Review of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf
By JUSTIN HAWKINS
The greatest cause for joy in the life of the Christian is the fact that God has forgiven the presumably indelible stain of his depravity. It follows, then, that the Christian’s forgiveness of others ought to be quick and unhesitating, because it represents an opportunity to imitate the greatest act done on our behalf by our God. Free of Charge, by Dr. Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, is a work of theological exhortation that undertakes the task of explaining what giving and forgiving are, rooting those practices in the nature of the Godhead, and exhorting believers to imitate God by participating in the work of giving and forgiving.
Volf combines scholarly erudition with personal anecdotes throughout this book to give it both a degree of theological strength that is often lamentably absent from similar popular-level works of Christianity, and a degree of pathos that is too often absent from works of good theology. The primary theological inspiration for the book is Luther (though as will be noted later, his faithfulness to Luther’s whole vision of God’s forgiveness is dubious), and the case study in forgiveness that adds a vivifying tone to the argument of the book is Volf’s parents’ response to the death by criminal negligence of his five-year-old brother. This story occupies the central part of the book in the section entitled “Interlude: Daniel’s Death.” The result of this blending is a work of readable lay theology punctuated with several memorable lines. On God’s resources for giving: “God enjoys unsurpassed plenitude” (42). On our posture of faith: “Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill” (43). On our motivation for generosity: “We don’t let others simply fend for themselves because we haven’t been left to fend for ourselves” (108).
The argument of the book is as simple to follow as it is enjoyable to read. God is the source of all gifts and of all forgiveness. He is a prodigal giver and a ceaseless forgiver, and He calls His followers to imitate His example. Because God exists in Trinity marked by unceasing, perfect, reciprocal love as a necessary characteristic, Christians give and forgive both in imitation of God’s character and equipped by His indwelling Spirit that allows us to continue obeying God’s will though we live in a culture wherein it appears both difficult and nonsensical to do so. In its most elementary form, the book argues that we give because God gives, and we forgive because God forgives. Yet Volf carefully considers this argument in all of its facets in the form of a long, careful elaboration of a point of such importance that it is to be established beyond doubt.
By grounding ethical imperatives and Christian virtue in the nature of the Godhead, Volf rightly shows the inextricable connections between doctrine and practice, and between the nature of God and the nature of the Christian. God exists in Trinity; rather than an arcane detail of Christian theology, this doctrine is the very one that explains how it is that God is able to be perfectly giving and perfectly forgiving. Theology has its name because when done correctly, the entire discipline emanates from what the study of God teaches us about everything that is not God. Devoid of this grounding, theology devolves into ethics at best and moralism at worst. In this way, Volf is a stellar strong challenge to other theological popularizers that it is no service to a readership to give them sloppy prose and mere practicalities devoid of real theological content. Any book that can be legitimately listed in the local Barnes and Noble in both the “Christianity” and “Self-Help” sections is literary evidence of a fatal misunderstanding of the Christian gospel.
Volf’s book is often punctuated and supported with reference to the Bible. While this approach is obvious for conservative Evangelicals devoted to the doctrine of Sola Scripture, it is anything but a given among Volf’s liberal colleagues in non-Evangelical seminaries, for whom the text is a dead letter, therefore he deserves praise for his Scriptural method, exegetical omissions and errors notwithstanding.
And exegetical omissions and errors there are in no small degree. Indeed, while the method of Volf’s theology is commendable, the actual content of it is less convincing in many places. While his discussion of forgiveness is often strong, it is weakened by his omission of what it is exactly that needs forgiving, that is: what is the cardinal problem of human life? Discussions of sin are brief, and a discussion of the wrath of God – Paul’s opening theological foray in the book of Romans – numbers less than three pages in Volf’s entire book. If we believe with Paul that our greatest problem in life is “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18), then it is a grave omission to deal lightly or briefly with it.
Furthermore, Volf’s theory of the atonement, so central to a book on forgiveness, is at times confusing. He denies penal substitution out of hand, without an explanation of that denial: “God did not transfer guilt from guilty humanity to the innocent Christ who bore it for us. No such transfer is possible” (196). Instead, Volf’s theory of the atonement centers on the implications of our union with Christ, a theory that, while still within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy, is nonetheless problematized significantly by Volf’s largest theological error. Running through the entire book is a strong undercurrent of soteriological universalism that is always at least implicit, and frequently explicit. So Volf says “The story of Christ’s death tells us that God doesn’t press charges against humanity…No punishment will fall on us” (169). Or “God’s forgiveness is indiscriminate…All means all, without exception. [T]here are no people whom God, for some inscrutable reason, decided not to forgive” (178). And finally “In Christ, God has rightfully forgiven the sin of all human beings” (198).
Here is where Volf most clearly falls outside the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. Parsing the nuances of his atonement theory is relegated to secondary importance when the larger tone of his work suggests either implicitly or explicitly that the atonement applies to all mankind, irrespective of their conscious decisions to reject it, or of their failure to demonstrate the fruits of salvation through repentance and faith. A systematic, evangelical critique of universalism is available elsewhere, so this review will not enter into it, except to note that universalism is discordant with the history of the Christian Church, and certainly does not accord with Luther’s soteriology. Owing in part to the fact that he roots his theology in scripture and does often quote Luther, Volf’s conclusions about forgiveness and its implications are often true, but they are only ever true for those for whom union with Christ is a true reality, and Scripture gives us very little reason to think that applies to everyone, everywhere in the world, at all times.
Free of Charge is an accessible, often instructive introduction to much of modern theology that employs a unique set of illustrations and vocabulary that comes from outside of the typical modern Evangelical canon of “most-cited” authors and institutions. It is a useful, non-technical introduction to God’s abundant grace toward us that manifests itself in the forgiveness of our sins. It is a welcome occasion for deeper reflection on and understanding of these topics, but most fresh, evangelically orthodox insights gleaned through the reading of this book will come through the reader’s thoughtful, careful opposition to Volf’s theology, not an endorsement of it.