Historical Developments in Vocation and the Theology of Work

Academic Paper / Produced by Individual TOW Project member


There is no call in the New Testament for all Christians to withdraw from participation in everyday life and work, or the established order. Neither geographical isolation nor separation from normal human activities and relationships is advocated as a general rule. Paul Marshall draws the following conclusions about the approach of the early church to daily work: ‘For the first century after the Apostles it would appear that Pauline views continued to set the pattern for the Christian church - a strong commendation of work, but with no specific doctrine of calling (1993: 33)’. However, gradually the Church Fathers began to draw more heavily on Greek and Roman motifs rather than specifically biblical teaching and this resulted in a lower view of work. Heiges quotes Eusebius, writing about AD 315, giving expression to this movement as Eusebius propounds his doctrine of two lives:

Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, childbearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone ... such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits man to join in pure nuptials, and to produce children ... it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion ... a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them. (Heiges 1984: 45)

In a similar way Augustine distinguished between the ‘active life’ (vita activa) and the ‘contemplative life’ (vita contemplativa). While both kinds of life were good, and Augustine had praise for the work of farmers, craftsmen and merchants, the contemplative life was of a higher order. At times it might be necessary to follow the active life but, according to Augustine, wherever possible, one should choose the other: ‘The one life is loved, the other endured ...The obligations of charity make us undertake righteous business (negotium)’ but, ‘if no one lays this burden upon us we should give ourselves up to leisure (otium) to the perception and contemplation of truth’ (Quoted in Bernbaum and Steer 1986: 19).

This pattern shaped much of subsequent Christian thinking. Different interpretations have been offered to explain this. Holl (1958) and Barnette (1965) illustrate these differences.

According to Barnette, ‘the Biblical view of calling in which every man is summoned to salvation and service without a basic distinction between "clergy" and "laity", is the pattern which prevailed into second century Christianity (Barnette 1965: 39)’. Polycarp and Irenaeus reflect this view of ministry. However, during the latter half of the second century, there developed an official clergy with Bishops possessing the sole right to ordain and rule the Church. Barnette (1965: 40-42) traces this development from Clement (A.D.30-100), to Ignatius (30-107), to Cyprian (ca.200-258) to Eusebius (ca.315). By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the distinction between clergy and laity was fairly well established. With the establishment of celibacy for the clergy in the 11th century the demarcation between priesthood and laity was complete, with the latter relegated to second-class status (Barnette 1956: 42; Bainton 1956: 82ff). Barnette attributes the bifurcation of calling into sacred and secular categories and the subsequent subordination of the laity to the creation of a professional priesthood and consequent loss of the New Testament view of the priesthood of all believers. This interpretation also sees the consolidation of spiritual power and privilege in the hands of the clergy, with the associated elevation of their spiritual status, reflected in the way the doctrine of vocation developed.

Holl’s interpretation focusses more on the differentiation of ‘contemplative’ and ‘active’ spiritualities, with the elevation of the former over the latter, and the subsequent identification of only the former as a true ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’. For Holl, it is this pattern which shaped much of subsequent Christian thinking and in particular the evolution of monasticism (Holl 1958: 126-127).

Holl maintains that when, with the growth of Christianity, infant baptism became the main route of entry into the Church so that most members were born into the church and fewer entered by means of a personal decision, the thought of a personal calling coming clearly to the consciousness of each individual began to disappear. The result was a rising tide of diluted discipleship and undemanding nominalism. Monasticism represented a break with this nominal church-Christianity (Holl 1958: 128).

Holl describes how monasticism desired to fulfil completely the demands of Christ once again in response to the challenge of nominalism. It saw the only solution as a call for complete separation from the world. Those who would direct their thoughts uninterrupted towards God must not be distracted by the activities of a profession, or family concerns. This did not mean that work with the hands was condemned. Work with the hands was not only allowed, it was actually demanded. However, its function was to ensure that idleness was avoided. And with the exception of the reading and writing of devotional literature, it was limited to purely mechanical processes which would not disturb a person’s ability to hold fast to thoughts of God for every moment of life.

Because this also meant letting go of all other attachments, including friends and relatives, there arose a new consciousness of a personal calling from God to adopt this radically different, more spiritual, lifestyle. Hence biblical stories like the call of Abraham and the rich young ruler were used to illustrate the challenge and opportunity that God presented to a monk. Novices in their initiation were told that God had called them and made them worthy to be disciples of Christ. They were admonished to live a life worthy of this calling (Holl 1958: 129-130).

Of particular significance for this study is the way that the thought of a calling (Berufung) was blended with the self consciousness of a definite individual profession. Only the monk was considered to have a klesis (calling) (Holl 1958: 131). Hence Cassian speaks of the vocation of the monk and also calls monasticism a professio (Holl 1958: 132). And this latter term came into regular use, not merely recalling the usual sense of professio as a trade or occupation, but emphasising that for the monk a vow or solemn promise defined their whole lives (Holl 1958: 133).

Holl argues that this seizure of the title vocatio by monasticism meant that there was no opportunity for a proper religious evaluation of secular occupations to develop, nor for the word vocatio to be applied to them. He notes that, in spite of the fact that as early as Tertullian klesis was translated by vocatio when he quoted 1 Cor 7:20, there is no passage in the writing of the early Fathers where vocatio means anything like occupation (Holl 1958: 136).


During the Middle Ages a tension developed between the calling-consciousness of the monk and that self-consciousness which resulted from economic and political advances. Benedict laid down his Rule for a balanced life, including manual labour, intellectual exercise and prayer, in the sixth century (Benedict [530] 1975). However all this activity is directed to the Opus Dei or ‘Work of God’ and the place of manual labour is clearly secondary (Kaiser 1966: 143). Nevertheless, a more positive evaluation of manual labour is plainly evident: ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labour or holy reading ... They are truly monks when they must live by manual labour, as did our fathers and the Apostles (Benedict 1975: 86)’. Cyprian Alston maintains this Benedictine influence had a powerful civilising effect:

Previous to the institution of Monasticism labour had been regarded as the symbol of slavery and serfdom, but St. Benedict and his followers taught in the West that lesson of free labour which had first been inculcated by the fathers of the desert. Wherever the monks went, those who were not employed in preaching tilled the ground; thus whilst some sowed in pagan soils the seeds of the Christian faith, others transformed barren wastes and virgin forests into fruitful fields and verdant meadows. This principle of labour was a powerful instrument in the hands of the monastic pioneers, for it attracted to them the common people who learned from the monasteries the secrets of organised work, agriculture, the arts and sciences, and the principles of true government. (Alston 1907: 456)

However, Benedict also warns about the dangers of mastery in art and trade. He urges that any thoughts of pride or accomplishment must be suppressed and denounces greed and selling things at secular market prices (Benedict 1975: 93). It is these reservations of Benedict’s that cause Holl to conclude that Weber goes too far in maintaining that monasticism, by increasingly getting involved in scientific and economic tasks and relating these to its religious-ascetic concept of industria, established an ‘ethos’ that prepared the way for the secular concept of calling (Holl 1958: 136-137). But, even if Holl is right, and monasticism did try to resist this secularization, it could not stop the development of city economies with their distribution of labour and more planned approaches to working for the common good. And these trends soon led to the development of a higher evaluation of secular work.

For its theological undergirding, this re-evaluation of secular work could also appeal to Basil’s reminder that when the New Testament says that everything should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17), this includes all human acitivity (Holl 1958: 138). However, it wasn’t until the late scholastics, such as Berthold and Aquinas, that an understanding of Christian social life was developed which sought to relate the calling (Beruf) of the monk and secular work.

