Thinkers on Vocation and Theology of Work in The Last Fifty Years

Academic Paper / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Thinkers on vocation last 50 years

The period following the end of World War II marks the beginning of the development of various ‘theologies of work’. This terminology was not used until 1948, but from then on references to the theology of work are quite common (Smith 1990: 15). According to Smith, this development of a variety of new theological approaches to work was initially stimulated by a combination of the post-war economic boom and the ideological battle between communism and capitalism (1990: 16).

This chapter surveys a range of different attempts to develop theologies of work during this period. We include a general description of each approach and take special interest in the way the doctrine of vocation is developed.

These five decades have included significant changes in work patterns. Because these changes have stimulated, influenced and sometimes even shaped, theological reflection on work issues and working conditions, we begin with a brief explanation of some key factors which have marked the three most distinctive periods in this era.

The Post War Boom

The massive boom in economic production that occurred following World War II and continued largely unabated until the early 1970s was the result of numerous factors, including the need for post-war reconstruction, the application of advanced technology developed during the war, and the availability of so many people looking for work after the war. It was a period of economic optimism, inspired by full employment, rising living standards and the availability of new consumer goods. There was pride in technological achievements. Futurologists predicted a time when human labour would be replaced by automation, machines would undertake most of the arduous work and leisure would become the new focus for human life. Not that these changes were accepted uncritically. Some questioned the dominance of technology in this new age; others questioned the hedonism and consumerism of the times; still others questioned the new work culture. Those who were closest to the changes felt these effects most acutely and began to debate them. Many of the theologians whose work is described in this chapter became engaged in this critique. It was also a period profoundly influenced by the ideological battles between communism and capitalism.

The emerging post-war society presented the churches with new challenges. The newly formed World Council of Churches (hereafter WCC) recognised that one of its first priorities was to assess the implications of the new values and patterns of life that were emerging. Questions regarding the nature of work were near the top of the list. This is evident in the report on Christian Faith and Daily Work from the Second Assembly of the WCC in Evanston in August 1954 (WCC 1954: 106-111).

Prior to this period, mainstream Protestant and Catholic teaching had tended to become dominated by the view of work as a combination of divine command and divine curse imposed in response to human sin. This response recognised some of the harsher longterm effects of industralization. The inevitability of human work involving widespread hardship and drudgery was widely accepted. Many of the more positive notes sounded by the Reformers and Puritans had been forgotten. Work was viewed primarily as a necessary evil to be endured. It was this endurance which was virtuous rather than any intrinsic value in the work itself. But now technological progress was offering the possibility of more leisure and a less arduous future. How would the church respond to this new scenario? Was it for or against technological progress? Was the curse on work being lifted, or was this apparent progress just another manifestation of human pride and arrogance?

We have already noted how, in the immediate post-war period, it seemed as if Christian views of work were seriously out of step with mainstream Western society. The circumstances called for a more positive doctrine of work, although the need still existed to counter the harsher aspects of some work. New theological thinking was needed. It was more than just a matter of reshaping the old categories and concepts. This is where the ideological tension between East and West, between communism and capitalism, between collectivism and individualism helped to shape the Christian response.

As an example of this process Smith traces the influence of the personalist movement on many of those who would become significant figures in the post-war development of theologies of work, including Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jacques Ellul, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Oldham (Smith 1990: Chapter 2). Influential in France in the 1930’s and Poland in the 1940’s personalism inspired various movements and publications of the Catholic Left and was particularly attractive to Christians who were sympathetic to certain aspects of socialism, but who wanted to oppose Communism. They attempted to establish a ‘third way’ which would assert the spiritual and personal over and against the dehumanising materialism of both capitalist individualism and Stalinist communalism.

The 1960s - 1970s

The sustained production and optimism of the 1950’s started to wane as the downside of technological advances began to be experienced. As work patterns changed, questions began to be asked. There was a huge growth in white collar as against blue collar employment. Women, especially married women, became much more involved in the paid work force. Materialism and the work ethic began to be challenged. Alienation at work was described as surveys identified many workers in a wide variety of occupations who were feeling stifled and unfulfilled. In many Western countries Union militancy increased and even white-collar workers joined the protesting.

From the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, unemployment rose and persisted at high levels, especially among the young, in most Western economies. There were many new and rapid technological changes, especially those related to computerisation. These developments, combined with the growing internationalisation of economic activity, led to widespread, often drastic and traumatic, industrial restructuring.

These were turbulent years marked by constant change and demanding flexible and creative responses. The new theological ideas which had begun to emerge in the early 1950’s now had to contend with these new challenges. And these new challenges demanded new creative theological responses.

1980 - 1997

By the 1980s Western societies had encountered almost the full gamut of work place experiences: full employment, unemployment, technological change, married women in employment, computerisation, part-time work, job-sharing and redundancies, just to mention a few. Hence theologians writing in the 1980s and 1990’s had a concentrated period of real-world experiences upon which to base their reflections.

In the discussion of particular writers that follows, it is important to consider their contribution in the light of prevailing work patterns at the time and the dominant mood in the market place. Some of these theologians sound a prophetic note, seeking to point to a new way ahead. Others seem to provide an explanation for what has been, rather than for what might be. Whatever the case, these 50 years include a period of rapid and drastic changes in work patterns that provide us with a fascinating study of Christians attempting to do their theology contextually and to relate academic reflections to everyday life concerns. It is a represenative sample of these attempts we now examine.


In spite of the heavy Catholic involvement in the personalist movement, it was through a Protestant layperson, J.H. Oldham, that the application of personalist ideas to a theology of work was first made. In fact, Oldham’s Work in Modern Society (1950) should probably be regarded as the first formal theology of work (Smith 1990: Chapter 2). It is a ground-breaking booklet. For, although this pioneering work has received little recognition, there is hardly a theme which has emerged in subsequent theologies of work which was not raised or prefigured in Oldham’s writing. Even his method is instructive; beginning with a description of the place and nature of work in modern society and only then seeking to define a Christian approach to the meaning of work.

Oldham wrote his two essays for the Inaugural Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948 (Oldham 1948a; 1948b). Motivated by the belief that this period is ‘one of the great turning points of history’ he urges the Church to gain understanding of the new circumstances, and not just to express new zeal in proclaiming the gospel. Oldham advocates a more positive attitude to technology than was evidenced in previous theological reflections. He argues that the effects of the machine on human life have ‘in the main’ been beneficial. Oldham willingly acknowledges the problems associated with new technology, but emphasises that abuses of machinery (including war) are not due to the machines themselves but to those who use them. But Oldham is concerned that scientific and technical stand points have so influenced society that people have come to think of themselves only as objects rather than as persons. Slavery to the machine can only be avoided by ‘a revolutionary change in the accepted scale of values, in which a primary concern for the growth and welfare of persons takes the place of demonic concentration on technical efficiency and the material product (Oldham 1948a: 40)’.

Oldham argues that human efforts to transform their environment are not ‘a diabolic revolt of man against his Maker’ for these creative powers have been implanted by the Creator. Rather, these are our response to a demand of God. He notes, however, that there is a clear necessity to develop a Christian doctrine of work because, people have come to serve the machine:

we are confronted here with a fundamental contradiction between the claims of the human person and the whole structure of modern industry. Nothing will overcome this contradiction but a revolution in men’s ideas by which human labour is conceived in terms not primarily of the technical process and the material product, but of human good; that is to say, of the human relations of those associated in the productive effort and the human purposes which it is designed to serve, the ultimate end and meaning of the whole process being found in the worship of God. (Oldham 1948b: 133)

For Oldham the church is being challenged to be involved in helping to bring about such a revolution. But he also recognises that for this to happen a lay theology must be developed through the engagement of those actively involved in industry. Work in Modern Society (1950) is Oldham’s own attempt to develop such a theology of work.

Oldham notes that work is one of the central realities of existence for most people, and yet theologians are mostly lacking in first-hand experience of ‘the perplexities and pressures of life’ in secular society (Oldham 1950: 8). He makes many pleas for a greater involvement of the laity in developing a theology of work. He also explains that though the main focus of his book is on ‘work in modern industry’ still ‘work must not be identified with gainful employment’. He acknowledges that much work is unremunerated, most notably the work of motherhood. However, like most later writers, he fails to maintain this broad view of work consistently and for the most part is focussed on work as industrial or manual employment. For Oldham it is the divorce of work from the personal life and from life in community that deprives it of meaning and is the heart of the problem of work in society. This is reinforced by the divorce that exists between institutional religion and the ways of thinking and feeling of ordinary men and women. Christianity appears remote from the affairs of daily life, especially everyday work (Oldham 1950: 6).

Oldham observes that what is said about work in the Bible and Church history is ‘necessarily conditioned by the social and cultural situation which existed in their time (Oldham 1950: 34)’. These were pre-industrial societies. Hence we need to rethink the whole problem in the light of the new circumstances of society. So rather than examining the Biblical doctrine of work we should commence with the Christian understanding of humanity and what it means to be a person in relation to God, other people and the world: ‘If man’s responsibilities toward the world are larger than earlier generations supposed them to be, may they not contain new possibilities of man’s cooperation with God in the making of the world? (Oldham 1950: 34)’. This last observation anticipates the ‘co-creationist’ thinking which would emerge more fully in the writings of others a few years later.

Oldham goes on to discuss the secular life. He sees the Gospel in the first instance as a call away from interests and cares of the immediate world, but also as a call back into the world,

where alone in this earthly life God is to be served. The belief that man’s life is rooted in a spiritual and eternal world, transcending man’s temporal life, does not diminish, though it may at times in the history of the Church have tended in that direction, but enormously enhances the importance of his earthly existence. It is the world as a whole, and not merely individuals in it, that is the object of God’s redeeming love. It is the historic achievement of Christianity to have brought this dualism into the life of the world, teaching men that they are citizens not only of an earthly but also of a heavenly city. By its proclamation of the Kingdom of God it related man’s life to two different orders, spiritual and temporal. (Oldham 1950: 43-44)

Oldham pleads for a doctrine of work that will enable the majority of people to experience a genuine vocation to do ordinary kinds of work. He notes that it is a vital matter for believers to know how their Christian obedience is related to what they do during most of the hours of their day. Other-worldly interpretations of Christianity may engage the interest of theologians, but they leave Christians who have to live in the world and participate in its activities without guidance about the meaning of their daily work.

Can the Christian politician, administrator, business manager, technician, scientist or manual worker find a Christian meaning in the choices which he makes and the acts which he performs in his daily occupation, or has all this nothing to do with his real Christian life? Can he serve God in these professions or, if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense, must he become a missionary or enter the cloister? The question is in urgent need of an answer. (Oldham 1950: 46)

Oldham goes on to argue that the urgency for an answer to these questions is made more pressing because of the growing collectivism of modern society. This is because what people do today, as contrasted with what they may think or say, is increasingly determined not by their individual choice but by the collective decisions of society as a whole or of the various institutions and associations within it. Oldham’s concern is that,

if there is a manifest contradiction between the understanding of life which Christianity offers and the acts which, as a result of collective decisions, men have to perform in their daily work, their lives are split into two parts which are at war with one another. The more robust and honest natures will find the contradiction insupportable, and, since they cannot give up their occupation without joining the ranks of the unemployed and becoming a burden on the community, many will give up their Christianity. (Oldham 1950: 46)

Oldham also identifies work as ministry:

work in the Christian view is inseparable from service to our fellow-men ...Work has a Christian meaning only if the occupation is one by which society is truly served. This meaning includes an obligation to do the work as well as it can be done, because if the object is the service of society, the service should be the best that can be rendered. From the point of view of service to one’s fellows manual and spiritual work are on the same level. (Oldham 1950: 51)

For Oldham this illustrates how profoundly different the Christian attitude to work is from that of classical antiquity. It sets the service of God and people at the centre as the ruling ends of human life and leaves no place for self-centred ambition. It also means that what happens to a person and the way they respond to the encounter is more important than any positive accomplishment. Suffering, in the Christian view, may be the highest form of action. Oldham then goes on to develop the idea that the need of society for creative activity needs to be combined with the view of work as ministry in any comprehensive account of the Christian meaning of work.

When it comes to specific discussion of the idea of vocation Oldham recognises the problems this terminology gives rise to, but is nevertheless reluctant to do away with it:

the primary meaning of vocation is the call of God to the new life in Christ and to the service of His Kingdom ... In view of this primary meaning of the term vocation, it might seem the better course to use it only in this sense and to speak of the functions which men perform in society simply as their "occupations". But this would be to deny to secular activities the possibility of being the fulfillment of a vocation or calling, and this would be entirely contrary to what has been said about the world being the place in which God is to be served. The religious mind craves for the hallowing of all work, whatever it may be. Whenever a man becomes aware of his work as having a relationship to a reality beyond the immediate present ... the word vocation irresistably suggests itself. We need it as a comprehensive term to include the service of God in the natural and temporal, as well as in the redemptive, order. (Oldham 1950: 56-57)

We have already noted how Oldham sees the idea of God’s calling pulling in two different directions. He recognises that,

In the Christian view the centre of gravity in a [person’s] life lies not in the present visible world but in a transcendent sphere. The Gospel is in the first instance a call away from absorption in the interests, cares and pleasures of the immediate world. It makes a breach with civilisation and its tasks-and just for this reason is a source from which civilisation can be continually renewed. Christianity is not the endorsement or consecration of life as it now is ... It is a call to repentance and change of direction. (Oldham 1950: 43)

Yet, at the same time the Gospel calls us away from the world and from immersion in temporal concerns, it also calls us back into the world, which is where we serve God during the course of our earthly lives:

It is a call, not to life in the Church as a sphere separate from the world, but to life in the world in the fellowship of the Church and in the service of God’s redemptive purpose. It is in the transformation of society and of history in accordance with God’s purposes that faith must be translated into act. (Oldham 1950: 44)

Oldham is aware of the problems that this view of two orders with different sets of values interpenetrating one another creates. The tension between them gives rise to a constant struggle. According to Oldham, ‘Different solutions for it have been sought in different periods of Christian history, and fresh ones are needed in our time (1950: 44)’. Oldham traces developments in the Christian understanding of the relationship between sacred and secular. The Reformation repudiated the previous view of a double standard of religion and morals by making vocation a universal term applying to all states of life and all kinds of work. All work became recogniszed as service to God. But Oldham maintains ‘the attempt of the Reformation to fill secular activities with Christian meaning was not carried to a successful conclusion’ and as a result ‘the emancipation of the secular from the domination of the sacred has led to the complete autonomy of the secular, so that the whole transcendental meaning of life has come to be almost entirely disregarded ..the triumph of the Renaissance over the Reformation has been almost complete (1950: 45)’. One of the greatest tasks now for Christian thought is to work towards ‘the re-integration of all secular realms in the realm of faith (Oldham 1950: 45)’. For Oldham a rediscovery and new interpretation of the doctrine of vocation is essential ‘if Christianity is to be a faith that can be lived in the arena of the common life (1950: 47)’. His own work serves to outline the agenda for this quest.


