Building on Miroslav Volf’s treatise Work in the Spirit, Donald W. Griesinger explores the theology of work as it pertains to the creative activities of Christian scholars, providing a theological grounding for those seeking greater integration in their lives by partnering with Christ in their scholarly work through prayer. Whether directed toward the church, the world, or one’s scholarly discipline, God intends that such work be done under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in view of Christ’s coming kingdom. Mr. Griesinger is Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior at Claremont Graduate University.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph 2:10 NRSV)
Christian scholars are not always clear on how their Christian faith relates to their academic disciplines and the extent to which their own faith walk can be expected to support and inform their scholarly work, if at all. While these concerns are largely unappreciated outside of academia, they are fundamental for Christians within the academy. This essay will explore the theology of work as it pertains to the profession of Christian scholars, particularly their research and/or creative activities. The pursuit of a comprehensive theology of work is a large and complex undertaking given the evolving nature of work itself in modern societies, its global implications, and the wide range of theological concerns it provokes. By situating my interest in the broader context of a theology of work, my aim is to provide a theological grounding for those scholars who wish to achieve greater integration in their lives by partnering with Christ in their work and with each other through prayer. To the extent God’s kingdom is advanced through scholarly endeavors, it is of utmost importance to understand how to access the provisions of God for the work of God.
Theological reflection on work is as old as Christian theology itself; however, the attempt to shape a comprehensive “theology of work” is a more recent undertaking. It gained momentum following WWII as an outgrowth of Roman Catholic social thought, with Catholic theologians pondering the nature and meaning of work as part of God’s creation, and was joined soon after by a number of Protestant thinkers with a variety of theological, anthropological, and social concerns. The publication in 1991 of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit marks the appearance of a serious, coherent, systematic theology of work that sets a standard in both scope and depth for all subsequent effort in this area.1 Volf notes that the doctrine of sanctification has played a dominant role in theological reflection on work since the time of the early church fathers, who were concerned primarily with two important issues. First, they focused on “what influence the new life in Christ should have on a Christian’s daily work,”2 affirming that there is nothing demeaning about manual labor, as the Greeks supposed, citing God’s charge to Adam to care for the Garden of Eden as repudiation of the Greek philosophical position. Not only was all work noble, but Christians were obligated to work diligently and shun idleness, “ever labouring at some good and divine work,” as Clement of Alexandria put it,3 not just to satisfy their own needs, but also the needs of others less able to care for themselves. The second concern of the church fathers was the “influence of work on Christian character.”4 Work, particularly hard work, was viewed as a spiritual discipline and worthy penitential practice to promote humility, dispel temptation, and subdue the passions, a position embodied specifically in the monastic life.
While rejecting the Greek’s disdain for manual labor and finding value in work as both a necessity and a discipline, Christians in early centuries made their own distinctions, contrasting ordinary, life-sustaining, secular activities with ordained religious work, which was viewed as superior. The latter was termed “vocation,” entailing a unique call (or choice) to serve as priest, deacon, or member of a particular religious order devoted to contemplative prayer, preaching, or other godly service. The origin of this distinction is not hard to understand since the call of God is a familiar theme throughout Scripture, whether it is in the lives of patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings, or even Christ’s own disciples, just ordinary folk singled out by God for a mission. Most, if not all, of these biblical stories entail a call away from one’s ordinary work into a new activity ordained specifically by God for his sacred purposes. This sometimes unhealthy differentiation between ordinary work and “spiritual” work persists today in the minds of many Christian scholars as a practical accommodation to the secularization of modern life, obviating any need for integration of their religious and academic activities. For scholars in Christian colleges, the matter is more complex in that the norms for faith integration within their institutions largely conflict with the secular norms within their professional disciplines.
