Miroslav Volf 2: A Public Faith

A Public Faith has two distinct parts. Last week, we dealt with Part I, in which the author outlines the “malfunctions of faith,” i.e., the constant temptation to either attempt to dominate the public square through violence or withdraw entirely from engagement with public life. Volf believes that both these approaches are ultimately flawed and, from a Christian perspective, unfaithful to the gospel. This week, we begin a review of Part II, which Volf entitles “Engaged Faith.” The fundamental point of Christian engagement is to participate in public life so that a witness is made to the wisdom and love of God revealed in Christ. In different societies, this engagement will occur in different ways. Volf aims to sketch out a way of engagement helpful to modern pluralistic, secular societies.

The Constantinian Settlement and Religious Voices in Politics

In the West, Christian engagement with politics and appropriately addressing the public square is complicated by the centuries-long connection between the churches of Europe and its governments. Due to the legacy of the “Constantinian settlement,” and the fact that Christianity was the established religion in much of Europe, Christians in the West became used to being in positions of honor and social influence in society. The loss of this position and the attempts to maintain a privileged position in Western society are, Volf believes, a hindrance to the proper functioning of Christian faith in the Public Square.

Volf gives one example, and I will provide another in the interests of fairness. Volf focuses on the Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s. Jerry Falwell and his short-lived Moral Majority movement attempted to “restore America” to its status as a “Christian nation” by active engagement in politics. On the other hand, we have the example of Faith in Public Life and other left-wing social action groups affiliated with the American left—a group powerful in the Democratic Party. Each of these groups, and many others on all sides of the political spectrum, represent a sense that certain religious voices have been marginalized and need to be heard at the table of public debate. The involvement of some indicates an unwillingness for the views they represent to lose the privileged position to which they are accustomed.

One description of the Christian left reads: “Liberal theology has roots in Enlightenment philosophy, which suggested a rational and contextual reading of the Bible. The Liberation Theology of the 1960s cemented liberal Christians’ stance on active participation in social justice work.” [1] Readers of this blog will understand that the Christian left is not a child of the 1960s but has a long history in America from the Social Gospel movement forward. The Christian right, on the other hand, has a different history. Evangelicalism had little political voice or interest until the 1970s, when the issue of abortion began to trouble American life. At that point, traditional Christians, catholic and Protestant, began to enter public life and seek a place at the table.

My point in this section is to underscore that Volf is correct in his analysis—but he does not necessarily fairly describe the situation. The quote above focuses on what I think is the most critical factor in the current situation: the Enlightenment’s antagonism towards orthodox Christianity and its attempts to silence religious voices. This endeavor continues to the present time in an increasingly militant manner.

The Marginalized History of Christian Faith

Volf believes that there is something odd about this situation. The early Christians did not sit at the center of power but at the margins. Christianity was a small, despised, and persecuted faith in the first few centuries. The primary issue of public theology was whether or not Cesar was to be obeyed, with the apostolic leadership urging obedience to civil authorities, even though they frequently persecuted the young church. [2] Opposition meant certain martyrdom. The early Christians worshiped the God of Israel and the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth in whose footsteps they attempted to walk. [3] For the most part, they ignored and did not participate in the public life of the Empire.

Volf’s goal in writing a public theology is to look toward the future in which the church is once again at the margins of society and yet dispel the inevitable gloom that some feel and generate hope for Christian and other religious communities at the beginning of the 21st century. He wants to make the Christian community comfortable with being just one of many players in a secular society, or what he would call a “religiously plural” society. He wants to articulate a public theology allowing Christians and others, whether at the margins or the center of power, to promote the common good in their own way. [4] This is a noble goal.

Church and Sect

One of the most interesting parts of A Public Faith is his analysis of the distinction between “church” and “cult” as it impacted the work of Earnest Troeltsch and Max Weber. Only a European familiar with the state church concepts prominent in European society can fully appreciate its distinction, history, and inapplicability to contemporary politics. According to Troeltsch, the church is an institution of society and sits at its center, or as a sect, is set apart from society and generally opposes it. The church is an established institution, part of the social order; a sect is a marginalized group. The state recognizes a church; a sect is tolerated. [5]

I remember years ago being surprised to learn that the Assemblies of God and Pentecostal groups were considered “sects” in a particular European country and not entitled to the certain protections afforded to the state churches. To an American, this seemed utterly illogical. However, the distinction is a part of the fact that, in most European countries, there was an established church. It might be the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, a Lutheran, or a Reformed Church. The state recognized and funded these institutions, and their pastors, were semi-official state representatives.