Alan Richardson’s The Biblical Doctrine of Work (1952) is not strictly a theology of work. In theory it confines itself to discussion of the biblical material. However in fact, Richardson frequently refers to wider issues and recognition of his contribution is important for this study, because his work subsequently influenced many other theologies of work, especially in more conservative Protestant circles. Richardson promotes a more optimistic view of work in the Bible than was generally current. But he does this not by developing the idea of work as human creativity, which he dismisses, but rather the view of work as divine ordinance. Richardson maintains ‘there is little in the Bible concerning what is today called creative workmanship (Richardson 1952: 17)’. He then asserts that this does not mean a negative view of work as a rule of life that limits permissible behaviour but rather ‘an ordering of things which belongs to the very way in which the world has been made (Richardson 1952: 23)’. The divine command to work (Genesis 1:28, 2:15) is part of the original structure of life designed by God for human good. It predates the fall and therefore is given primacy over the curse on work (Genesis 3:17- 19). Richardson also links human work to human creation ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:26): ‘Work is a necessity for man: it is his proper nature to be a worker, and to be denied the opportunity of work is to be treated as something less than a human being, created in the image of God, who is himself represented as a worker (Richardson 1952: 27)’.

Richardson further develops this positive tone in making much of the fact that Jesus was a worker. Hence Christ is the one who fulfills the divine ordinance of work (Richardson 1952: 30-32). And the original blessings of this divine ordinance are now available to the Christian believer:

when a man turns to Christ in repentance and faith, his whole life is sanctified, including his life as a worker. What had formerly been done as sheer necessity, or perhaps out of a sense of duty, or even as a means of self-expression and fulfillment, is now done "unto the Lord", and becomes joyous and free service and the source of deep satisfaction. (Richardson1952: 49)

Richardson also takes a broad view of Christian service, so as to include service in public life or secular affairs as well as service in the Church. Daily work is an offering we can make to God. Even the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist are the symbols not only of ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’, but also of all the work we do in our everyday lives.

When it comes to discussing vocation and work Richardson makes some very clear statements. He begins by asserting that in the New Testament the word ‘work’, when used in relation to people, generally means something other than daily toil. We are ‘fellow-workers’ with God. The proper work of Christians is the furtherance of the Gospel and the service of the purpose of God. This is the work to which we have been ‘called’. This is our true ‘vocation’. The New Testament does not refer to ‘vocation’ in the modern sense of a secular ‘profession’. Rather vocation (klesis, ‘calling’) in the New Testament means God’s call to repentance and faith and to a life of fellowship and service in the Church. According to Richardson,

The Bible knows no instance of a man’s being called to an earthly profession or trade by God ... Those whom God calls (in the New Testament sense of the word) are summoned to "work" within the Church, in the distinctive New Testament sense of the word "work" which we have noted. They thus become Christian "workers" whatever may be their secular occupation - whether they are rulers or silversmiths or sellers of purple or slaves. (Richardson 1952: 35)

Richardson warns, ‘Our secular occupations are to be regarded not as ends in themselves but as means to the service of the Kingdom of God. They have Christian value only in so far as they can be made means to the end of the Gospel (Richardson 1952: 37)’. He also concludes, ‘Though there is no parallel in the New Testament to the idea of vocation in the modern sense, it is assumed throughout the New Testament that daily work, so far from being a hindrance to Christian living, is a necessary ingredient of it (Richardson 1952: 39)’. Richardson then goes on to stress the duty of Christians to work and identifies ways the New Testament encourages Christians to approach their work.


It is M.D. Chenu in his Theology of Work (1963), originally published in France in 1955, who gives impetus to the doctrine of ‘co-creation’ which, as we have already noted, emerged in embryonic form in Oldham. This doctrine goes on to dominate the theology of work in both Catholic and Protestant traditions for the rest of the twentieth century. In contrast to the strictly biblical analysis of Richardson, Chenu’s work is more philosophical and speculative. Chenu begins by emphasising the discontinuity of the ‘machine age’ with all previous periods. As a result, ‘the traditional images of potter, blacksmith and peasant with which the Bible furnished the old theologians are not only inadequate but also lead to resentment against new technology (Chenu 1963: 6). This is disastrous according to Chenu because, although our first impulse is to resist the ‘tyranny of the machine’ as a ‘forced adaptation’, we must instead move to a ‘real assimilation’, and this can only occur ‘by the achievement of a rational and moral conquest of nature’ (Chenu 1963: 7).

Chenu holds a high view of both human work and modern technology. The human person is a ‘collaborator in creation and participant in his evolution by his discovering, exploiting and spiritualising Nature. This dominion over Nature (work) is a divine participation ... The machine is the instrument of this creative enterprise (Chenu 1963: 17).’ People transform history into eternity through their work. In Chenu the tension between personalism and Marxist materialism in co-creationist thinking, which would continue as a major element in the post-war development of the theology of work, is already apparent. Chenu is also influenced by the optimistic evolutionary mysticism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the need to respond to the emerging wave of post-war growth and prosperity with a new and more positive theology of work.

Chenu does not propose that the progress of humanity can be represented by a direct and unbroken upward line. He recognises the dark side of human nature that threatens progress and adds uncertainty and struggle to the idea of social evolution. Nevertheless, Chenu is still strongly optimistic about the promise that this period holds - a certain ‘historic energy’ is present ‘which renews the world in the dramatic moments of humanity. The conquest of the hidden forces of matter emphasizes the affinity between the transformation of the universe and the collective evolution of mankind (Chenu 1963: 75)’. He concludes with the formula for social evolution announced by Irenaeus ‘God created matter in time, in order that man nurtured in matter, should crown it with immortality’ (Chenu 1963: 75). This degree of optimism would not be widespread today.

Chenu gives no evidence of interacting with the Protestant ‘vocation’ tradition except to suggest that the Lutheran distinction between nature and grace is responsible for the failure of modern theologians to ‘view the world as a natural frame and spiritual sphere of action for man in his work (Chenu 1963: 15)’. According to Chenu, earlier Catholic and Eastern theologians provide a more helpful ‘discussion of man’s place in the universe ... They observe the substantial connection of his human nature with material nature (Chenu 1963: 14)’. Chenu’s only mention of vocation occurs in his discussion of ‘Man and the Universe’: ‘Work is at their meeting point, and also at the conjunction of spirit and matter. Man is master of the universe: the divine purpose, the vocation of man, is revealed in Genesis (Chenu 1963: 16)’. What Genesis pictures, according to Chenu, is the cosmic unfolding of the divine plan in which humans are collaborators, as lords of creation, and their work is a divine participation, from which a new world is created.


Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1952) is important, because it deliberately challenges the emerging emphasis on work in society. While it is more philosophical than theological, it has influenced subsequent theologies of work, especially those which have sought to resist and critique ‘co-creationism’. At the time it was written it was commonly believed that human society was about to enter a period in which much work would be displaced by increased leisure time. Many theologians responded to the ‘problem of leisure’ by opposing it in the name of the divine requirement for human work. Pieper chose to differ. He maintains that leisure, not labour, is the basis of the Western cultural tradition. Pieper sees leisure as implying inner calm and celebration, and as something radically distinct from utilitarian work. He distinguishes leisure from idleness. The restlessness that results from idleness is the result of emphasising the importance of ‘work for work’s sake’. Idleness, in fact, makes true leisure impossible. The answer is to reinstate divine worship at the centre of leisure. Any other approach leaves leisure subservient to the hegemony of work and the utilitarian world created around it.

Pieper does not view work as punishment or curse. Work is simply a necessity, part of a utilitarian dimension to life, but one which is distinct from the true centre and purpose of life. True human existence lies outside of work in the realm of leisure.

Although Pieper himself was a Catholic, it is in the approach to work of European Protestant theologians that his influence can be most clearly distinguished. Writers such as Barth and Ellul are representative of this perspective which sees work as overemphasised in our society. For them work is a simple necessity. They share Pieper’s concern to guard against the idealisation of work as the meaning of human life. They also highlight the more negative Biblical traditions regarding work. And of particular note for our purposes is the fact that these theologians do not dispense with talk of ‘vocation’ and ‘calling’ but offer a new interpretation.


Resistance to Catholic co-creationism was strong among a number of European Protestant theologians who took the view that work is just a simple necessity, given no prominence in the Bible, and consequently is not to be regarded as of any great importance for the life of faith. Barth exemplifies this view. He sees human work as a simple consequence of our existence as human creatures. It is not, in itself, ‘the active life’ required by God: that is obedience, which consists in a correspondence to (as distinct from a continuation of) divine action (Barth 1961: 471). Barth emphatically rejects co-creationism, or any view that seeks to elevate human culture. According to Barth,

It would be highly arrogant and materially more than doubtful to maintain that God’s work is improved or adorned by human labour ... It is pure assumption to suppose that this human activity is secretly identical with the action in which God Himself asserts and magnifies His glory ... Work is the typical earthly and creaturely act, which distinguishes man as the centre of the earthly creation. This is its dignity. In no sense is it heavenly or divine. When it tries to be, it can only be demonic. (Barth 1961: 520-521)

Karl Barth’s theology is a response to the confident ‘cultural Christianity’ of his teachers Adolf von Harnack and William Herrmann. He reacted against their support for Germany in World War I and against the German church’s cultural accommodation to Hitler, who emphasised the significance of ‘natural’ categories such as the volk (‘people’) and arbeit macht frei (‘work makes free’) - the motto on the gates of Dachau concentration camp (Preece 1995: 174). Barth was very wary of allowing creation any independent status as a category of theology apart from Christ. Barth relativises work by emphasising that we are not self-made. God’s work and the Christian life is larger than our work. Our work depends on God’s work, not our own creativity and effort.

Barth follows Emil Brunner in warning that

faithfulness in vocation must exclude any intention of radically reforming life. We must not think ourselves summoned to clean up the “places within the world” before we can decide to live in them. We must not become those for whom “no place in the world is good enough ... until he has put something within it to rights” ... Brunner’s prognosis ... is right: “His whole life is spent in this ceaseless endeavour to alter conditions, the personal meaning of life is forgotten, a nervous haste takes possession of him, and finally, since he is forced to admit that all these reforms do not alter anything essential, he falls into a state of mind which is either one of cynical resignation or of irritated hostility to everything and everyone ... The reform of life as a principle produces a way of living which ignores real life”. (Barth 1961: 641; Brunner 1937: 202-203)

Barth vigorously disputes the way the teaching of human dominion over creation has been used to provide a rationale for Capitalism, the development of technology and the work ethic. In Barth’s view, ‘we search ... the New Testament in vain for the passion with which the "subdue the earth" of Genesis 1:28 has been interpreted and applied since the 16th century (Barth 1961: 472). Barth sees economic necessity rather than cultural enterprise as the basic biblical view of work: ‘there is no option but to work. Hence one of the favourite insights of Protestant ethics, namely the importance of work to human personality and as a cultural enterprise is very much in the background, if not completely invisible (Barth 1961: 472)’. According to Barth, it is not accidental that there is no positive command to work, whereas there is an emphatic command to rest. Christ called his disciples away from their secular work rather than to it (Barth 1961: 472).

By picturing work as part of, but not the whole of, ‘the active life’, Barth deliberately counters ‘the myth of modern Western civilisation with its ethos of work.....very different from the command of God’. He challenges this ethos, maintaining that it has been exaggerated by Protestants. Barth warns that we should never over spiritualise work nor elevate it to the level of worship. Work is not prayer (Barth 1961: 474-5, 483). However Barth maintains that this critique

does not mean that we depreciate work ... Work has its place among the things which man is commanded to do, and in this place has its own dignity and importance. But ... the biblical witness enjoins greater reserve, and, greater relaxation than has become customary in Protestant ethics generally, not so much under biblical influences, but under the pressure of recent developments in European economy and economics. (Barth 1961: 473)

Although some of Barth’s observations may seem to be overstated, and only one-sided, it is difficult to reject entirely the disquiet he expresses when we now live at the end of a century in which life seems to have become more and more dominated by competitive market forces and economic concerns. Barth warns us of the danger of identifying vocation too closely with our work, especially employment, or any other cultural achievement.

According to Barth, work is part of God’s calling people out of themselves into the active life of service to the community. In creaturely humility, what God has done for the world should be imitated within a person’s circle of contact. Thus Barth sets work in a relational context and focusses on its significance as an expression of humble and unassuming service in contrast to much other modern theological talk of ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-redemption’ (Barth 1961: 487).

For Barth, the church’s unique vocation is to proclaim and live out the love of God before the watching world. Work is ‘an incidental but necessary prerequisite of service (Barth 1961: 525-6)’. Here God provides the means for us to survive and thus affirm our existence as human creatures, in order to go about our primary task of being Christian and proclaiming Christ.

Barth goes on to offer an ethic of work, spelling out what it means for work to be ‘specifically human in character ... and to serve the preservation, self-guarding, development and fashioning of human life’. He suggests five criteria for determining which work is proper work:

  1. Criterion of objectivity: setting ends and devoting one’s self to them.
  2. Criterion of worth: is it honest constructive work?
  3. Criterion of humanity: the social and co-operative dimension of work.
  4. Criterion of reflectivity: the person must be the active subject and not just passive object of work and there must be room for reflection.
  5. Criterion of limitation: work must not become an absolute, rest is also commanded. (Barth 1961: 528-63).

It is not clear how the criteria flow directly from Barth’s theology. They appear to represent Barth’s practical wisdom and reflections on the contemporary work scene rather than theological logic. However, Barth is clearly concerned about the need for worthwhile work, in terms of making some human contribution. But this also raises the question - who is going to bring this kind of work about - the individual, society, the Church, or do we simply wait for God’s Kingdom to come? Barth is vague at this point. Also his criteria seem to place a lot of onus on the individual and little on the necessity to change the orders of society. Hence they have been criticised for being too moralistic and burdensome where social conditions make them unrealistic (Preece 1995: 180-181).

Barth distinguishes between calling in the sense of vocation and calling as the divine summons. The latter calling is primary and relates to the way in which the God who calls and rules finds a person and challenges them to orientate themselves to be obedient, ‘to make the true and decisive choice of obedience in freedom (Barth 1961: 597)’. The goal of this calling is fellowship with Christ, so that ‘Christ is in Christians and they are in Him (Barth 1962: 547)’. Christ calls a person to attachment to himself and to His discipleship (Barth 1962: 555). But vocation has to do with the way God has constituted a person as their Creator and with discipleship where they are placed. Barth draws on Bonhoeffer to define vocation as ‘the place of responsibility’ (Barth 1961: 598). For Bonhoeffer this calling is the particular situation in which a person finds themselves being challenged to live out obedience to God. The calling is the place at which the call of Christ is answered, the place at which a person lives responsibly. It encompasses different circumstances and different roles.

According to Bonhoeffer, ‘From the standpoint of Christ my present situation is now my calling; from my own standpoint it is my responsibility (Bonhoeffer 1986: 255)’. Responsibility in one’s calling must never be reduced to just fulfilling professional duties. It involves obeying the concrete call of Jesus in our particular circumstances - a total response of the whole person to the whole reality.