Historically, the distinction between ordinary and religious work served to harden the divide between clergy and laity through the centuries, leading to abuses of power and position within the medieval church that contributed to the Protestant Reformation. Advocating the “priesthood of all believers,” Protestant Reformers took issue with this distinction and sought to reclaim ordinary daily work as part of every Christian’s call to serve God, thus recovering the term “vocation” for all honest work that met the admonition of Scripture against idleness. Development of this line of thinking, particularly among Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers, resulted in greater use of the term “vocation” simply to signify one’s ordinary occupation or station in life, which workers were urged to pursue diligently and be content with even under adverse conditions, a position that emphasized sanctification, duty, and suffering over prophetic vision for workplace reform. Rather than vocation being the select call of certain Christians to special religious duties, the Reformers held that all Christians are called by God to their common spiritual vocation, namely to serve God and others through their station in life or profession, whatever that may be, since every vocation is of equal value in the sight of God. Thus a kind of “other-worldly” motivation for success in this world constituted a new Protestant, non-monastic form of asceticism that emphasized serving others through ordinary hard work and sacrifice. Taking these attitudes into account, sociologist Max Weber credits the religious beliefs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritans and their successors with the rise of the Protestant work ethic that energized modern capitalism.5 John Wesley’s sermon on the use of money, which is popularly paraphrased as “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” summarizes the obligations of Christians to work hard and serve others, exemplifying Weber’s thesis.
However, Volf reasons that the Reformers, and Martin Luther in particular, leaned too heavily toward the view that the duties of one’s station become “the commandments of God” and instruments of sanctification for the worker, a theological position that presents obstacles to any critique of the social status quo, placing Christians on the side of compliance rather than prophetic voice and meaningful change in the workplace.6 In their efforts to gain a broader theological perspective on ordinary work, Reformers could not have anticipated the revolutionary changes that industrialization would impose on the nature of work itself some two hundred years later, or the significant displacement, hardship, and alienation workers would experience due to widespread workplace inequalities and exploitive employment practices. Clinging to an inadequate theology of work, the church in the nineteenth century was slow to adopt a theological perspective on social change that would relate to the plight of these new industrial workers, who became increasingly estranged and turned in rising numbers to socialist philosophies that spoke more directly to their predicament and pain. Simply put, the limitations of the Reformers’ theology of work eventually distanced the church from ordinary working people and muted the church’s prophetic voice and vision during a period of radical social change.
Largely unaffected by the Reformist critique of “vocation,” the Roman Catholic church’s view of work continued in the tradition of the medieval church until the 1800’s, when Catholic social thought became increasingly influential, stimulating greater social awareness. Many of these ideas are reflected in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum,7 which examines, among other things, how the structure of work impacts a worker’s welfare, as well as the social and economic structures in which he or she lives.8 Darrell Cosden points out that this encyclical constituted a departure from the traditional Roman Catholic view by officially affirming the legitimacy of ordinary life and work, and by recognizing the essential role of work in forming an individual’s distinctive identity.9 By the end of WWII, Catholic social theory was flourishing, including several explorations into the theology of work, such as Marie-Dominique Chenu’s pioneering reflections on the meaning of work from a Thomist perspective.10 These ideas are represented well in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, published in 1966, which situates human work within the eternal purpose and plan of God for humanity and alludes to its eschatological significance.11 This line of thinking was extended by Pope John PaulII’s 1981 Laborem Exercens: Encyclical Letter on Human Work,12 which explains the practical and spiritual importance of various facets of human work, whether instrumental, relational, or ontological.13 The instrumental importance of work for subsistence and its practical and moral relation to economic structures are noted, but also the role of work in deepening our relationship with Christ, echoing the theology of sanctification which was central to the understanding of the early church fathers. The relational importance of work lies in its capacity to build community and to serve one another ’s needs, including needs for self expression and personal growth, but also for the advancement of human society through charitable, cultural, scientific, technological, and moral contributions. Notably, Laborem Exercens concludes that work is so fundamental to human life that it enables all people to come closer to God the Creator and Redeemer and “to participate in His salvific plan for man and the world and to deepen their friendship with Christ in their lives by accepting, through faith, a living participation in His three-fold mission as Priest, Prophet and King,”14 a statement with distinct eschatological significance.
These developments among Roman Catholics, together with the rising sentiments of mainline Protestants and evangelicals for greater engagement of theology with society, led Volf to propose a more comprehensive framework for a theology of work that accesses richer theological resources than the traditional view of vocation, the mandate of Eden, and the doctrine of sanctification provide. Following insights from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope,15 Volf takes as his starting point that the Christian faith, at its very core, is eschatological.
