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Home Special Topics Theology of Work Vincent Cheung: Book Review on Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work
Vincent Cheung: Book Review on Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 27 July 2010 11:14

Book Review on
Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok
Author: Vincent Cheung


This paper first summarizes the main points presented in Miroslav Volf’s book: Work in the Spirit: toward a Theology of Work. It describes how Volf suggests a shift from the vocational understanding of work based on doctrine of creation to a pneumatological theology of work based on the concept of charisma. Then it provides a theological evaluation of his views and offers areas for future development.

Summary of the Book

Miroslav Volf, in his book Work in the Spirit: toward a Theology of Work, advocates a theology of work in terms of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatological framework). He believes that all human work should be done with the gifts from the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with God.

In the early part of the book, Volf describes the problems of work and outlines two major economic theories of work in recent history. He first stresses the importance of work, in which work not only provides means of sustenance, but also increases self-understanding in anthropology. From the first to fifteenth century, the nature of human work has remained unchanged to a large extent as global populations were living in the Agricultural Age. Since the Industrial Revolution, the nature of work has been transformed dramatically. Advances in machinery and development of management practices have brought about an increase in division of labor, work alienation and dehumanization of workers. The pace of changes has also picked up exponentially since the later half of twentieth century, during which most of the developed countries have transitioned into the Information Age. Knowledge and capital, relative to manual labor, are now heavily emphasized and rewarded. These recent developments have led to various work-related problems and crises. For example, exploitation of workers in general and child labor in particular, has become increasingly prominent. There are rising unemployment and underemployment as the economies become increasingly competitive and skill-oriented. Unemployment also leads to various social problems such as vicious cycles of poverty and dependence of welfare. Other serious problems include dehumanization and the pursuit of profits regardless of social, human and ecological costs.

Volf then proceeds to describe Adam Smith and Karl Marx’s theories of work -- the two dominant understandings of work in today’s economic system. Adam Smith completely transformed the society’s goal from the Aristotle’s view of a good balanced life for the citizens to his economic dominant view of increasing productivity and creating wealth. According to Volf, Adam Smith wrote that:

Smith maintained that labor ‘that fixes and realizes itself in some particular subject or vendible

commodity, which lasts for some time at least after that labor is past’ is productive and hence the

most important form of labor. The work of a pastor, philosopher or politician is unproductive

because it ‘perish[es] in the very instance of [its] performance’ (p. 48).

Smith believes that consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production. He advocated the division of labor and pursuit of self-interest, thus indirectly devalues the value of human work and love. He also believes workers’ alienation is a natural consequence affecting the majority of the population.

Volf then contrasts Smith’s theory with Marx’s theory. Marx criticizes the activities of self-interested people as debasement of human nature. Marx also believes that division of labor is alienating to human beings. Marx, however, believes that capitalism advocated by Smith is the necessary stage in the development of human race toward the communist society (p. 61). When individuals have fully developed themselves, alienation will cease and the heavenly communist society will arrive. He also expects that all humans would be wealthy in this communist society because of its high productivity and excellent planning.

In the second part of the book, Volf proceeds to develop his new pneumatologial theology of work based on charisms, meaning human activities should be “viewed from the perspective of the operation of God’s [Holy] Spirit” (p. 89). Then he contrasts the two basic eschatological models, annihilation mundi and transformation mundi. The first model states that the world will be annihilated and then a new world will be created, thus implying that the current earthly work has only earthly significance for the sustenance of both workers and communities. The second model, transformation mundi, states that the world will not end but be transformed into a new creation, thus assuring continuity. This is the model that Volf prefers as it gives human work significance in building this new world.

Volf advocates the work of the Holy Spirit as work in the new creation by citing briefly three scripture passages: Romans 8:23, 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Matthew 12:28. He contrasts his work theology with the traditional vocational understanding advocated by Luther and Calvin, and offers six critiques against these traditional vocational views. Then he establishes that the Christian daily work is work in the Spirit and it is cooperation with God.

Then Volf explores some of the implications of work in the Spirit in various areas, such as human nature, personality, leisure, worship, human needs, product needs and nature. He particularly addresses the implications of work as cooperation with nature by clarifying God’s command in the Book of Genesis to subdue the earth as proper care of nature.

In the last chapter of the book, he calls for the transformation of work from alienation to humanization. He defines alienating work as “a significant discrepancy between what work should be as fundamental dimension of human existence and how it is actually performed and experienced by workers” (p.157). He offers biblical critique of alienation by citing several passages from the Scripture. He explores many forms of alienation of work, such as self-interests of management, practices of modern scientific management and the strive of automation. For work to be human, work must be an end in itself, not as a mere mean for some other ends.

He believes that the pneumatological understanding of work allows a person under the Spirit to discover his gifts and to do his work. He states that “work needs to correspond both to human nature and to individual gifts and inclinations” (p.199). This is in contrast to the traditional vocational work theology around one’s life-setting (station in life), which ignores the picture of one’s gifts. Finally, Volf concludes by saying:

Because humanity is exclusively a gift from God, a person can be fully human without working, but because God gave him humanity partly to work, he cannot live as fully human without working. It is, therefore, contrary to the purpose of human life to reduce work to a mere means of subsistence

(p. 197).



