Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work by Miroslav Volf (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001. 268 pp)

Born in Osijek, Croatia, Miroslav Volf performed his undergraduate studies at Evangelical-Theological Faculty, Zagreb. For his master’s work, he studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and he earned his doctorate at the University of Tübingen, where he studied under Jürgen Moltmann. Volf teaches at Yale Divinity School as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and is the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His books include Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, which won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award; and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, which won the Christianity Today book award. Volf is a member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia.

Why Do We Hate Work?

Do you like your job? For most, the answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no.” What does it mean to work? Is it merely a means to an end — the exchange of labor for money? In Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf seeks to answer these questions.

In quest of a theological case for work, Volf splits his tome into two sections. In the first section, Volf discusses current conceptions of work — mainly highlighting the difficulties of the modern employee — and continues by exploring the philosophical undertones of contemporary work through the thought of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

In the second section, Volf posits a theological significance for work. Theologians throughout history have considered work instrumentally important, since it not only provides resources that allow humans to pursue leisurely goods but also offers support for those pursuing vocational work, such as pastoral ministry and care for the poor.

Pneumatology: The Study of the Spirit

Volf, however, argues that work possesses more than an instrumental purpose; it carries a pneumatological function. As such, work offers a vocational and intrinsic purpose as an end in itself. Under this rubric, the Spirit of God gifts humans in different ways, and, through these means, humans find specific callings in the workforce.

Sadly, work for the majority of the human population is classified as toilsome. Structurally, work tends to alienate and exploit. Under these premises, it is easy to see why so many view work as a means rather than an end — who wants to endure toil for its own sake?

The Classic Christian View of Work

Thinkers throughout Christian tradition, however, agree that work possesses useful qualities.

Volf writes,

The early church fathers affirmed not only the nobility of work but also the obligation to work diligently and not be idle (72).

Under these conditions, work maintained only instrumental value; it provided opportunities to increase ascetic discipline, and it presented Christians with money to sustain the household and assist those in need.

Work Through the Lens of the New Creation

Suppose, however, that the eschatological future is not a world annihilated and rebuilt, but a restoration of existing creation.

Volf posits,

If [creation’s] destiny is eschatological transformation, then, in spite of the lack of explicit exegetical support, we must ascribe to human work inherent value, independent of its relation to the proclamation of the gospel (93).

If consummation arrives not in destruction but in restoration, the value of human work becomes critical for Christians. The faithful ought not to remain in expectant leisure awaiting God’s return; they are entrusted with the care of creation.

Work, then, is a gift of God that is inherently good; it existed before the Fall when God entrusted the garden to Adam and Eve, work was maintained after the Fall, and will be glorified in the transformation of new creation.

Work in the Spirit

For Volf, a pneumatological view of work is the way in which humans find purposeful work in the transformative new creation. Concerning vocation and the work of the Spirit, he writes:

We can determine the relationship between calling and charisma in the following way: the general calling to enter the kingdom of God and to live in accordance with this kingdom that comes to a person through the preaching of the gospel becomes for the believer a call to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which should characterize all Christians, and, as they are placed in various situations, the calling to live in accordance with the kingdom branches out in the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual (113).

In other words, the gifts granted by the Spirit orient Christians toward specific vocational work. Under this conception, work, while remaining under the Fall, encounters meaning through the Spirit as human beings labor in cooperation with God. By reflecting on the gifts God has given, Christians find more meaning in work and in the community.

The Body Does Not Consist Entirely of Hands

On the whole, I find Volf’s theological reframing of work’s purpose to be convincing. As Paul discusses in Corinthians, the Spirit gifts Christians in specific ways, allowing the communal body of Christ to function well. As such, not every Christian is a hand. If each person tried to fulfill the work of the hand, the community would suffer. Therefore, it is ideal to place people in work scenarios that suite their specific vocational gifts.

Are We Capable of Working in the Spirit?

Photo by Bill Hinsee

Nevertheless, trouble arises with Volf’s theological framing of work. Jobs, as they currently stand, are a scarce resource. Afraid of not working, many people accept a job poorly suited for them because it is better than unemployment.

Additionally, job scarcity denies many people the opportunity to work in the fields that best apply to an individual’s specific Spirit-given gifts. For example, a talented musician, more than likely, will never become a professional musician. The demand for the position far exceeds the supply of jobs.

As such, the awarding of these jobs often result in factors outside of giving the job to the most gifted applicant — for example, politics, nepotism, and the almighty dollar are highly influential externalities in the job market.

Additionally, many people are denied jobs through lack of experience or education. Oftentimes, employers look, first and foremost, at job experience. If an applicant who possesses perfectly suited talent for the position but has little-to-no experience, he or she will likely not get the job.

Or a brilliant person who lacked the economic resources to obtain an education will lose to a less-gifted-but-educated person.

While a pneumatological theology of work clearly is the ideal understanding of work, in current practice, work suffers from an imperfect application in a broken world. Ideally, people ought to search for the perfect job that fits with the Spirit-given gifts they possess. In reality, people must often settle for a less-than-ideal job because they have the relevant experience and it is better than no job at all.

Despite this problematic question, Work in the Spirit critically discusses the value of work. While many think of it as a means to a leisurely end, Volf argues that a pneumatological understanding of work allows humanity to be liberated to choose jobs that fit specific gifts. I recommend this book.


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