Christian life is life in the Spirit of the new creation or it is not Christian life at all. And the Spirit of God should determine the whole life, spiritual as well as secular, of a Christian. Christian work must, therefore, be done under the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation.16
This focus on life in the Spirit and the “new creation” expands the scope and embraces a more dynamic view of God’s ongoing creative activities, enabling amore comprehensive understanding of work in our complex world. Highlighting God’s desire to partner with humankind in the work of His kingdom—bringing to fruition His new creation—this approach abandons the traditional static model of vocation and concentrates instead on charisms, the gifts of the Spirit at work today on behalf of God’s vision of the future, an approach Volf describes as eschatological, pneumatological, and charismatic. Contrasting his position with Luther ’s view, he explains that
the general calling to enter the kingdom of God and to live in accordance with this kingdom that comes to a person through the preaching of the gospel becomes for the believer a call to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which should characterize all Christians, and, as they are placed in various situations, the calling to live in accordance with the kingdom branches out in the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual.17
Consistent with modern Roman Catholic thought, Volf emphasizes that Christ invites all people to share in the continuing creative activity of God in the world, including works of healing and reconciliation, prophetic vision, leadership, and creative insight. “My Father is still working,” Jesus said, “and I also am working”(Jn 5:17), and His invitation still stands that all who will receive Him will become His people, and all who put their trust in Him will become His church—God’s own people through whom the nations of the earth will be blessed—what Karl Barth calls “community for the world.”18 Therefore, like all Christians, Christian scholars are called to work together with Christ “under the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation.”19 But just what is the work God calls Christian scholars to do, what motivates it, and how does it connect with the call of the larger church in God’s creative purposes?
Work and the New Creation
Answers to these questions lie in the Christian understanding of how the present times relate to the future. While the details are much disputed, typically Christian theologians hold to either of two positions on the future of the world, and which position they take affects their views on human work significantly. Some believe that the present world, including all the products of human effort, will be destroyed completely at the end of the age, to be followed by the creation, ex nihilo, of entirely new heavens and a new earth. Others find it difficult to reconcile this view with Old Testament prophecies that liken the day of the Lord to a refiner’s fire, such as Zechariah 13:8-9 and Malachi 3:2-4, or Paul’s teaching that at the last trumpet we all will be changed (1 Cor 15:52) and that all creation longs for that day when it will “be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21). Rather than complete annihilation, these texts support the more commonly held view that in the eschaton all creation will be transformed into new heavens and a new earth through the refining fires of God’s judgment. Speaking of this future, theologian Clark Pinnock, in his book Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, explains that in Christ we ourselves are a new creation, but our conversion points “not only to individual change but beyond to the coming transformation of the world …. Social sanctification and cosmic renewal are ultimately part of God’s plan.”20
The early Christians understood clearly that they lived in an in-between time. God’s kingdom had already come in Jesus Christ but had not yet come in its fullness. They looked toward a future when Christ would destroy every enemy and bring all things under subjection, so that “God the Father may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). They believed that in anticipation of the final resurrection and the coming new creation, their mission was to participate with Christ in transforming the present world from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light as the Spirit enabled them.21 There is only one foundation worth building upon, Paul insisted, which is Jesus Christ, and each person should be careful how he or she builds upon it:
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:11-15).
The belief that “the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation” gives Volf and others who hold this view reason to hope that “the noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures,’ will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation.”22 That the best of human culture may be purified and incorporated into the new heavens and new earth is an exciting prospect, particularly for scholars whose lives are rooted deeply in human culture and whose work entails knowledge creation, artistic expression, and cultural critique.23 Imagine how motivating it would be for creative artists to envision their own works of art, architecture, literature, or music surviving in the eschaton! Clearly, the belief that some human work may be incorporated into God’s final project adds new significance to workers’ decisions about where to invest their energies, in what spirit to proceed, and to what end. As Volf explains, these are matters of great motivational consequence:
The question is not merely whether Bach would have qualms about composing music if he were an annihilationist. The question is also whether all those unappreciated small and great Van Goghs in various fields of human activity would not draw inspiration and strength from the belief that their noble efforts are not lost, that everything good, true, and beautiful they create is valued by God and will be appreciated by human beings in the new creation.24
Of course, in no way does cultural involvement substitute for the salvific work of Christ in the life of individual Christians, but most assuredly it can figure in the work Christ calls some to do. Jesus likened His followers to seed sowed into theculture to reform it, yeast to enliven it, and salt to preserve and flavor it. Surely, no one is without some cultural contact and everyone has a sphere of influence. For most people, the workplace and the marketplace are their primary points of involvement. However, for Christian scholars, cultural engagement involves not just the usual workplace responsibilities and relationships, but, in the marketplace for ideas, it entails engaging the very foundations of their academic disciplines, whether economics, history, science, literature, art, philosophy, religion, medicine, law, nursing, management, engineering, counseling, or education. In their chosen fields of study, Christian scholars, working in the Spirit, may discover truth, create beauty, invent ingenious contrivances, work for justice, or champion goodness in ways that benefit culture, honor God, and further His purposes. But cautions are in order: the thorough immersion of scholars in human culture is seductive, creating risks of secular compromise, idolatry, pride, and arrogance that the Adversary is keen to exploit. So, Christian scholars have great need for the protections afforded by prayer and the fellowship and disciplines of the church to resist the devil’s sifting, and to fulfill the mandate “to walk humbly with [their] God” (Mi 6:8). Each of God’s servants is called to faithfulness wherever planted, to be in the world but not of it, to pursue what the Father is doing, and thus to contribute to the new creation.