On the other hand, sects, such as the Assemblies of God or perhaps the Brethren, are not so recognized. Volf grew up as a Pentecostal in Yugoslavia, a member of what would have been seen as a sect. In many European countries, there was no such thing as “religious freedom.” One was expected to be a member of the state church. One was, by birth, such a member.

Americans have a hard time understanding the religious history of Europe and how religious freedom developed in Europe. In Europe, after the religious wars in Europe (1517-1648), religious tolerance gradually developed, and state religions lost their monopoly on faith. [6] From the very beginning, immigrants from various countries inhabited North America. Many had left in search of the religious freedom they did not enjoy in Europe. Almost immediately, America developed a kind of religious pluralism that would take years to develop in Europe.

By the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, another kind of pluralism began to develop in Europe and the United States. No longer were the religious distinctions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews central, but various other groups started to have substantial followings, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and others. This was also true in Europe, especially in those nations with significant Muslim populations. As a result, the old distinction between sects and churches has no meaning. [7] Today, to talk of religious freedom in America is to recognize that many religions and groups are entitled to such freedom.

Accommodation or Entrenchment

Religious groups have taken different tactics in responding to religious pluralism and the decline of their influence in society. This is an oversimplification; generally, the more liberal tendency has been to accommodate contemporary Enlightenment social voices and try to find a way of expressing faith that fundamentally secular people can understand. The efforts of Fredrich Schleiermacher come to mind. [8] To the extent these groups participate in public life, they tend to adopt the political views of the political left as a part of their accommodation.

On the other side of the political spectrum, in the “post-liberal” program, there is an attempt to maintain the primacy of religious grammar in transmitting faith. Instead of translating religious faith into secular conceptualizations, post-liberalism attempts to describe a secular society in religious terms and maintain its sacred language and beliefs intact. This cultural-linguistic” approach is attractive to both moderate, traditional, and conservative religious people and those impacted by what used to be called the “Yale school” and its narrative/ linguistic approach to Christian theology. [9]

External Mission or Internal Difference

Volf moves from his analysis of church and sect to a distinction between a “separatist view” and a view he calls “internal difference.” Volf uses Bonhoeffer as a proponent of a kind of separatist view based upon a passage from Cost of Discipleship in which he speaks of Christians as amid the world but ready to be called out of the world at any moment. [10] I think that his use of Bonhoeffer in this regard was unwise.

The Greek word we translate as “church,” “ekklesia,” means “those called out.” From the beginning of the Christin church, there has been a sense in which the church is always something outside of society, and its members are sojourners, pilgrims on earth awaiting a better land (Philippians 3:20; I Peter 2:11-12; Hebrews 11:9-10, 13, 16). Any public theology must take seriously the notion that in some sense, even while being in the world, Christians are also those who have been called out of the world into the fellowship of Christ. The “separatist view” has Biblical support and a call on Christians in matters of public life.

Against the idea that the church is separated from the world, called into a kind of sectarian isolation, Volf defends the view that the church is internal to the world but different, a view he calls “internal difference.” It is hard to disagree with this move. As physical beings and institutions, Christians and churches are inevitably in the world and part of that world. Therefore, insofar as Christians participate in public life, they must participate within society and as a part of it.

Subversion or Self-Giving Love

Unfortunately in my view, Volf puts forward the idea that, in some way, the church is to be a “subversive institution,” by which he means an institution that lives by different rules and thus challenges or subverts the notions of power, position, and the like. He uses the example of Indians and other oppressed people. Although I appreciate Volf’s intention, I am not certain that the notion of “subversion” can be squared with either scripture or tradition. In scripture, there is the constant refrain from the apostolic witness that Christians are to live peacefully within society and respect its rulers. [11] I doubt the postmodern notion of subversion was in the mind of Peter, Paul, or any other apostles.

