Work: Theological foundations and practical implications, edited by R. Keith Loftin and Trey Dimsdale

by
07 September 2018

Jenny Gage considers essays on Christian thought about work

THE chapters in this book provide a rich and varied introduction to the theology of work, taking the reader through biblical references to work, particularly Genesis 1-3, and the Pauline letters, and into systematic and practical theology.

The foreword, by Mark Greene, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, emphasises how important and timely such a work is, since “the vast majority of lay Christians have no compelling, holistic vision for mission in their overall Monday to Saturday lives, and still less for their daily work.” The afterword, by Gabriela Urbanova, of the European Christian Political Movement, urges us all to see our work as our Christian vocation, to work with the Holy Spirit to transform our world.

Contextually, some chapters felt very American, some less so; some appeared to reflect an Evangelical context, others a Catholic social-justice or liberal Protestant context. I would have appreciated some editorial comment in the introduction to help me through this changing backdrop.

Thereafter, the chapters are presented in three sections: Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Practical Theology. Although I see the value of these different lenses as an organisational tool, I found that there was quite a bit of biblical theology throughout, some of it repetitious. I also felt that some of the chapters in Systematic Theology would have been better placed in Practical Theology, and vice versa: I’m not sure how many systematic theologians would recognise “Be Fruitful and Multiply: Work and Anthropology” (the subject of a chapter by Jay Wesley Richards) or “Work and Sanctification” (Scott B. Rae) as part of their discipline.

I particularly enjoyed the contribution of Miroslav Volf — although the chapter here is an abridged version of Chapter 4 of his Work in the Spirit. Volf’s thesis is that, while theology of work is generally rooted in God’s work in creation, it is better understood eschatologically — work is then a primary means by which our work, transformed by God, contributes to the new creation (Revelation 20-21), besides being how we act as stewards of creation in this world.

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Agreeing with Volf, Darrell T. Cosden underlines how a utilitarian understanding of work — that it is simply the means by which we provide for ourselves, our families, and society — is not only impoverished in itself, but leads easily to idolisation of the market and of economic growth. He counters this by arguing for seeing work in eschatological and teleological terms, as Volf does.

These arguments will be familiar to those who have read in this area. Much less familiar for me, at least, was Chris R. Armstrong’s idiosyncratic journey through St Augustine, St Gregory the Great, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, John Wesley and the early Methodists, Charles Sheldon (an American pastor of the late 19th/early 20th century who took identification with the lot of those in need to great lengths), Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis, demonstrating that work is a sacramental space, a place where we encounter God and are transformed by him.

The contributors appear unaware of The End of Work by John Hughes (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), and, in contrast with Hughes’s theological critique of utilitarian perspectives on work, and on the legacy of Marx, the chapters dealing with these topics feel somewhat lightweight. Another chapter that I found disappointing was “Being God’s People by Working on God’s Mission” (Greg Forster), where mission seemed to be rooted in what church does, so that it remains a leisure activity rather than a means by which we engage with God where he is already working.

Not surprisingly, sabbath was discussed in some chapters, most notably “Work and Sanctification” and “Be Fruitful and Multiply”. While some contributors, however, notably Volf and Cosden, see work as a primary theological category, Michael Matheson Miller sees it as secondary, because the goal of creation is the sabbath. A chapter devoted to teasing out these issues would, I feel, have been a useful addition.
 

The Revd Dr Jenny Gage is the Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry in the diocese of Ely.

 

Work: Theological foundations and practical implications
R. Keith Loftin and Trey Dimsdale, editors
SCM Press £30
(978-0-334-05529-7)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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