This is my first read by Mirsolav Volf who came highly recommended by a friend. I admit my struggle though, for this little book took me what felt like forever to get through. I blame myself more then the book, but I found most of the chapters rather difficult to read. I think this is because each chapter essentially functions as a “stand alone” wrestle with a particular subject, and most of the scholars sourced and terms used were somewhat introductory to me. Without having much foundation in such discussion as the “pluralism” or “dualism” of John (or lack thereof) as an example, I found it somewhat difficult to follow. Another reason – I take most of the blame for – is that I am not good with getting into the nitty-gritty of a particular text. I do better with tracing meta-narratives and would rather see the point of an overall text. And finally, given my challenge to read these books rather quickly, it made grasping Volf’s arguments rather difficult. Beyond a doubt I’ll return to this book and read it again when I have more time.
Now for the good.
The introduction begins this way:
In this book I, a systematic theologian, interpret texts of the Christian Scriptures. This may be all that you, the reader, want and need to know by way of an introduction. If so, you may proceed to subsequent chapters. – p.3
Let me give you this advice. Don’t! Because if you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the must beneficial chapters in the whole book. That introductory chapter is titled “Reading the Bible Theologically”, and in it Miroslav enters into a more or less passionate plea to theologians and those who are theologically minded that we should never detach our Theology from the Scriptures. For an evangelical, this might sound like an odd statement, but this has been a trend among systematic theologians as well. He sources, for example, Friedrich Schleiermacher who is said to be “the progenitor” of modern theology and one of the greatest theologians ever, set the tone in his magnum opus, The Christian Faith, “which contains virtually no expositions of the Bible” [p.8].
Chapter two explores the relationship between Christian belief and Christian practice – a fascinating discussion! And finally chapter 5 – titled approapriately “God is Love” is an amazing – perhaps the best I’ve every read – study of 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
From this passage Volf gleans:
- The Divine Being: “The claim that God is love says more, howoever, than only that God loves. It names the character of God’s being, not merely the nature of God’s activity.” – p.136
- Trinity: “Many Christian theologians through the centuries have seen a close connection between the claim that God is love and the claim that God is the Holy Trinity.” – p.137
- Love First: “God loved us “first”…” [p.141]. Volf goes on to show how God’s love is a gracious love seen in both Testaments which preceeds anything – either virtue or work – by humans.
- Infinite Love: “First, God’s love is immeasureable… Second, God’s love is utterly gratuitous and therefore completely unconditional… Third, God’s love is universal… Fourth, God’s love is indiscriminately forgiving.” – p.142
- Love and Judgement: But lest someone think that God must then be indifferent to sin and wrongdoing, some people will “be excluded from “heaven” as God’s world of love… not despite but because God’s love is universal.” – p.143
- Identifying God: “Those who deny that God is love do not know God properly.” – p.144
- Knowing God – Loving Neighbor: “Non-believers or adherents of another religion, if they love, can be closer to God than Christians notwithstanding Christians’ formally correct beliefs about God or even explicit, outward faith in Jesus Christ!” – p.147
- Coming to Know God: “Coming to act as God acts is a matter of seeing who God is and how God has acted in loving humanity – immeasurably, unconditionally, universally, indiscriminately, forgivingly… Hence the pervasive concern with “right doctrine” in the epistle. Understanding properly who God is and how God loves us motivates us to love neighbor.” – p.148
- Manifestations of God: “Ordinary love between ordinary human beings is a visible manifestation of the invisible God!” – p.149
These three chapters – the introduction, chapter 2 and chapter 5 – are easily worth the cost of the book.