At Work & Theology 101

Martin Luther’s Contributions to the Church’s View of Vocation

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October 31st is a day most people recognize as Halloween. It is also a significant day in the history of Christianity, because it marks the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg.

Luther’s attempts to reform the church led, among other things, to the development of a robust doctrine of vocation. He pushed back against the notion that certain callings, like his earlier monastic calling, were somehow more holy than working outside the church.

The Secular and the Spiritual

One way this division between sacred and secular work was expressed can be seen in the description of two estates, one “temporal” (or “secular”) and one “spiritual.” This terminology was common among various theologians between Constantine and Luther. Chad Brand and Tom Pratt note,

In the Middle Ages the notion had developed that the clergy of various kinds were the truly holy ones, since they were pursuing a vocation that entailed separation from secular life and a dedication to the service of God exclusively.

The issue with this division is the undue emphasis it puts on work inside the church as somehow better than work done by a farmer or even a king. Luther began to erase this division.

In a letter to the German Christian nobility, Luther wrote:

It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” . . . [All] Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office.

In moving toward a more helpful understanding of vocation, Luther’s first step was to establish the ability of all Christians to function as equals under God, which was a radically democratic notion for the day.

The second step was to move toward an appreciation of work done outside of the church. In a Christmas service homily on Luke 2, Luther used the shepherds to illustrate his point:

. . . [All] works are the same to a Christian, no matter what they are. For these shepherds do not run away into the desert, they do not don monk’s garb, they do not shave their heads, neither do they change their clothing, schedule, food, drink, nor any external work. They return to their place in the fields to serve God there!

Eliminating the difference between “spiritual” and “temporal” vocations was an earthshaking idea in that day.

Personal Identity and Vocation

One of the main troubles with the pre-Reformation view of vocation was the blending of personal identity with vocation. Thus a priest engaged in distributing the sacraments was considered holier than the worker in the field. Luther pushed back directly against this distinction:

We must distinguish between an occupation and the man who holds it, between a work and the man who does it. An occupation or a work can be good or right in itself and yet be bad and wrong if the man who does the work is evil or wrong or does not do his work properly.

Luther’s message was that value is found in the quality of the work and the attitudes of the individual rather than the nature of the work itself. One of the purposes of vocation was for men to serve one another and bring order to the world. This requires people to do different jobs in society, and maintains that work outside the church has value in God’s economy.

Famed Luther scholar Paul Althaus notes, “Luther brought down the community of saints out of heaven and down to earth.” The Reformation notions of the priesthood of all believers and the possibility of certainty in justification during life on earth were revolutionary. Such thinking paved the way for a recovery of a more biblical understanding of vocation.

Historical Circumstances

As with many things in history, Luther’s sentiments were, in part, made possible by the conditions of his time. In Europe the mercantile economy was beginning to rise, so that wealth was not strictly tied to possession of land. This meant that there were new opportunities for a middle class, which led to the possibility for many people to choose a vocation rather than simply follow in the family business.

Luther was addressing a pressing social concern of his day: Should all children of the new middle class be trained to service in the church?

Though the historical circumstances enabled Luther’s idea of the worthiness of all vocations to take root, his paradigm is drawn from Scripture. Luther did not look to endorse an economic movement, but to shape redeemed believers with the content of Scripture. Luther sought to orient the understanding of Christianity to allow for people to authentically live in the world, like Jesus did. For this, and his contributions to the Church’s view of vocation, we should be thankful.

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