Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work

ISBN: 1579106412
ISBN 13: 9781579106416
By: Miroslav Volf

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About this book

Since the rise of modern industrial society, work has come to pervade and rule the lives of men and women. Although there have been many popular books on the Christian understanding of work, this is the first scholarly effort to articulate a developed Protestant theology. Volf interprets work from a new perspective--in terms of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit--and explores the nature of work in both capitalist and socialist societies. Within these macroeconomic frameworks, he considers a variety of work, including industrial, agricultural, medical, political, and artistic. Volf rejects the traditional protestant understanding of work as vocation, and argues for a doctrine of work as cooperation with God.

Reader's Thoughts


Challenging, insightful, and really helpful for sorting through all the issues related to work. This book has to be one of the best out there on a theology of work. Volf covers Adam Smith, Marx, Aquinas, Luther, and many others in detail. His careful, scholarly attention to all the issues, however, makes it rather inaccessible to the broad church. I wish there was a more "popular" version available.

Donovan Richards

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 portion, 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 caring for the poor.Pnematology: The Study of the SpiritVolf, however, argues that work possess 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 WorkThinkers 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 only maintained 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 CreationSuppose, 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, maintained after the fall, and glorified in the transformation of new creation.Work in the SpiritFor 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 HandsOn 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?Nevertheless, trouble arises with Volf’s theological framing of work. Jobs, as they currently stand, are a scarce resource. With the worry of not working, many people accept a poorly-suited job 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. Often times, 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 not get the job.Or, a brilliant person who lacked the economic resources to obtain an education will lose the job 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 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.Originally published at


The 'towards' in the title should have tipped me off to the primary focus of this work. Volf here sets the parameters and starting points for a theology of work from a pneumatological perspective. Much of the language and discussion is technical and left me wishing I was reading something without 'towards' in the title.He does however cover much ground in moving towards this theology. Arguing for and adopting the perspective of the eschatological transformation of our world, over against its final destruction, provides ultimate meaning and significance to the everyday work of everyday people. In this, believers ought to have a further advantage in being renewed by the Spirit as new creations, allowing them to know (by the Spirit) the places where God is renewing and work alongside. Here, along with nurturing the fruit of the Spirit, believers work in the Spirit by the gifts of the Spirit (charisms), which are given both 'diachronically' (for use in many different spheres of life) and in 'synchronic plurality' (changing and developing as contexts and callings change over time). Compared to the view of 'work as vocation'(static calling and lifelong ministry/gift/skill) I found this perspective refreshing.The application of this perspective to humans, work and creation help to redirect the energies and ends of work towards communion. Communion with God, with others and with nature. Included in this section was a helpful discussion of how leisure and work must be both alternating and interdependent activities. One must not come to be subservient to the other.I also found the discussion on 'fundamental needs' setting the criteria to moderate the ever expanding product-needs of our society useful for reflection. In the final chapter on alienating and humanizing work it was interesting to reflect on how church models have paralleled the alienating structures and methods that modern hierarchal organizations have employed to maximize efficiency. Finally, in contrast to the assumptions made by capitalism regarding the inherent goodness of self-interest, Volf refocuses the believer on the common good as the primary motivation and aim for work.

Dion Forster

Another exceptionally thorough examination of the relationship between faith and work. I was encouraged, challenged, and inspiring by this book. I also quoted this one extensively in my Winter School lecture on faith at work at the University of Stellenbosch.

Adam B.

In his concluding chapter Volf writes, "If, however, work is an end itself, then the process of working has as much value as the results of work." This, more than anything else, is my take away from this book. Volf has helped to redefine work for me, and that is a good thing, by giving a new context for understanding it and its intention. The process, as in the rest of life, is as much the point as is the result.

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