Barth broadens the concept of vocation to go beyond the job and to include the work of caring for children, the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, and the work of mothers and housewives. Even those whose vocation is centred on their profession still work to live, rather than live to work. But he expresses particular concern for those whose profession can only be the circumference of their vocation. Vocation extends beyond profession, and is lived out in a range of different spheres of God’s calling. Barth maintains that while the concept of calling or vocation was certainly debased by its limitation to the monastic life during the Middle Ages, Luther still tied it too tightly to a static hierarchical role for life. While broadening the concept to include all the people of God in the priesthood of all believers, it was still fundamentally a vocation to a fixed role in feudal society, not to live dynamically out of one’s freedom before God. ‘The concept of calling was thus secularised rather than being essentially inner and spiritual (Barth 1961: 600-602)’. Luther separated the law of the created order from the gospel, but allowed too much scope for confusion of the existing order with God’s order. This allowed Christian concepts like vocation to be commandeered by feudal, or later by Capitalist society. By contrast, ‘Barth describes vocation as involving all the factors of age, circumstance and aptitude applied in each person taking up his/her special responsibility in relation to the divine calling (Hore-Lacy 1985: 53)’.

Barth is clearly agitated by modern over-estimations of the value of work. He warns that ‘the life of the human race is not exhausted in the process of labour, and therefore vocational participation [in the narrower sense of one’s job] is not in any sense the totality or even an indispensible part of what makes a [person human] (Barth 1961: 630)’. Barth agrees with Calvin against Luther that this vocation may change and that what abides is the calling, the Word, the command of God, not the sphere of service to which the person is led (Barth 1961: 646). For Preece, this part of Barth’s message is ‘a liberating word for all those who do not find fulfillment in the conventional employment ethic (1995: 183)’.

In his treatment of work Barth clearly moves well beyond the approach of those who only do a word study based on the biblical words for work. His theology of work is defined with reference to other fundamental themes of theology and Scripture. He provides a strong challenge to the employment ethos of the Western world. However this also exposes Barth’s weakness, because the way Barth downplays God’s activity in creation compared with redemption in Christ, in his attempt to counter the idolization of work, ends up undermining and minimising the sense of God’s constant involvement in our mundane working lives. While work, according to Barth, is essential for survival and to serve the central activities of the Church, cultural enterprises and attempts to enhance life by utilizing the resources of creation are very much secondary functions. Nevertheless, Barth’s critique of the domination of employment in current discussions of work and his concern to develop a doctrine of vocation that does not exalt human creativity above the work of God, add some important cautionary notes to our quest for a contemporary reinterpretation of vocation.


Within Catholicism in the 1950’s the theological perspectives of Pieper and Chenu, ‘leisure theology’ and ‘co-creationism’ respectively, were vying for dominance. At first the former view seemed more relevant, providing a corrective to the excessive materialism of the time. Karl Rahner, for example, argued that freedom from the domination of economic necessity provides more opportunity for what he calls ‘spiritual work’ and ‘spiritual leisure’ including love, fellowship, joy, dance, music, art and religion. For Rahner, ‘the shortening of the time for economically profitable work is therefore the self-discovery of the spirit to fulfill itself in acts of no economic value. It is a moment of the emancipation of the spirit as it realises itself in a domain beyond that of economics and material things (Rahner 1966: 387)’. For both Pieper and Rahner, authentic human existence lies beyond the reach of the work place. Yet it is not this point of view which would go on to dominate Catholic thinking. Instead it is the cocreationism of Chenu which received the ecclesiastical imprimatur of that momentuous watershed for Catholic theology, the Second Vatican Council.

The Catholic church was experiencing mounting pressure to prove it still had something important and relevant to say to the world. Religion was being pushed to the periphery of society. In the industrial world decisions were being made on the basis of economic and technological realities, not spiritual concerns.

The task facing the Council is illustrated by Reck’s (1964) description of the tension between ‘incarnationalism’ and ‘transcendence’ in Catholic thinking about work. Reck recognises that incarnational theology may fail to acknowledge the ambivalence of human progress and also fail to locate suffering as a real part of life, but he is even more afraid of the way an emphasis on transcendence seems inevitably to lead to an insistence on human powerlessness to make any morally significant change in this world. Reck argues,

it is necessary that we do precisely what is demanded in our circumstances to lessen the gap between the next world and its reflected prefigurement in this.....the current effort at formulating a theology of work is not merely an attempt to define the place of work and human progress in Christian life during an age in which improvement of the human milieu is both goal and achievement: it is also an attempt to define the place of Christianity in the most distinctive phase of twentieth century life. (Reck 1964: 38-39)

In response to this challenge the Second Vatican Council chose to affirm God’s blessing on humanity’s technological and economic achievements. This embracing of the secular achievements and aspirations of humanity by the church is expressed very clearly in the chapter on ‘Man’s Activity Throughout the World’, in Gaudium et Spes-Pastoral Constitution on the Church In the Modern World (hereafter GES) (Paul VI 1965b: 231- 238).

This is not to suggest the question of work had not been addressed before in official church teaching. Questions of unionism, wages, private property and Socialism had been addressed forcefully in a series of encyclicals dating back to 1891. But the theological meaning of work, had been touched only very superficially. GES provides a very clear statement of co-creationism:

when men and women provide for themselves and their families in such a way as to be of service to the community as well, they can rightly look upon their work as a prolongation of the work of the Creator, a service to their fellowmen, and their personal contribution to the fulfillment in history of the divine plan. Human achievements are not to be seen as opposing God’s power and purposes, but as a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of His own mysterious design. (Paul VI 1965b: 232)

GES also uses the doctrine of recapitulation to integrate the idea of human progress with traditional categories of soteriology (recapitulation includes the idea that in the incarnation the eternal Word joined all creation and all history together as one): ‘Thus He entered the world’s history as a perfect man, taking that history up into Himself and summarizing it (Paul VI 1965b: 236)’.

The final section addresses the eschatological problem of the ultimate significance of human activity on earth. While it does not go so far as to identify earthly progress with the Kingdom of God, it does say that such progress is of ‘vital concern’ to the Kingdom. There is some continuity between the fruits of our current enterprise and the coming Kingdom, which is ‘mysteriously present’ on earth already. The expectation of a new earth must not weaken, but rather should stimulate our concern to develop this earth (Paul VI 1965b: 237).

GES optimistically embraces human achievement, technological progress and economic growth. It does admit that not all human progress is positive, so its optimism is not unrestrained, recognising that human activity can become an instrument of sin. Nevertheless, it remains largely supportive of human progress. It represents a significant change in Catholic thinking about human work. Now doctrines such as co-creation and recapitulation are proclaimed as part of official church teaching. This call to humanise the world in the name of the coming Kingdom encourages believers to take their daily work seriously as a spiritual exercise. It is a sign of Catholicism developing a work ethic of its own.

This bold attempt by Vatican II to formulate a theology of work relevant for the modern world would both stimulate on-going debate in Catholic circles and shape the themes around which most of this discussion would revolve. Kaiser (1966), Savary (1967), Hebblethwaite (1968), Kelly (1969), Chenu (1970), and Goosen (1974) provide examples of this discussion. Most are positive in their assessment of GES and develop closely related themes themselves. Kelly however is critical of the optimism of Vatican II. He distinguishes the creationist, eschatological and secularist theologies which he sees woven together in GES and critically analyses this mix. According to Kelly, the basic failure is that these theologies generally don’t start from an understanding of work as it is. The Vatican II themes may be relevant for work that is physically productive and relatively fulfilling, but not to more unpleasant experiences of work. In the 1960s Western society was becoming more aware of alienation in the work place, especially on assembly lines. And this awareness of the oppressive and dehumanising effects of much work was dampening many people’s enthusiasm for co-creationist or eschatological theologies of work. Once again tensions stemming from changes in the context were building up pressure for new theologies of work to be fashioned. Kelly himself defines work as a service rendered to society, and normally to earn one’s living. But even he confesses that this leaves many ‘loose ends still untied’.

From a later vantage point Baum concludes: ‘these bishops and theologians, open, critical and reform-minded as they were, participated in the cultural optimism of the early Sixties. This optimism was grounded in the extraordinary progress that had been made in the West since World War II (Baum 1987: 13)’.

Discussion of vocation in the Vatican II documents is dominated by the identification of vocation with the calling of priests and religious into their religious ‘vocations’. However, there is also some discussion of the vocation of the laity with relation to their work in the world. This represents a significant change of emphasis in Catholic thinking. The ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (Lumen Gentium) states that,

the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations ... They are called there by God so that by exercising their proper function ... they can work for the sanctification of the world from within, in the manner of leaven. (Paul VI 1964: 57-58)

The same theme is underlined and expanded on in the ‘Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity’ (Apostolicam Actuositatem) which urges ‘the whole church to labour vigorously so that men may become capable of constructing the temporal order rightly and directing it to God through Christ....The laity must take on the renewal of the temporal order as their special obligation (Paul VI 1965a: 497-498)’.

It is GES which sharpens up this challenge:

for man, created to God’s image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains and to govern the world with justice and holiness ... This mandate concerns even the most ordinary everyday activities ... men and women ... can justly consider that by their labour they are unfolding the Creator’s work and contributing by their personal industry to the realisation in history of the divine plan. .. Therefore let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part and religious life on the other. The christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties toward his neighbour and even God and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. (Paul VI 1965b: 232. 243)

The beginnings of a convergence of Catholic and Protestant understandings of vocation were emerging. Further developments from this are identified in Chapter 4. However, within Protestant circles, the energetic discussions about work that characterised Vatican II took longer to develop. There was no equivalent theological summit meeting to provoke rapid changes in thinking. Later meetings of the World Council of Churches did not give the subjects of work and the vocation of the laity the priority that the Evanston Report suggested they should (WCC 1954: 104-115). And groups with a strong allegiance to the biblical texts on work experienced difficulty adapting their traditional interpretations to speak to new and changing modern work realities.


Catherwood (1966) provides a good example of the sort of thinking that has prevailed in conservative American and British Protestantism. He recognises the struggle many lay people have in relating an increasingly privatised religion to an increasingly secularised work place. Catherwood desires to help bridge the Sunday-Monday divide. What he offers is a practical response rather than a carefully reasoned theology of work. Catherwood is concerned that the industrialised West is losing some important elements of the Protestant work ethic and understanding of vocation.

For Catherwood the world and its resources were made for humanity to control and administer. The Christian ‘does not work simply to make money or pay the bills. He works because it is part of the divine order that he should work (Catherwood 1966: 2)’. And whatever work one has to do one must do it with enthusiasm, as if for God. A survey of biblical references endorses a strong work ethic: ‘it would be fair to deduce from this teaching that it is the duty of the Christian to use his abilities to the limit of his physical and mental capacity (Catherwood 1966: 8)’.

Catherwood stresses the importance of intellectual integrity, self-discipline, honesty and ‘sheer hard work’ as the hallmarks of a Christian at work. He is also very wary of increased leisure. To use increased wealth to increase one’s leisure rather than investing it wisely, or using it in Christian service, would be a ‘wrong attitude’ for a Christian.

Catherwood is representative of those conservative Protestants who emphasise the duty to work, the view of work as a necessity, the futility of human ambitions to reduce or do away with work, some concern for work reform but in a limited way (although a stronger emphasis on the need for reform is evident in the third edition (1980) of Catherwood’s book), an emphasis on personal evangelism and personal ethics and integrity. The matter of personal vocation is important for Catherwood, although he does not develop the doctrine of vocation at any length in this book. However, his discussion of the ‘Weber- Tawney Thesis’ which Catherwood adds as an ‘Appendix’ to the Third Edition (1980: 172-184) spells out his assumptions more plainly. According to Catherwood, ‘what does seem fairly clear is that Protestant Christianity has provided a necessary element in what was and as a rule still is, needed to encourage the development of science, commerce and industry (1980: 184)’. For Catherwood it is Calvinist Christianity which undergirds this Protestant ethic through a combination of Calvin’s doctrine of vocation and his insistance on the virtues of thrift and diligence, duty and responsibility. According to Catherwood these same concerns still need emphasising to produce a healthy economy and society. The acceptance of Catherwood’s message in conservative Protestant circles is evidenced by the succession of reprints this book has gone through over twenty years.


Another factor which has significantly influenced the development of a theology of work in Britain has been the experience of industrial mission. This tradition of industrial mission, mainly in the form of industrial chaplaincy, arose in the 1950’s. An early example of theological reflection born out of this interface between the church and the workplace is provided by Simon Phipps, based on his eight years of experience in industrial mission (Phipps 1966). What Phipps points towards is the development of a contextual theology. A ‘secular-based theology’ instead of a ‘Church-based theology’, a corollary of which is the essential involvement of the laity in the process of theologising. He is opposed to the privatisation of faith and to the false distinction between secular and sacred. For Phipps the secular world is the arena of dialogue with God:

if we ask what it means to say that God speaks to us in the secular, it means that our concern for what makes for and against justice and love, our sense of social responsibility and of human love, is in fact His pressure nudging us into alertness, to take notice and to respond. But essentially it is ordinary secular situations that mediate this message and press it upon us. (Phipps 1966: 27)

Phipps sees God at work in the processes of industry, technology and wealth creation. He also maintains that Christians have an important role to play engaging in critical ethical analysis in order to ‘disinfect human affairs from the passions of sectional self interest (Phipps 1966: 168)’. While Phipps draws some inspiration from theologians such as Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Cox who give prominence to God’s activity in the secular world and hence Christian’s responsibility in the secular sphere, it is his involvement in industrial mission which is most influential in shaping his point of view.

Margaret Kane is another example of a person involved in industrial mission who pleads for a theology grounded in praxis more than in a particular theological tradition:

It is present events which force us to ask questions and search for meaning. Theology must therefore start in the present and is in principle the concern of every person. This is contrary to the common view which sees theology as having its beginning and ending in a study of the Bible and other documents of the past, and of interest only to those who have special training. (Kane 1975: 20)

According to Kane, if such an approach were taken seriously it would require, ‘a revolution in the role of lay people in order that theology might truly become something we "do" together which begins with the actualities of life, which learns from lay experience and the experience of those outside the Church, and which issues in provisional forumlations of faith rather than providing prescriptive answers (Kane 1975: 20)’.

Loffler describes this new emerging theological method as ‘theology as process’ in contrast to ‘statement-orientated theology’. It is involvement which sets the theological process in motion: ‘the assumption is that the Mission of God is at work in what is going on in the world today and needs to be discovered, by participation in the events of our time, by joining the groups which strive for justice and peace, by being at the points of crisis and decision in society, by serving the poor and oppressed (Loffler 1971: 5)’. Dialectical interaction with the records of past response and action then takes place in the light of this involvement in order to enrich theological understanding and inspire new courses of action.

Various liberation theologies would go on to become the better known exemplars of this contextual method. But liberation theology was originally born out of a different context. The examples of contextual theology that have grown out of industrial mission have been birthed in the heartland of Western industrial society.

Later in the 1970s and 1980s it would be the spectre of the unemployment which dominated the British scene which would call for a Christian response. Among those who sought to respond to these issues with some theological reflection were Ballard 1982, 1987), Bleakley (1981, 1983, 1985, 1986), Clarke (1982), Moynagh (1985) and Stott (1979a, 1979b, 1984). Smith summarises the contribution of these writers:

these reflections have similarities in that they have sought to distance themselves from the traditional Protestant work ethic, while at the same time proposing a more positive view of human work (at times verging on cocreationism). From this basis they were able to name the unemployment crisis as a tragedy from a theological perspective, while tacitly lending support for more creative grass-roots responses to unemployment. (Smith 1990: 47)

Clearly the spectre of unemployment was challenging traditionl formulations of the work ethic in Britain and new Christian thinking was being stimulated. However, most often pastoral and ethical considerations tended to dominate over theological reflection, although the need to separate the notion of work from paid employment and to revalue domestic and voluntary work was plain. Alongside these was the need for a more flexible view of the connection between faith and work that could offer some sense of constancy in the midst of changing work circumstances. These factors clearly demanded a reinterpretation of the doctrine of vocation, or the introduction of some new categories. But this thinking was just beginning.