Nevertheless, even in these later writers, there is still a clear division between the classes which deal with spiritual works and those which carry on manual labour. The first are considered more necessary for the well-being of society than the second, because theirs is the ministry of spiritual care. It is recognised that however, if they are to be set free for this spiritual ministry, they must be supported by others. Hence both ranks belong together. It is divine providence which has established various professions to care for the needs of all people (Holl 1958: 140).

Though the professions doing manual labour have been drawn into the order of providence, this does not mean they stand on the same moral and religious level as the higher professions. Both Berthold and Aquinas agree that, while the active have an indispensable service to render, and a service ordered by God, they still do not have a calling (Beruf) in the true sense of the word (Holl 1958: 140).

Thomas Aquinas took the world and its work seriously. He was a member of a largely urban order, the Dominicans, and sought to clarify the place of every human concern in the overarching order of God’s creation. For him this division of labour was evidence that all are members of the one body; he even compared God to a master craftsman (Marshall 1993: 21). However Thomas also employed Augustine’s distinction of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, and so for him ‘the life of contemplation’ was ‘simply better than the life of action’. The vita contemplativa was ‘oriented to the eternal’ whereas the vita activa had a place only because of the ‘necessities of the present life’ (Marshall 1993: 21).

Marshall argues that this was also the view of the divines of medieval England, for they taught that the highest form of piety was a forsaking of the world and the adoption of voluntary poverty. Hence the states closest to perfection were those of the nun, friar and monk (Marshall 1993: 22).

This is not to suggest that work was rejected. On the contrary, idleness was condemned and work was acclaimed. But although people must work and not dissipate their lives through sloth, religious energy should not be focussed on a person’s occupation unless they have a religious vocation. Hence the high calling, the truly religious vocation, is one of contemplation, and other work, especially manual work, has lesser derivative value. Marshall shows how developments of this thinking are evident among the sermons and writings of English preachers during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Marshall 1993: 22). God is frequently said to be cleping (calling) people to various estates. For example, Thomas Wimbledon speaks of God cleping (calling) people to a state. And Thomas Beton speaks of a ‘calling’ to an office. Caxton speaks of ‘men of noble name and vocation’ (Marshall 1993: 23). However, with the possible exception of Caxton, this is not a view of calling like that held by Luther or later English reformers. Rather it is an expression of the medieval conception that God appoints, or ‘calls’, people to their particular ‘estates’ in society. This does not imply that the estate is itself a calling, the focus of the divine command, merely that it is the place where God has ordained a person be to serve him.


It is the German mystics who first push beyond the monastic understanding of vocation. This is because Eckhart and Tauler and others recognise a call (Ruf) of God which comes to a person completely independent of monasticism or entrance into an order (Holl 1958: 141). They are even willing to apply to the laity the highest title of monasticism, that of ‘the friend of God’, and, in spite of their fascination with the mystical, with all its joy in suffering and insistence upon that which is inward, they also acknowledge that at times external work is more useful than internal (Holl 1958: 141).

Hence Meister Eckhart says, ‘If one were in an ecstasy , even if it were as high as that of Paul, and knew that beside him there was an infirm man who needed a bowl of soup from him, it would be better for him to abandon his ecstasy and serve the needy man’ (Quoted in Holl 1958: 141).

Marshall also draws attention to the way Eckhart and Tauler deal with the familiar biblical story of Mary and Martha (Marshall 1993: 24). Medieval authors generally used this text to assert the superiority of the vita contemplativa. Eckhart and Tauler however take a much more sympathetic view of Martha’s predicament. In his sermon on ‘The Contemplative and Active Life’ Eckhart uses the word ‘calling’ to refer to Martha’s activity:

...One (means) ... without which I cannot get into God, is work, vocation or calling in time ... He who works in the light rises straight up to God without let or hindrance: his light is his calling, and his calling is his light. This was the case with Martha ... Temporal work is as good as any communing with God, for it joins us as straitly to God as the best that can happen to us, barring the vision of God in his naked nature. [Such works are] just as good and unite us as closely to God as all Mary Magdalene’s idle longings. (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 24)

Eckhart also maintains that it is the nature and purpose of our occupations to lead us to God: ‘We are brought forth into time in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 24)’. ‘Not everyone is called to God in the same way’ is how Eckhart translates 1 Cor 7:20. Even the lowest work and lowest occupation is compatible with the demand of the highest. According to Eckhart, ‘One can gather nettles and still stand in union with God’ (Quoted in Holl 1958: 142).

In his sermons on ‘Vocation’ Tauler maintains Jesus rebuked Martha ‘... not because of the things she did, for these were good and sanctified; but because of the ways in which she did them, with too much worry and anxiety (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 25)’.

Marshall (1993: 25) shows how Tauler treats the vita activa and the vita contemplativa as parts of a body. According to Tauler, ‘No part should usurp the name or office of another’. To abide in one’s calling’ means one should not aspire to the monastic estate. There are different ways of serving and knowing God: one is ‘external works’, Tauler identifies the person who ‘knows all the secrets of commerce’. He criticises those people who think such an estate is ‘an obstacle for perfection’ for it is ‘certainly not God who has put this obstacle’. He condemns ‘all those who would stop at contemplation, but scorn action’.

Holl records a story Tauler tells of a farmer who is taken by surprise with an ecstasy while he is threshing (1958: 142). Tauler relates this story to argue that people should remain in the position in which they have been placed by God. The position (Amt) a person is placed in is a ‘summons’ (Ladung), a "call" (Ruf), which comes to us just as much as the inner call. The person who obeys this call with singleness of purpose is truly on the way that leads to God (Holl 1958: 142). In fact, Tauler intensifies this argument by applying it to himself. He says that if he were not a priest, he would like to be a shoemaker and earn his bread with his own hands. Tauler, unlike Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart, found it painful to live from alms and would have preferred the secular class even to his priestly position and says he would have chosen differently if he had realised as a minor that other options were open to him (Holl 1958: 142).

Here for the first time we discover the thought of a secular calling (Beruf), and the possibility that a person can experience the highest ideal of the nearness of God in the practice of secular work. However, it is still a very restricted view of secular calling because Tauler and the other mystics never dispute the superiority of monasticism. A monk who completes a genuine conversion undoubtedly stands at the pinnacle of spiritual achievement. For the mystics, suffering is better than service, and work in the calling (Beruf) is more renunciation, more martyr-like living, than joyful service. Diligence in secular work is called for, so that a person can return as quickly as possible to inner contemplation. The mystics still consider themselves friends of God in a special way. They consider themselves ‘noblemen’, a nobility set over against the common heap of ordinary Christians (Holl 1958: 143). Hence it is still the monastic ideal that dominates. There is still no hint of a universal priesthood to which each individual is called.

In spite of this, the German mystics did contribute to the elevation of the religious evaluation of secular work in the last centuries of the Middle Ages. Also 1 Corinthians 7:20 begins to have a greater influence in shaping thinking. Holl notes that theologians like Antoninus of Florence and John Gerson begin to talk of there being a calling (Berufung) by God for the secular class (Holl 1958: 144). Gabriel Biel extends the title religiosus (which previously had been used only within monasticism) to apply to those who live in a ‘class’ (or profession) sanctioned by Christ or the church (Holl 1958: 144). A number of Dominican preachers (the same order as Tauler’s) develop this thinking more strongly by emphasising that for the laity the nearest way to blessedness and gaining heaven is by working faithfully in the secular position in which God has placed them. Indeed, by doing this the lay person may even go further than the monk who forgets his duty (Holl 1958: 144).

