Eschatological Business: Introduction - A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description.]



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.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
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.

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.

==================================

Comments

Thanks for sharing this fascinating entree into your series. I look forward to reading the future installments.

I just want to tag a couple questions here (though maybe you deal with it in a later post or somewhere else in your work):

How might your theological framework address the question of those who are unemployed, underemployed or simply unemployable? What might their vocations say about what they and we might hope for from God's future?
Thanks for this post, Nathan. I’m very excited that DET can host this series, and I hope that we can get some good conversation going that will be helpful to you as you continue to develop this project.

A few reflections / questions:

(1) I think it interesting that you want to explore paths other than grounding a theology of work in the doctrine of creation. And taking an eschatological tack is in keeping with the emphases of much recent Protestant theology (Moltmann, Pannenberg, etc.), as you well know. I will, however, be watching for how you bring the christological into the mix, and what work that doctrinal constellation will be performing down the line.

(2) One place you bring in the christological is in warding off your second concern, which basically amounts to people worrying that an eschatological emphasis on work will privilege a political outlook different from their own. You sidestep the issue by making two moves: (a) avoid over-realized eschatology that identifies this world with the one to come; (b) relativize political outlooks vis-à-vis the revelation of God in Christ. I think these moves have merit but, of course, the problem that you will have with the second is that people will see political ideology hiding behind your interpretation of Christ. Is it possible to interpret without bringing such concerns to the hermeneutical process? Is that a bad thing?

(3) You don’t elaborate it much, and I’ll be watching future posts for this, but you seem to assume (again, I’m inferring) something like a “traditional” Christian afterlife picture. The question that I would like to implant in the back of your mind as you continue with this series and with the project afterward is this: is such a picture necessary for what you want to say, or is the word that you want to speak about eschatological business one that can be heard profitably by both those who hold such a picture and those who do not?

(4) I love your last line. It’s very punchy. But, is the coffee really necessary? Would tea work? ;-)

Thanks again, Nathan!
Scott, your question is a good one. There are a few things to be said, I think.

First, when talking about work Christian theologians need to be careful to think about it as human vocations established in God's call, not necessarily occupations grounded in human action as such. This is something Darrell Cosden gets at when he says work is not merely instrumental and relational, but ontological. The work of the unemployed is established in a way much like the imago dei of a coma patient, even though she may not have the ready capacity to exercise dominion or relate to others.

Second, in this series I want to be careful about preserving some space between work and employment. The work theologians speak of must account for those not directly involved in production for the "GDP economy." I am thinking of homemakers and caretakers, of course, but also board members, volunteers, and those invested in non-wage community building.

But three, getting to your question most directly, let it be said that the unemployed long for satisfying work. My second post will talk about "forgiving" people into the economy, action which regularly results in others' employment. Christians are conscious of the suffering and broken vocational telos of the jobless. Yet one might say that the unemployed more than anyone intuit work as hopeful. They wait for a coming kingdom and long to join in its activity.

Say, are you in the Amherst area?
Thanks, Nathan, for your helpful clarifications. Your distinction between work (or we might say, vocation) and employment is an important point to tag, I think. I'll wait to see how you unpack this proposal for an "ontological" conception of work before probing any further.

Yes, we live about 15 minutes from Amherst, where my wife grew up. Do you ever make it over to these parts?
Nathan Hitchcock said…
Scott, a recent side project has had me researching a 19th century geologist and Amherst College president, Edward Hitchcock (no relation). The Amherst area all of the sudden has this allure for me. It helps that there is a Barth society there. I may get to the region this year.
Sad to say, the Barth group here has been on a bit of a hiatus, but perhaps I'm getting a little incentive now to try firing it up again.

Hitchock's impress is all over the region. If you pursue that project, I'd be glad to introduce you to friends at the college, who certainly would be able to give you relevant contact names. And if you do decide to come out here, please do be in touch.
Don’t be ridiculous, Travis. Tea is impotent to help us work.

I respect your observations and questions. Let me attend to what I hear as your major concern, namely, what kind of hermeneutic may be associated with my beginning with the historic eschatological tenets of forgiveness (final judgment), resurrection (parousia/recorporealization), and life in the coming world (new heavens and new earth).

A few years ago a writer in The Christian Century lamented that mainline ministers had become unable to speak to lay persons about the afterlife. It’s not that liberal clergy were offering foreign interpretations of biblical hopes; it’s that they weren’t able to say anything at all. That, I contend, is the predictable outcome of relegating eschatology to prologemena, appendix, or footnote. By contrast, scholars like Moltmann and Volf show that a lot of fruit comes from taking the biblical imagination seriously.