Another influential British Christian thinker on work in this period was Fritz Schumacher. He argues that the purpose of work is three-fold:

First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services. Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards. Third, to do so in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity. (Schumacher 1980: 3-4)

According to Schumacher ‘good work’ fosters all three functions.

Schumacher identifies four characteristics of modern industrial society which, in the light of the Gospels, must be considered four great evils:

  1. It’s vastly complicated nature.
  2. It’s continuous stimulation of, and reliance on, the deadly sins of envy and avarice.
  3. It’s destruction of the content and dignity of most forms of work.
  4. It’s authoritarian character, owing to organisation in excessively large units.

Schumacher also notes that ‘the question of what work does to the worker is hardly ever asked’ (Schumacher 1980: 3). For Schumacher it is essential to wrestle with this question. He recognises that work is one of the most decisivie formative influences on a person’s character and performance. Surely we should try to see work adapted to the needs of the worker rather than workers adapted to the needs of the work. Schumacher identifies what he calls bad work. Bad work is mechanical, artificial, restrictive, offers no challenge, no chance of growth, and must be rejected. Bad work is the result of the way we have used technology and allowed it to dominate workers. It is Schumacher’s aim to see ‘good work’ promoted and ‘ bad work’ eliminated.

While Schumacher does not discuss vocation as such, he does recognize that it is only possible to tackle the subject of good work meaningfully when we begin by clarifying ‘What is man? Where does he come from? What is the purpose of life?’ He is alarmed that ‘The Cartesian Revolution has removed the vertical dimension from our “map of knowledge”. Only the horizontal dimensions are left (Schumacher 1980: 113)’. Schumacher concludes ‘materialistic metaphysics’ is inadequate. A religious quest to answer the three questions posed above is ‘the most urgent need of our time’ (Schumacher 1980: 123). But while Schumacher may encourage us in our quest he does not move far beyond the questions themselves.


In America the work ethic also began to be examined. This is exemplified in the work of John Scanzoni a professor who was disturbed by the diminishing respect for work he perceived among his college students (Scanzoni 1973). Scanzoni argues, on the basis of Genesis 1:27-28, that work is a blend of obedience to God and the full freedom to express our uniqueness and creativity. After the Fall however, work becomes a necessity and, for most, synonymous with grinding labour. This is why work in Roman and Greek culture is looked down upon. But the Old Testament portrays work as honourable and pleasing to God. It is idleness which is offensive. However, later in the New Testament and early church this positive view of work is tempered with warnings about the dangers of succumbing to covetousness and greed. A wedge begins to be pushed between worldly activity and true religion. The Reformers overthrew this division and in time the idea grew that economic success is the sign of God’s blessing. The current problem, argues Scanzoni, stems from this confusion between the outcomes of work and the work itself. If work becomes only a means for increasing our material wealth then other dimensions of meaning are ignored. Work needs to be seen in the light of God’s purposes. Thus work can be fulfilling and satisfying: rather then being an ‘absurd exercise in futility’, it can be seen to have ‘implications for immortality and eternity’. Scanzoni calls specifically for opportunities for women and blacks to express their creative talents in a vocation.

Clearly the previously optimistic scenarios regarding human work were being seriously reassessed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dissatisfaction and alienation were widespread and being documented and publicised (e.g. O’Toole 1973 and Terkel 1974).

This promotion of the alienating and dehumanising aspects of work, combined with rising criticism of the Protestant work ethic, also caused Lutherans to reassess their notion of vocation. One response was to broaden the understanding of calling. Johnson, for example, speaks of ‘the call which comes to a man from the Bible, the vocatio, summons him not to a job, but to joy and gratitude in whatever he is doing. It is equally relevant at work or at play (Johnson 1968: 44)’. This was an attempt to relativise the role of employment and counteract the deification of work. Victor Hoffmann endorses this criticism of the Protestant work ethic and also calls for ‘a wider definition of divine vocation: it is a call, a divine address to the total life (Hoffmann V. 1970: 238)’. He suggests an alternative view based on ‘incarnational theology’.

Bengt Hoffmann also criticises the identification of vocation with occupationalism. He maintains ‘it embraces all of life, including the formal occupation (Hoffman B. 1970: 244)’. Hoffman pleads for Lutheran social ethics to consider a greater emphasis on creation, particularly God’s constant renewing of creation. He then combines this thinking with a view of the world as autonomous and secular, wherein ‘work for a better society is part of faith’s “yes” to life (Hoffmann B. 1970: 245)’. Hoffmann at this point draws on a tradition of Lutheran thought that includes Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Harvey Cox.


The approach adopted by Barth, and reminiscent of Pieper, remained influential in Europe, especially among Reformed theologians. The French layman Jacques Ellul was a particularly strong advocate of this Barthian perspective.

An article on Genesis written by Ellul in 1960 begins with these words: ‘today we are overwhelmed by the Myth of Work and overcome by the grandeur of technological accomplishments; and the Church, like everyone else, grants work a place of distinction in her thought. She begins to justify it, and to justify technique. Because technique is a great human achievement, we have had to legitimise it (Quoted in Smith 1990: 52)’. This idea of technique has no exact English equivalent. It means more than just method or technology. It involves a commitment to the most efficient way of doing things (see Ellul 1964; 1967).

For Ellul, technique comes after the Fall. Technique is a product of necessity and not of human freedom. Before the Fall Adam does not work in our sense of the word: rather he plays. All is given to him by God. Ellul is strongly opposed to co-creationist thinking. Ellul later writes of the relationship between work and vocation in terms reminiscent of Barth. Ellul stresses that work is a simple human necessity: ‘work is the painful lot of all men but is not particularly important (Ellul 1976: 495)’.

Work belongs in every sense to the order of necessity ... Work is no part of the order of grace, liberty, love and freedom ... Work has no ultimate or transcendent value before God. Before God it is simply that which makes our survival possible and keeps us in being ... Work is an everyday affair. It is banal. It is done without hope. It is neither a value nor is it creative ... when satisfaction is given ... when human work produces joy... we have to realise this is an exceptional event, a grace, a gift of God for which we must give thanks. (Ellul 1976: 505-506)

Ellul is determined to counter that ‘idealism which projects a marvellous future when everybody will be doing rich and meaningful work (Ellul 1976: 506)’.

For Ellul work has no absolute value. This is not to suggest work is completely devoid of relative value or interest. Work offers the possibility of sustaining life, of upholding the world and of a continuation of history. And this is God’s will. At this level we have a vocation. God calls us to work (of any kind) in order to keep going this world which he has not yet decided to stop and judge. From Ellul’s point of view work should neither be despised nor idealised.

Ellul’s concern is that the development of mechanization and extension of technique have caused vocation and work to become separated: ‘When a good technician is needed the man who is full of his vocation or divine calling is of no use. Vocation is a poor substitute for competence (1976: 502)’. At the same time, ‘when there is no sense of vocation, technique is frigidly applied ... the right notions replace human relations (1976: 502)’. We are left torn between meaningless work which offers no satisfaction and a vocation which it is no longer possible to incarnate. The pressure of capitalism, mechanization and technologization has resulted in a complete break between work and vocation and a crisis of vocation among Christians (1976: 502-503). Ellul is disturbed by the way the idea of vocation is still applied to particular (mainly middle-class) professions. This just encourages the development of a Christian elite. But he is also bothered by the thought that we try to find authentic life in leisure.

We cannot unify our life, or incarnate our Christian vocation, in our work or our leisure. We have to discover another form of activity which will express our Christian vocation and thus be an incarnation of our faith. A new idea of vocation is necessary. Ellul says

since our responsibility is to the world, this cannot be a purely inward affair nor a good work in the ordinary meaning of the term, eg. a work of charity. This vocation must find expression in an action that will have a social and collective impact which in one way or another can change the form of the world in which we are: an action that has to be gratuitous. As vocation is free and an expression of grace, so this activity must be free in return. (Ellul 1976: 507)

Hence this vocation will be distinct from our work, even though it may be related to it in some way.

This view of vocation leaves a number of loose ends. The separation between work and vocation is too neat. If what Ellul describes as vocation is work in its broader sense, then why should payment matter? Is he suggesting that technique must be banned from vocation altogether? Ellul, like Barth, seems to divorce vocation from creation in his strong desire to relate it to the freedom of the coming Kingdom and not to a person’s occupation. For Ellul creation is perfectly completed when humanity appears. There is no need to extend it or transform it. Humanity must relate to the world within the limits laid down by God. Although Smith notes that in Ellul’s commentary on Revelation written later, Ellul does conclude that human work is linked to God’s work in some way and there is some degree of continuity between work in this life and in the coming age (Smith 1990: Chapter 3.3).

Clearly the ongoing battle between co-creationism and Barth and Ellul’s view of work as necessity provides one of the main creative theological tensions in discussions about work and vocation during the last fifty years. This Barthian view also influenced others in Europe. Two scholars from the Uppsala School examined the biblical attitude to work in 1962. Ivan Engnell (1962) concluded from his examination of the Old Testament material that the attitude to work is consistently negative. And G’Artner (1962) came to a similar conclusion about the New Testament.


At the end of the 1970s Catholic expectations of further significant developments in the theology of work were ignited by the election of John Paul II. His first encyclical contained a clear statement of his agenda: ‘the essential meeting of the "kingship" and "dominion" of man over the visible world, which the Creator Himself gave to 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 (John Paul II 1979: 31, section 16)’. Thus the firm outline of a new theology of work was already developing before the emergence of the influential Papal encyclical Laborem Exercens (hereafter LE) (John Paul II 1981). But it was this encyclical which put human labour at the centre of social concerns. Not only was it received very positively at the time, but it has dominated Catholic thinking about work ever since.

LE tries harder than most other discussions to maintain a broad definition of work, although frequently it does identify work as employment. This highlights the difficulty of establishing and sustaining a wider definition of work.

LE attempts to incorporate insights from a variety of different sources; to draw on biblical motifs, to maintain continuity with the traditions of the church, to dialogue with Marxism, to include elements of personalism and to address contemporary work issues, including conflict between labour and capital, the rights of workers and a spirituality for work. Ronald Preston notes that LE invites lay people to share in the construction of social teaching in a way that is rare in the utterances of the Magisterium (Preston 1983: 23-23).

Co-creationism is promoted through emphasising particular biblical themes, especially those stemming from the early chapters of Genesis (specifically Genesis 1: 26-28). In line with other co-creationists John Paul II urges that humanity shares through work in the activity of the Creator:

The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation. (John Paul II 1981: 95)

Through work the ‘dominion’ of humanity is confirmed and every individual takes part in the process whereby humanity subdues the earth (John Paul II 1981: 27). Technology is an ally in this process although John Paul II strongly emphases that the human person is the subject of work and never the object. Thus in his dialogue with Marxism John Paul II comes to a personalist conclusion.

John Paul II claims that through work a person not only transforms nature, but also acheives fulfilment as a human being ‘and indeed, in a sense becomes more a human being (John Paul II 1981: 39)’. He asserts this with reference to the moral development of humanity and cultvation of the ‘virtue of industriousness’ rather than the Marxist idea that humanity is its own maker. However, as Preece warns, ‘the person and performance of a particular task can easily become indistinguishable. People are then justified by their job rather than by faith (Preece 1994: 17)’. LE also seems to take little account of those people, who for reasons of age, disability or unemployment, cannot work in this more restricted sense.Are their lives of lesser value than those of diligent workers? In spite of his expressed desire to uphold a wider view of work the Pope primarily addresses people in traditional jobs.

Although John Paul II views creation as a continuing process in which humanity participates he also recognises that the Fall has added an ambiguity to work. But he maintains that this is not so pronounced as to detract from its original purpose. However, mention of the curse upon work is only fleeting and, like the more rigorous ascetic Catholic thinking of the Middle Ages and in Jansenism, emphasis is placed on the way the hardship involved in work can be turned to spiritual advantage.

Stanley Hauerwas (1995) expresses dismay with the way John Paul II speaks so loosely of human work in terms of ‘share in the work of the Creator’, ‘dominate’ and ‘master’. And with the way LE says technology ‘facilitates, perfects, accelerates and augments’ our work (Hauerwas 1995: 114). According to Hauerwas the concept of work as co-creation is ‘a remarkably bad idea’ and John Paul II has produced an excessively ‘romantic theology of work’ (Hauerwas 1995: 119). Another Protestant writer describes LE as ‘having a persistent air of natural law optimism (Attwood 1987)’. LE shows little awareness of attacks made on the ‘Protestant work ethic’ and its associated stresses on human dominion. According to Preece, ‘John Paul’s rather grand view of work and technology reminds one of the “secularizing theologians” of the 1960s who tried to show that the Christian doctrine of creation deserved the credit for Western technological achievements (Preece 1995: 206)’. But Preece also notes ‘when technological optimism changed to ecological pessimissim, this claim backfired (Preece 1995: 206)’. LE does not recognise the growing ecological concern that demands a revision of traditional ‘dominion’ theology. However, we do note that John Paul II has attempted to redress this imbalance in Peace With God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation (1990).

The optimistic theology and ‘this worldly’ eschatology of LE do risk confusing the evolution of human culture with the Kingdom of God. This contrasts sharply with Barth and Ellul’s pessimistic separation of the two. The encyclical addresses the same question as the Second Vatican Council, ‘Is this new good - the fruit of human work - already a small part of that new earth, where justice dwells? (John Paul II 1981: 106)’. And with the Council it replies: ‘the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age (John Paul II 1981: 106-107)’. Work united with prayer has a place not only ‘in earthly progress but also in the development of the Kingdom of God (John Paul II 1981: 107)’. Although John Paul II acknowledges that ‘earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s Kingdom’ he also asserts that this gives rise to a tension that is not resolved. Goosen states that ‘Vatican II guides us in avoiding the extreme positions of the dual-eschatologists, who see no connection between earthly work and Christ’s coming and the evolutionists-incarnationalists, who see too direct a connection and who attribute a saving value in the strict sense to earthly activities (Goosen1974: 72)’. It would seem that Barth and, even more so Ellul, err towards the former extreme, while John Paul II moves towards the latter. But we do note that John Paul II’s later encyclical ‘Centesimus Annus’ (1991) makes a clearer distinction between human culture and God’s Kingdom, which may lead to a more modest and realistic assessment of work and technology. However, even if LE is criticised for embracing the working world and reviving the work ethic too enthusiastically, it is also applauded for the way it has encouraged the Catholic church out of the cloister into the working world after centuries of neglect.

The Pope does not develop the doctrine of vocation as such in LE. However, he clearly states that the approach to work he develops in this encyclical is built on the understandings of calling and vocation which are developed in Chapter 1 of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (Paul VI 1965b) which we discussed earlier in Chapter 2.7 (John Paul II 1981: 27).