This new way of looking at things resulted in alterations to common speech. By the time of Luther the word ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ (Ruf) in the sense of class or profession, was already in general usage (Holl 1958: 145).

But this is not to suggest that the division of labour which emphasises that some care for the necessities of life while others pray for them was overthrown so early. The contemplative life was still considered superior to the active. Mary chose the better way, even if Martha is indispensible. The monk’s prayers do result in the granting of a higher level of blessedness in eternity (Holl 1958: 148). According to Holl, the Renaissance did not significantly change this situation, in spite of the fact that its representatives were filled with a passionate dislike for monasticism. Hence, although Erasmus can say that everyone receives a summons to the militia Christi, to the perfect life, he still differentiates between those who are able to reach the highest, the heroic virtue, and those who must settle for the lower, the political virtue (Holl 1958: 148). Clearly, despite the skirmishes with its Renaissance critics, the ideal of Monasticism was still flourishing and dominant when Luther came on the scene.


Luther’s life is the story of an ongoing struggle with the meaning of vocation. He entered the monastery with a strong feeling of a personal calling (Berufung) (Bainton 1950: 34; Holl 1958: 149). Luther was conscious that God had encountered him and commanded him to embrace the monastic life.

However, once in the monastery, Luther is forced to examine the monastic ideal. Surely there is only one will of God and it is binding on every person. And there is only one level of relationship with God. A person either has God and has God completely, or they do not have God and therefore stand under God’s wrath. The way to God is not through some mystical experience but attention to the clear word of God that shakes the conscience. It is faith which takes this call of God seriously and leads to a true and secure relationship with God.

Even before 1517, in his lectures on Romans, Luther’s thinking is clearly moving in this direction, as he uses the example of Abraham to emphasise the sort of faith that needs imitating. Previously the example of Abraham leaving his home in response to God’s call had been used to support the monastic ideal. But Luther emphasises that a calling (Berufung) like that of Abraham’s is available not only for the monk but for all Christians who receive the Gospel in their heart (Holl 1958: 149). For Luther, even the smallest work performed at the right place in response to a divine commission, stands ethically on the same level as that which appearances suggest is the greatest work. Hence, even within the world, the highest level can be reached by the fulfilment of assigned duties (Holl 1958: 150). In this way Luther emphasises even more strongly than Tauler that the duties of an office are a call (Ruf) through which a person is summoned to God’s service. In fact, Luther went so far as to reprimand his own sovereign, Frederick the Wise, for neglecting his administrative functions in order to devote himself to devotional exercises, as if in that way he could serve God better (Holl 1958: 150).

Luther was obviously clear and convinced about this principle from the time of his Leipzig Debate with John Eck in 1519 (Bainton 1950: 111-120; Holl 1958: 150). For it is from his affirmation of the universal priesthood at this time that he goes on to conclude that through the Gospel a call (Ruf) of God is addressed to every Christian, thus elevating all believers to the highest position of direct fellowship with God. The concept that some pray for the welfare of all Christians while others work to support them is now shattered for Luther. Every Christian has not only the right, but the duty, to pray for all Christians.

Monasticism is no longer a unique class or special order with sole rights to pray for the universal church (Holl 1958: 151). Not that Luther immediately condemned monasticism. He was willing to allow it to exist, so long as it is understood that the work of the monks stands no higher in God’s eyes than the normal work of a farmer or housewife performed in sincere faith (Holl 1958: 151). It was only later in the Wartburg (1521-22) that Luther condemned monasticism, (Bainton 1950: 200-201). This was prompted by the suggestion that by their vows monks offered something to God that moved along a more certain way to salvation.

For Luther, with his emphasis on justification by faith alone, this suggestion was abhorrent. As a result he concluded the oath was absolutely invalid, and also belief in a special calling (Berufung) of the monk. About the same time (1522) Luther used the word Beruf (calling) in a sermon giving it the same meaning as occupation, class, or office. Previously it had only been used to refer to the act of calling (Berufung) (Holl 1958: 152). That this was no accident is made plain by the fact that in the same sermon Luther explains that all Christians, in so far as they belong to a class or profession, should feel themselves called to that vocation. The duties which this vocation involves are to be accepted as the command of God directed to them (Holl 1958: 153).

Hence the idea of ‘calling’ (Beruf) begins to carry a new meaning different from the simple ‘call’ (Ruf). As Holl points out, Luther still retains some flexibility in his usage, sometimes using calling (Beruf) in the sense of the act of calling (Berufung) or using call (Ruf) or order (Order) instead of calling (Beruf) (1958: 153). However, it is clear that Luther’s change of emphasis, aided by Melancthon’s use of this terminology in the widely promoted Augsburg Confession, soon took hold and was adopted by others among the Reformers, (Melanchthon 1530: Articles 16,26,27; Holl 1958: 153).

Luther also broke with tradition when, in translating Ecclesiasticus 11:20-21 and 1 Cor 7:20, he used Beruf in his German Bible. Earlier commentators had understood Ecclesiasticus 11:20 as Werk or Arbeit. So Luther used terminology previously only connected with a priestly or monastic calling, and applied it to all worldly duties. He was emphasizing that being a husband, wife, peasant, or magistrate was also a duty assigned by God. No longer is there something uniquely spiritual about the traditional priestly estate:

All Christian men are priests, the women priestesses, be they young or old, masters or servants, mistresses or maids, learned or unlearned. Here there are no differences unless faith be unequal ... Therefore the estate (Stand) of a priest is nothing else in Christendom than an office....Hence it follows from this that layman, priest, prince, bishop and as they say, spiritual and worldly, have no other difference at bottom than that of office and work, not of estate, for they are all of the spiritual estate, truly priests, bishops, popes. (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 26)

For Luther, the religious aura which surrounded the clerical vocation now permeates all worldly tasks. To work in one’s estate is a divine calling. Not only is the notion of calling extended, but also focussed in terms of ‘estate’ (Stand). A person’s ‘estate’ is their divine appointment to serve God by fulfilling the duties of the office that this estate requires. If some object that they have no calling, Luther replies, ‘how is it possible that you should not be called? You will also be in some estate. You will be a husband, or wife, or child, or daughter, or maid’. Hence, ‘everyone should take care that he remains in his estate, looks to himself, realises his calling, and in it serves God and keeps his command (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 26)’.

This fusion of estate, office and calling is the core of Luther’s view of calling. Estates are the locus of one’s office and hence are callings. After 1522 Luther uses Beruf synonymously with estate (Stand), office (Amt) and duty (Befehl). Therefore all work is understood to be divinely appointed, not just some particular offices. Everyone is called. No calling is more spiritual than any other. For Luther, work is part of God’s creation. Work was instituted not just because of sin, but even before the fall. So Adam ‘had work to do, that is ... plant the garden, cultivate and look after it’. Work is honourable and a blessing. Work has fallen under the curse of sin and so is wearying and disappointing and involves toil and trouble. But the Christian sees work beyond the curse. A person is blessed when they work industriously (Marshall 1993: 27).

Althaus summarises Luther’s view in this way:

Work in our vocation or station is our appropriate service to God. Since God has commanded this work, it certainly pleases him. As a result Luther rejects any piety that tries to find especially “holy” works ... Let each “fulfill his duties in his vocation” - then he will have enough and more than enough to do ... If we take that requirement seriously we have neither time, nor space, nor energy to seek out special works for ourselves. There is no special outward characteristic that distinguishes the Christian’s activity in his vocation from that of other men...What he does is Christian because he does it in the certainty that God has called him to serve his neighbour and that God is pleased with what he is doing. (Althaus 1972: 39-40)

Luther understood that, being the kind of people we are, we cannot fulfill any vocation without sinning. Vocation, along with all Christian living, is under justification. The work we do as our vocation is acceptable because our sins are forgiven. We are not to forsake our vocation simply because in it we cannot avoid sinning. We remain sinners no matter what we do. But God’s forgiveness is greater and more certain if we remain in the station God has called us to (Althaus 1972: 41-42).