Personally, I am more concerned with the evasion of biblical eschatology among American Evangelicals. For many of them the Bible’s central end times events (remission/resurrection/re-creation) are swallowed up by penultimate vicissitudes (birth pangs/antichrists/beast-kingdoms) and spiritualist hopes (rapture/thanatophilia/eternal disembodiment). My opinion is that the only Christian thinkers I have happened to exclude in this series are those insistent on the sufficiency of a doctrine of “heaven.”
"they weren’t able to say anything at all"

Definitely a problem.

"scholars like Moltmann and Volf show that a lot of fruit comes from taking the biblical imagination seriously."

Do we agree that there is more than one way to take such things seriously?

"My opinion is that the only Christian thinkers I have happened to exclude in this series are those insistent on the sufficiency of a doctrine of “heaven.”"

Amen.

I'm looking forward to the next installment!
Nate - I enjoyed following your line of thinking through this theology of work. I'm looking forward to the next few writings as you flesh this out. One question/comment/challenge I would bring up here:

You write,

"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."

I have a concern with the last sentence. In Matthew 10:8 we find Jesus directing his disciples to "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give." Here Jesus is clearly empowering his followers to do as He did.

A few years ago now, in my medical residency, we had a saying that many doctors are familiar with: "See one, do one, teach one." When learning a new skill or procedure, a resident is shown one, they do the next, and then they pass on that skill to other students or younger residents. It's as if Jesus is telling His disciples, "OK boys, you've seen me do it, now it's your turn!"

Yes, we are able to work in His power, His grace, and through His Spirit. But do we not "animate a renewed cosmos" by working, by doing as He did?

Lots of love, bro.
Nathan Hitchcock said…
Dr. Hitchcock, nice to see you on DET.

I partly want to defer my answer until you read the third installation, on the work of elevating bodies. In the Spirit believers are able to perform an extraordinary range of healing works, starting in Church life and then moving out into the world. I thought of your ministry several times while penning that section.

To address your concern here, however, let me revisit what I mean by the “Redeemer-redeemed” distinction. Because we humans are idolaters at heart, it is so easy to confuse God and us. It is even easier to confuse God’s work and our work. When the Church assumes a continuum between divine action and human action, we end up with all sorts of train wrecks. Consider the cults of personality in Corinth, where certain teachers were held up as expressions of the kingdom-come. Then there were those arrogant bastards Hymenaeus and Philetus, “who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Tim 2:18). We might go on and look at Church history, where Eusebius of Caesarea hails Constantine’s empire as the veritable kingdom of heaven on earth, or the incorrigible political claims of Innocent III, or the radicals in Münster who murdered the clergy and practiced polygamy while claiming that full redemption had come to their city. In all these cases, very religious humans blended together the work of God the Redeemer and they who were redeemed.

By grace God lets us join in His work. But when it comes down to it, when it comes to the true and final redemption, only He can forgive, only He can raise the dead to eternal life, only He can create the new heavens and new earth. Thus when Jesus calls us to do similar things, He does so as the King commanding His ambassadors.
Michael Nichols said…
I appreciate the eschatological approach to a theology grounded in work and see how it helps us distinguish between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom that is to come. Though I'm also interested to see how Christology finds its place in the subsequent installments. (Knowing the Hitchcock's, I'm sure it will!). After all, doesn't the biblical narrative, and therefore eschatology, finds its fulfillment in Christ? This piece leaves open much room for a strong incorporation of Christology. In fact, I think it almost necessitates it! After all, creation begins in a garden with a command to cultivate the ground and multiply. Christ, the second Adam, is buried in a garden and mistaken as a gardener by Mary after his resurrection. The command to multiply is reinterpreted in the great commission. The biblical narrative then ends in a city—the eventual product of a garden that has been cultivated. So I’m curious as to how Christology might even reconcile a strong eschatological approach to work and a strong creation mandate to work? But maybe I’m blending categories too much. I look forward to further installments!
Nathan Hitchcock said…
Mike and Travis, both of you have brought up the question of how Jesus might stand at the center of this project. A christocentric theology of work is a worthy aim! I suspect it would look similar to what I'm proposing here, which is a theocentric approach paralleling the image-of-God tack used with the creational theology of work. The same could be done with the first Adam / second Adam line you propose, Mike. Or it could be done more broadly with the person-specific tasks of the Son at the parousia. Either of you want to give that project a spin?

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