Instead of subversion, Christians are called to something more challenging—self-giving love. [12] While there can be no doubt that Christians must seek to overturn structures of society that prohibit human flourishing (to use Volf’s word), this is always a result of love. For example, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer left New York and returned to Germany in 1939, he did not give as his intent the subversion of the Nazi regime. He intended to share in the sufferings of the German people. [13] Shortly after arriving in America, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a moment of clarity, realizing that he must return to Germany and share the suffering of the German people. Explaining his decision, he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who had helped create a place of safety for him:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [14]

I think Bonhoeffer did not return to Germany to become a subversive but to share the suffering of the people he loved. After returning, he did not immediately join the resistance. When entering the resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew that his action was morally ambiguous (and held the danger of the death he ultimately suffered). Bonhoeffer was forced to consider his calling to resist the evil of the Nazi regime (an act of loyalty, not subversion), even if it meant stepping away from his commitment to pacifism and non-violence. When challenged by a student in one of his lectures, Bonhoeffer let the student know that he understood the moral demands that were becoming more evident daily in Nazi Germany. [15] He was also aware that the admonition, “He who lives by the sword,” dies by the sword, applied to himself and others who opposed Hitler just as much as did Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. [16] This comment is essential to understanding Bonhoeffer’s theological and moral rationale for his activities. He understood that his decisions and activities were morally and theologically ambiguous, though he felt he was acting in faith. I believe that a love of God and his fellow Germans put Bonhoeffer on the road to his martyrdom, not a calling to subversion.


I need to make one more week of this fine book. It may seem that I have been critical in this blog, but I agree with A Public Faith‘s major points. Sometimes, I would choose a different phrase or terminology, but the point is the same or close to the same. One might call the differences, a “point of emphasis.” I think Volf would agree with what I have said in this blog and critique my critique by pointing out this commitment to the Law of Love, which is a part of the thesis of the entire book.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ruth Terry, “The Christian Right and Left Share the Same Faith But Couldn’t Be More Different” Yes! Solutions Journal (December 24, 2019) https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/12/24/political-christian-belief Downloaded August 9, 2023).

[2] See for example, Acts 4:18-20; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1-2; I Timothy 2:1-15.

[3] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 78.

[4] Id, at 79.

[5] Id. This discussion is found at 81ff.

[6] The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought to an end an eighty-year war between Spain and Holland and the thirty years war as it involved Germany. The peace was negotiated, in the Westphalian towns of Munster and Osnabruck, hence the name. Many scholars date the emergence of the modern secular state and the emergence of a preference for religious freedom from this event.

[7] A Public Faith, 81ff.  In all likelihood, for the purposes of analysis, we ought to dispense with the term “Church” and speak of “Religious Fellowships” when describing the current pluralist situation in the West. Christian Churches are simply one of the many forms of Religious Fellowships people belong to.

[8]  See, Fredrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. & ed Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). This is one of his most quoted books and serves as an introduction to his thought. This is also not the place to discuss Schleiermacher and his considerable impact on Western thought in various areas, philosophical, theological, and otherwise.

[9] See George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philidelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984). This book made Lindbeck and his former colleague Hans Frei, prominent leaders of post-liberalism or the so-called “New Yale School” of theology.

[10] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship ed. Gefferey B. Kelly & John D. Godsey tr. Barbara Green & Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 250-251.

[11] See footnote 2 above for citations. One cannot make a biblical case for the idea of subversion without turning into something like “Critical Love.”

[12] I am certain that VOlf would agree with this—and all he means by “subversion” is that kind of subversion that love would inevitably cause in a society ruled by the love of power.

[13] Most of this comes from a blog I did some time ago. See, G.Christopher Scruggs, “Bonhoeffer 5: Political Resistance 1839-19423”(October 10, 2022) found at https://gchristopherscruggs.com/?p=3157 (downloaded August 11, 2023).

[14] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian, and Martyr” at https://www.learnreligions.com/dietrich-bonhoeffer-4771872 (downloaded August 25, 2022)

[15] Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 199-200.

[16] Id, at 205.