Luther’s conception of calling is one of duty rather than position. He understands calling as a call to service that comes to a Christian within the midst of their sphere of work. Hence vocation is primarily a summons to work for a neighbour’s sake within one’s estate. In this sense a vocation is distinguished from a persons work; ‘the eyes of God regard not works but our obedience in them. Therefore it is His will that we also have regard for His command and vocation (Quoted in Wingren 1958: 178 and Marshall 1993: 27).’ As a result, vocation requires a right use of one’s office. A person who is not a Christian cannot have a calling. They lack the faith which alone is pleasing to God. And some types of work are not part of God’s calling. Luther lists a number of sinful orders like robbery, usury and prostitution. Each of these is a false ‘estate’ in which no Christian with sustained faith and love can remain. A person must avoid estates which are sinful (Wingren 1958: 4).

According to Luther, vocation is not confined to occupation, but also includes domestic roles and any action that concerns the world or a person’s relationship with their neighbour. There is nothing which falls into a private sphere lying outside of estate, office or vocation. It is clear that every Christian occupies a number of different offices at the same time. Also vocation has nothing to do with salvation. Faith in God and willingness to serve one’s neighbour constitute an organic unity. Salvation comes only through faith. Vocation is not the Gospel and does not give us heaven. Luther is most concerned that people should not place ultimate confidence in the work of their hands. There is a marked difference between the certainty that our work matters to God and is part of Christian discipleship and the certainty of our salvation which only the Gospel can give (Wingren 1958: 76). Luther separates the heavenly and earthly (eternal and temporal) realms so that work is not over valued as a means of salvation or eternal identity, significance or status. While Luther speaks about God’s continuing work of creation through a person’s work in their various estates, he also makes plain this only refers to a person’s co-operation in response to God’s initiative in the earthly realm. A person lacks this same free will in the heavenly realm (Wingren 1958: 17-18).

For Luther the ‘religious’ quest is over - there is no need to work to earn salvation any more: ‘God has taken care of my salvation...’ (Quoted in Miller 1953: 119). ‘The Christian no longer works to seek his own advantage or salvation ... what is done is done just to please God (Quoted in Miller 1953: 120)’.

How is this loving service of God expressed? Firstly, as a loyal member of the church, the community of the justified, and secondly, through serving God in the orders of creation, the family, the political order and the economic order of property and labour. The work of citizenship expresses both love of neighbour and service of the commonwealth. Whatever is necessary for social health is good work for the Christian (Miller 1953: 120-121). Ian Hart concludes his study of Luther’s view of work with this summary:

The most obvious and most important element in Luther’s overall teaching about work is the high valuation he placed upon it: the life God wants most people to lead is the life of daily work, and therefore such a life is holy and sacred and fully pleasing to God - in no way of less value in God’s eyes than a life spent in prayer or church work. His other important thrusts were that each person should regard their job as a calling and stay in it; that menial work is of equal value to work more highly regarded by men; that one’s work must serve one’s ... neighbour; and his concern for honesty and fair dealing in one’s work. (Hart 1995a: 51)

From this point on, in Protestant circles, the word vocation signifies something quite different to the meaning it held throughout the history of Monasticism. Monasticism suggested the monk alone had a true calling (Beruf) through pursuit of the contemplative life. But Luther ends up maintaining that the only true calling of God must be realised within the everyday world and its work and hence it is monasticism which has no genuine calling. Not that Luther secularises calling the way the Enlightenment would do later, as if God’s will is done just through fulfilling the simple secular demands of a job. Rather, Luther was attempting to renew the original monastic ideal that God is to be held present in every moment of life. But, in opposition to monasticism, Luther maintains this is most fully experienced where believers participate most fully in everyday life with all its pressures and disappointments and struggles. A truly moral life can only be achieved in the consonance between the inner call (Ruf), which a person receives in the Gospel, and the voice which forces its way through to us from our circumstances and what they demand of us. And this is no longer true just for those who hold high office, such as the statesperson, but for every office and service when it is exercised genuinely as a calling (Beruf), i.e. as an office assigned by God and therefore to be carried out by God’s Spirit. Luther elevated the status of the everyday discipleship of ordinary Christians, including their daily work.


When Calvin uses the term ‘calling’ he usually means a calling to salvation, or a calling to the ministry. But he also develops a vocational view of work similar to Luther’s. One difference from Luther is that Calvin tends to identify a calling with the work itself, rather than as something which comes into work:

the Lord enjoins every one of us, in all the actions of life to have respect to our own calling ... he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of “callings”. (Calvin [1559] 1989: ii.34)

Luther maintains we obey the divine call when through faith we serve God in our estates. For Calvin the work of the calling is the work of the ‘estate’ itself, and so is itself obedience to God (Calvin 1989: ii.35; Marshall 1993: 28).

Although Calvin, like Luther, relates the calling both to the given orders of society and to the particular estate that a Christian is in, his view is not quite as static as Luther’s. A person’s given social position is not so restricted and unchangeable. When Calvin says that a person should stay in their calling, he does not propose this as an iron rule, but only as a caution to prevent undue ‘restlessness’ and ‘fickleness’ (Calvin 1989: ii.34; Marshall 1993: 28). Moreover, the way Calvin uses the word ‘adopted’ with regard to the calling a person occupies in his commentary on 1st Corinthians 7:20,24 seems to imply a definite choice (Marshall 1993: 28). For Calvin, a Christian might, with ‘proper reason’, change a calling and choose another. Calvin encourages Christians to examine the social consequences of their work. He challenges them to seek out a truly Christian vocation. He is explicit about a person’s right to change occupations (Marshall 1993: 28-29). Here are the beginnings of an understanding of vocation which suggests a certain voluntarism in deciding on the Lord’s calling. According to Troeltsch it is, ‘a freer conception of the system of callings (Troeltsch 1986: 611).’

Another development in Calvin’s understanding of vocation is his stress on the utility of callings. He talks about the ‘advantage’, ‘utility’, ‘profit’, and ‘fruit’ of Christian works. This is not an expression of ambition for worldly success, but rather Calvin’s sense that things of importance are always for something: ‘It is certain that a calling would never be approved by God that is not socially useful and that does not redound to the profit of all (Quoted in Little 1970: 60).’ For Marshall this is underlined in the way that Calvin exegetes the parable of the talents (Luke 10:11-27):

Before Calvin the talents of gold, which one should use to glorify God, were seen as spiritual gifts and graces that God had bestowed on Christians. Calvin made a revolutionary change in interpretation when he understood the talents in terms of one’s calling and in terms of people’s ‘talents’: the particular instance he considered was trading (negotiari). Calvin stressed the historical nature of these gifts and talents and in doing so helped shape the modern meaning of the word ‘talent’. (Marshall 1993: 30)

Accompanying this awareness of usefulness is an emphasis on activity. Calvin stresses that the contemplative life is not better. He stresses that God is very active. God is ‘not the vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence which sophists feign, but vigilant, efficacious, energetic and ever active (Calvin 1989: i.174)’. According to Calvin, God put us here to work: ‘se ideo creatum sesse ut laboret’ and ‘the nature of the kingdom of Christ is that it every day grows and improves’ (Marshall 1993: 30). And Calvin is clear that this activity is not restricted to the church or to pious duties, but encompasses the whole of creation. Its purpose is ‘... to establish the heavenly reign of God upon the earth (Quoted in Marshall 1993: 30)’. Hence Calvin’s emphasis on utility and activity and the purposeful nature of God’s work in the world, give his doctrine of callings quite a different ethos to that of Luther. While both emphasize the importance of quietly accepting the labour and duties that go with one’s estate and abiding in one’s calling, Calvin’s approach to the understanding of callings is much more aggressive and busy. Calvin challenges believers ‘to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord (Marshall 1993: 30)’. He writes as one who is eager to apply his theology to the realities of life in a bustling city.

