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Free of Charge- Giving and Forgiving - A Book Review by Sutton


By  Miroslav Volf

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

God as Giver and Forgiver are twin perspectives Volf offers readers  interested in a theological foundation for forgiveness. Volf inserts a personal story that illustrates the gift of forgiveness between the two sections on Giving and Forgiving, which each contain three chapters. In each section, he reflects on the theological premise of God qua Giver or Forgiver. These reflections on God’s character are tidily followed by chapters on how we should and can give and forgive, respectively. 

Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and the Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

Volf employs the bridge across the gap metaphor to establish the purpose for this treatise. Initially, he establishes the gap as the difference between the self-centeredness of humanity on one side and the generosity of God on the other side. His book is the bridge, inviting readers to find the true God who gives and forgives.

I was about to look for the bridge when Volf challenged me with a question, “Who is God (p. 21)?” Perhaps I could end up crossing the wrong bridge if I did not consider another gap: There are images of God, which are not representative of the one true God. Volf suggests some false images created by our culture that interfere with our ability to find God as revealed in Jesus. Certain images (e.g., Santa Claus) leave us mired in a self-focused world where we miss the love that flows from God as a freely available gift illustrated by loving parents who necessarily give newborns that which they need for survival.

In the giving chapters that follow, Volf suggests ways people can learn to give freely as a response to needs instead of focusing on the beneficial effects of giving. I found myself thinking of an existential attitude as if by choosing to give, I act ethically regardless of the consequences of my act. I view the difference between Volf’s perspective and that of the secular existentialist as a difference in focus. For the Christian, choosing to give freely without considering the potential outcomes can only make sense when the giving is grounded in trust in God whose character ensures that the gift given in God’s name will yield fruit; There is a real sense of trust that in giving freely (i.e., godlike) an entire community will experience God’s love. In godly giving, God is present as part of a triangle with human givers and receivers. God’s Spirit transforms the attitudes of both givers and recipients.

Daniel’s death is a tragic story that illustrates both giving and forgiving. Volf’s parents freely gave a gift of forgiveness to a soldier when his careless actions resulted in the death of their five-year-old son. This interlude bridges the conceptual gap between giving and forgiving. Amidst the heart wrenching anguish, Volf asks the poignant question: “Why should we give a gift of forgiveness when every atom of our wounded bodies screams for justice or even revenge (126)?”

For Volf, “The generous release of a genuine debt is the heart of forgiveness (130).” As with giving, Volf finds Christian forgiveness involves a triangle: God, the wrongdoer, and the wronged person. Here and elsewhere in the discussion, Psychotherapists will discern a divergence from common psychological conceptions of forgiveness as an intrapersonal event. For Volf, forgiveness includes giving the gift of forgiveness to the wrongdoer, which psychological models would commonly consider an act of reconciliation. Similar to other formulations of the forgiveness process, the manner in which Volf describes forgiveness indicates his appreciation of the importance of affirming the wrongdoing, recognizing the justice gap, and taking another’s perspective. However, Volf does not distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation as rigidly distinct concepts when he notes the importance of expressed forgiveness within a community. God’s love is freely given and freely expressed. As a god-inspired gift, believers express forgiveness to enhance community relations. Giving forgiveness promotes reconciliation. Volf contextualizes giving and forgiving within a community.

Christian readers will find Volf’s perspective on giving and forgiving refreshing. For me, he achieved his purpose of relating giving and forgiving to the character of God and showing their importance to community. This brief and orderly volume makes it suitable for an added reader in a college course or a small group book study. Although at times his metaphysical rationales for a particular premise (e.g., interactions among members of the trinity) do not subserve any manifest purpose, Volf captures certain nuances of giving and forgiving that suggest a thoroughly Christian lens on enhancing relationships. Because some of his ideas are at variance with some psychological formulations of forgiveness (notably the intrapersonal emphases in psychology), they deserve consideration by all those interested in integrating theology and psychology.


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