It is not hard to imagine that certain kinds of work might indeed have lasting value, such as caring for the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised, teaching the next generation, protecting children from abuse, working for social justice and reconciliation, or preaching the gospel to unreached people. But what about more esoteric pursuits like basic research in biogenetics or mundane work on the factory floor? In the view of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Counsel Lumen gentium, the opportunity for men and women to participate with Christ in the work of God’s kingdom extends to all sectors of life, enabling all people to tap “the deepest meaning and the value of all creation,” by offering all work, even one’s “secular activity” to the praise of God:
In this way the world will be permeated by the Spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace …. Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labor, technical skill, and civil culture, created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word.25
Yes, offering one’s work to God is a good thing to do, though perhaps not everything offered will please Him.26 Evidently it matters less to God what or how much is offered to Him than the spirit in which it is offered.27 Having one’s own way and giving a share of the results to God hoping to please Him is a risky strategy.28 Paul prescribes a better way: present yourselves, he says,
as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).
Thus the New Testament recipe for works of lasting value looks something like this: First we offer ourselves to God, then working in the Spirit, we work no longer to our own account but to His, not in our own sufficiency but in His, not to our own ends but to His. Living in this way, Jesus pleased the Father and secured our salvation. This is how He taught His disciples to live, and why He sent the Holy Spirit to enable them. “Work in the Spirit”29 is inevitably God’s work. It is good work, it is kingdom work, and it will last. As a Christian scholar, hearing Jesus say of Himself, “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing” (Jn 5:19), encourages me to follow His example and ask the question: “What is the Father doing in my discipline, and what contribution has He equipped me to make?” I am convinced that He cares about my field of study andthat if I present myself to Him and listen, He may suggest, as He did for Peter, onwhich side of the boat I should cast my net.
Scholarship and the Church
It is essential for Christians to recognize that the call to serve the world is not for individuals only, but for the whole church of which we are a part. As Pinnock puts it, “God wants a community that, like Jesus, gets caught up in the transformation of the world. The church [represents] God’s call to humanity, and like Jesus it exists for the world.”30 There is great diversity in the community of God’s people. Whereas “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13), there are many different functions, activities, and tasks God calls individual Christians to do, and innumerable charisms of the Holy Spirit given them to enable them to serve. It would be wrong to underestimate the resourcefulness of God in equipping a diverse company of believers, whose natural endowments and spiritual gifts range from plain to extraordinary, to usher in the eschaton. This, after all, is His community for the world, fulfilling the ancient promise that through Abraham’s descendents all the people of the world would be blessed. According to Pinnock,
The goal is world transformation. “See, I am making all things new” (Rv 21:5). Filled with the Spirit, the church is the agent of God’s coming kingdom and sacrament for the world. God touches the world when the church speaks the truth, proclaims good news, performs Jesus-actions, identifies with pain, builds community, shares and forgives.31
Although Christian scholarship may connect with the mission of the church in many ways, none is so central as the search for truth and understanding. Through deeper understanding of God’s world, God’s word, and God’s ways, the church can be a more faithful witness to a troubled world. Though scholarship is just on evocation among many, those God chooses to serve in this way are privileged to have their part in His ongoing creative and transforming work in the world.