For Luther the primary reason God gives a Christian a vocation in the world is to encourage a life of loving service, whereas for Calvin the reason is more related to the proper ordering of human life, to maintain order in response to the threat of confusion and chaos and to transform a corrupt status quo to reflect God’s purposes. Therefore, Calvin’s view of vocation encourages a degree of self-consciousness to examine and calculate which actions are most proper and likely to prove the most effective, whereas Luther’s approach provides more room for spontaneity borne of the dynamic of love which has its source in God. Calvin sees vocation as a means of giving glory to God by furthering God’s will in the world, while Luther sees it primarily as a means by which God’s good gifts are bestowed on humankind. Ian Hart contrasts Luther’s and Calvin’s approaches:

Calvin went beyond Luther’s understanding of work mainly in his stress upon the need for God to bless man’s work, his acceptance of trade and interest, and in his idea (more optimistic, more ambitious than Luther) that Christians in their work order the world aright and restore it and so bring glory to God ... Calvin tied work tightly to the Christian life - even more tightly than Luther had done. (Hart 1995b: 135)

These differences between Luther and Calvin were initially differences in emphasis rather than serious disagreements. However, the fact that they pushed in different directions soon became apparent, especially as some of the differences which were implicit in Calvin’s teaching became explicit in the Reformed tradition which developed after Calvin (Heiges 1984: 58).

Clearly the Reformation resulted in some marked changes in concepts of work. The views of Luther and Calvin and other Protestants contrast sharply with those of earlier and contemporary Catholics. Until the Reformation, anyone who sought for the highest Christian obedience would aspire to that contemplative life which was the only true vocation. From Luther on it is the workshop which provides the sphere of the highest Christian service. Now those who forsake everyday work abdicate their primary Christian duty. While Tauler and Eckhart had tentatively suggested this, Luther makes it central in his vision of Christian service. And Calvin develops this theme further, but with a new emphasis on useful activity rather than social station.

A clear progression is evident. According to Augustine and Aquinas, Christians were to serve in the world when necessary. Luther’s followers are called to serve in the world. Calvin’s followers are called to transform the world.

This leads us to note two additional distinctives implicit in Calvin’s teaching, which soon become explicit in the Reformed tradition and add momentum to Calvinist developments of the concept of vocation.

Firstly, in the Reformed tradition vocation becomes closely related to predestination. Vocation provides an excellent opportunity for a person to win assurance that they are among the elect, since God will certainly prosper the work of those who are marked out as God’s own people (Heiges 1984: 58). This becomes important because Calvin’s rigorous logic of God’s sovereignty and its corollary in predestination still leaves the problem of assurance unanswered. How can people be sure they are among the elect who are forgiven and saved? Here is a short and attractive answer. Confirm your election through your vocation! A view which could also appeal to the Scriptures for support: ‘Therefore brothers and sisters be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you (2 Peter 1:10-11)’. While Luther is most concerned to emphasise there is no connection between vocation and salvation, the Reformed tradition begins to form a connection. Although Bainton (1982: 19-21) argues that this connection was never as strong in the Reformed tradition as Weber and others suggest.

Secondly, in the Reformed tradition vocation becomes not only a call to action but also to what we now call ‘social action’ - the translation of divine righteousness into the structures of human society. The Lutheran interpretation of vocation tended to be quietist, accepting the conventional limits of traditional social patterns. But the Calvinist interpretation pushes in the activist direction. R.H. Tawney explains what this means for the Puritans:

On the lips of the Puritan divines, [vocation] is not an invitation to resignation, but the bugle call which summons the elect to the long battle which will end only after death. "The world is all before them." They are to hammer out their salvation, not merely in vocatione, but per vocationem. The calling is not a condition in which an individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise, to be undertaken, indeed, under the guidance of Providence, but to be chosen by each man for himself, with a deep sense of his solemn responsibilities. (Tawney1926: 240)


According to Heiges,

The fact that Luther was suspicious of, and opposed to, the rising commercialism of his day, while Calvin recognized the burgeoning world of commerce as an area of legitimate activity for Christians, had much to do with the direction that vocation took in Reformed Protestantism. Max Weber’s thesis that the Calvinist view of vocation provided the inner motivation for the rise of capitalism has been severely criticised, but the fact remains that this view of vocation, as developed in Puritanism, provided a very convenient rationale for the leaders of the capitalistic enterprise. (Heiges 1984: 60)

Weber ([1930] 1970) maintains that Protestantism, by legitimising and imposing an ethic of individual rational achievement in this world not just on an elite but on all, or at least the great majority of a population, was a contributing factor in the emergence of a capitalist economy. His work on India and China seems to bring some confirmation that religious factors hampered a similar development in the East (Marshall 1993: 3-4). According to Weber a ‘rational capitalistic’ organisation of industrial labour was never known until the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Weber identifies what he calls the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism and describes the ‘protestant ethic’, which he says preceded and gave impetus to the spirit of capitalism. This protestant ethic was particularly developed in Calvinism and was centered around a view of calling - the idea that faithfully following one’s job or trade is the focus for a person’s obedience to God. In this calling the world is accepted and sanctified and hence religious energy and asceticism, hitherto confined to a monastic expression, now find their expression in the world of everyday work. Thus people are encouraged to pursue their work diligently and systematically, but without seeking to live luxuriously. Weber maintains that Calvinists felt diligence (and perhaps success) in one’s calling was proof (at least to oneself) of a person’s election. This created a religious motivation for seeking salvation primarily through immersion in one’s worldly vocation. One’s faith is proven in worldly activity (Weber 1970: 21). Weber does not say that Protestants advocated money making. He acknowledges numerous examples of Puritans condemning the pursuit of money and goods (Weber 1970: 220). What he does attempt to show is that the ‘protestant ethic’ of vocation and worldly asceticism helped to shape the later, more directly acquisitive, virtues of the spirit of capitalism: ‘It opened the way to a career in business, especially for the most devout and ethically rigorous people (Weber 1964: 220)’. Weber does not argue that Calvinists promoted capitalism, but rather that they unwittingly smoothed its path (Marshall 1993 7).

Although Weber was not the first scholar to express such views, his work was the first systematically organised argument. Weber’s writings provoked a storm of criticism from scholars who leapt into the debate from a variety of angles and with a variety of intents. Weber was widely criticised, although Ernst Troeltsch ([1912]1986) and, to a lesser extent, R.H. Tawney ([1926]1964), defended Weber’s views. This is an ongoing debate (see Little 1969: 226-237).

