Monday, 14 June 2010

Book Review: 'Against the Tide' by Miroslav Volf

Against the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities
Miroslav Volf
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2010,
211pp, paperback,
ISBN: 978 0 8028 6506 9

Miroslav Volf is a distinguished scholar. He is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and he is the director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture. His theological trajectory includes being the son of a Pentecostal pastor in Novi Sad (former Yugoslavia) during the communist regime of Marshall Tito; he gained a BA at the Evangelical–Theological Faculty in Zagreb, Croatia; an MA at Fuller Theological Seminary; and Dr Theol., at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

It is well known that he is a close friend to his mentor and research supervisor, Professor Jürgen Moltmann. Arguably, Moltmann provides one of the most significant influences upon Volf’s thinking and two theological impulses that run through his writings are the themes of liberation and the Trinity. These themes are particularly expressed in Volf’s books Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996), winner of the 2002 Grawemeyer Award; and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (1998), winner of the Christianity Today award. Additionally, Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) attains the esteem of being the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official, 2006 Lenten book.

Against the Tide reads as a collection of loosely tied, short (two to three pages) devotional essays, which are systematised into nine broad categories. As a Yale scholar, Volf leads a ‘less than ordinary life’ and these essays are peppered with stories from around the globe. Illustration material is drawn from skiing trips, visits to Jerusalem, India, Jordan and the Balkans, a research sabbatical in Tübingen, and inter-faith dialogue meetings. Volf states that his overall aim in this book is what he calls ‘project love’ (x–xii), where he seeks to expound on this single divine attribute, so that Christians can ‘reflect’ in their ‘lives, the love that God is’ (xi).

‘God and the Self’ (1–20) is the first heading. In the six discourses that follow, Volf attempts to magnify the attribute of love at the exclusion of other divine characteristics such as mercy, righteousness, wrath, truth and grace, none of which are adequately handled. (Volf does mention God’s wrath later in the book and he expounds; ‘God’s wrath is nothing but God’s stance of active opposition to evil’ (30). This re-interpreted notion deserves further critical scrutiny.) It is immediately evident that Volf is well-read and he refers to Søren Kierkegaard (5), Antonio Salieri (6), Martin Luther (9), and Friedrich Nietzsche (12). The last essay of this sub-section is entitled ‘Dancing for God’; this metaphor deserves further comment because it appears to be gaining ground in some circles. For example Timothy Keller writes of ‘The Dance of God’ in The Reason for God (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, 213–26).

The theological origin of this ‘dancing for God’ metaphor is not revealed in this book but it actually derives from feminist re-envisioning of God. Patricia Wilson-Kastner proposes that the ‘Greek word—perichoresis—signifies a dance around; and at the root of the theological term perichoresis is the image of dancing together’. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel affirms this idea: She states that Wilson- Kastner ‘sees in the Trinitarian conception of perichoresis (dance, intermingling) of persons in the image of dance a confirmation of feminist conceptions of relationships and mutuality in the most beautiful way’. Volf endorses the need to highlight the femininity of the Holy Spirit (Exclusion and Embrace, 169) in his egalitarian Trinity; one that downplays monotheism and squeezes his Trinitarian paradigm into the all-controlling concept, for him, of perichoresis (After Our Likeness, 208–20).

An early warning needs to be sounded. In this first section it becomes evident that Volf’s methodology lacks biblical exegesis and this style continues throughout this monograph. Theology without thoroughgoing biblical exegesis moves the church into hazardous waters.

A second set of nine articles are gathered under the umbrella ‘The Reality of Evil and the Possibility of Hope’ (21–49). In many ways this kind of theme is a real strength, both in this book and in a range of Volf’s other writings. His personal experience of hate and ethnic cleansing in his native Balkans has prepared him so that he can adequately proclaim this important message of forgiveness in the face of impossible hostility. He persistently calls for reconciliation and forgiveness, something which inevitably involves ‘loving the evildoer’ (28). He also critiques the potential selfishness that can often hide behind the ‘all-American dream’ and he states that such dreams, ‘without God’, are ‘nothing but self-contradictory and unrealizable’ (43). He calls Americans back to God and he writes that ‘Augustine and [Jonathan] Edwards believed that if the world is to be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed in God’ (43).