Volf believes that the traditional vocational understanding of work, based on the doctrine of creation in its Lutheran tradition, is not sufficient to address the increasingly rapid changing world. He believes that the concept of religious calling or “station in life” is not adaptable to recent human work experience, where workers may change jobs frequently and perform work that is dehumanizing and alienating. In light of the fast-changing post-modern world, Volf provides a good service in arguing for fresh perspective in a theological view of work.

Volf’s pneumatological approach to work develops an alternative view of vocation based on gifts. In a way, it offers a supplemental way to the creation-oriented views of vocation as found in Luther and Calvin. His approach can potentially offer a counterbalance to certain unintended consequences developed from the Lutheran vocational understanding of work. For example, Luther’s “station in life” concept can potentially lead people to emphasize the need of employment. Volf writes that “since an unemployed person has not been deprived of all charisms, in a pneumatological understanding of work he is not left without a divinely appointed, significant activity” (p. 156). As a result, certain potential misuses of more traditional vocational concept of work can be addressed, leaving Christians to focus more on the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Volf describes the dominant understanding of work from dominant economic philosophers such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx and F. W. Taylor. This allows him to link the development in the past few hundred years to the recent changes in the nature of work. From this point, he attempts to address the alienation and dehumanization of work in the Industrial and Information Ages toward the end of the book. He believes that work should respect the particular psychological disposition and gifts of each work. This may offer a helpful perspective to certain individuals undergoing these changes given that the more traditional work theology (in Lutheran and Calvin’s traditions) has not offered a direct response to this issue. In a sense, some individuals may find comfort and empathy in Volf’s view of work.

Concerns and Unaddressed Issues

There are three issues that are not addressed directly or adequately in the book. First, Volf subtly attempts to present a framework that “does not require a black-and-white view of the world” (p. 80). In a sense, his theology is designed to work in a pluralistic world, and apply to both Christians and non-Christians. Given readers of the book are likely to include both Christians and non-Christians, he could have at least presented the message of salvation and redemption so that readers can have a solid foundation to explore his topics. This is because only the Christian believers are marked in Jesus with the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8, Romans 15:13, Ephesians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19) and God asked the believers to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). So non-Christians who are unfamiliar with the message of salvation would not be able to follow fully his framework of work theology.

Second, while Volf argues for using the framework of Holy Spirit (pneumatological view) in looking at work in moving away from the doctrine of Creation, he does not explain why he chooses only the Holy Spirit out of the Trinitarian persons. In fact, the only passage in the book where he only mentioned Trinity directly was on page 147 where he wrote “a fellowship of three divine persons” to build the case of human beings “responsibility to the whole human community.” In systematic theology, however, the proper Trinitarian doctrine involves three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as follows:

  1. God is three persons.

  2. Each person is fully God.

  3. There is one God. (Grudem, 1999, p.106)


What the book fails to address explicitly is that why Christ the Son and God the Father are not directly involved in this ideological transformation. It is entirely possible that an Christological theology of work can also overcome some of the concerns raised under the doctrine of creation. A more thorough coverage will be from the doctrine of Trinity (Kwok, 2007, p.71).

Third, the book emphasizes the role of charisma and the need for human work to be fulfilling and humane as we anticipate the new creation. Naturally, all things being equal, it is desirable that work is desirable and enjoyable. Ecclesiastes 3:13 says “that everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.” However, this emphasis may potentially obscure the planning and mystery of God. It is written in the same book:

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has

made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot

fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11)

It is clear that we as humans can never fully understand what God has planned for each of us as individuals and as body of Christ. It is entirely in God’s sovereignty that He can call certain people to find satisfaction in their work, and yet allow others to suffer for His name in their work. In fact, God would like us to bear our own cross in spite of potential sufferings (Luke 14:27). The bear of cross can take many forms, and there are numerous examples in the bible. Joseph, because of his obedience to his father and to God, had to suffer separation from family, slavery in Egypt, unjust accusation by Potiphar’s wife and unfair imprisonment. Daniel, despite his faithfulness and various gifts, had to serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who destroyed Jerusalem and caused incredible human sufferings to people in Judah. Thus, an emphasis on charisma and fulfillment would not be able to offer a full picture in many situations that we encounter because our understanding of God’s detailed plan is incomplete at best.

God has communicated to us truthfully but not exhaustively. Moses expressed this in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” The Apostle Paul also wrote that “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). This means that we need to lay hold of what God has revealed to us by faith and wait on the eternal future for complete understanding.

In conclusions, there are many positive features in the book that deserve a further expansion. By clarifying and addressing some key issues, Volf can make his approach more complete.


Grudem, W. (1999). Bible doctrine: Essential teachings of the christian faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company.

Kwok, B. (2007). The trinitarian theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Hong Kong, China: Alliance Bible Seminary (Chinese: 郭鴻標 (2007).〈莫特曼三一神學〉)

Volf, M. (2001). Work in the spirit: Toward a theology of work. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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