Marshall (1993) tests Weber’s theory by examining developments in the understanding of vocation through the sermons and writings of Christians in 16th and 17th century England. He notes that developments in the history of callings in England are, in general, similar to those we have already noted on the Continent, although a variety of views are evident and no simple line of evolution (Marshall 1993: 166). Marshall is particularly interested to compare developments among Anglicans with those of the Puritans whom he identifies as more extreme and zealous Protestants who carried forward the emphases of Calvin (1993: 167). According to Ryken the Puritan idea of calling covered a cluster of related ideas including

the providence of God in arranging human tasks, work as the response of a steward to God, contentment with one’s tasks, and loyalty to one’s vocation. These were admirably captured in John Cotton’s exhortation “to serve God is thy calling, and do it with cheerfulness and faithfulness and an heavely mind”. (Ryken 1986: 29)

Ryken maintains that this doctrine of calling was even more prominent in American Puritanism (Ryken 1986: 27), and we will see in Chapter Three that it is in America that talk of ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’ have continued to be more pronounced in popular usage.

Marshall notes that in England it was the Puritans who consistently led the way in advocating views about calling which would later become current in society. These views include the conception of calling as trade, that one can change a calling, a more open attitude to thriving, a greater individualism and the urge to rationalise work habits. In each of these cases Anglicans accepted a view which had been advocated by Puritans at an earlier period. Also the earlier Puritans had a more integrated view and understood callings themselves as a fundamental part of religion, while the earlier Anglicans conceived of callings as something additional to the specifically religious and pious duties which were the central Christian concerns. While the Anglicans focussed on rationalising acts of piety, the Puritans extended their asceticism to the whole world, particularly the world of work. David Little points out that Anglicans accepted the existing order of Church and of Commonwealth as a structural embodiment of the will of God, while the Puritans believed God required a ‘striving’ to create an order in which ‘everything must be tested anew’. He described this as a ‘conflict between a pattern of conformation and a pattern of reformation (Little 1970: 98, 111, 127, 133, 147 - Little’s underlining). With regard to vocation, the Puritans stressed work and activity, while Anglicans stressed status and acceptance. As the Puritan view began to prevail in social affairs, patterns of work were reformed and subjected to a religious rigour. Work was transformed into a disciplined vocation. The nature, purpose and priorities of labouring were redefined (Marshall 1993: 167-168).

However, with the passing of time, it seems that the Puritan impulse was weakened sufficiently for the Anglican view of the separation of calling from religion to become dominant again in England after the Restoration. With this weakening sense of the distinctive sanctification of work Christianity clearly begins to play a much less significant role in shaping the realities of economic life. As secularising tendencies, combined with wars and revolutions, began to wear them down, the Puritans retreated to a place outside the world, or to times taken apart for piety in the workshop. They kept their worldly callings, but now the world began to dictate what was expected in those callings. According to Marshall, ‘Puritanism began to decay even as certain of its virtues triumphed (Marshall 1993: 169)’. At the same time Puritanism was influencing the creation of new economic attitudes, the ground beneath it was being eroded. After tracing these developments, Marshall concludes that there was a correlation between Protestantism, especially the new view of everyday work as religious vocation, and the rationalising of work, and that the move that resulted ‘was similar to what Max Weber describes as the “spirit of capitalism”, an economic asceticism increasingly devoid of religious heart (Marshall 1993: 169)’.

Marshall maintains that Weber is correct in his suggestion that Calvinists unwittingly smoothed the path of capitalism, although he dismisses some of Weber’s other observations, such as Weber’s proposition that it was Calvinist doubts of predestination and election which led to ascetic, restless work habits driven by an attempt to reassure an uncertain soul. Marshall rejects this proposal on three counts. Firstly, a doctrine of predestination was common currency in 16th century theology. Secondly, some of Weber’s major ‘Calvinist’ sources such as Richard Baxter were not strict predestinarians. And thirdly, there is little evidence that early Protestant Calvinists and Puritans were insecure about their salvation (Marshall 1993: 171).

Marshall also criticizes Weber for being unclear about the degree to which the ‘protestant ethic’ was the direct production of Protestantism, or alternatively, would be better portrayed as a corruption of Protestantism. Weber accepts that ‘Protestant asceticism was in turn influenced by the totality of social conditions, especially economic (Weber 1930: 183)’. He also writes about a ‘gradual modification of the doctrines of Calvin’ and that ‘Calvin’s theology must be distinguished from Calvinism’ (Weber 1970: 220; Marshall 1993: 172), but the relationship remains vague. This is not unimportant because it is precisely on this question that R. H. Tawney departs from Weber. Tawney maintains that it was the deterioration of Calvinism that produced the ‘protestant ethic’ (Tawney 1926: 313). Marshall’s study supports this by confirming, especially in his study of John Locke, that the more self-interested or ‘rational’ views of economic life in 17th century England were present not in Puritan or latitudinarian divines, but in relatively secular writers on the more technical aspects of economics: ‘While a set of social views triumphed which generally the Puritans had adopted sooner than Anglicans, still Puritanism was more reticient than some other sectors of society in advocating the more self-interested aspect of these new views (Marshall 1993: 173)’.

Hart maintains that the Puritan stress on the significance of work and the virtues and vices associated with it, ‘add up to the most comprehensive exposition of the Christian view of work ever presented’ (Hart 1995c: 209). Hart (1995c) and Ryken (1986; 1995) have assembled a wide range of Puritan teachings. Both writers emphasise that the goal of the Puritans was moderation between extremes. To work with zeal and yet not to give one’s soul to one’s work. The ideal is to steer a middle path between the extremes of the idler and the workaholic (Ryken 1986: 35). For Ryken it is John Milton who summarises best the original Puritan work ethic, in the words of Adam to Eve in Paradise Lost:

Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his dignity,
And the regard of Heaven on all his ways.
(Quoted in Ryken 1986: 35).

Marshall’s understanding of post-Restoration views is similar to Tawney’s: while Puritanism criticized greed and the accumulation of wealth, it also promoted a form of thrift and hard work that encouraged economic advancement, even though it sought to place limits on this. Tawney and Marshall conclude that Puritanism was a weak link in Christian resistance to the development of a self-interested economic culture, although it was by no means the principal dynamic in this development. It is not hard to see how a theology that emphasised a calling, taught the equality of callings, and elevated and advocated every day work as a direct service to God, would attract those who sought economic change and advancement through work. Tawney also links the development of the philosophy of individualism with the roots of the doctrine of calling. But Marshall rejects this on the grounds that in fact the relationship between calling and work was stressed most strongly by those who were most critical of anything resembling selfseeking because their views of social relationship also emphasised strongly the importance of service and stewardship. Overall, Marshall concludes that, ‘There was a distinctively Protestant ethic, though not quite Weber’s (Marshall 1993: 174).’

We may still debate the extent to which the corruption of the doctrine of vocation in the interests of money-getting which took place from the middle of the 17th century is a degeneration which results from elements in the Puritan doctrine itself, or whether men like Richard Steele are no longer representative of the authentic Puritan tradition (Miller 1953: 125). But whatever the case, it is clear that from the later part of the 17th century the old restraints on money-getting were corroded and the ‘calling’ doctrine was being forced to adapt to accommodate the interests of industrial and commercial acquisitiveness. While part of this pressure can be put down simply to human greed and selfishness, it is also true that industrialism was creating new forms of property and consequently new forms of work relations, which the older formulations of doctrine were unable to address. The older Puritan formulations were shaped by a proprietor class and by a clergy whose class-affiliation was with the proprietors. The code of the calling laid a uniform burden of hard work on both employer and employee. But the significant difference was that while the employer reaped the benefits of this the employees did not. Theologically this difference was considered insignificant since the hope of heaven and fire of hell burned equally for both. But employees were growing tired of postponing all thoughts of reward until the hereafter. Puritan stability could not maintain itself in the face of the growth of this more aggressively acquisitive capitalism on the one hand and the search for simple justice on the other (Miller 1953: 126).