Canadian Paul Marshall has written two essays on the theology of work (1980; 1988). Marshall looks to the Bible for authoritative teaching on the matter of human work. He attempts to establish the distinctiveness of the biblical perspective on work. He speaks of ‘the high value the Scriptures put on work (1988: 199)’ and concludes that ‘one needn’t look just to Protestantism for a high view of work; the Bible is full of it (1980: 2)’. According to Marshall, the Bible portrays a very different view of work compared with other ancient sources: ‘the biblical authors stand out starkly in their praise of even the humblest honest labour. The Bible was a radical document in respect to work (1980: 6- 7)’.

Marshall assumes that the Bible is normative for doctrine and ethics, that its various elements can be harmonised and form a unity, and that different parts of the Bible are to be given equal weight in establishing doctrine. Marshall does not appear to be disturbed about how much modern work patterns differ from those of biblical times. Like most other recent theologians, Marshall concentrates attention on the early chapters of Genesis. He sees a connection between human work and God’s creative work: ‘our calling is to obediently serve in the healing, renewing and unfolding of God’s good creation (Marshall 1980: 16)’. But generally in this earlier essay he is reluctant to talk about an unfinished creation, in the way that co-creationists do. For Marshall, creation is essentially completed from the beginning, even though now it is in need of renewal and restoration because of the Fall. However his later essay goes further, and may reflect the influence of co-creationist thinking, when he talks about human involvement in the continuing process of creation: ‘human molding of the earth is the continuation of God’s creative acts (Marshall 1988: 206)’. Marshall refers to the ‘cultural mandate’ in Genesis 1: 28 saying that it is in terms of this mandate that our calling to work must be understood: ‘God made humankind in order to fill and care for the earth: it is how and why we were made, it is built into who we are (Marshall 1988: 206)’. Work is not an afterthought or secondary consideration after the fact of creation. Marshall also links the Genesis notion of the ‘image of God’ to human creativity: ‘in Genesis the image seems specifically to refer to lordship and creation, to having dominion over the world and being creative in it. We are those who are called to image God by our activities in shaping, forming and caring for God’s creation (Marshall 1988: 206)’.

Marshall provides us with an example of a scholar from a conservative Reformed tradition who is cautiously moving to adopt some elements of co-creationism. He demonstrates how influential co-creationism has become in shaping theologies of work in the post-war period.

The nature of the struggle this represents for Marshall is evident in the way he interprets the Fall. Conservative interpretations usually emphasise the enduring historical consequences of the Fall. However, Marshall maintains that the Fall does not undo the original creation and the place assigned to human work in it. Sin distorts the world that God made but has not replaced it, nor suspended the cultural mandate: ‘In Jesus Christ this mandate is renewed, is being redeemed and will be perfected (Marshall 1988: 207)’. But still the effects of the Fall endure and place limitations on the prospects for basic work reforms: ‘Human stewardship is made perfect at the coming of Christ (Marshall 1985: 207)’. Hence Marshall ends up somewhere between the traditional conservative position and co-creationism. This gives rise to a tension that Marshall does not resolve.

Marshall also includes discussion of many other portions of the Old Testament to reinforce his contention that the Bible provides us with a positive vision of human work. With reference to the New Testament, Marshall concludes ‘we find a people immersed in the life and problems of working people (Marshall 1980: 2)’. Marshall asserts that this is especially true of Jesus, on the basis that Jesus was a carpenter for most of his life, that his disciples were mostly working people and that his parables are often built around the life of working people.

It is the teaching of Paul that Marshall develops at most length. Marshall argues that Paul’s views are ‘in radical opposition to the attitudes of Hellenistic culture’. To support this, Marshall maintains

Paul criticised idleness and exhorted Christians to work ... He made no distinction between physical and spiritual work, and he used the same terms to refer to both the manual labour by which he earned a living and also his apostolic service ... Paul himself worked with his hands so as not to be a burden on the church and he urges believers to do the same ... He was asserting that a life of leisure, religious contemplation, or eschatological abdication was a deficient life - that all members of the church should work. (Marshall 1988: 208-209)

Quoting Isaiah 65: 21-22, Marshall notes that even the new heavens and new earth will include work. He concludes that, ‘work can be and will be fully redeemed and taken up as authenically free human action in the new creation (Marshall 1988: 209)’. However he also notes that for the present ‘work has fallen under the curse of sin and so is torn with pain and suffering. But the curse is not the core of work: it is a cancer upon it (Marshall 1988: 209)’. We are never to accept the pain in work passively. We are called to fight the effects of sin on work: ‘we are called continually to struggle to transform the work of all human creatures into secure, free and joyful service (Marshall 1988: 214)’. But, for Marshall, we undertake this fight in the knowledge that ultimate reform is essentially impossible. Here again we find ambiguous statements that highlight the ongoing tension and struggle between conservatism and co-creationism.

Marshall also gives more prominence than many other theologians to the biblical tradition of rest. ‘Our mandate and calling’, he argues, ‘is to image God in every dimension of our existence (Marshall 1988: 214)’. This includes rest. He traces the development of rest as a significant biblical theme which reminds us that work has no right to dominate our lives. He is strongly critical of the modern secular stress on the salvific nature of work. Marshall warns, ‘If we trust the work of our hands, then we will be controlled and shaped by that work: we will be remade in its image (Marshall 1988: 213)’. He maintains that we have fallen into this trap: ‘It is a situation where "the economy" is hallowed. It is a situation where unemployment has the overtones of excommunication. It is a situation of capitivity to idols (Marshall 1988: 213)’.

Marshall sees rest on an equal footing with work. Rest is not just recuperation from, and preparation for, work. Rest has a significance of its own: ‘one part of our calling is the calling to rest (Marshall 1988: 214)’. In fact, in the Bible, salvation is pictured as rest. Rest is a time to cease from striving and as such sharply contrasts with much modern leisure which is often full of frenetic activity, consumption oriented and preoccupied with distractions. However, Marshall does not go on to explore in detail how one responds in practice to these competing callings to work and to rest.

Marshall demonstrates a keen interest in the idea of vocation. However, he does not attempt a biblical analysis of this concept. Rather, Marshall’s concept of callings grows out of the Reformed tradition. His main focus is on the confusion which arose at the time of the Reformation about the relationship between occupation and vocation. It is for this reason that he is keen to explore the concept of rest and other factors which will cause us to recognise the limits of work.

According to Marshall there are limits on our work and on our achievement. These arise from both the nature of created reality and the consequences of sin. If we overemphasise our own resources and abilities we end up deluded into thinking we are God and replaying Babel. If we over-emphasise the consequences of sin we end up paralysed and despairing. For Marshall, a new interpretation and development of the Reformed doctrine of vocation is required to enable us to walk this tightrope. Marshall appreciates the way that Barth and Ellul uncover many of the unbiblical and secular elements that have corrupted the way Protestantism has developed its doctrine of calling. Protestantism has misidentified calling with job or profession and urged that we find our place in the social and economic order and do what it requires, albeit honestly and with integrity. However, Barth and Ellul’s solution to this secularisation of calling fails because it divorces vocation from this creation altogether. For them, vocation relates only to the coming of God’s kingdom, which is almost completely unrelated to God’s created order. Marshall sees this view of work as necessity as just an echo of Augustine and Aquinas in a new garb: ‘although different in intent, the position is not too different in substance to that of the fundamentalist who only accepts work in the "world" for income in order to allow the true obedience of evangelism and piety (Marshall 1988: 15)’.

So while Marshall applauds the analysis of Barth and Ellul he rejects their solution. For Marshall the Fall does not mean this creation can no longer be a proper sphere of obedience. Through our sin the creation is fallen and we know we need to be redeemed from this condition. But as Paul teaches us ‘it was through Christ that the world was made’ and ‘even now it is Christ who upholds the world and through Christ the whole creation will be redeemed’. ‘Redemption is not the negation of creation but its renewal! (Marshall 1980: 15)’. This creation is still a proper sphere of obedience. If the Reformers confused vocation, work and job, it is our task to rediscover a better and bigger and more Biblical view of vocation: ‘Our calling is to obediently serve in the healing, renewing and unfolding of God’s good creation (Marshall 1980: 16)’. This covers all our activities, no matter how mundane, including work and employment. These are not the totality of our vocation, but they have a place. What makes true vocation?

We need to distinguish between those things which are the result of sin and those which reflect God’s good creation no matter how broken ... We must seek to serve in ways that, in the light of justice and stewardship, will bring genuine healing ... The growth of christian community and mutual support will enable more of us to take up truly stewardly work. The sort of work we are to do is never something that can be decided abstractly and in isolation; it depends on the whole state of the polity, society and economy we live in. We can never take this world for granted, but we must seek to reform it through all our actions. (Marshall 1980: 16)

However, Marshall remains concerned about the danger of becoming obsessed with our work: ‘Our vocation is not in the first place to do a particular task, but to be christian in all our relationships in God’s creation ... this means, among other things, that we are called to rest (Marshall 1980: 16)’.

We certainly must not identify work as the totality of our calling: ‘we are called to be and to live as Christians: work is only one part of this (Marshall 1988: 212)’. Because we must worship God rather than idols, we must find our true end in what God has given, not in what we can achieve. Marshall continues to look for a way of reinterpreting vocation that draws together threads from the reformed, co-creationist and rest traditions.


We have just observed how Paul Marshall attempts to combine themes from the reformed, co-creationist and rest traditions. Dorothee Soelle’s To Work and to Love (1984) also represents an attempt to pull together different streams of theology in the process of developing a Christian perspective on work. Soelle begins by developing a theology of creation. It is from this foundation that she explores the themes of work and sexuality. Secondly, Soelle attempts to apply liberationist perspectives to work realities in the First World. Thirdly, Soelle provides an example of Protestant usage of cocreationist categories. Fourthly, Soelle reflects a feminist perspective. Fifthly, Soelle values the insights of Marx. And sixthly, Soelle is also indebted to Process Theology.

Soelle’s co-creationism is not so much just one element in her theology of work, but the framework for her theology of creation. Working and loving are seen as the two vital elements in our role as co-creators with God. At the same time Soelle’s liberationist perspective causes her to question some aspects of the creation tradition.

For Soelle the Exodus tradition (of liberation from Egyptian oppression and slavery) precedes the creation tradition from Genesis. Our task, she argues, is to engage in ‘scrutiny and questioning of the Christian tradition (Soelle 1984: 13)’. We must select ‘liberating’ traditions from those available to us in Scripture. And we must reject ‘repressive’ traditions. Hence with relation to the creation tradition she asks ‘which elements in creation faith and creation thought are liberating and which are oppressive? (Soelle 1984: 13)’.

Having asserted the primacy of the liberation tradition Soelle then goes on to challenge a number of traditional Christian beliefs (for example, creation as separate from God, the curse) and to formulate new traditions (for example, the image of the vineyard is used as a counter to the curse tradition) (Soelle 1984: 80-81). Soelle is also comfortable borrowing traditions from other cultures appearing to give them status equal to those in the Bible (e.g.Soelle 1984: 17-18). Liberation is the all-important principle.

Soelle strongly opposes the traditional view that creation was completed at the beginning: ‘one premise underlying my concept of co-creation is that the first creation is unfinished. Creation continues; it is an on-going process (Soelle 1984: 37’)’. She warns that, ‘we cannot afford to have a naive trust in the first creation (Soelle 1984:165)’. This is because it promotes fatalism. If the fate of the earth is in God’s hands, we fail to take responsibility for our creative work.

Soelle is also wary of the way in which the creation myth accentuates the domination of humanity over the earth. She argues that, because this has been accentuated, the distinctiveness of human beings over the rest of creation is overstated and we lose reverence for the rest of life. Soelle is aware that other co-creationists have been criticized for over-emphasizing the creative significance of human activity and ignoring concern for the environment. Because Soelle sees the problem related to the way that traditional theology has pictured creation separate from God, she seeks to respond to contemporary ecological concerns by moderating her co-creationism with a pantheism drawn from Process Theology. She asserts that ‘each nuclear bomb is a threat to undo creation and a harbinger of nothingness (Soelle 1984: 38)’.

For Soelle work is one way humans give evidence of being made in the ‘image of God’. Therefore work is an essential aspect of life and failure to provide someone with satisfying work is a serious matter, for it is to deny that person’s being created in the image of God (Soelle 1984: 70-71). But Soelle also emphasises the importance of giving expression to the image of God by imitating God in the way we strive for justice in the world and in becoming lovers like God (Soelle 1984: 42-44). There is a clear link between being in the image of God and being co-creators with God.

For Soelle the Fall and curse narrative is ‘the story of a rise in human development rather than the story of our fall into guilt and sin. It is a story about growing up, about leaving the parent, about attaining adulthood by affirming the right to choose to contradict the authoritative voice of the parent God (Soelle 1984: 74)’. Soelle maintains that Protestantism has overstated the importance of the Fall. Human beings are fallen but not destroyed; creation continues.

Soelle also mentions the vital place of rest, but not with any clear indication of it placing limits on work. We fulfill our co-creative responsibilities through both work and rest, but it is work that seems to dominate. Soelle links the Sabbath command to the liberation tradition rather than the creation tradition which is more usual.

In considering the New Testament material Soelle makes almost no reference to the life and teaching of Jesus, although she explains that she is attempting to correct her own ‘theological over-emphasis on Christ (Soelle 1984: 5)’. And, in contrast to Marshall and others, Soelle develops her theology of work with little reference to the writings of the apostle Paul. Nor does Soelle emphasise the eschatological dimensions of human work. She is more concerned with the process of creation in which we participate through our work, and not the end-result. The focus is on the present struggle to become creators and liberators and lovers in the face of opposition. And, because Soelle recognises the ongoing intensity of this struggle, she also emphasises the importance of hope:

Hope does not depend for its existence on what a person can do for herself; it is inseparable from faith in a transcendent power that some call God ... A Godideology without hope is not faith. Hope tells us that God will work God’s will. From my perspective, God’s will is justice for all. (Soelle 1984: 160-161)

For Soelle God is not distinct from the world and the traditional categories of salvation and eschatology are reinterpreted in the light of her understanding of liberation.

Following this line, Soelle makes no attempt to explore traditional Christian notions of the doctrine of vocation. For Soelle our human vocation is to participate in the process of liberation:

As human beings, we are born into the process of liberation. If we fail to take this project seriously we miss our vocation ... We can deny neither our frailty, earthiness, and mortality, nor the ontological project of liberation that God has in mind for all of us ... The tension between these two poles of our self understanding seems irreconcilable until we realise that affirming our createdness means embracing both sides of the dialectic. (Soelle 1984: 29)

Unfortunately, Soelle fails to define clearly what she means by work. Soelle says that she wants to attempt a broad definition: ‘we have to de-ideologize ourselves from one of the most prevailing ideologies of our time, which is that work means paid work (Soelle 1984: 60)’. Yet, later she goes on to propose the following definition ‘The purpose of work is to provide ourselves with the goods essential for our subsistence (Soelle 1984: 60-61)’. Perhaps her identification of working and loving as two separate aspects of cocreation pushes towards a narrow view of work as employment in spite of her best intentions. Perhaps her interest in Marx also reinforces this tendency to identify work as physical labour rather than intellectual, artistic or social work.


