September 21, 2007

Review of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Gord wrote this review that was published in the September 2007 issue of Touchstone, a United Church journal of theology and history.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press © 2005 247 pp. $16.99

A native of the former Yugoslavia, who watched his homeland torn apart in a brutal civil war, Miroslav Volf seems uniquely positioned to write about forgiveness. Volf writes that in part he learned the power and importance of forgiveness from his parents’ actions after his brother was killed in a tragic accident. Many of us have far less reason to wrestle with forgiving.

Actually the talk about forgiving is the second half of the book. Before that Volf talks about giving. In a parallel structure Volf talks about God the Giver/Forgiver and then asks two vital questions: “How Should We Give/Forgive?” and “How Can We Give/Forgive?”. The book then closes with a frank “Conversation with a Skeptic” that serves to tie things together and recap the major themes and challenges of the text.

In starting with giving Volf does two things. First, he lays out a base structure which he will later use to support his discussion of the often more problematic practise of forgiving. Secondly he provides an excellent set of readings for developing a theology of stewardship. In essence, he says that God gives because that is who God is (as opposed to a Santa Claus God who fulfills wish lists or a picture of God as a deal-maker in a quid pro quo model of giving). Then he challenges all of us to give as God gives.

In this discussion Volf also uses the argument that we are able to give because everything we have is given by God. Furthermore we need to give freely, with no expectation for reward, since that is how God gives. At the same time Volf makes I clear that we are obliged to give both by receiving God’s gifts and by the frequent commands to give we find in Scripture. Interestingly, Volf suggests that in essence we are “obliged to give freely” (p.65) and suggests that this is the message Paul was giving in 2 Corinthians.

From giving Volf moves on to the practise of forgiving. The interlude that marks this break is the story of his brother’s death and the amazing forgiveness shown by his parents. This interlude is worth reading all on its own to show the power and potential of forgiveness.
Volf’s model of forgiveness is challenging to say the least. As with giving, Volf calls us to forgive as God forgives. But he is clear about what that means. To parallel the God as giver imagery Volf describes two inaccurate images of God as forgiver. This is God as Doting Grandparent (p.136 ff) and God as Judge (p.131 ff). God does not judge and hand out the punishment we deserve but neither does God pat us on the head and say “that’s ok”. Volf describes God as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer” (p. 141). Throughout this discussion it is clear that for Volf part of forgiveness is acknowledging that wrong has been done. It is equally part of forgiving to erase the debt, to live as though the wrong had not been done.

While taking seriously the truth of forgiveness Volf does not set aside the idea of justice (which is tempting as a way of explaining how God is able to forgive). Volf’s model of how God’s forgiveness and God’s justice intersect leans heavily on Lutheran thought. As such it also leans heavily on the satisfaction theory of atonement. As he moves into how we can forgive he carries through to suggest that it is only in meeting and embracing Christ that we can do so. Volf addresses clearly the hurdles humans have in forgiving and takes them seriously. Still, in the end he calls us to the challenge of forgiving as God forgives.

Free of Charge was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten study book for 2006. As such it is written in a style that is less academic and more widely accessible. Both sections of the book have strong messages and challenges to the church and to the culture at large. Those of us who struggle with the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement will have issues with some of how Volf sees forgiveness happening but this doesn’t really take away from the challenge of naming and condemning the wrong but not condemning the doer of the wrong. Apart from a brief reference in the prelude there was little explicit discussion about “A Culture Stripped of Grace” but in the end it is obvious that issues of grace and gracelessness lie at the heart of both giving and forgiving. Anyone who finds the need to wrestle with one or both of these practises, which are central to how we interact with others, would do well to check out this volume.

Gord Waldie
Atikokan Ontario

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