Clearly there are certain aptitudes, dispositions, educational prerequisites, and career paths that prepare scholars for this work, and both natural gifting and charismatic gifting are required for scholars to be effective in their call to the church and to the world. Most scholars have been trained to advance knowledge in their chosen field of specialization, searching for new discoveries, new ways of understanding, or new applications of disciplinary content, which may or may not directly entail uniquely Christian insights. Some scholars, including many educators, see their calling in a broader context, working to make the insights from their fields of specialization more accessible to a wider public for the sake of a more literate population, to deepen understanding of the human condition, the workings of nature and human institutions, or to improve the quality of life. Alternatively, a scholar’s work may be directed toward the church, working to keep the church connected with the explosive growth of knowledge and understanding in fields of study that affect the church’s mission to make the truth of Christ known in the world. The challenge for these scholars is to discern accurately what is true, reliable, and worthy of praise, and what is untrue, deceptive, and opposed to God’s purposes, working to prevent an uninformed church from taking positions motivated by fear, fancy, or ignorance that hinder growth among believers and place barriers to belief for those who have not yet entered God’s kingdom. This is a task of enormous importance and scope, requiring intellectual humility, honest inquiry, spiritual discernment, and hard work. The church’s historical record in this area is uneven at best, particularly their sometimes reactionary responses to new scientific findings or scholarly insights that may in fact be part of God’s continuing revelation of Himself to all people who seriously search for truth. Particularly in times of great social and technological change, therefore, some Christian scholars are called to the continuing renewal of the church.
Though threatening to some, the thought that the organized church—its leadership, polity, and theology—can sometimes obstruct the work of the Spirit and hinder the advance of the kingdom of God, has precedent both in Scripture and in church history. The ultimate example was the temple leadership at the time of Christ who were so blinded by their own desire for power and control that they plotted to kill Jesus, their unrecognized Messiah. Subsequently, throughout the history of the church, shameful examples of power struggles and ignorance have led to the persecution and even martyrdom of thoughtful and pious reformers in medieval times, during the Reformation, and extending through the Enlightenment into the modern era. For instance, the record of the church’s responses to scientific discoveries that challenged medieval representations of the cosmos and to ecclesiastical reforms offered by biblical and liturgical scholars such as William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer during the English Reformation are particularly notorious. Too often, clinging to traditional ways of thinking, an uninformed or unwilling church has resisted evidence presented by the scholarly community and ostracized even those who dared to report reliable data embedded in creation itself. In particular, Christian scholars deserve and require the freedom to explore their disciplines prayerfully by any responsible methodology, with the confidence that as they work in the Spirit, they can contribute their understanding of God’s world to the church and thus participate in its mission as community for the world.
Of course, not all scholars who have presumed to speak prophetically to the church have done so in the Spirit of Christ or in love. As Alister McGrath observes in his book A Passion for Truth, this is especially true of scholars speaking from outside the church, “whose agenda is dictated by the values and goals of the academy; an academy which … conducts its debates on the basis of a series of non-Christian or anti-Christian assumptions.”32 But this can also be true to some extent for Christian scholars, virtually all of whom were trained in the secular academy and were deeply socialized into the dominant paradigms of their academic disciplines. Consider for example the fourteen years of instruction by the Holy Spirit that Saul of Tarsus underwent following his miraculous conversion, so that whatever was good, useful, and true from his prior education at the feet of the scholar Gamaliel could be used eventually by Christ in his apostolic ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 22:3). What he learned from the Holy Spirit during these years proved indispensable, for as Paul put it, “Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:3-5). Christian scholars, like all of God’s people, see imperfectly and incompletely, butusing their gifts responsibly, they can contribute to an informed community of faith that engages intelligently the concerns of the world the church is called to serve. Christian scholarship is clearly essential to the ongoing renewal of the church and its ministry to the world today.
