Category Archives: Christian humanism, work, & economics

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. I


John Everett Millais – “Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter’s Shop’)”; Wikimedia Commons

I commend to you Common Good magazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.

In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:

The Work of Genesis
How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations

Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.

From the Genesis account of creation, it’s reasonable to say that work is an essential part of what it means to live on earth as an image-bearer of God. Work is a mandate, not a curse. Related, the reformer Martin Luther’s teachings on vocation and the Reformation concept of “common grace” show us that God uses people’s work, whether they name the name of Christ or not, to provide for the needs of other people.

The Protestant tradition has taught that we have not only particular vocations — particular kinds of work that we are called to in the world, to serve bosses, or customers, or spouses, or children, or our city — within the structures of God’s common grace. We also have general callings or vocations, which we may fulfil only by God’s saving grace through Christ, and as empowered by his Holy Spirit. And in fact, in both Scripture and the early church, where we encounter the language of “calling” or vocation, it is almost always in connection with these general vocations.

Included in these general callings is the creation mandate, as well as the law — as expressed, for example, in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount — and the summing up of the law in what we might call the “love calling” or “love vocation” expressed in the great commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

When Luther talked about the particular callings in which we serve others by our particular gifts, he spoke of them as multiple and relational. In other words, according to Luther, we have vocations not only to paid work in the marketplace and public square, but also to the relational work of being a sister, mother, neighbor, citizen, volunteer, and more.

Thus the Protestant evangelical tendency to think of vocation as the “one big mysterious job God has for you on earth,” which he holds in his mind and which you must search out and discern through prayer, is quite simply inconsistent with Reformation teaching on vocation.

We could summarize at this point with a quick, one-sentence, Christian definition of vocation. Psychologist Bryan Dik defines vocation as “a summons to meaningful work in service to others.”

Note that this definition doesn’t mention personal strengths. It leaves room for callings to things we’re good at and to things we’re bad at.

In the few biblical stories where someone received a direct call from God to some work, what was the first thing they typically said in response? “God, you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t have the gifts for that work. I could never do it.” But God doesn’t make mistakes. So if we find ourselves in a difficult and challenging relationship that we would not have chosen for ourselves — say with a disabled child or a parent with dementia —, then this is just as truly a vocation as our chosen (paying) jobs.

Creation, incarnation, and work today

You may be familiar with the kind of “hierarchy of jobs” that has long marred churches’ treatment of work. You know, pastors and missionaries at the top, business people and politicians at the bottom — with the value judgement being based on the perceived “spirituality” of the work, or even with how much God is presumed to care about the work or how much the work is presumed to serve his purposes on earth. Many jobs are quite simply assumed to be “secular” — detached from God and his purposes.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this secularization of vocation in the churches. But one of the biggest is how we relate to creation.

Bluntly put, since around the 17th century, the faith of modern Western Christians has become steadily both more privatized and more spiritualized; that is, detached from the world. And at the same time, the world around us has become “scientized,” understood only in objective, empirical, material categories, and thus detached from the church. And since our work takes place in this material, de-spiritualized world, we have fallen into the habit of treating most kinds of ordinary work, which typically serve very earthly, material, and social human needs, as if by their very “earthiness,” they intrinsically have very little to do with.

Continued in part II.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part IV (final part)


Protestant Reformers, unknown artist (18th c.), Wikimedia Commons

Social dimensions of Christian humanism – scholastic, renaissance, and Reformation developments

This article continues from part III.

The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.

Scholastic humanism and the social world

For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.[1]

The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”[2]

In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.[3]

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Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part III


Saint James as a Pilgrim with a Purse and Staff (detail), Workshop of the Bedford Master, Paris, about 1440-50, Book of Hours (text in Latin). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 6, fol. 203v

This article continues from part II.

Scholastic humanism

Skipping ahead, from the 11th through the 13th century, a new phase of Christian humanism arose – in the thought and work of “scholasticism” – a movement in Christian thought that is understood by historians to have its intellectual foundations in Augustine, its early formulation in the work of Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and its pinnacle in the grand system of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th.

The medieval scholastics continued and intensified the high humanist evaluation of human reason. As historian of science Edward Grant has comprehensively shown, no line can be drawn between the Middle Ages as a supposed “age of faith” and the 17th and 18th century “age of reason,” for both ages shared “the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated” and “medieval university scholars and teachers . . . placed a heavy reliance on reason,” and in fact, “in the history of civilization, they were the first to do so self-consciously on a grand scale.” Building on over a millennium of Christian thought about the Genesis portrayal of the imago dei, passed on from patristic thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo, the scholastics argued like this:

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Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation


Workers in a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil; by Guilherme Cunha, Unsplash, free use

First, my apologies to regular readers and subscribers for disappearing for a while. For the past 6-9 months (or more), this blog has been offline, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, but seeming to have to do with its attachment to an old email address to which I no longer had access. But even before that, I had for years not updated the blog on any but the most sporadic basis. I intend for that to change now, as I am working on a new book (on which, more anon) and will most likely blog through the process as I did with Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, published back in 2016. So, as a first shot across the bow . . .

[The talk from which the following is excerpted was presented by Dr. Chris R. Armstrong at the Ciceronian Society annual meeting at Grove City College in March, 2022. As always, this material is not to be reproduced or distributed in any form without the express permission of the author.]

Introduction: Disenchantment and the sacred-secular divide

The faith-work problematic

American Christians has been wrestling with a problem for decades. The problem is that many Christians in this country experience a separation in our lives between supposedly sacred activities and supposedly secular activities – and that furthermore our work, which may in the end account for some 100,000 hours of our lives, falls largely in the latter category.

You may say, “Wait a minute – what about the torrent of books, blogs, websites, podcasts, and conferences on this subject in the last few decades? Are we really still unable to resolve this existential issue?” And I would respond, “Yes, because we still have no stable, faithful, well-worked-out theological understanding of what work is and how it relates to central teachings of our faith.”

In other words, despite some excellent scholarly treatments, the faith and work conversation remains largely ungrounded in three ways: philosophically, theologically, and importantly, historically. Having by the mid-nineteenth century discarded much of the Christian knowledge tradition, American Christianity—or at least, American Protestantism—now unsurprisingly finds itself with precious few resources to address what, at the very least, must be seen as a colossal failure of pastoral care.

In this paper, I propose that the longstanding and biblically faithful tradition of Christian humanism—a philosophy of culture that is faithful to central biblically derived doctrines—can and should provide this tripartite grounding, and that scholars who are engaging the faith and work conversation should be recovering and drawing from that tradition today.

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