Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor
Work is inescapable; individuals are either working or using the fruits of their (or another’s) labor. Christian theology has been surprisingly quiet concerning this pervasive subject of work. Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor is Ben Witherington’s contribution to the topic. Witherington, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, begins by considering a number of definitions for work, finally settling on the following: work is “any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation” (xii).
With a definition in play, Witherington develops a biblical understanding of work by turning to creation. Contrary to what many might think, work is not a result of the Fall. From the beginning, humanity is called to work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). There is even a “built-in wildness” to creation that requires humanity to “subdue” what has been created (2). More-over, humans have been created in the image of a working God; a God that creates, works to sustain the cosmos and redeem it. While work did not enter the world as a result of the Fall, work, according to Witherington, has been made more painful than it would have been prior to the Fall (3). When thinking about work, the individual should not only look backwards to creation but also, as the title would suggest, forward to the coming Kingdom (9).
Having laid the foundation for a view of work rooted in God’s creative and reconciling work, Witherington turns in the second chapter to the decidedly Protestant concept, vocation. For Witherington, there are two vocations for Christians. The primary vocation is both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission (46). Christians are also called to secondary vocations which, unlike the Christian’s primary vocation, do not usually last through the course of one’s life. These include being a teacher, a stay-at-home mother, a banker, or farmer. Much of the second chapter is spent interacting with the works of Miro-slav Volf and Gene Edward Veith on the subject. Veith’s God at Work is representative of the Protestant view of work which emphasizes vocation. Volf’s Work in the Spirit, on the other hand, is critical toward the Protestant view, seeking to make a shift from vocation to the Spirit’s gifting. Witherington strikes a balance between the views of Veith and Volf. While Witherington agrees with Volf’s stress on the Spirit’s empowering the individual for work, he thinks Volf understands the Spirit’s gifts too functionally, not seeing that they are more ontological (37). And although Witherington wants to maintain Veith’s vocation language, he finds that Veith too often extends the concept to marriage and jobs that violate one’s primary vocation (such as the Great Commandment and Great Commission).
What about those with an off-kilter view of work? By drawing upon Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the notion of Sabbath, and the work of Christ, Witherington challenges both the lazy and the workaholic. In contrast to these two types, Christian discipleship places a premium on the fruitful use of one’s gifts (or work), as demonstrated by the parable of the talents. There is also an “eschatological horizon” that gives priority to evangelism (85). Lest this eschatological horizon eclipse the cultural mandate of Genesis 1, Witherington turns to work as a way to create culture in the sixth chapter, focusing on Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. To encourage those daunted by the prospect of making culture, Witherington reminds that making culture “starts small and branches out, like the ripples in a pond from a small stone thrown into it. The good news about this is that all work that really matters and makes a difference starts small and locally” (125).
But life is not all about work. Witherington’s aim in chapter seven is to underscore the importance of rest and play. Witherington calls rest “retrospective”; “God,” Witherington reminds, “looked back at his good week’s work and rested” (149). Play, on the other hand, is “prospective,” that is, play looks forward, anticipating the celebration that is to mark the coming kingdom. Cleverly, Witherington says: “How appropriate that recreation, as we call it, emblemizes and celebrates in advance the time of recreation” (146). Work, rest, and play, then, are the “three poles” that individuals “dance back and forth among” (153). Indeed, this “dance” between work, rest, and play is how the individual properly situates work (158).
Witherington has provided a readable treatment of the important and enveloping sub-ject of work. The book relies upon a range of sources that include biblical studies, theology, church history, movies, poetry, and Witherington’s own work and travel experiences. The prose is intimate, making readers feel as though they are conversing with Witherington. This conversational tone, however, does have a downside. At times, the book, like conversation, seemed to lack structure, making the line of argument difficult to detect in certain spots. Witherington correctly supplements his evangelistic emphasis with a discussion on creating culture (chapter six), which draws heavily on Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. This discussion would have been strengthened by interaction with James Davison Hunter’s critique of Crouch.1 Hunter believes that Crouch neglects the way cultural change happens at the center of culture. While Witherington focuses on culture making, not culture changing, the chapter would have been tempered by reference to Hunter, for it is not difficult to imagine Christian workers, having read Witherington’s words on creating culture, triumphantly seeking not only to make, but to transform culture. For Hunter, such an endeavor is overly ambitious.
When it comes to books on faith and work, there seem to be two types. In one group are the books written by theologians and academics.2 In the other group are books written by businesspeople who are Christians.3 The former tend to be strong on theology. The latter are usually more practical and resonate especially with the Christian in the secular workforce. What is needed is a book that can combine the theological texture of the books written by the theologians with the real-world resonance of the books written by businesspeople. It seems to me that Witherington’s book helps us in this regard. The conversational tone of his writing as well as drawing upon his own work experiences relates well to a broad audience. At the same time, however, the book is engaged with the theological conversation on the faith and work question, as evidenced by his interaction with Volf, Veith, and others (although I was surprised that Darrell Cosden’s work, which is in a vein similar to Volf’s, was neglected). By capturing the best features of these two types of literature on work, Witherington has provided a book that is both accessible and substantial.
Cite this article
- See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University, 2010), 27-31.
- See, for example, Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990); Douglas M. Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998); R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999); Gene Edward Veith, Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002); Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Oxford: Oxford University, 1991).
- See, for example, Dennis W. Bakke, Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job (Seattle: PVG, 2005); Ken Blanchard, We Are the Beloved: A Spiritual Journey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994); Russ Crosson, A Life Well Spent (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994); Kent Humphreys and Davidene Humphreys, Show and Then Tell: Presenting the Gospel Through Daily Encounters (Chicago: Moody, 2000); Cathy Truett, It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989).