A Theology of Work 4

imagesWhat doctrines does Jurgen Moltmann appeal to for his understanding of work?

According to Darrel Cosdon in A Theology of Work, the first is the doctrine of creation because “God is a worker” and “human work can and should ‘correspond’ to the creative activity of God.”  

The second is the doctrine of Sabbath because “when human work truly corresponds to God’s, that is when it is actively creative but also seasoned with Sabbath, [and then] it becomes truly meaningful.”

The third is the doctrine of “the work of redemption.”  “The idea is that God is not simply the effortless creator (initial creation) but that he also is engaged in hard and painful work,” the work of redemption.  This work by Jesus, a servant of God, is “wearisome work” according to Isaiah 43:24 and 53.  Thus, “imitation of Christ’s servanthood should be the theological basis for work.”


A Theology of Work 3

imagesIn A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden says the vocational model of work outlines the spiritual meaning of work as both “acts of personal obedience to God/God’s call, and, as outward service to others as God’s means for meeting their physical needs.”  Put differently, the vocational model “emphasises particularly the importance of work’s instrumental aspect (especially with respect to human obedience / sanctification) and its relational aspect (concerning how our work can contribute toward meeting the needs of others and the broader society).”

He cites Miroslav Volf as someone who moved from protology to eschatology as the foundation of the theology of work.  This “eschatalogical orientation mean[t]…work is perceived as teleologically directed and oriented forward toward the future new creation rather than backward toward the restoration of the initial creation.”  As a result, work becomes a type of “eschatological mandate rather than simply a creation mandate.”

A Theology of Work 2

imagesIn A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden observes that, in the modern Roman Catholic teaching on work, “the instrumental aspect of work (here [in Laborem Exercens] primarily referring to economic function) is subordinated (metaphysically and ethically) to the relational or ‘human’ aspect….”

He traces this in part to Pope John Paul II’s view that “the essential meaning of ‘kingship’ and ‘dominion’ of man over the visible world, which the Creator himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter” (emphasis mine).  If this hierarchy is assumed, Cosden concludes, “the instrumental [aspect of work] is always subordinated to the relational [aspect].”

I find it disturbing that the head of the Roman Catholic church so bluntly held that spirit is “superior” to matter.  Isn’t this essentially a gnostic position which the church has consistently, at least officially if not functionally, refuted?

I also hear the echo of this subordination of the instrumental aspect of work to the relational aspect in how we — evangelical Christians of North America — speak about many subjects, including work.  “It’s the relationship that matters,” we may say to someone who is struggling over the intrinsic value of his work.  The intent behind those words is good.  We mean to encourage.  We mean to point out how the worker is making a difference through his being there for his co-workers.  But embedded in such a statement, at times, is the view that “what really matters is people’s souls, not what your work produces.”

Cosden would argue, it seems, such a view is not only unbiblical but unnecessary: “the nature of the ontology of work is such that it places both the relational and instrumental aspects on an equal, mutually restricting plane while it also places itself on that same level.”

A Theology of Work 1


Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit tries to build a theology of work in light of new creation rather than one anchored in vocation.  In A Theology of Work, Darrell Cosden seeks to provide “a more detailed unfolding of the implications of this eschatological realism for a theology of work.”

“Normative theological understanding of work is best construed threefold as a dynamic inter-relationship of instrumental, relational, and ontological aspects,” says Cosden.  

First, work is instrumental “in the mundane sense” — “a means to continued survival” and “a means for further economic expansion and growth.”  Here, “the focus is not on work, but rather its product used directly or indirectly as a way of securing more of life’s necessities or wants.”  Work is instrumental “in the spiritual sense” as well — e.g., building character, meeting other’s needs, generating profits to be given to charity in order to lessen the pain of others and spreading the gospel message.

Second, work is relational when it “refers to work’s aim toward appropriate social relationship and / or to some form of human existential realization and fulfillment.”  This could be considered “a sub-category of the instrumental.”

Cosden’s focus, though, is on the third — ontological — aspect of work.  “God created us to be workers in nature” “not as an accident of nature but because God first is a worker and persons are created in his image.”  And work is “built into the fabric of creation by God.”  As such work “is a thing in itself with its own intrinsic value apart from but of course related to these [instrumental and relational] functions.”

How Then Should We Work? 3

imagesWords like calling, vocation, career and job get used sometimes interchangeably though they can mean different things.  Hugh Whelchel organizes them in this way in How Then Should We Work?  

We are first called “to follow Jesus out of darkness into light.”  This call to faith in Christ is the “primary calling.”

Then come four “secondary callings.”  First, to be “a part of our human family: brother, sister, son, daughter, father or mother.”  Second, “to the church.”  Third, “to serve God’s purposes in the world through civic, social, political, domestic and ecclesiastical roles.”  Finally, “to vocational work.”

Whelchel says this fourth secondary calling, the vocational calling, “is usually stable and permanent over a lifetime” and is “based on giftedness, interests, passions, and human need, which are all easy to identify.”  A caree, in turn, “should be based on the opportunities for service which are presented to a believer enabling him or her to fulfill their vocational calling.”  Finally, “finding the right occupation [i.e., job] at any one time is a matter of God’s specific leadership, guidance and provision.”

How Then Should We Work? 2

imagesHugh Whelchel points out two lies that together define “success” in our culture in How Then Should We Work?

The first is, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.”  The second is, “You can be the best in the world.”  Put the two together, and you have this message: you achieve success when you work hard to be the best in the world in whatever you choose to do.  But this definition of success — “being the master of your own destiny” — is an idol.  Whelchel quotes Tim Keller:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength and performance.  To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you.  You are supreme.

The Biblical alternative, drawn from the parable of the talents according to Whelchel, is to define success as being faithful with the talents we are given by God.  And we should all “feel God’s pleasure when we are faithful to our calling.”

How Then Should We Work? 1

imagesIn How Then Should We Work?, Hugh Whelchel quotes Richard Pratt’s “down-to-earth description of how the Cultural Mandate works” as follows:

The Great King has summoned each of us into his throne room.  Take this portion of my kingdom, he says, I am making you my steward over your office, your workbench, your kitchen stove.  Put your heart into mastering this part of my world.  Get it in order; unearth its treasures; do all you can with it.  Then everyone will see what a glorious King I am.  That’s why we get up every morning and go to work.  We don’t labor simply to survive, insects do that.  Our work is an honor, a privileged commission from our great King.  God has given each of us a portion of his kingdom to explore and to develop to its fullness.

Viewing work as stewardship over a portion of God’s kingdom helps one make the connection between the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate.  Namely, the goal of the Great Commission isn’t just the salvation of people; it is the salvation of people so that they can fulfill the Cultural Mandate as was originally envisioned.  All to the glory of God, of course!