Friday, February 06, 2009

COMPS3: work in the Spirit (and for the new creation)

Developing a theology of work in the Protestant tradition is an ambitious goal. In Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Miroslav Volf necessarily has to critique inadequate traditional approaches of understanding work, including simply examining New Testament references. These traditional approaches establish an ethic of work that is grounded in the doctrine of sanctification. That is, as a Christian matures, so will their work in relation to ethical temptations and quandaries that arise in the workplace, for example: being honest; not stealing; or working diligently when your ‘master’ is not watching. Volf’s aim is rather to develop a more systematic approach to understanding work, which is grounded in a broader biblical perspective of what God is doing in the world.

In a second critique, Volf examines Luther’s understanding of work that has been a foundation for Protestants’ understanding of work and finds it lacking on many fronts. Volf acknowledges that Luther made a valuable contribution by desacrilising the vita contemplativa and by bestowing equal value to the vita activa. However, Volf sees Luther failing contemporary workers by: not addressing the alienation of work, which can be used to establish an ideological justification for alienating work; viewing the static vocational station that one is born into as set, which is inappropriate for modern economies that see people work in a variety of roles in a range of industries throughout their working lives; and failing to guard against work transitioning from vocation into mere gainful employment.

For the majority of Volf’s intended educated Protestant audience (in particular he mentions economists), the need for a systematic approach will be understood. However, for some readers, Volf will be unconvincing due to the lack of “explicit exegetical support” (as Volf acknowledges, 93) that give weight to his arguments, and the vagaries that are (necessarily) involved in conceptualizing the new creation. Conversely, sticklers for direct biblical grounded-ness will appreciate Volf pointing out Luther’s well known exegetical mistake in 1 Cor. 7:20, which for Luther was the false foundation of one’s static station in life (109), and thus may concede to Volf’s adamant preference of a more systematic approach to developing a theology of work.

Into this necessary systematic framework, Volf first bases his theology of work in eschatology. Outlining two competing eschatological views - annihilatio mundi that devalues human work, with the exception of work that directly or indirectly contributes to the sanctification of people’s souls and transformatio mundi, that sees a continuity between the present earth, and the “new heavens and new earth” to come that the bible speaks of - Volf applies his theological frame to so that “the expectation of the eschatalogical transformation invests human work with ultimate significance. Through it human beings contribute in their modest and broken way to God's new creation" (92). Volf attempts to articulate human beings’ contribution to the new heavens and new earth through the work they do, by describing human work as the “‘building materials’ from which… ‘the glorified world’ will be made” (91). This description is not Volf’s own as he cites Berkof’s work Christ; the two are in good company with N.T. Wright who uses the same analogy.

Volf does a convincing job in arguing for transformation mundi by: discussing the nature of God’s Kingdom in Matthew as both “now and not yet”; the future earthly hopes in Isaiah 11:6-10, 65:17-25; Paul’s emphasis on the liberation of creation in Romans 8; the lack of theological consistency in God affirming the goodness of creation in Genesis 1 and then annihilating it; and our role in cooperating with the Creator through work, which Luther too identified. Volf confronts the key annihilist passage in 2 Peter 3:10ff, but does so not by offering an explanation of what Peter meant, but rather by contrasting Peter with Paul’s words in Romans 8:21.

Volf builds on his eschatological framework by linking it to pneumatology: “One cannot talk about the new creation without referring to the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, as Paul says, is the 'first-fruits' or the 'down payment' of the future salvation (see Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 1:22) and the present power of eschatological transformation in them” (102). Volf disagrees with a traditional view of the Spirit’s role as being restricted to the “spiritual, psychological, moral or religious life of the individual” (102). Instead Volf asserts that if a Christian is filled with the Spirit, we must have a charismatic understanding “of every specific function and task of a Christian in the church and in the world” (113), which cannot exclude human work. Volf gives Old Testament examples (Ex. 35:2-3; 1 Chron. 28:11-12; Jud. 3:10; 1 Sam. 16:13, 23:2; Prov. 16:10) of how “the Spirit of God calls, endows, and empowers Christians to work in their various vocations” (113-4), and explains that these passages, if read in the light of the new covenant, can help in establishing a pneumatological understanding that “all God’s people are gifted and called to various tasks by the Spirit” (114), thus broadening the scope of the Spirit’s gifts to equip God’s people for all work within the world: “the point is not simply to interpret work religiously as cooperation with God and thereby glorify it ideologically, but to transform work into a charismatic cooperation with God on the 'project' of the new creation” (116).

As the first comprehensive attempt to develop a theology of work in the protestant tradition, Volf’s Work in the Spirit, can be held in high regard as a substantial contribution toward a comprehensive theology of work. Much discussion amongst Christian people in the marketplace should result affecting business values and practices as well as policy decisions. Churches too, should be encouraged to appreciate anew the “mundane work in the Spirit” that their members do during the other six days.
Volf’s theology of work makes sense of the Christian’s every-day work in the world. Our work (to some extent) has eschatological significance and our work is empowered by the Spirit and directed towards God’s means and ends in the world. So then, how shall we work? What work shall we do? Shall we work by capitalism’s rules or God’s Kingdom rule here on earth? What values will we instil in our children and our youth group kids as they grow up discerning and preparing for their future careers?


Sam said...

Thanks snooze-i,

It seems that this book and surprised by hope push the idea of 'continuity' as you describe it (or maybe that's how everyone does, I don't know about these big theological discussions).

Do the other books you are going to read about work come from a 'discontinuity' perspective?

Andrew & Jessica said...

Hey Sam - thanks for checking out these posts on my assignment! And for your question... sorry for the slow reply...

Your question has made me really think... there are certainly arguments for a 'continuity' view in many of the books I have gotten into to date, and arguments against discontinuity too. Many of the arguments are convincing to me too...

As for all the books on my list - I am not sure, as I haven't read them all yet, and thi issue isn't central to the books, but interestingly keeps popping up. I do hope that my Professor has given me some scope in the perspectives on this issue.

Your question has been helpful, because this is an important question, which I will now be more attentive too in my reading. I think I will write a post on this very issue down-the-track to present the arguments clearly and see what people think.

Thanks Sam!