Christians work toward a future. This is true of humans generally, who go about their business with some sort of telos in mind, possessed by (or searching for) some kind of hope. It is differently true for believers, who live in the light of divine ends. By the Holy Spirit they hope for God’s future in Jesus Christ. They move forward, stretching toward the coming kingdom. When Christians go about their work as welders, as property managers, as actuaries, as network technicians, as mayors, as retail clerks, they do so as end-time laborers.
The present series can be understood as a response to Tom Nelson’s pastoral plea: “If we are going to do God-honoring work, if we are going to be a faithful presence in our workplaces, then we must grasp in a compelling way that our present work fits into the future that awaits us” (Work Matters, 77). The following offers a constructive framework for the members of the Church to understand their work. It pursues the theme of eschatological business through the lens of the Nicene Creed, namely:
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.The forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life in the coming world: these three elements constitute God’s final work. What He establishes involves the remission of debts, the raising of the dead to eternal health, and the utter renewal of the cosmos. These three purposes also guide human work. While humans do not and cannot perform such great deeds, men and women in the Spirit participate in penultimate expressions of God’s work by remitting debt, lifting bodies, and renewing the earth.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
Before moving forward it is wise to entertain two noteworthy concerns about the project. First, why not ground one’s theology of work in the doctrine of creation? After all, concepts of imago Dei, vocation, stewardship, cultivation, and creation care offer a template for various careers and endeavors. Protology appeals to liberals and evangelicals and Roman Catholics alike, as it gets at a universal definition of humanity and humanity’s purposes on earth. Similarly, a doctrine of creation, rightly phrased, casts a common human pursuit among farmers and pastors and chimneysweeps.
One response is to assess holy scripture. Were Genesis 1-2 paradigmatically determinative for business, one would expect the rest of the canonical documents to harken to creation-principles at frequent intervals. This is not the case. Instead the reader finds a protracted narrative of God calling a fallen people to move forward in the covenant. In the Old Testament the Israelites’ work is usually framed within the Abrahamic or Mosaic parameters, prophetically summoned to a future, and oriented to the glorification of Zion. Likewise, in the New Testament the Church’s activities are usually framed within the mission of Christ, who between His ascension and return pours out His Spirit and opens up life in the end times. In the wake of their Lord’s resurrection the disciples must pursue business in the eschatological economy. No wonder John’s apocalyptic visions lead to an insistence on faithful deeds and a damning critique of the imperial marketplace. No wonder that Paul’s letters to Thessalonica, utterly eschatologically conditioned, are concerned with diligent labor in the here and now. No wonder that 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection-chapter, should conclude with an assurance that “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (v.58) and a word about finances (16:1-4). The biblical writers theologize work more in light of the end than the beginning.
Another response is simply to note that the eschatological perspective provides some much-needed balance to recent theologies of work, which tend to be very creation-centered. Exegesis and theological-ethical considerations of Genesis 1-2 are paramount to most of the recent ecclesiastical scholarship on work. Recent Roman Catholic productions such as Marie-Dominique Chenu’s A Theology of Work (1963) and Rome’s Laborem Exercens (1981) are grounded protologically. Liberal theologies such as Dorothee Sölle and Shirley Cloyes’ To Work and to Love (1984) or Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda’s Resisting Structural Evil (2013) operate out of an a priori doctrine of creation, circling around notions of innate human dignity and ecological responsibility. In evangelical quarters, representative volumes like Doug Sherman and William Hendrick’s Your Work Matters to God (1986) to Leland Ryken’s Redeeming the Time (1995) to Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor (2012) bank hard on protological constructions such as the cultural mandate, vocation, and common grace. When evangelicals speak about working with hope, as they sometimes do, the eschaton usually constitutes a postscript of God’s creational designs or is subsumed into a detemporalized category of “kingdom.” Relatively little popular literature in the Faith at Work Movement addresses the teleological dimension at all. In fact, of the many Christian articulations of work-theology, there are only two dedicated monographs in English framing work principally in eschatological terms: Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit (1991) and Darrell Cosden’s Theology of Work (2004). If for no other reason, the eschatological perspective on work should be included for balance.
A second concern is more grave: Is not an eschatological theology of work smuggling in some sort of contentious political vision? Is it not suspect right out of the gate, knowing that it will likely presuppose a connection between the present world and the world to come, and therefore between an existing economic system and the kingdom of God? Whether conservative or progressive or revolutionary, talk of “God’s future” will in all likelihood posit illicit continuity between an existing earthly political mode and the eternal heavenly kingdom.
One does well to heed this objection without being crippled by it. In truth, every socioeconomic ideology attempts to underwrite itself with an eschaton. Many philosophies of laissez-faire capitalism lean upon the optimistic mythos of infinite progress via self-regulating market evolution, and constructive versions of Marxism usually cling to the mythos of the classless society through redistribution by an enlightened populace. In ecclesiastical circles, rather different futures are called upon to support the ideals of the prosperity gospel and the social gospel. Different millennial views prop up different political strategies. Yet in all this the real danger is not eschatology as such, but overrealized eschatology. The danger is not futurity as such, but an abstract future, that is, an eschatological vacuum into which anthropocentric imagination rushes. Given the abundance of utopian dreams, whether colonial or revolutionary, Christians should be all the more eager to posit the actual future of God’s people in Christ. By naming the concrete Christian hope (and with it, the hope for work), Christians are better equipped to resist fantastical futures.
In accepting the actual future of the actual God, the Church is forced to remember the Creator-creature distinction (or, in this case, the Redeemer-redeemed distinction). An eschatological theology of work necessarily speaks in the idiom of God’s ultimate work and humanity’s penultimate expressions. It acknowledges that God’s final work is unique and stands alone. From the sure work established in Christ, God will pour out the forgiveness of sins, raise the dead, and give life to the coming world. God will – and God alone. As for disciples of Christ, they themselves cannot forgive sins, raise the dead, or animate a renewed cosmos.
Yet there is an analogy between redeemed human work and God’s. Jesus’ disciples work to remit debts and uplift bodies and renew the world. They do so in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit opens up the analogy. Walking in hope, inspired Christians echo and anticipate God’s final work through their earthly labors. Their living is penultimate and even pitiful. Yet laboring Christians step toward the future insofar as they are in step with God, exerting themselves under the auspices of Christ’s triumph waiting to be revealed. In a dialectical way the Church humbly orients itself to the end, for “[e]schatology is the theological concept that reminds us of the reserve with which we must speak about any work in progress” (Knight, 95).
Again, the organizing thesis: theology of work draws from God’s eschatological work. Following the expressions of the Nicene Creed, God’s work is to forgive sin, resurrect the dead, and give life to the coming world. This three-fold reality is fundamentally complete in Jesus Christ. Yet those made in the image of Christ are those who in faith work cooperatively with God, remitting debts, elevating the body, and renewing the earth.
Why do Christians roll out of bed every Monday morning? Because they are called to the future.
They make coffee and get to work.