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New Horizons

The Reformation of Vocation

D. G. Hart

Lutheran scholar Gene Edward Veith asserted correctly that the Protestant Reformation depended on three doctrines: justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture, and vocation. The last of these three, Veith added, was in many ways the most practical, since it concerned the everyday life of believers.

Vocation encompassed such related ideas as the priesthood of believers, sanctification, and good works. Rather than a theological rationale for the Protestant work ethic or private property, vocation broke decisively with Roman Catholic teachings about work and the Christian life by recognizing the legitimacy of nonecclesiastical labor.

Yet one will need more than a word search application to find the doctrine of vocation in the catechisms of the Reformation. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, devotes separate chapters to Scripture and justification, but not to vocation. Related words, such as “calling,” “priesthood,” and “work,” are not identical to an understanding of vocation. “Calling,” for instance, takes one to the chapter on effectual calling. The Bible’s teaching on the Holy Spirit’s saving calling is indeed crucial to the Christian life. But that chapter says nothing about work. Likewise, “work” will take one to the chapter on good works, another important element in the service that God calls believers to undertake. But it says little directly about the stations or rank to which God calls Christians. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is even harder to find in the Confession since “priest” is so closely bound up with the three offices that Christ “executes as our redeemer”—prophet, priest, and king. The closest the Confession comes to mentioning the secular occupations of believers is in its teaching about the Lord’s Day. It refers to “worldly employments and recreations” and teaches that believers should on Sunday observe a “holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations.”

Confessional silence about vocation may explain Veith’s lament that it is one of the Reformation’s lost teachings. At the same time, nothing could be more Protestant than the way the Reformers came to understand the ordinary life of the average believer. That Protestant outlook fueled the engines of political democracy and market capitalism. But it was far more important for recovering biblical teaching about the goodness of creation and the manifold ways in which God cares for his creatures. Recognizing the value of human work was one of the Reformation’s greatest achievements.

Why Vocation Mattered

Prior to Luther, the medieval church maintained a curious mix of pagan and Christian notions about secular occupations. The influence of Greek philosophy was particularly responsible for a disdain for the material world. Accordingly, the life of the mind and the pursuit of virtue through contemplation were the highest forms of endeavor. By contrast, the body, too often subject to passions that closely resembled those of the animal world, was the part of human existence connected to ordinary affairs. According to a contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Gary Chamberlain, “in the medieval world someone who engaged in the work of business was certainly suspect.” Business activities in the ancient and medieval worlds were regarded as “the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.” Even Aquinas said of commerce that it was “shameful” since it lacked “any honorable or necessary defining goal.” This attitude toward nonreligious work explains why Roman Catholics historically reserved the language of vocation for priests, monks, and religious orders. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a “religious vocation is the special gift of those who, in the Church of God, follow with a pure intention the ecclesiastical profession of the evangelical counsels.” Salvation in the medieval world divided Christians into two camps. Those set apart for religious work—priests, monks, nuns—followed a direct path to salvation through holy activity. The laity, left outside the church’s orders, experienced a life compromised by shameful activities, and so increased their dependence on the sacraments ministered by the priestly class as their hope of salvation.

And then along came Martin Luther, breathing fresh air for ordinary Christians with his doctrine of vocation. His ideas were a direct consequence of the doctrine of the two kingdoms. According to Luther, a Christian inhabited two spheres, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth. This way of looking at life between the advents of Christ drew on, but did not replicate, Augustine’s two cities. The Christian, Luther held, is a citizen of heaven’s kingdom (salvation) through faith alone. But in the earthly kingdom, the operative principle is love, since God calls a believer to embody his salvation through acts of charity. Vocation, accordingly, belongs to a Christian’s operation in the kingdom of earth. Luther wrote, “Through the human pursuit of vocations across the array of earthly stations, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed, the ignorant are enlightened, and the weak are protected.” In other words, a Christian by working participated in “God’s ongoing providence for the human race.”

The Roman Catholic position, which associated vocation only with the sort of vows that priests and monks took, was a perversion of the idea of vocation. It called Christians away from the vital services they provided for family, neighbors, and countries. It is important to recognize that the Protestant teaching of justification by faith, as opposed to justification by grace-infused works, freed believers from performing good deeds to earn God’s favor. Instead, a Christian carried out his duties as part of his love for God and neighbor. The good works of caring for others was a fruit of faith, not a means of salvation. This also added spiritual significance to the deeds of ordinary Christians by making them part of the sacrifices that believers offered to God as part of their >priesthood (by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling). In fact, Luther compared the ordinary activities of Christians favorably to the most pious acts of monks:

It looks like a great thing when a monk renounces everything and goes into a cloister, carries on a life of asceticism, fasts, watches, prays, etc.… On the other hand, it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service of God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.

Calvin echoed Luther on vocation and showed how little separates the two branches of the Reformation in this regard. In his commentary on Luke 10:38–42 in particular, the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha, and the latter’s frustration with her sister for failing to help with the chores of hospitality, Calvin took aim at the contemplative life that justified monasticism:

When some men were driven by ambition to withdraw from the ordinary intercourse of life, or when peevish men gave themselves up to solitude and indolence, the resolution to adopt that course was followed by such pride, that they imagined themselves to be like the angels, because they did nothing; for they entertained as great a contempt for active life, as if it had kept them back from heaven. On the contrary, we know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.

The point of Luke’s story is not to justify monasticism, but to observe the importance of visiting with Christ while he was with his followers. It is “foolish” to use this story to value contemplation above activity.

Providence, not Predestination

Ever since Max Weber argued that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination was the basis for the rise and spread of the Protestant work ethic and the triumph of capitalism, scholars have examined why Protestantism unleashed market forces that produced the West’s unprecedented wealth. Weber’s own explanation was that predestination produced spiritual anxiety (how do I know I am elect?), and this resulted in high levels of productivity and greater riches.

What Weber’s argument misses is the simple but subtle point in both Luther and Calvin: vocation, the work that people perform in their daily lives, is part of God’s providential care for his creation. Just as God created Adam to work in the garden and care for the creatures around him, so people continue to fulfill God’s plan by performing works that contribute to creation’s continuation. According to the Confession of Faith, God upholds all things by his “most wise and holy providence.” In particular, it teaches that God uses “second causes” to order all things. These might involve the use of medicine to heal a sick patient or the sun to cause a plant to grow and produce food. Secondary causes also include the work of rearing children, engaging in business, teaching, exercising civil authority, and even fixing leaking toilets. In other words, providence, not predestination, explains the doctrine of vocation.

The place to find the idea of calling, then, is in the chapter on God’s providential care for his creation. It may require employing a few theological deductions, but it is right there if you look hard enough.

The author, an OP elder, teaches at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, June 2017.

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