage of revenue if you buy from Amazon on my blog. 

What matters most in life? People and theologians from all stripes try to answer this question, but Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun think that what really matters is “the true life in the presence of God,” and that western academic theology has lost its way (1). They writes, “Theologians seem to have lost theological eros, our sense of divine calling to grapple with the ultimate question of human existence and of the world’s destiny” (3). Theology fought to be seen as a legitimate discipline, standing alongside the humanities and sciences. Yet to do so, it had to answer the questions posed by the sciences rather than “the most profound and important questions of human existence, which the sciences, by the very nature of their methodologies, are unable even to take up, let alone to answer” (4).

Genesis and Exodus show us the story from creation, to sin and decreation, to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, to God’s rescue of Israel, covenant with Israel, and his dwelling with Israel. The New Testament redraws that story to include the world, and when God makes “all things new” heaven will come down to earth. The authors believe that theological education (whether that be done in seminaries or in Sunday schools) should have the goal of “forming human beings according to the pattern of Christ, such that each person and community is able to improvise the way of Christ in the flow of time in anticipation of becoming, along with the entire creation, the home of God” (9).

Kevin Vanhoozer makes a similar point in his book Hearers and Doers that the Bible gives us illustrative stories of what good and evil are so we will know how to live. As we study the life of Christ, his words, his actions, and his character, we will represent him rightly in the different situations we encounter. Though their book, a manifesto, is aimed mainly at academic theologians, since the book concerns itself with Christian theology it ultimately deals with everyone.

Chapter one: Flourishing life: which life is good? It is not merely choosing a life that may be better or worse than others. It is choosing the course of your entire life. What kind of life has good values? wisdom? character? How do we make a world worth inhabiting? Not to mention the western world in which we live and must choose is postsecular and pluralistic. If we “follow our hearts,” are those choices our own or do they really only mirror the thoughts and beliefs of our culture? Do we even know how to find what the good life might be and what are the opposing options? Theology will help us answer this question, for we can not live by bread—even “sophisticated varieties of ‘bread'”—alone (34).

Yet we see in chapter two that fewer and fewer seminaries have less and less students and so can pay more teachers less money. Many academic theologians write for the guild and tenure review committees than for the church. Not only that, but far fewer read theology than before. Germany was a theological powerhouse in the 19th and 20th century, but hardly will one bat an eye at theological books now. Theologians need to convince that what they say matters, and if they aren’t developing driverless cars or graphene, what do they have to offer the world? Internally, academic theology needs “to critically discern, articulate, and commend visions of the true life in light of the person, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ” (45). Rather than critiquing, complaining, and knocking down walls, theologians also needs to “have a dream” about the future and about what should be.

Enter chapter three. Why should flourishing be theology’s purpose? Because Jesus came to bring life that we may have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). God made us as the work of his hands, and he is not indifferent to us, but wants to see us flourish. In fact, the end of Revelation shows that happening in all its perfection in the restoration of all things. God is our home now. Theology teaches us not only about God and redemption, but how to flourish. Jesus taught that not only were impure actions sinful, but the “absence of love” to a person was sinful as well (73). Sin and redemption stand with creation and consummation. We (our whole selves) are redeemed to live with God in the new creation, and are able to love our neighbors both now and then.

Chapter four is about the “challenge of universality” (not universalism). The authors write, “A Christian vision of flourishing life addresses every person and the entire world” (86). Unlike universalism, the belief that all people will be salved, Christianity teaches universalisms. It’s belief that the earth is God’s home and that there will be a new creation affects every single person (the particulars). The authors provide six foundational elements of Christian account of the flourishing life believe that allows us “both to nurture a culture of respect in pluralistic societies and to help craft political regimes of respect” where people can pursue intelligent conversations respectfully and without violence (104, 107).

Chapter five argues that the lives of theologians, imperfect as they are, should strive to attain the true life they argue for. Basically, they should walk the talk. Practice what they preach. It’s one big circle. When a pastor preaches that Christians ought to love one another, and that pastor actually loves one another well, his preaching will have better illustrations and biblical meaning. However, if he preaches loving your neighbor, yet hates his neighbor, dishonors his family, cares little about anyone else, then his preaching will not get any better, it will barely direct people toward God. The authors write, “The kind of life theologians live would manifest the kind of life they articulate, critically examine, and commend, and, inversely, their articulations would express the kind of life they live” (129). Teaching how to live as Christ should result in them living more like Christ, which results in better teaching on how to live like christ, and so on and so on.

Finally, chapter six gives a vision of the flourishing life and answers how it is “led well, goes well, and feels as it should” (153). The form of God’s kingdom structure to life is that the old is passing away, and the new creation is breaking in. God created a good world, but sin has corrupted it. Yet, he continues to give us good gifts, even in the midst of this corrupted world. These good gifts can be a laughing baby, mint chocolate chip ice cream, a good move on the couch with your wife. Redemption is happening now and will be finished in the future. What actions should be in this flourishing life? Righteousness, love, peace, and joy done in the Holy Spirit.

Recommended?

I didn’t think chapter four gave enough reasons on how to live in pluralistic societies as Christians amidst the cultural climate of certain controversies, such as the LGBTQIA movement. Also, since a large part of the book is focused on academic theologians, non-academics may find those sections irrelevant to them. In fact, the book wasn’t what I thought it would be. That’s partly my fault for not reading the excerpt ahead of time, but the two paragraph summary on Amazon makes no mention of academic theologians. Rather, it sounds like this book is aimed at all people everywhere. 

I don’t quite know who to recommend this book to. It’s aimed first at academic theologians, how they should live and articulate theology. Because of that, this isn’t entry-level information. Some non-seminarians might get a kick out of this, but many in the church may have a hard time getting through it. But since the book concerns itself with Christian theology, it ultimately deals with everyone. So if you do pick it up, you will find a lot of benefit here. 

Lagniappe

  • Series: Theology for the Life of the World
  • Authors: Miroslav Volf & Matthew Croasmun
    • Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. 
    • Matt Croasmun is Associate Research Scholar and Director of the Life Worth Living Program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Lecturer of Divinity and Humanities at Yale University
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Brazos Press (January 22, 2019)
  • Sample: Read the first 34 pages here

Buy it from Amazon or Brazos Press!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Brazos Press/Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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