The word theology comes from the Greek word theologia which is a composition of the Greek words theos (God) and logos (speech). A theologian is a person who speaks about God. I was fortunate to be taught by several outstanding theologians when I was in seminary. In my first theology class, my professor said that all Christians were theologians. I understood her foundational belief, but like sports, some theologians are better than others. We studied many great theologians, starting with the Patristic period (early Christianity before the fall of Rome) through modern theologians who are still living. One modern theologian I admire is Dr. Miroslav Volf. He studied under the renowned German theologian, Dr. Jürgen Moltmann, who specialized in eschatology, the study of ‘last things’ such as the second coming of Jesus Christ. Volf’s dissertation centered on pneumatological (Spirit) theology of work based on the concept of charisms (gifts).
Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, authored a paper titled Eschaton, Creation, and Social Ethics (Calvin Theological Journal, Volume 30:1, Grand Rapids, MI, April 1995, pages 130–143) in response to Dr. Lee Hardy’s review of his 1991 book Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. Throughout Judeo-Christian history, scholarly theologians have debated esoteric subjects that most lay people have difficulty understanding. However, Volf’s writings are easier to understand, which is one of many reasons why I enjoy his writings. His debate with Hardy centered on charisma. Both Volf and Hardy agree that Scripture only refers to spiritual gifts that relate to ecclesiastic (church) service and not to gifts used in secular work. Their debate is whether charisma applies outside the church.
Volf begins by stating “it seemed better to follow the New Testament usage that relates vocation (vocatio, klēsis) to salvation and sanctification, rather than to tasks Christians do in the church and the world, and employs ‘charisma’ as a technical term for these tasks. … For charisma implies both endowment with a gift and the call of God to exercise this gift in a particular way for the benefit of the community.” Volf combines both call and gift into the definition of charisma. A person cannot have the gift without the call. The call (vocation) comes first followed by the gift, which produces charisma.
Volf always looks forward to the new creation and his theology is within an eschatological framework. This is key to understanding the basis of his theology. Hardy’s theological framework is the “classical Protestant vocational understanding of work” which differentiates spiritual gifts (“which are directed to the formation and equipment of the church”) and “gifts that ‘come from God,’ which are to be used for the benefit of the society at large.” Volf offers a different perspective and challenges Hardy. “Would it not be strange to say that if the work of an accountant contributes to the betterment of society, then she or he is exercising a natural gift, but if two hours later the same kind of work contributes to the formation and equipment of the Christian community, then that same person is exercising a spiritual gift?”
Volf’s logical example drives home his thesis that since there is one God who gives all gifts, then the extension of Biblical ecclesiastic gifts to the secular world isn’t a large leap. Paul’s gifts as an apostle came from God who also gave Paul the abilities to be a tentmaker. Both serve the community and are aligned with the new creation. “We would never leave the terrain of eschatology. This would allow us to claim that whenever Christian labor anticipates ‘what God will accomplish in the future’ then spiritual gifts are at work. After all, it is the same Spirit, given to Christians as the first installment of what is to come, that prompts them to do both secular and ecclesiastical work.”
Volf makes it clear that charisms are only related to faithful Christians “who acknowledge Jesus as Lord.” He makes the extension to secular work for Christians while non-Christians are related only by analogy. God works through both believers and non-believers toward the new creation, but charisma applies only to believers. He acknowledges that his charisma theology is not explicitly stated in the New Testament. But theologians use the whole of Scripture to explain God’s revelation. For example, the word ‘Trinity’ does not appear in Scripture, but most Christians believe in a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word Trinity was created by theologians to explain God.
Volf’s theology is a logical extension of spiritual gifts into secular activities. I speculate that the Biblical writers prioritized church gifts in their writings and viewed their occupations as a means to sustain earthly life. Their focus was on explaining spiritual gifts. These apostolic Christians believed that God created everything and did not separate human life into secular and spiritual activities. All their activities were focused on the new creation as they personally witnessed the redeeming life of Jesus Christ.