Periodically throughout church history, the winds of the Holy Spirit have revived, refreshed, and renewed various segments of the church, giving rise to new clarity of purpose and new emphases for ministry. The Second Vatican Council was a particularly notable occasion for the Roman Catholic Church, which had become encrusted with medieval traditions and practices and a cumbersome church hierarchy that had distanced itself from its own people and the modern world. To address these matters, Vatican II was formed, which enabled scholars, theologians, clergy, and laity to speak into the life of the church their concerns and perspectives on how the church could serve God and the world more effectively. The Council was officially convened on December 25, 1961, by Pope John XXIII, with this courageous prayer, joined by Catholics around the world: “O Holy Spirit, … pour forth the fullness of your gifts …. Renew your wonders in this, our day, as by a new Pentecost.” With this prayer, the gates of the ancient church were opened to reform, giving hope to many and instigating changes welcomed by worshipers worldwide. Though historic in its impact, some believe the reforms have not gone far enough, while others would gladly return the “genie” to the bottle, were that possible. For instance, Swiss scholar and theologian Hans Küng, who served as an expert theological advisor to the Council, favors reform beyond what the Council achieved, particularly in such sensitive areas as birth control, women’s rights, celibacy, church authority, and secrecy. For his progressive stance on such issues, and in particular for his criticism of papal infallibility, the Vatican rescinded his authority to teach Catholic theology. Küng obviously favors more give-and-take within the church, where scholars, theologians, clergy, and laity can struggle together more openly to discern the truth of the gospel of Christ for today. Whether or not they agree with some of Küng’s less orthodox views, most scholars would find the prospect of more open dialog within the church attractive, though some persons in authority may resist it as too scary. Nevertheless, Küng sets an example by continuing to affirm his love for his church and his calling as priest, scholar, and theologian, hoping that the Spirit will one day enjoy freer rein throughout all of Christendom. In his book On Being a Christian, he writes:
The Spirit of God and of Jesus Christ is essentially a Spirit of freedom: in the last resort freedom from guilt, law, death; freedom and courage to act, to love, to live in peace, justice, joy, hope and gratitude….Despite all shortcomings and all failures of the Church, innumerable believers from apostolic times until today have constantly grasped this freedom in faith and obedience, lived it in love and joy, suffered it in hope and patience, fought for it, expected it….The Spirit of freedom then as Spirit of the future directs men forward;…In the midst of ordinary secular life until the consummation of which the Spirit is the pledge.33
Christian scholars would do well to embrace this powerful truth, that the Spirit of God is the Spirit of freedom, whom if we serve at all, we serve freely, and that He is the Spirit of the future, who invites us forward through the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of life as co-laborers with Him in the new creation. “The Spirit comes in power,” Pinnock writes, “to enable the church to participate in God’s mission of mending creation and making all things new.”34 The community of believers is His preferred instrument of grace; therefore, when Christian scholars serve the renewal needs of the church, they also serve the world.
But throughout history, whenever the church’s ignorance, arrogance, or indifference has led suffering and oppressed people to turn away from the gospel ofChrist to other movements, ideologies, and causes, some courageous individual Christians, moved by the Spirit of God, have sided with those in distress and joined them in their struggles for justice and relief. Examples of individual Christians reaching out despite the inaction of their churches are legion, including participation in both religious and secular community service organizations and workers’ movements during the industrial revolution, and resisting virtually every instance of social, political, and economic injustice in recent history, such as the fight against slavery, child pornography, labor abuse, women’s suffrage, the AIDS epidemic, political tyranny at home and abroad, and drought, famine, and poverty throughout the world. Efforts on behalf of the crushed and afflicted seem not so different from the mission of Christ Himself, who came into this world to save sinners from the power of the evil one, to heal their diseases, and to set the captives free. Christian scholars from various disciplines can surely speak into these situations, whether through the power of literature to expose and inspire, through history to uncover causes and contextualize events, through economics, science, sociology, religion, engineering, and so on, to enhance understanding, craft solutions and promote change. As Christian scholars, we must be attentive to what the Spirit is saying, if we are to answer His call.