In the following section on ‘Family Matters’ (51–76), Volf make his unashamed claim for egalitarianism which he anticipates for marriage. While many may beg to differ with his conclusions on biblical and exegetical grounds (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:18–22), Volf inserts the significant clause that ‘egalitarianism in and of itself will not make a marriage thrive’ (53). These articles continue to display a style which protests against much in Western or rather American culture, and the call ‘rings out’ for Christians to swim ‘against the tide’ of inherent selfishness. However, each essay, though rich in devotional thought, lacks argumentation that is undergirded with sound exegetical evidence. Most Christians who stress a high value on the authority of scripture will therefore, legitimately, find this book troubling.
Two sections follow on from this line of thought, ones that deal with the ‘Church’ (77–102)’ and ‘Mission and Other Faiths’ (103–28). Here we begin to see Volf’s current line of theological emphasis come to the surface; namely inter-faith dialogue (113, 123). He mourns the ‘loss of biblical literacy in the West’ (81) while simultaneously writing a book that lacks biblical engagement. Volf promotes the notion of women’s ordination (85–88) without qualification and he reminds readers of his unchanging vision that he maps out in his own book (After Our Likeness). This ideal seeks to develop a Trinitarian, non-hierarchical understanding of the church (98), within an ecumenical context (100–102).

The remaining chapter headings are: ‘Culture and Politics’ (129–63); ‘Giving and Forgiving (165-80)’; ‘Hope and Reconciliation’ (181–206); and ‘Perspective’ (207–11). In these essays he makes a number of valid critiques concerning the direction that Western civilisation is generally heading and many of them will resonate with readers who hold a Christian worldview.

Unfortunately though, Volf’s pursuit of inter-faith dialogue has led him to re-think fundamental doctrines and this causes him to propose bewildering assertions. He declares ‘God is the Holy Trinity, but also … the God whom Muslims worship as Allah’; and he asserts that ‘to speak in a Christian voice’ is not to make ‘exclusively Christian claims in distinction from all other religions’ (124–5). While he may gain an audience within politically correct circles that are trying to grapple with religious pluralism, one wonders how the son of a Pentecostal minister has arrived at his current position. The Lord Jesus Christ is clearly at odds with Volf when he states: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6).

Volf’s newly released book comprises sixty-five essays (including the introduction) and it will give the reader a window into politically correct academic theology that is currently being spawned at the highest level in the United States. The Yale Divinity School may be able to court the favour of politicians, such as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who teaches for them (, or they may attempt to find ‘A Common Word’ between the three monotheistic world religions, ( but Volf will find the task of convincing Christians who earnestly and regularly read their Bibles more difficult. If you set out to read this book, perhaps you would do well to read the Gospel of John first and see how Christ is presented in His uniqueness, majesty and glory, as the ‘Saviour of the World’ (4:42), the ‘Bread of life’ (6:48), and the only hope for sinners who remain under the righteous judgment of God.

Kevin J. Bidwell has completed a PhD, in 2010, at the University of Wales (Lampeter) and the dissertation title is: ‘The Church as the Image of the Trinity’: A Critical Evaluation of Miroslav Volf’s Ecclesial Model. He is commissioned as a church planter to the city of Sheffield by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales. He is married to his Dutch wife Maria and they have two daughters, Melody and Rivka.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Thanks for this Kevin.

A good balance between academic analysis and pastoral concern. It's good to have such critical anaylsis so the Church can avoid the bear traps!


Kevin Bidwell said...

Thank you for your encouragement and I do hope that many will read this on the REF21 blog also. There are many subtle traps and the charismatic world seem to be embracing the old-style liberal agendas especially, including the ordination of women. At its heart, female ordination is an attack on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.