Book Review: ‘For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference’ by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun

Book review by Kelly M. Kapic. Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College. He is the author of The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan) and co-author, with Brian Fikkert, of Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Moody).

Something is rotten in the state of academic theology.

That, at least, is the bold claim that Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun advance in their compelling new book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Volf and Croasmun fear that academic theology has lost its way, in part by positioning itself in opposition or even hostility to the church and its ordinary believers. Rigorous research and scholarly writing may not lead inevitably toward an unhealthy detachment, but the reality of that detachment both from church life and the most fundamental questions of human existence is all too common. As a result, regular churchgoers have grown skeptical of academic theology, and non-Christians simply dismiss it as a relic of the past with no legitimate space in the public square. Theology, the authors argue, used to be about the “Big Questions,” but now it contents itself pursuing in-house debates about obscure historical figures and formulations, all while neglecting to make connections with contemporary audiences.

While Volf and Croasmun are certainly not the first to worry that the discipline of theology has moved much closer to the margins over the last century, they describe the situation with new urgency. Academic theology, they argue, has been too willing to seek legitimacy by operating within the “great edifice of science,” which entails submitting to a foreign set of expectations and methodologies. Because of this surrender, they fear it will lose the very thing that makes it unique and meaningful: its capacity to point to the living triune God and articulate the kind of life we should live in response to his revelation.

The authors argue that theology, rather than playing by a set of imposed rules from the outside, should instead stand on its own two feet, confident that it has answers to life’s most pressing questions. The purpose of theology, they argue, is “to discern, articulate, and commend visions and paths to flourishing life in light of the self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and coming in glory of Jesus Christ, with this entire story, its lows and its highs, bearing witness to a truly flourishing life.” There is plenty of talk about human “flourishing” these days, but Volf and Croasmun offer something better than generic self-help schemes, pointing instead toward a distinctly Christ-centered vision.

Six Pillars

How can academic theology reverse course and start making a difference again? The first and most important step, say Volf and Croasman, is to resume asking fundamental questions. Who are we, and how should we live in relation to God, our neighbors, and the surrounding world? What does a “flourishing life” actually look like? Christian theology is uniquely placed to discern and articulate genuinely helpful answers, but it forfeits this authority when it simply repeats secondhand insights from fields like psychology or biology, without any effort to fit them into a broader theological framework.

Christian theology makes clear and strong statements about who the Creator God is, what it means to be human, how goodness and sin relate to our present experience, and how human beings should therefore live. If we define the “flourishing life,” with Volf and Croasmun, as “the good toward which humans are meant to strive,” then a theology that responds to divine revelation should shape and govern our proposals about what this life might look like. The Christian account of faith, they write, “centered as it is on the divine Word become flesh in Jesus Christ,” gives us a framework to guide us toward genuine human flourishing. In fact, as the authors point out, rather than merely giving us a simple set of rules to follow mechanically, this faith includes many and varied witnesses to the action of God in the world. These “family disagreements,” carried out and refined over two millennia, offer an unrivaled starting point for discerning wisdom.

Unfortunately, the North American mindset is dominated by individualistic assumptions. In particular, it assumes that you—in your own internal world, based on your own private instincts—have all you need to decide what is good, both for the world and for yourself. Under this way of thinking, no one should presume to tell me what is good for my body, my relationships, or my vision of the happy life. Instead, I should be free to collect as many resources as possible—educational, financial, and otherwise—and use them in service of my own goals and ambitions, so long as I don’t interfere with anyone else’s personally chosen goals and ambitions. All outside authorities and moral codes are seen as illegitimate intrusions into this realm of private freedom.

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Source: Christianity Today