Working in the Spirit
The call to scholarship may take many forms, as varied as the disciplines of academia, as diverse as the natural endowments, interests, and skills of those called, and as distinct as the purposes of God, for surely “The wind blows where it chooses”(Jn 3.8). Whether one’s scholarly contribution is directed to the church, the world, or one’s scholarly discipline, it is the provision of God and the privilege of the Christian scholar to work in the Spirit. Implicit in this work is a call to prayer, to abide in Christ, to put oneself at God’s disposal. In Pinnock’s words,
Prayer is evidence of dependency on God. In prayer we envisage a new future, and we protest the world order as it is. We stand against darkness and invoke God’s light. Using weapons of the Spirit, we pull down strongholds and join the uprising against the present disorder. Prayer shows that we belong to a different order of reality which defies the power of evil and anticipates the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of Christ (Rev11:15).35
Prayer recognizes that work in the Spirit is God’s work, not our own. So in anticipation of the day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9), the Holy Spirit invites all believers to engage in deep conversation with the Father about their work, to allow Him to enlighten their understanding, to empower and refresh them, so that one day they may say with Christ, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (Jn 4:34).
Invoked by the church in pursuing its mission, the Holy Spirit, whom Christian scholars call upon to guide and empower their work, is the same Spirit Christ sent at Pentecost to guide the church into all truth, to remind believers of all Jesus taught, and to convince the world of God’s love. This is the same Holy Spirit who established the heavens and flung the stars into space, who formed the earth at the Father’s bidding, layer upon layer, “whose voice,” the Psalmist proclaims, “pours forth speech, and night after night declares knowledge” (Ps 19:2). This is the same Spirit who knows the language of the universe, who reveals its secrets to those who seek to know what the heavens are telling and the earth declares. And, this same Spirit cries out before God’s throne in groans too deep for words the deepest agonies of the human soul so Christ himself may intercede with all the saints for the world he loves profoundly. It is this same Spirit who moves upon the waters of life to bring forth a new creation in Christ Jesus, new heavens and a new earth, the promise of the Father, the hope of all the earth, and the joy of the whole universe. He is the Lord of the dance, who causes nations to bow down, the hills to sing, and mountains to skip like rams (Ps 114:6). He is the one who gives words to express the glory of God, that every living thing may praise Him, and even the rocks may cry out. This is the one on whom Christian scholars must lean if they are to discover and proclaim the truths of God to the people of God and partner with others in the world who seek understanding and long for righteousness. To be a Christian scholar is indeed a high calling, fulfilled only if we bow low before the humble One, in whom we live and move and have our being. This is the true nature of faith integration—integrating our faith walk with our scholarly work—for “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6).
Cite this article
- Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Ibid., 71.
- Clement of Alexandria, The Salvation of the Rich Man, 16, quoted in Volf, Work in the Spirit,72.
- Volf, Work in the Spirit, 72.
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Trans. Stephen Kalberg (Chicago:Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001).
- On alternative responses to injustice, see Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress, 1970).
- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum: Encyclical Letter (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1891). Amore extensive review of these developments in the Roman Catholic church may be found inDarrell Cosden, A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation (Cumbria, UK: PaternosterPress, 2004), 19ff.
- For example, see A. R. Vidler, A Century of Social Catholicism 1820-1920 (London: SPCK,1964).
- Cosden, A Theology of Work, 20.
- Marie-Dominique Chenu, The Theology of Work: An Exploration, Trans. Lilian Soiron (Dublin:Gill, 1963).
- Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the ModernWorld Gaudium et Spes, 38:AAS 58 (1966).
- Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens: Encyclical Letteron Human Work (Boston: Pauline Books,1981).
- These three aspects of work are more extensively discussed by Cosden, A Theology of Work.
- Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 56-57.
- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology(New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
- Volf, Work in the Spirit, 79.
- Ibid., 113.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. IV, Part 3.2., eds. G. W.Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 762.
- Volf, Work in the Spirit, 79.
- Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 1996), 146.
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of theChurch (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 46.
- Volf, Work in the Spirit, 91.
- See, for instance, Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
- Volf, Work in the Spirit, 92.
- Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium,36: AAS 57 (1965), 41.
- Note, for example, God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice (Gen 4:3-5; Heb 11:4) and the perma-nent destruction of Herod’s “glorious” Temple in Jerusalem (Rev 21:22).
- See, for example, Ps 51:17, Is 66:2; Lk 21:1-4, and Heb 11:6.
- Consider what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-5.
- The term “work in the Spirit,” which is used in the title of Volf’s book Work in the Spirit, will be used throughout this essay without quotes to denote work that is directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
- Pinnock, Flame of Love, 141.
- Ibid., 143.
- Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 15.
- Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978),471-472.
- Pinnock, Flame of Love, 142.
- Ibid., 146.