Graeme Smith has made a comprehensive and comparative study of post-war theologies of work up to and including the 1980s (Smith 1990). We note below some of his conclusions which have particular relevance for our study.

(a) The Problem of Definition.

Work is a much broader concept than ‘employment’ and yet, because the latter has been the centre of debate and policy-making, as well as coming to dominate the lives of individuals and families, it has tended to engulf its less precise parent (Smith 1990: Chapter 5.1). The result is that when the term ‘work’ is used, more often the reference is to ‘employment’. The wider usage of the term ‘work’ is under threat. It is not only that employment has become the main form of economic work, but it has also become the major indicator of social class and prestige.

Although most writers seem aware of the need for a wider definition of work, they demonstrate that it is hard to sustain. Smith maintains that this is understandable, because the association of work with employment is so entrenched in Western culture, but it is not excusable: ‘it is a problem of carelessness more than ignorance’. A wider definition of work is essential if non-economic work is to be placed on an equal footing with economic work. It is not just a matter of including ‘unpaid employment’. The broad spectrum of purposeful human activity comes into view; reproductive as well as productive work, the work of building people and communities as well as building goods for sale, artistic work as well as commercial work. All of this relativises paid employment and opens up the question of the comparative importance of various types of work. Unfortunately these possibilities are largely missed in these recent theologies of work because of their failure to maintain adequate distinctions between concepts such as ‘work’ and ‘employment’. Just how difficult this is is illustrated in the way Smith himself struggles to consistently maintain a broad definition of work. A struggle which we find ourselves engaged in during the course of this thesis.

(b) Different Approaches to the Bible.

All the theologians Smith deals with claim some basis and authority for their views on the strength of biblical texts. Yet they come to very different conclusions. They clearly approach the Bible differently and employ different hermeneutical principles. Smith identifies the following areas of doctrine in which these divergences are particularly pronounced.

  1. Different views of creation.
  2. Different evaluations of the importance of work before the Fall.
  3. Differences in understanding the impact of the Fall.
  4. Genesis 1-3 is overemphasised at the expense of Genesis 4-11.
  5. The diversity of work traditions in the Old Testament is ignored.
  6. The fact that Jesus worked is over-emphasised whereas his relevant parallel teachings are under-emphasised.
  7. Variation in understanding the relationships between human work and soteriology.
  8. Paul’s attitude to work is under-emphasised.
  9. The link between human and divine creativity is interpreted differently.
  10. The rest tradition is under-emphasised by the co-creationists.

A summary of Smith’s comments can be found in Appendix 1: Doctrinal Differences in Theologies of Work Accoding to Graeme Smith.

(c) A Selective Approach to the History of Work.

Smith maintains that generally theologians have not taken history of work seriously as an independent influence in the formation of their theologies of work (Smith 1990: Chapter 4). They use historical examples to explain some contemporary work issues, but these usually demonstrate the outworking of biblical or Marxist principles rather than form the basis for shaping new principles. It is the history of ideologies of work that is cited more often than the history of work itself. And while writers such as Ellul and John Paul II exhibit a greater engagement with historical issues than most, none takes very seriously the history of work in its full sweep.

Also notably absent from most recent theologies of work is a serious discussion of the Early Church’s teachings and practices regarding work. Kaiser is an exception to this (Kaiser 1966: 81-155), but few others explore the contribution of the Church Fathers in any depth. Smith considers this strange in light of the fact that the contributions of Augustine and Maximus (see Chenu 1963: 77-82) in particular would seem to have exerted a significant influence on modern theologies of work, especially co-creationism. Also the monastic movement incorporated work into its daily rhythm of worship, thus giving human labour some theological prominence as well as developing that ascetic spirit which has been linked with the development of modern capitalism. We would expect some serious analysis here.

Smith also argues that the repercussions of industrialisation have not been given sufficient attention. Industrialisation brought with it fundamental changes in the relationship between work, family and local community, in the division of labour between the sexes, in the priority given to employment, in the attitudes to time, leisure and material advancement and in the very definition of work. These are different issues to those normally highlighted by Marxist analysis which tends to focus on the new power relationships in the work place and the new relationship between worker and machine. Smith asserts that it is these ‘forgotten’ changes brought about by industrialisation which have exerted the most influence on modern society and which cry out for a Christian response. Smith concludes that the main casualty in this process has been the proper consideration of women’s work.

It is clear that the influence of Marxism has been extensive. The motif of alienation in particular has found fertile soil among most recent writers. In fact, some would argue that the influence of Marxism has been excessive, especially in the doctrine of cocreation. But it is evident that the magnitude and direction of the influence of Marx varies from theologian to theologian. According to Smith, ‘Marshall acknowledges Marx; Ellul appropriates him; John Paul II accommodates him; and Soelle adopts him!’ For Marshall it is biblical authority which holds sway. However, Soelle manifests a strong endorsement of Marxism and a committment to Marxist categories. Smith contrasts Soelle’s uncritical approach to Marx and communism with her very critical approach to the Bible and to church tradition. He sees in Ellul a correlation between biblical truth and historical reality as mediated partly through Marxist categories, especially alienation. But Ellul also perceives other themes in human history, especially the rise to dominance of technique. So his reliance on Marx is partial; on balance it may be that biblical authority wins out. Laborem Exercens obviously reflects John Paul II’s personal journey and the deep struggles in his native Poland. He enters into dialogue with Marxism in a significant way and seeks to reinterpret many of its basic doctrines and assumptions. In the theology of John Paul II the balance between biblical authority, Church tradition, personalism and Marxism is complex and delicately woven.

Smith concludes that ‘the influence of Marxism on the theology of work has been substantial. Particularly through the development of personalism, co-creationism and liberationism’. Not that this influence implies uniformity, nor even convergence. Great divergences of opinion are evident. But we cannot ignore the important influence Marx has exerted on most modern theologies of work: ‘the attitudes of these writers to Marx ... ranks in importance second only to their interpretation of the Bible. The two themes are not unrelated, for they represent two alternative sources of legitimisation and authority (Smith 1990: Chapter 6)’.

(d) The Biblical Concept of Vocation is Inadequately Treated.

According to Smith most recent theologies of work give little status to the concept of vocation (Smith 1990: Chapter 5.13). Those that do, such as Marshall and Ellul, tend to lack a sound biblical assessment. Karl Barth provides a more in-depth assessment. As Barth puts it, ‘ in the New Testament "klesis" always means quite unambiguously the divine calling, i.e., the act of the call of God issued in Jesus Christ by which a man is transplanted into his new state as a Christian. (Barth 1961: 600)’.

The ethical dimensions of this calling are often traced (eg. ‘you have been called to peace/hope/freedom/holiness/out of darkness’), but more often it is the fact of that calling which is brought to mind. Occasionally calling may also refer to specific commissionings: Paul is called to be an apostle; Barnabas and Saul are set apart for the work to which God has called them; and of course there are the specific callings of the disciples themselves. The principal meaning then is our being called to God; another meaning is that we may be called to undertake specific tasks or fulfill certain roles for God.

Smith briefly traces developments in the doctrine of vocation from the Middle Ages to the present. His interpretation can be summarized in the following way. In the Middle Ages the Church had a very narrow view of calling and the tasks that it entailed. Vocation was limited to spiritual as against secular occupations. Even in more recent Catholic scholarship work is seldom mentioned in the context of vocation. The Reformers protested against this restricted view of vocation, claiming that God’s call could apply to secular occupations as well. But Luther’s emphasis on the divine calling which addresses each person in their secular status or sphere of activity led to a confusion of the divine call with the secular demands of the occupation itself. It was a short step from this stage to the complete secularisation of the concept of vocation. Hence most Protestant discussions of vocation have tended to focus on the responsibilities of a person as family member, citizen and worker.

The rigidities in both Catholic and Protestant conceptions of vocation, combined with the increasing secularisation of the concept, led to the attempts in neo-orthodoxy to return to a biblical concept of calling. Both Bonhoeffer and Barth assert that the divine call must be given independence from and authority over the secular requirements of one’s occupation. While one’s occupation may form part of the human response to the divine calling, it nowhere near exhausts it. This more existential concept of the divine call and human response challenges the notion of human occupation as vocation.

Smith is clearly attracted to Paul Marshall’s attempt to draw together threads from the reformed, co-creationist and rest traditions. However Smith would also like to add a mildly liberationist perspective to this mix. This liberationist perspective includes both identification with the poor and needy and the challenge to do our theologising contextually, alert to the presence of God in the context of our daily work, as we encounter people and engage situations. The present writer finds the mix that Smith advocates here an attractive proposition.

Smith sees vocation as specific obedience to God’s will, as we seek after it and as it is disclosed to us. It involves moving in step with God. It is primarily an existential notion rather than something reduced by a theological system to a set of laws, whether they be laws of morality, laws of spiritual experience or laws of political action. Smith seeks a view of vocation which can guide us along a path between what he calls ‘privatised religion’ and ‘politicised religion’.

Smith believes that James Fowler’s attempts to revitalise the Christian concept of vocation hold some promise. He is drawn to Fowler’s idea of calling as partnership or synergy with God in God’s work in the world:

the shaping of vocation as total response of the self to the address of God involves the orchestration of our leisure, our relationships, our work, our private life, our public life, and of the resources we steward, so as to put it all at the disposal of God’s purposes in the service of God and the neighbour. (Fowler 1985: 95; Smith 1990: Chapter 6e)

Smith also likes Fowler’s identification of vocation as something dynamic, with a focus which changes over time, while continuing as a calling which becomes more intense: ‘in an age when one’s family and employment no longer hold the promise of providing a unifying focus for one’s life journey, this revived notion of vocation is relevant and timely (Smith 1990: Chapter 6e)’. For Smith this adds an important time dimension to the theology of work. We will further discuss Fowler’s contribution in Chapter Three.


Leland Ryken is Professor of English at Wheaton College, Illinois. In Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective (1987) Ryken provides a popular treatment of issues raised by the experience of work and leisure. However, he deals with these issues at more depth than most other popular lay perspectives provide. This is particularly true of the way he introduces historical and biblical material.

Ryken provides an interesting historical perspective on the development of the Protestant Work Ethic, based particularly on his familiarity with writings of the Puritans. According to Ryken, the original Protestant Work Ethic was almost the opposite of what people today take it to mean:

starting from the assumption that work is a virtue and idleness a vice, the original Protestants asserted the sanctity of all legitimate types of work, viewing them as the response of a steward to a call from God. Service to God and society was viewed as the ultimate goal of work, which was to be undertaken with a sense of moderation. (Ryken 1987: 100)

For Ryken these ideas about work remain a standard to guide Christian thought on work today.

Ryken builds his theology of work on five themes - human work as co-operation with God, work as a curse, the sanctity of daily work, work as a calling, and work as stewardship. The last three elements are essential for the reclamation of work in a fallen world (Ryken 1987: 132).

In developing his understanding of the doctrine of vocation, Ryken differentiates between the two callings - the first to salvation, Godliness and discipleship, and the second to spiritual tasks including everyday work. He draws heavily on the writings of the Reformers and Puritans to explain the content and implication of this latter calling. When it comes to how we discover our vocation Ryken explains: ‘at the most rudimentary level our calling is the job that provides our livelihood’, and ‘when we are free to choose our vocation, our choice should be guided by the principles of effective service to God and society, maximum use of one’s abilities and talents, and the providence or guidance of God as it is worked out through the circumstances of life (Ryken 1987: 148-150).

Ryken is wary of mysticizing the criteria and process for discovering a vocation saying, ‘as with other major decisions in our lives, God does not relieve us of the burden of human responsibility and choices (Ryken 1987: 150-151)’. He is also aware that if all our roles in life are callings then career choices must not be made without considering their impact on our other callings. We must also remember that our primary calling is to live a godly life. Our progress in the life of faith and holiness is more important than advancing in our career (Ryken 1987: 157).

Ryken’s work is a plea for us to reapply the essence of the Protestant and Puritan understandings of work to contemporary experience. Ryken also argues that work and leisure belong together. Together they make up our lives and our well-being depends on our satisfaction in both. He describes three models of the relationship between work and leisure - people who enjoy their work and experience a quality of leisure in their work; people who deliberately seek out leisure activities very different from the daily grind because they need a break; people who enjoy both work and leisure and for whom leisure activities are generally different from work, but not deliberately so. For Ryken the Bible, and particularly the fourth commandment (Exodus 20: 9-11), defines a God-ordained pattern of work and rest in complementary rhythm. With this framework, all models for relating work and leisure can be Christian. Each has its own pluses and minuses (Ryken 1987: 234).

The essential thing is to maintain the importance of both work and leisure in order to help keep either from becoming an idol that usurps all of a person’s devotion. Another aspect of the relationship between work and leisure is that even though the content of the two may be different, we can strive to import the ideal qualities of one into the other. Our work may be enriched if we can incorporate the quality of leisure into it including choices, enjoyment, creativity and fulfillment. And our leisure may also be enriched if it can produce some of the satisfactions that work at its best provides, including a sense of accomplishment, purposefulness, action and good use of time (Ryken 1987: 236). The goal is a balanced Christian lifestyle (Ryken 1987: 243-244).

Ryken has since extensively rewritten this book (Ryken 1995). It is restructured to assert even more strongly his concern that discussions of work and leisure belong together. Ryken is concerned that people are working longer hours and enjoying less leisure than they did a decade ago. Although people are demonstrating a concern to restore a sense of vocation to work, they are still neglecting the importance of leisure. For Ryken work and leisure are inter-connected creation ordinances. Labour and leisure need to be reframed around God’s purposes for a holistic lifestyle. Ryken seeks to articulate a true Protestant work ethic, but with a leisure ethic to match it.


Douglas Meeks is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy in the U.S.A. In God the Economist (1989) Meeks seeks, as a Trinitarian theologian, to develop the doctrine of God in a way that demonstrates its economic implications. Meeks makes a bold attempt to bridge the gap between theology and economics and to reclaim a public voice for Christianity. Part of this book is devoted to ‘God and Work’ (Meeks 1989: 127-180).

For Meeks the Trinitarian view portrays God as the community of righteousness united in self-giving love. Meeks sees the Economist as a helpful metaphor for describing the triune God. He argues that the economy must not be primarily concerned with livelihood. Human dignity and community is prior in value to economic organisation:

economy should serve democratic community which in turn serves the creation of conditions of human beings finding their calling. The great success of the market economy and its tendency to draw everything into commodity exchange relationships has conditioned us to treat ever more dimensions of life as private, that is, unaccountable ... If we rightfully appreciate the market’s logic of the exchange of commodities as a tremendous instrument of economy, we nevertheless have to be aware that there are many social goods whose shared communal understanding should require different logics of property, work and distribution. (Meeks 1989: 181-182)

According to Meeks the church has an opportunity to point to alternative ways of producing and distributing what is necessary for an ‘inclusive household of life’. God’s economy is the foundation of livelihood for all God’s creatures and the source of our hope for a just society.

Meeks develops the concept of the Trinity as the church’s teaching against domination through work. The life of the triune God pictures the economy of work that God is working to bring into being. Meeks highlights four hermeneutical keys to describe the character of God’s work:

  1. Each person of the Trinity engages in distinctive personal work.
  2. The Trinity engages in co-operative work.
  3. The equalitarian work of the Triune community.
  4. The integration of the Triune community’s work through the self-giving love of each other.