The Industrial Revolution resulted in profound changes in work patterns and the work environment. These changes were often rapid and drastic. Traditional formulas were no longer adequate to address them. During the earlier part of the 18th century British production was still primarily based on agriculture and home industry. Hammond (1926) and Engels (1971) provide graphic descriptions of how, by the beginning of the 19th century, the moderated domination of the old proprietors had given way to the unregulated rule of industrial bosses whose survival in the fierce competition between mill and mine owners depended on the exploitation of wage labour in the interests of mounting profit on a seemingly limitless market. The process of industrialisation marks a critical turning point in the history of work. So sweeping were the changes that resulted that it is now difficult for people even to imagine work arrangements significantly different from those which we have inherited under the regimen of industrial society. The self-sufficiency of the traditional household gave way to dependence on wage labour, which had previously been despised and strongly resisted. The locus of economic work moved from the household to the factory.

While initially the hardship of the times required the involvement of women and children in factory work, as it still does in many contexts where industrialisation is still developing, eventually a family division of labour was created in which men undertook waged labour while women performed unpaid domestic work. Illich (1981) refers to this unpaid work which is the necessary complement of industrial production, as shadow work. He argues that this shadow work led to the domestic enclosure of women and to a form of alienation which, although distinct from that created by wage labour, was no less severe in its effects. Factory workers were also subjected to new patterns of authority, new work disciplines and new attitudes to time. Kumar (1984) notes that factory workers in 19th century Europe worked 70 and 80 hour weeks. It took 100 years for them to return to working hours equivalent to the guildsmen who were their medieval forebears. This period was also marked by a significant change in the relationship between workers and machines. As workers shifted from being the subject of the production process to adapting to the demands of large scale machines the character of economic work was drastically transformed.

Alexander Miller describes some of these challenges:

By the end of the 18th century, the strong Puritan discipline had been emasculated in the interests of unregulated money-getting and adapted to become the ideology of a predatory industrialism, while the workers whom it had tutored to obedience were taken out of the patriarchial household and put to work at the machines, machines whose authority was to become as absolute as that of the old Puritan proprietors, and a good deal less considerate. It was the beginning of an enslavement. (Miller 1953: 126)

An observer says:

While the engine runs, the people must work - men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal machine - breakable in the best cases, subject to a thousand sources of suffering - is chained fast to the iron machine which knows no suffering and no weariness. (Quoted in Hammond 1926: 208)

At the same time as the industrialised world embarked on this process of rapid change the Church began to lose influence among the working classes. Because it wanted to retain the patronage of the industrial nouveaux riches the church did not interfere to challenge the ruthless exploitation of workers. This passivity was reinforced by the fact that the church failed to promote an ethic that would encourage workers to stand up and fight for better wages and conditions. Instead it was still promoting an anachronistic ethic of docility. According to Tawney the church had ceased to engage in any critical analysis of the established economic order (Tawney 1938: 194-196). Miller maintains Tawney’s criticism doesn’t go far enough. It was not just an intellectual failure, but far more. And the contemporary church inherits this disaster. It has never really regained the ability to speak decisively to the concerns of workers in theory or in practice (Miller 1953: 127).

In part Evangelicalism attempted to redeem the position by importing a measure of meaning and community into working-class life; but the Methodist leaders ended up at odds with the Chartists and so, according to Miller,

while the "chapel" produced religious and political forces which mitigated the worst effects of industrialism (notice the connection between chapel and the industrial organisations of labour), yet in another aspect of it both the evangelical and modern missionary movements represent a diversion - a "spiritualisation" if you like - of the Reformation drive for the provisional sanctification of secular life. (Miller 1953: 127)

Historians still debate the extent to which Methodism ought to be accorded a positive role in the origins and development of working class movements (Scotland 1997: 37-38). Scotland maintains that Methodism at least taught the labouring classes a form of protest and leadership and organizing skills (Scotland 1997: 48). But organized political protest came from the radical fringes of Methodism rather than its heart. There was no strongly critical social ethic to inspire the masses to challenge the status quo.

It is significant to note that William Carey, who would help to launch the modern missionary movement in 1792, was encouraged to become a cobbler because his father feared the dire effects of work at the cotton-mill. Already it seems people were despairing that British industrial life would be responsive to Christian or humane concerns. Yet Carey and others discerned the possibility of responsiveness to the Christian message among people in pre-industrial societies overseas. Thus, at the same time the foreign missionary movement was advancing during the 19th century, the church on the home front was losing its influence in societies becoming ever more industrialised. To workers who were reacting to the tyranny of machines and striving to keep their humanity intact, the church seemed to offer only well worn traditional responses. The church denounced attempts to escape through debauchery or revolution. But it failed to proclaim any other insightful or compelling interpretation of events from a Christian perspective that offered hope. Certainly there were some voices for Christian Socialism raised among the Establishment, and some elements of nonconformity had a hand in the early labour movement, but generally the picture is one of ‘the more industry, the less church’, until by the beginning of the twentieth century mainline Protestantism was largely alienated from the urban masses on both sides of the Atlantic (Miller 1953: 128). Gamble profiles a number of English reformers and movements associated with them, but he concludes that inspite of their prophetic activities ‘The society in which they lived, and even the Church of which they were members, never really accepted their example (Gamble 1991: 49)’. Ultimately the churches ‘failed to understand, to communicate with and to care for the working classes (Gamble 1991: 43)’.

According to Max Weber, ‘the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs (Weber 1970: 182)’. Alexander Miller concludes that the idea of duty in one’s calling ‘survives for the middle-classes in the idea of stewardship which is the fruit of evangelicalism, but for the manual worker it scarcely survives at all (1953: 128)’. Miller makes this statement in the context of pleading for a critical restatement of the doctrine of vocation as it comes from Luther through Calvin and Puritanism. He acknowledges that the received doctrine was directed too exclusively to the relationship between a particular person and their work. The social matrix in which the work was done was taken for granted and assumed to be both wholesome and self-regulating. It was assumed that if each person worked well everyone would profit. Any warnings were directed at individual motivation and not at social issues. Proprietors were warned against the dangers of greed and ostentation. Workers were warned against sloth and envy. But the relationship between work patterns and developing social relationships and issues of social justice were not explored. Nor were these connected with faith issues or spiritual concerns. Also the high ethic of responsibility which was given its last influential formulation by the Puritan divines was developed in a way that only made sense to those in professional and middle-class occupations, and even then was interpreted much too narrowly. The doctrine of vocation expressed in this way made no sense to the industrial worker. It implied a measure of responsibility and freedom of choice and public influence that few workers enjoyed. Hence it would be developments through the thinking of Hegel and Marx that would connect more strongly with the everyday realities of working life for industrial labourers.


Hegel’s Early Theological Writings (Hegel[1795-1799] 1961) date from the same period as Carey’s initiation of the modern missionary movement. Although Germany had not developed industrially as rapidly as England, it is still worth noting that at the same time as the Protestant churches backed away from the challenge of interpreting the situation of people in industry this challenge was accepted by Hegel (a Lutheran turned philosopher) and then by Marx.

