Christian theologians have always recognized human work as “cooperation with God,” notes Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.
To wit: Martin Luther refers to human work as “God’s mask behind which he hides himself and rules everything magnificently in the world.” This is because “God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional state of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way.” While “the consummation [of the new creation] is a work of God alone,” “since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations of the new creation,” “human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi.”
Volf is aware that work can be viewed as cooperation with God in not only an eschatological framework with which he is working, but also in a more traditional protological framework (i.e., a framework based on the doctrine of original creation). Anticipating his critique of the vocational understanding of work, Volf says he prefers the eschatological approach for four reasons.
First, since the very “nature of Christian existence” is eschatological, it is not possible to “develop a theology of work simply within the framework of the doctrine of creation.”
Second, “the new creation is not simply a negation of the first creation but is also its reaffirmation.” This does mean a theology of work must be construed in light of the doctrine of creation. But “the new creation is…not a mere restoration of the first creation.” Mankind isn’t simply “put..back into the Garden of Eden.” Rather, “it leads us on to that further destiny to which, even in the Garden of Eden, we were already directed.” Hence a theology of work must taken into account “the broad context of the (partial) realization and of the expectation of the new creation.”
Third, the protological framework is conceptually inadequate “for interpreting the modern work.” In the protological framework, “the ultimate purpose of human work…is the preservation of the world.” (But is it? When Adam was commanded to subdue the earth, was he being commanded to preserve it but not transform it? I’m not convinced.) But modern work “transforms the world as much as it preserves and it preserves it only by transforming it.” The “static framework of preservation cannot adequately incorporate this dynamic nature of human work.”
Finally, “the protological theologies of work tend to justify the status quo and hinder needed change in both microeconomic and macroeconomic structures by appealing to divine preservation of the world.”
I can feel Volf’s critique of the vocational understanding of work beginning to emerge. Dying to know what they are, especially since I haven’t encountered one to date.