Meeks then identifies and critiques the three major tendencies he detects in modern ideologies of work:

  1. The degradation of work - the romantic exaltation of leisure and the degradation of the worker. This is the result of a spiritualising tendency which separates the Holy Spirit from the economic community of the Trinity.
  2. The exaltation of work - the valuing of work as the means of ordering and selfjustification of life. It is the notion of God as Father-task master or as a monadic worker that provides justification for the freedom to pursue one’s own interests at the expense of - or without regard for, the interests of others.
  3. The redemption of work through work - both capitalism and socialism have turned to the reconstruction of work through managerialism. Because ‘I am what I make out of myself’ we must work to redeem work through the sophisicated application of psychology and sociology.

For Meeks new models of work liberated by his trinitarian view will emphasise:

  1. full employment - the creation of meaningful work for every person according to their gifts.
  2. service as incentive - work done as discipleship and self-giving for the sake of participation in the fullness of life.
  3. work in community - worker participation in decision-making.
  4. equity in work

Meeks demonstrates the possibility of making new creative connections between the worlds of theology and work and ethics when a particular doctrine is investigated using a new set of questions raised by the practical concerns of people’s existence. Although Meeks writes of the need to create conditions in which people can find their calling and discover meaningful work that corresponds with their gifts and abilities and represents an opportunity for them to serve God and to serve in building human community, he does not develop the concept of vocation or calling any further.


Miroslav Volf began his study on the question of work with a doctoral thesis under Jurgen Moltmann, analysing and giving a theological evaluation of Karl Marx’s understanding of work (Volf: 1985). Work in the Spirit (1991) is Volf’s attempt to articulate a broad contemporary theology of work.

Volf begins Work in the Spirit by examining the contemporary world of work. According to Volf, the purpose of a theology of work is to ‘interpret, evaluate, and facilitate the transformation of human work,’ and ‘it can fulfill this purpose only if it takes the contemporary world of work seriously (Volf 1991: 7)’. Volf compares the characteristics of work in the modern world with work during other periods of history. He concludes that today we can observe a general crisis of work. It frequently surfaces in the negative attitude of workers toward their work. It is also evident in the widespread occurrence of child labour, unemployment, discrimination, dehumanisation, exploitation and environmental abuse. Volf distinguishes between personal, structural and technological causes of the present crisis of work. Volf then examines those understandings of work which have dominated thinking in contemporary developed and developing societies. He concentrates on analysing the theology of work of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

The second half of Work in the Spirit is devoted to developing Volf’s own theology of work. He stresses that it is a theology of work and not an ethic of work that he is pleading for. The theological framework within which Volf develops his theology of work is the concept of the new creation. He acknowledges the influence of Moltmann’s ‘Theology of Hope’ which emphasises that at its very core, Christian faith is eschatological. Hence the Christian life, including work - secular as well as spiritual, is lived under the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation. What Volf produces he calls an ‘eschatological’ and ‘pneumatological’ theology of work (Volf 1991: 79).

Volf chooses the deductive approach, setting up a theological framework within which biblical statements on work can be integrated. This is because he considers traditional attempts to summarise the biblical teaching on work have proved inadequate:

the inductive approach to developing a theology of work is inadequate because of the scarcity of biblical materials, their limited relevance to the modern world of work, and their ambiguous nature ... To develop a theology of work means to consciously place biblical statements about work in the context of a reading of the Bible as a whole and to apply both these individual statements and the overarching reading of the Bible to the contemporary world of work. (Volf 1991: 78)

Volf recognises growing ecumenical agreement that the deepest meaning of work lies in the co-operation of men and women with God (Volf 1991: 98). However Volf also discerns two different conceptions of this co-operation with God. The one rests on the doctrine of creation and sees work as co-operation with God in the creatio continua, the other rests on the doctrine of the last things and sees work as co-operation with God in anticipation of God’s eschatalogical transformatio mundi. The first draws heavily on the accounts of creation in the first chapters of Genesis and emphasises that there is a mutual dependence and co-operation between God and human beings in the task of the preservation of creation. The second approach leans more heavily on New Testament images of the ‘new creation’ and emphasises the nature of work as human co-operation in God’s eschatalogical transformation of the world. Volf favours the second approach, maintaining that this includes the essential elements of the understanding of work as cooperation with God and the preservation of creation, but also adds the anticipation of the promised new creation. Volf also asserts that, because the world is presently under the power of sin and is transitory, it will not be human work that creates God’s new world but God’s action alone in the end. However since this divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations of the new creation human beings have participated in Volf can still say: ‘In their daily work human beings are co-workers in God’s kingdom, which completes creation and renews heaven and earth (Volf 1991: 100)’.

Volf is attracted to this eschatological view of work, because it includes a dynamic perspective which is much more relevant for a world which wrestles to come to terms with the profound impact of modern technology. Modern work transforms the world as much as it preserves it, and it preserves it by transforming it. The static framework of preservation cannot adequately incorporate the dynamic nature of modern human work, nor can it easily break free of the strong inclination to hinder needed change on the basis that just as God the creator works to preserve creation so we must also strive to preserve the established order.

Clearly the question of continuity or discontinuity between the present and future orders is a key issue for Volf. Two radically different theologies of work follow from those who believe in the complete destruction of the present world at the end of the age and creation of a fully new world and others who believe that it is this present world which will be transformed into the new heavens and new earth. If the world will be annihilated and a new one created ex nihilo, then mundane work only has significance for the wellbeing of the worker and their community until that day when the cumulative work of humankind is wiped out in the final apocalyptic catastrophy. In this case human work is devoid of direct ultimate significance. This does not deprive work of all significance, because clearly human beings can still only believe and be sanctified and serve as they live and work. But nevertheless human work and Christian cultural involvement are devalued when they have no direct ultimate significance and are made completely subservient to a purely vertical and spiritual relationship with God.

A very different picture emerges with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction, but eschatalogical transformation. In this case, the cumulative work of human beings has intrinsic value and ultimate significance, for it is related directly to the eschatalogical new creation by providing the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. According to Volf, ‘this continuity guarantees that no noble efforts will be wasted (Volf 1991: 92)’. Volf is not suggesting that cultural involvement is the only, nor even the most important, task of a Christian. In fact, he warns that just as ‘faith does not exist for the sake of work (though it should stimulate, direct and limit work), so also work does not exist merely for the sake of faith (though one of its purposes is to make faith possible). Each in its own way, faith and human work, should stand in the service of the new creation (Volf 1991: 92)’. Volf is very clear that it is not the results of human work that create or replace ‘heaven’. But he also recognises that this is a truth that people, particularly those who are charmed with success, easily forget. However in the end we must recognise it is only in a very modest and broken way that human beings contribute to God’s new creation as the results of our work are purified in the eschatalogical transformatio mundi and thus integrated by an act of divine transformation into the new heaven and the new earth. And Volf is also concerned to emphasise that human work is ultimately significant not only because it contributes to the future environment of human beings, but also because of the indelible imprint it leaves on their personalities. With reference to Revelation 14:13, he maintains that ‘earthly work will leave traces on resurrected personalities (Volf 1991: 97- 98)’.

Volf goes on to assert that any eschatalogical approach to work must also be a pneumatological theology of work on the basis that ‘the Spirit is the agent through which the future new creation is anticipated in the present (Volf 1991: 102)’. Volf complains that most Protestant theology suggests that the Spirit of God has very little to do with the mundane work of human beings. The human body and materiality in general have been excluded from the sphere of salvation in Protestant thinking. But this is both exegetically and theologically unacceptable: ‘when the ascended Christ gave the Spirit He "released the power of God into history, power which will not abate until God has made all things new"... The Spirit is not only the Spirit of religious experience but also the Spirit of worldly engagement. For this reason it is not at all strange to connect the Spirit of God with mundane work. In fact, an adequate understanding of human work will hardly be possible without recourse to pneumatology (Volf 1991: 104)’. According to Volf, this pneumatological understanding of work is not new. Luther talked about vocation in terms of the graces and gifts of God: ‘each one should understand what his gift is, and practise it and so be of use to others (quoted in Volf 1990: 104)’. And more recently the Vatican II document Gaudium Et Spes develops the same theme (Volf 1991: 104-105).

Volf is very critical of Luther’s understanding of work and vocation on a number of counts (1991: 106-109). These include:

  1. Luther’s view of vocation is indifferent towards alienation in work. If the only two things that are required for a vocation are the call of God and the opportunity to serve other people, then every type of work becomes a vocation no matter how dehumanising it might be (so long as it does not directly force the worker to transgress the commandments of God). Hence, according to Volf, Luther’s view is far too accepting of alienating and dehumanising work in contexts where transformation is necessary and possible and needs to be encouraged.
  2. There is a ‘dangerous ambiguity’ in Luther’s notion of vocation: ‘In Luther’s notion of vocation ... spiritual calling comes through the proclamation of the gospel, while external calling comes through one’s station (Stand). It has proven difficult for Lutheran theology to reconcile the two callings in the life of an individual Christian when a conflict arises between them ... Luther’s bold identification of vocation [ie. vocatio externa] with the call [ie. vocatio spiritalis] has led again and again to the integration of the call into vocation and vocation into occupation, and thus to the consecration of the vocational-occupational structure: ‘Vocation began to gain the upper hand over the call, the Word of God on the right (gospel) was absorbed by the word of God on the left (law) (Volf 1991: 108)’.
  3. The understanding of work as vocation is easily misused ideologically. This occurs when a high valuation of work combines with both indifference to alienation and the identification of calling with occupation. Since the notion of vocation suggests that any employment is a place of service to God, it offers no resources to foster change even in contexts where work is reduced to dehumanising ‘soulless movement’.
  4. The notion of vocation is not applicable to the increasingly mobile industrial and information society we live in, where work patterns are constantly changing. Luther’s counsel for people to ‘remain’ and ‘be satisfied’ in their vocations is the logical consequence of a static view of a single and permanent vocation.
  5. For reasons similar to those referred to in 4, the Lutheran view of vocation is not helpful in contexts where people are increasingly taking on more than one job at the same time.
  6. As the nature of human work changed in the course of industrialisation Lutheran social ethics reduced vocation to gainful employment. This ‘reduction of vocation to employment, coupled with the belief that vocation is the primary service people render to God, contributed to the modern fateful elevation of work to the status of religion The religious pursuit of work plays havoc for the working individual, fellow human beings and nature (Volf 1991: 109)’.

Volf sees no future in trying to rehabilitate the understanding of work as vocation. For him the exegetical and theological obstacles are too great. Exegetically the problem is that Luther misinterpreted 1 Corinthians 7:20, the main proof text for his understanding of work. Also Luther’s interpretation is static and offers no place for change (Volf 1991: 110). Theologically the problem is defining how the one call of God, addressing all people to become Christians, branches out into a plurality of callings for particular tasks. Volf prefers not to deviate from the dogmatic soteriological use of vocation for the former and so uses the term charisma for the latter. It is on the foundation of this theology of charisms that Volf erects his theology of work (Volf 1991: 110). Volf thinks that it is the matching of gift to task which should guide Christians in their choice of career, not a dubious notion of divine calling. According to Volf charisma, the gifts of the Spirit, are related to the specific tasks or functions to which God calls and fits each Christian. Charisma do not include only ecclesiastical activities. The Spirit of Christ is not only active in the Christian fellowship but also desires to make an impact on the world through the fellowship. All functions which work to fulfil God’s purposes are charismatic. Charisms are not the possession of any elite group. Charisms include both spectacular and ordinary gifts. The general calling to enter the Kingdom of God and bear the fruit of the Spirit branches out into the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual. For Volf the charismatic nature of all Christian activity is the theological basis for a pneumatological understanding of work: ‘all human work, however complicated or simple, is made possible by the operation of the Spirit of God in the working person ... as Christians do their mundane work, the Spirit enables them to cooperate with God in the Kingdom of God that completes creation and renews heaven and earth (Volf 1991: 114- 115)’. Not that the new creation will incorporate everything found in the present creation. The realisation of a new creation also involves Judgement Day, a day of negation of all that is negative in the present creation. This is why work must be patterned according to the values of the new creation and criticised in the light of the eschatalogical judgement (Volf 1991: 120). All work that contradicts the new creation is meaningless; all work that corresponds to the new creation is ultimately meaningful. This should serve to encourage ‘good workers’ who find themselves contending against great odds. And also to encourage those who are weighed down by the toil that accompanies much human work, on the basis that their sufferings ‘aren’t worth comparing with the glory of God’s new creation they are contributing to (Romans 8:18) (Volf 1990: 121)’.

Volf considers his approach to have a number of advantages over the vocational view of work (1990: 115-117). He goes on to discuss the implications of this pneumatalogical approach for understanding the relationship between work and human nature, leisure, ecology, unemployment, alienation and the humanisation of work. The primary challenges of Volf’s contribution for the purposes of this study, lie in his sharp and penetrating critique of the traditional Lutheran understanding of vocation and his reminder of the important perspective the doctrines of the Spirit and eschatology have to contribute to the theology of work.

This author does not think that Volf’s total dismissal of the doctrine of vocation is justified. Volf’s concern that the matching of gift to task should guide Christians in their career choices is clearly important. And where a sense of vocation is not accompanied by any evidence of appropriate gifts, a person should have cause to question whether their understanding of God’s purpose for them is mistaken. But replacing the idea of vocation with that of gift is not likely to provide any sounder foundation. Surely it is not a question of ‘either ... or ...’, but rather ‘both ... and ...’ The concepts of vocation and gift belong together. Higginson also makes this criticism of Volf’s conclusions:

ideally vocation and gift should be complementary concepts.There is no need to play one off sharply against the other, as Volf does. Indeed, there is reason to think that gift by itself is an inadequate sustaining motive. We can all think of situations at work which everyone finds uncongenial, tasks for which nobody will claim a gift ... For a Christain seeking to discharge this unpleasant responsibility faithfully... the conviction that God has called her to this particular job may play a very important part in ... carrying her through. (Higginson 1993: 43-44)


Dr Richard Higginson is Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and Director of the Ridley Hall Foundation for the study of ‘Faith and Work’ issues. Higginson writes for business people who are struggling to relate their personal faith and values to the way business seemingly has to operate. His Called to Account (1993) is one of those rare attempts to bring together serious Christian theology and business practice.

What Higginson advocates is a credal approach to theology and ethics. He maintains that the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed provide Christianity with its essential structure of ideas and articulate the overall shape of the biblical story. The Creeds give us a sketch of what theologians sometimes call ‘salvation history’. In them we find an outline of the key events described in the Bible, past, present and future, events which have momentous significance for the human condition.

Higginson devotes each chapter of this book to exploring the theological and ethical implications of a portion of the Creed to the business world. Chapters are devoted to The Trinity, Creation, Managing Planet Earth, The Reality of Sin, The Law, The Incarnation, The Cross, Resurrection, The Spirit and The End Time. Two later chapters deal with Chrisitian Integrity and Moral Decision-Making and his final chapter looks at ‘The Under-developed Role of the Church’ in nourishing the people of God. An abbreviated version of Higginson’s theology of business appears in Atkinson (1994: 153- 164). In Transforming Leadership (1996) Higginson seeks to explore a Christian approach to management, building on the same theological perspective developed in his earlier work.

