Miroslav Volf on Christian Difference

This is taken from a paper titled “Soft Difference” by Miroslav Volf, professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. He’s discussing the relation between Christ and culture using the metaphor of being “aliens and strangers” from 1 Peter. He says that our birth into a new and living hope through Jesus’ death and resurrection creates a certain distance between Christians and their social environment, a distance that is both eschatological and ecclesiological. The whole essay can be found here: http://www.yale.edu/faith/downloads/soft-difference-church-culture.pdf

ESCHATOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE:

“People who are born into the living hope take part in the eschatological process which started with the coming of Jesus Christ into this world, with his ministry of word and deed and with his death and his resurrection. Christian difference from the social environment is therefore an eschatological one. In the midst of the world in which they live, they are given a new home that comes from God’s future. The new birth commences a journey to this home.

“Notice the significance of the new birth for Christian social identity. Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would)…Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.”

“As those who are a part of the environment from which they have diverted by having been born again and whose difference is therefore internal to that environment, Christians ask, “Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God’s new creation?”

ECCLESIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE

“[Christian difference] is lived in a community that lives as “aliens” in a larger social environment.”

“The new birth is neither a conversion to our authentic inner self nor a migration (metoikesia) of the soul into a heavenly realm, but a translation of a person into the house of God (oikos tou theou) erected in the midst of the world.”

“Communities of those who are born anew and follow Christ live an alternative way of life within the political, ethnic, religious, and cultural institutions of the larger society.”

“We get no sense from 1 Peter, however, that the church should strive to regulate all domains of social life and reshape society in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem. One could argue, of course, that it would be anachronistic to expect such a thought even to occur in the Petrine community…Whatever the reason, the Petrine community…did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same. It had no desire to do for others what they did not want done for them. They had no covert totalitarian agenda. Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within. In any case, the community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life.”


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3 responses to “Miroslav Volf on Christian Difference

  1. Dennis Hesselbarth

    Thanks for posting this, Ben. I’ve done lots of reading and thinking about this. Volf’s comments are helpful. Some argue that the reason the NT doesn’t suggest Christians press to regulate and reshape society is because it was an illegal group in the first century, and hence had no authority to do so. (And that now, as empowered citizens, it is our duty to do so.) This is an argument from silence. I question that. If such a tack was God’s intention, we would see it reflected in the New Testament.

  2. Jonathan Roque

    Thanks Ben. I am glad to see you are blogging. I am encouraged by this article. Often times Christians become social activist and make a hostile world more hostile toward our message. Although I believe a Christian has the right to share Biblical views to the world I tend to agree with Volf’s statement as it pertains to transforming our world from within as empowered citizens.

  3. bendodd84

    Hey Dennis, Volf addresses that very issue:
    “We get no sense from 1 Peter, however, that the church should strive to regulate all domains of social life and reshape society in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem. One could argue, of course, that it would be anachronistic to expect such a thought even to occur in the Petrine community. Were they not discriminated against, a minority living in premodern times? Does that invalidate or compromise their stance, however? Why would it? Whatever the reason, the Petrine community was no aggressive sect in the sense of Ernst Troeltsch. It did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same.”

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