Hegel criticises Luther for the ‘senseless, sophistic reasoning’ which leads him to say in Christian Liberty that ‘the soul will not be touched or affected if the body is maltreated, and the person subjected to another’s power’ (Quoted in Miller 1953: 128). On the contrary, Hegel maintains, the subjection of individual workers to the tyranny of industrialism and the expropriation of their labour-power by the mechanical processes of the market represents a deep offence against the key centre of a person’s personality. It is ‘soul-destroying’; it robs life of meaning and purpose; it destroys the possibility of a true vocation. On this point Marx clearly develops Hegel’s thinking through the concept of alienation. Marcuse, who deals at length with the continuity between Hegel and Marx, paraphrases Marx’s discussion of alienation in this way: ‘The worker alienated from his product is at the same time alienated from himself. His labour becomes no longer his own, and the fact that it becomes the property of another bespeaks an expropriation which touches the very essence of man (Marcuse 1941: 279)’. According to Paul Tillich, ‘Socialism is the fight of man for his creative freedom against the forces of industrial society that transforms him into a thing’ (Quoted in Miller 1953: 129).

Marx poses the problem of what patterns of property and work relations will sustain responsible work. His thesis is that Capitalism undercuts it and Socialism will restore it. It now seems clear that what Marx proposed was too simplistic. But the problem remains and the concerns he expresses still need addressing.

Miller concludes his discussion of the challenge that Hegel and Marx represent with these words:

what we have in the Hegel-Marx analysis of man-in-industrial-society is a refraction of the Reformation, lacking however the final dimension of forgiveness....This alienation of the worker from his work and therefore from himself is a situation which Reformation theology ought to have been able to understand and to interpret in its own more profound terms. It ought to have been able to relate the dimension of nature and society (which was the pre-occupation of Marxism) to the more ultimate dimension of forgiveness and justification by faith, but the implications at the secular and political level would have been revolutionary, and for this the Church was not ready. Nineteenth century German theology, which was confronted directly by Marxism, was not sufficiently governed by the doctrine of justification to spell out an intelligible relation of justification to justice. And it is clear that the later development of the Social Gospel in America was misdirected by 19th century German theology into the shallows of a "Kingdom of God" progressivism which could not deal with the problem of the alienation of industrial man because it was informed neither by the full insights of the Reformation nor by the radical Marxist analysis of capitalist industrialism. In any event, inspite of the Copec movement in England, Rauschenbusch in America and Ragaz in Europe, by the present generation the church was without an adequate doctrine of vocation and had resigned itself to mitigating the worst excesses of industrialism by the doctrine of stewardship. (Miller 1953: 129)

In Chapter Two we will examine how twentieth century theologians have sought to respond to these challenges. However, in concluding this chapter, we also note briefly two popular conceptions of vocation that have grown in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that appear to have developed in contrary directions. Firstly, the word vocation has become widely used as a synonym for occupation or career, with no clear theological or spiritual associations. Vocational guidance is a very common concept in the late twentieth century, but it seldom has anything to do anymore with Christian faith or offering spiritual direction. The secularization of the concept is complete, although in the United States of America some Puritan and Reformed elements still surface in popular treatments of vocation.We will examine some of these in Chapter Three.

Secondly, and at the same time, the concept of calling has become more closely associated in Protestant circles with the work of people who sense the ‘call’ of God to enter ordained pastoral ministry or missionary service. It is commonly accepted that these forms of Christian service involve a special ‘calling’ from God. People wanting to move in such a direction are often examined by church leaders to ‘test’ their ‘call’, and people following such ‘callings’ are considered to have a special spiritual status in many people’s minds. This represents a return to something similar to the spiritualization of vocation that dominated the pre-Reformation period although, as we briefly noted previously, Calvin also speaks of a ‘secret call’ from God that every minister is conscious of, in addition to their public and formal call to pastoral leadership (Calvin 1989: ii.323). In Catholic circles this change is less marked because traditional understandings continued to hold sway until the last 50 years and serious interaction with Protestant viewpoints is relatively recent. We will discuss some of these developments in Chapter Four.


It is apparent that some time in the second century after the Apostles the idea grew that it was only priests, monks and nuns who were considered to have a ‘religious’ vocation or calling. This calling was associated with the contemplative life and clearly distinct from the active life associated with ordinary everyday work.

The Protestant Reformers opposed this view asserting that daily work is a part of the Christian’s vocation. The heirs of the Calvinist tradition further developed this perspective, but also found themselves contending with the secularising effects of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The result was that vocation became identified with occupation or career with no other spiritual qualifications or associations. Also the views of vocation of the Reformers and Puritans failed to address the changes, the inequalities and alienation that were the results of industrialisation. Consequently the Church became largely estranged from working class people. Socialism spoke more directly to their aspirations and anguish. Furthermore, Catholic theologians have only recently begun to demonstrate interest in Reformed and Puritan developments, while many Protestants appear to still elevate the status of ordained pastoral ministry and missionary service above other vocations.

Today we end up with a variety of destructive consequences resulting from the impact of these influences. These bad consequences include:

  1. Ordained pastoral ministry or missionary service is elevated by many Christians above other vocations and they feel the need to pursue these even when they do not easily fit.
  2. The Sunday-Monday dualism: The world of the marketplace is seen as ‘secular’ and depraved: the world of the church as ‘spiritual’ and divine. They are two unconnected worlds. Another similar development is the way faith has become a private and personal leisure time pursuit that is considered out of place in the public sphere of a pluralistic and secular society.
  3. Workaholism and the devastating consequences of unemployment when employment is seen as necessary for a true vocation and the source of fulfilment.
  4. An inflexible view of vocation that is not adequate to cope with changes in work patterns and career paths and gender roles, etc.
  5. A view of Christian vocation which seems to foster either a strong personal spirituality or a strong social concern, but does not often combine these two essential elements effectively.

We need to find a path that will lead us between the twin heresies of divorcing faith from work and idolising work. We must rediscover that our primary vocation is the call to follow Jesus. But we must also emphasize that this call embraces the whole of our lives , including our everyday work. It needs to effectively combine both the personal and social dimensions of the gospel and nurture a lively everyday spirituality. We need to see ways in which our work is connected to the creating, sustaining and transforming work of God. This will not be a quietist view of Christian vocation that surrenders to the status quo, but one that will contest corruption and exploitation and work to name and resist what is evil and to transform bad circumstances. We must also strive to maintain a broad definition of work that encompasses not only paid employment but also domestic work and voluntary work. In this way we can seek to live a more radical yet also more balanced discipleship through the whole of our lives. The balance will be different for different people and different at different stages in our lives. Therefore we need a view of our vocation which includes some constant elements but is also flexible enough to help us make sense of lives in which the nature and mix of work that we do is regularly changing. Employment remains an important part of life through which we express our Christian discipleship. But it is only one part of a multi-faceted life of discipleship. Unemployed people, home makers and voluntary workers have a vocation too! Our vocation as Christians does not depend on paid employment, but it must be expressed through our employment. We also need to understand that living out our vocation was never meant to be a solitary task and we need the encouragement of committed companions and the community of faith to assist us

Is the concept of vocation is too outdated to be useful anymore? Some believe this to be so (see Chapter 2.18), but this writer believes it may be rehabilitated and given new content. Our study thus far suggests that any rediscovery of the relevance of vocation would need to include at least the following elements:

  1. A view of vocation that grants meaning to the life of every Christian and rediscovers the priesthood of all believers.
  2. A view of vocation that overcomes the dualism of separate sacred and secular spheres.
  3. A view of vocation that relates to a person’s everyday work and helps to integrate the life of faith with that work.
  4. A view of vocation that makes sense even when work is experienced as a negative and alienating reality.
  5. A view of vocation which does not just accept unjust and oppressive circumstances but works to challenge injustices and redeem bad circumstances.
  6. A view of vocation which is not static but can apply in a dynamic way to a world in which work patterns are constantly changing.
  7. A view of vocation which includes an understanding of the place of leisure and the contemplative dimensions of life.