Part of the attraction of Higginson’s approach is that it develops the Bible story in a way that most Christians are familiar with. It is not built on an unfamilar structure, nor does it assume a lot of previous theological knowledge. It also covers a comprehensive span of biblical themes rather than building a whole theology on just one or two themes. Thus it has the ability to incorporate the insights of other theologians and can easily be expanded or condensed. While Higginson does engage in theological reflection, his overall orientation is practical, with frequent reference to case studies and real-life illustrations. Called To Account, as the name suggests, concentrates on providing a theological framework for exploring the ethical dimensions of business practice and management issues.

Higginson also emphasises the importance of the concept of vocation, although he does not develop it at length. He considers Luther’s development of the doctrine of calling to be very important in breaking down the dichotomy between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ work. Although he criticises Luther’s understanding of vocation for being too static, Higginson still appreciates Luther’s assertion that ‘almost every sphere of activity can be a genuine vocation in which the individual can serve his or her neighbour and please God ... Like Calvin after him, Luther invested even the most mundane of jobs with God-given significance (Higginson 1993: 41)’.

For Higginson ‘this teaching still has enormous relevance, particularly for Christians working in business in the modern world (1993: 41)’. Higginson is aware of how easily people in the commercial world are misled into thinking that their work has little value in God’s sight. Often there are moral ambiguities to deal with that involve emotional strains and psychological costs. A strong affirmation of the diversity and complexity of a Christian’s calling is required to sustain believers in such circumstances. Hence Higginson’s title Called To Account. The conviction that God has called a person to their occupation, (particularly if it involves demanding and difficult responsibilities), may play a very important part in strengthening their resolve and carrying them through (Higginson 1993: 44). At the same time, Higginson also emphasises that Luther’s dominant image is not of a God who drives in relation to work, but one who calls. It is built on a foundation of relationship and an assurance of God’s acceptance which is grounded not in our own acheivements, but God’s grace. Higginson is concerned to see people delivered from a compulsive attachment to work. A true understanding of vocation will counter workaholism, rather than reinforce it.

Overall, Higginson develops, in a more popular and systematic way, the work on Christian theology as a resource for management pioneered by Christian Schumacher (Schumacher 1987).

Schumacher seeks to investigate what ‘wholeness’ in work looks like in the light of the relationships between the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. He sees these relationships as the source of the three dimensions of human creativity: planning, doing and evaluating: ‘Work is “whole” when the action of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is fully manifest in it, and when [people] collaborate within a structure and spirit which reflects Christ’s mystical body the Church (Schumacher 1987: 93)’. Schumacher goes on to describe how and why work has become deformed and proposes a practical basis for restructuring in the light of the promise of the emergence of a New Order which we work to anticipate and which God will bring to completion. According to Schumacher, everyone should have the opportunity to apply creative and and critical thought to the work in which they are involved. On this basis, he advocates the organization of companies into small work-groups, so that all may experience the satisfaction of ‘whole work’. Schumacher’s work can be seen as an extension of the quest of his father, Fritz Schumacher, to promote ‘good work’ (see Chapter 2.8), but within a more explicit theological framework and with more direct connections with industrial and commercial enterprises.


Matthew Fox is best known for his controversial work on creation spirituality (eg. Fox 1983). Fox was formally dismissed from the Dominican Order in 1993 after a ten year struggle over his radical views. Fox has attempted to pursue the mystical creation tradition of spirituality with a special emphasis on the contributions of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Aquinas. Fox believes their mystical approach to living represents the repressed side of Western civilisation and exposing ourselves to it is essential if we are to live and work more creatively. Fox attempts to provide the outline for an emerging ‘post-modern systematic theology’ - one based on Creation Spirituality rather than the ‘fall/redemption’ ideologies which have so influenced Western theology in the modern era (Fox 1983: 316-319; Fox 1994: 15). In The Reinvention of Work (1994) Fox attempts to apply this Creation Spirituality to the modern experience of work.

Fox differentiates two kinds of work: inner and outer. Inner work refers to that large world within our souls or selves; outer work is what we give birth to, or interact with, outside ourselves. Fox maintains that the Western world has only focussed on the importance of the latter. The Industrial Revolution was essentially an outer revolution which taught us to relate to things as we would to machines - objectively. This was also reinforced by the adoption of the Newtonian world view which pictures us as cogs in a big machine with each part doing its ‘own thing’ but with little sense of community or connection. As a result we have come to believe work is primarily about factories and industries. We have lost our sense of an inner life. According to Fox, work prior to the Industrial Revolution was more relational and today we need to regain the relational and spiritual dimensions of work:

putting our own inner house in order will prove the key to reinventing work for the human species. And not only individuals have inner houses; the inner houses of our communities, our churches and synagogues, our economic and political systems, and our neighbourhood and family relationships all need our attention at this critical moment in human and Earth History. (Fox 1994: 21)

Fox maintains that once a person has a spiritual centre from which to work, no work (provided it is good work) is alienating: no work is just a job:

A person who sweeps floors can, by knowing the meaning of his or her task and appreciating its contribution to the cosmic community’s history, sweep floors as an act of sacred work ... if one’s work is useful and not harmful it can always be holy work and part of one’s meditative discipline - provided one is aware ... we praise God by our work. And this in turn gives our work grace and purpose ... all work contains drudgery; the issue is whether it holds meaning or not. If we do our work from our centre, from our Source, it will always hold meaning. The meaning will itself "break through (Eckhart’s word)" on us from time to time, but the meaning will always be present to us even when it is hidden or shrouded in silence. (Fox 1994: 23)

To avoid creating a permanent distinction between outer work and inner work, Fox insists a third kind of work is also required - that of bringing inner and outer together. This task will assist the process of converting jobs to work and of inventing new work:

In bringing together inner and outer we are contributing to a cosmology, a making whole, a putting of order into our lives and that of our species ... here the dualism between us and the cosmos is erased. Here is where the healing of the deep wounds we received during the modern era begins ... When that distorted mode of human presence is healed work itself will be healed. And healing that distorted mode of presence will itself constitute good work. (Fox 1994: 24)

For Fox an essential key to the reinvention of work is the understanding that ultimately there is only one work going on in the universe, the ‘Great Work’ of creation itself - the work of creation unfolding. Fox quotes the poet Rilke to highlight the gap we feel in our work lives when we sense we are cut off from the Great Work:

For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work. Help me, in saying it, to understand it. (Fox 1994: 61).

According to Fox:

because we lack a cosmology - an experience of the whole - our lives have become fractured and broken, as have our hearts. We have lost a sense of community and our efforts at work seem at best self-serving. Instead of recognising what is really a cosmic hole in our souls, we think that perhaps money will plug the hole, and so we strive for bigger pay checks. Our cosmic energy seeps away; work becomes lonely and alientating. We have become strangers to the Great Work. (Fox 1994: 62)

It will take time and effort for us to meditate on the message that the whole universe is involved in birthing one Great Work. It requires us to adopt a new cosmology that challenges the dominant Western world view. The universe itself is a single ongoing drama, and we and our work are part of it. All people and all things in the universe are interdependent. Our work is interconnected with God’s work: ‘All activity of the universe is God at work - not on its periphery but at its heart (Fox 1994: 64)’. It is this understanding which lies behind the journey that Fox invites us to embark on. He goes on to explore three particular aspects of the new spirituality of work he advocates.

Firstly, Fox explores ‘The Great Work and the Inner Work’ (Fox 1994: 19-130). This involves what Fox calls ‘revisioning work’. Fox recognises that much work is experienced as a painful struggle. He relates this to what the mystics call ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’ and says that we must learn to enter such experiences, because daring to go into the Dark and dealing with our woundedness and brokenness is a necessary and significant work. This is the via negativa of work.

Fox also looks at the role of joy in work - the via positiva of work. He maintains that work has been defined by the church for too long in fall/redemption terms, as part of the ‘curse tradition’. But the two great garden stories in the Hebrew Bible - that of Genesis and that of the Song of Songs - are not about work as curse so much as work as delight (Fox 1994: 93). Fox asserts: ‘if there is no bliss in our work, we have not yet found our work. We may have a job but we do not yet have work (Fox 1994: 94)’. It is in this context that Fox looks at work as call, vocation or role: ‘The maker of the universe calls us to be participants, at the level of our being, in the work of the universe (Fox 1994: 102)’. For Fox we find our calling by following our natural inclinations, by doing what we are equipped to do and feeling joy in doing. The questions we might ask of our work are: ‘What role does my work have me play in the Great Work, and in the work of my community and species at this time in history? What role am I equipped to play? What role most attracts me? (Fox 1994: 105)’. It is a great joy to play a role in a cosmic drama. But the roles we are asked to play must begin not with acting but with being. Work as being needs to precede work as action. Fox follows the counsel of Meister Eckhart in this ‘think more about who you are and less about what you do ... for if you are just your ways will be just (Fox 1994: 106)’. True creativity results when our inner work and outer work merge: ‘we become real when our work joins the Great Work ... when our inner work becomes work in the world ... when our creativity, borne of deep attention to both enchantment and nothingness, serves the cause of transformation, healing and celebrating (Fox 1994: 114)’.

Secondly, Fox explores ‘the Great Work and the Outer Work’ (1994: 131-248). This involves the challenge of ‘reinventing work’. Here Fox seeks to apply the criteria of a healthy inner life to the world of work itself. He envisages people mystically awakened and inspired by the new cosmology creating new roles and new possibilities for workers, by contributing their own spiritual imagination to a re-enchantment of their particular profession (Fox 1994: 138). Fox imagines what this could mean for farming, politics, education, health, art, economics, business and science.

Thirdly, Fox explores the role of ritual in ‘Reinventing Work by Rediscovering the Festive’ (1994: 249-295). Fox argues that ‘it is in ritual that the people praise. And people need to praise. Without praise we have no energy to live deeply ... Ritual takes us to the deeper levels of our beings where we taste our connection to all things (Fox 1994: 252)’.

What Fox offers is a spirituality of work rather than a theology of work - a ‘resacralization’ of work. It is also a strong attack on ‘dualistic work’ - work that separates our lives from our livelihood, our personal values from our work values and human work from the universe’s work. For Fox,

this very dualism constitutes the heart of the problem of our Earth crises and youth crises and poverty crises the world over. Just as the industrial revolution defined work for us for two hundred years, so the environmental revolution - and the Creation Spirituality it presumes - will usher in a new definition and therefore new opportunities for work for the next historical era ... The dualism between life and livelihood is itself a lie, for life is all about Spirit, and there is only one Spirit; it manifests itself in both and life and livelihood. (Fox 1994: 298-299)

Fox offers us a ‘Green’ theology and spirituality, applied to work.


A variety of different theologies of work have been developed in the last fifty years. It has been a period of rapid change in which work patterns have undergone a succession of transformations from the war economy, through the post-war boom and the Cold War, the confused and questioning Sixties and Seventies, and the pluralism of the Eighties and Nineties. Changing economic circumstances have demanded different responses and new theological perspectives. The mixed messages about work in the Bible and the variety of biblical approaches to work provide a rich resource for developing these new perspectives. Recent theologies of work have been developed around a number of themes, but work as co-creation is definitely the dominant one. But broader than this is the concern to understand how human work is related to the work of God. This includes God’s creating, sustaining and redeeming work. It represents a desire to gain a view of the work of God that encompasses the whole biblical narrative, all three members of the Trinity and the whole gamut of systematic theological categories which provide us with a variety of lenses through which we can view and interpret the world of work.

It is a high view of daily work that our faith provides us with. Yet not so high that we have any excuse for idolising work or assuming that it is our work that will bring the Kingdom of God to completion. It is important therefore that we do not underestimate the significant impact of the Fall on work in a way that makes the experience of work such a difficult struggle for so many people. At a time when most people are working longer hours in an increasingly competitive and stressful context we need to be able to confront the struggles with a realistic faith. We also need help to maintain a healthy balance between paid employment, family responsibilities, domestic work, community involvement and church work. And we need a reminder of the importance of the ‘rest’ and leisure elements in our faith.

We are fortunate that Scripture and the Christian tradition have so many diverse strands of understanding to draw on, because part of the challenge of our present circumstances is that work represents such a variety of different experiences for people. These include:

  • For the majority of men, and an increasing number of women, working lives are dominated by employment in a context which places many stresses and demands on them and which many find very wearying.
  • A significant minority of people cannot find employment and must look for fulfillment in unpaid work and other activities, but in a society where identity and well being are still usually associated with employment.
  • For some people employment is very enjoyable and a source of satisfying stimulation. For others employment is harsh or boring and oppressive. For many it is a mixture of both these experiences.
  • Many women are struggling to maintain a healthy balance between paid and unpaid work, employment, work at home and voluntary work. Many would prefer to be employed for fewer hours if they could afford it. Some would like payment for their work at home.
  • Many people are attempting to establish ‘portfolio’ careers doing a variety of different sorts of work for different clients involving a mix of different roles. This demands effective ‘juggling’ (see Handy 1989: 146-167).
  • The old expectation of following a predictable career path has become the exception rather than the rule. Many people have been forced to change careers through the experience of redundancy. Other people have chosen to make changes in a context in which people have become markedly more mobile and willing to move. Do we have a core understanding of who we are that does not change even when our circumstances do, or do we just become a generation of chameleons who reinvent ourselves with each new move?
  • Many people are living longer and looking for new ‘careers’ after retirement and/or filling their lives with voluntary work and leisure pursuits (see Handy 1994: 189- 194).
  • The ethical problems people confront in the course of their work are often increasingly complex and far removed from the simple biblical principles that we once hoped would provide neat and tidy answers to most of our moral dilemmas.
  • There is a wide-spread spiritual hunger being expressed, but seldom in a way that connects easily with traditional Christian categories.
  • There is a wide-spread concern for environmental, justice and gender issues.
  • There are now more church and voluntary agencies than ever before needing to recruit workers.
  • There are more leisure options available than ever before, although many people enjoy less leisure time.
  • As an increasing number of people participate in in-service training and re-training ‘study work’ has to be recognised as an important component of adult life.

As we approach the second millenium the search is on for a more comprehensive, or wholistic, theology of work. Such a theology of work needs to include the following elements:

  1. A broad definition of work that embraces employment, domestic and voluntary work.
  2. A view of vocation that is bigger than occupation or career but also embraces occupation or career. This will begin by emphasizing Christian discipleship as the primary category, but also include all the different dimensions of daily work. In this way a person will be assisted to integrate the different aspects of their life into a single whole, and to interpret this in the light of their participation in God’s work.
  3. A view of vocation that is flexible enough to accommodate job changes and experiences of redundancy and unemployment and other alterations in work patterns.
  4. A view of work that draws on a variety of biblical and theological sources and holds different perspectives in balance.
  5. A theology of work which will make direct connections with practical, pastoral and ethical concerns.
  6. A theology of work which will address the issues of unemployment and leisure.
  7. A theology of work which will address justice, gender and environmental issues.
  8. A theology of work which will connect with the development of an appropriate spirituality of work, to help nurture and sustain faith at work.