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Yesterday, I posted the first of a three-part series prompted by Ben Witherington’s new book, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary. Gene Veith is the provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College and author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. Today, the conversation between these two scholars (one Wesleyan and the other Lutheran) continues.

WITHERINGTON: Let’s take one of these issues where we really do have a difference.  While I am not going to suggest that human beings, Christians in particular, never are co-operating with God in some sense, I am going to insist on is that there are plenty of times where we have been graced and empowered to do things for God.  We are the hands and feet of Jesus.  Doubtless he could have done it without us, or by using others, but Gene, he’s decided to do it by empowering you and me, for example.

Now what this in turn means is that while I am happy to talk about God empowering or leading or guiding such activities, at the end of the day, they would not happen as my action, unless I decided to do it and acted on the decision.  The matter was not fore-ordained, and so I am not merely going along with what God is doing, without God coercing me (and so ‘freely’ in the Edwardsian sense of not compelled to do it), I am actually acting as a free agent of God, and indeed God will hold me responsible for my behavior, accordingly.  He will not be holding himself responsible.   I bring this all up because it affects the way we look at the notion of vocation and the notion of calling, as we can discuss further in due course.

VEITH: Ben, I think I agree with your first paragraph.

I’m not sure I fully understand your second paragraph.   (Do you mean “with God coercing me”?)  Is it that you are bringing “free will” into the doctrine of vocation, as with the Arminian doctrine of salvation?   As a Lutheran, I can actually agree with much of the former without agreeing with the latter.   (Luther wrote “The Bondage of the Will,” but he also wrote “The Freedom of the Christian,” in which he develops his theology of vocation.)

I guess the main difference would be that we Lutherans might have a greater emphasis on sin in the human agency that we do have.

Say a man has the calling to work in a bank.   He lends people money and takes care of other financial needs of the community, so that he is indeed loving and serving his neighbors.  God is in what he does.  But one day he decides to embezzle money.   He is stealing from his neighbors.  He is certainly free to do that, but God will indeed hold him responsible.   Perhaps then he goes to church, hears a sermon from God’s Word, and is convicted of his sin.  He repents and puts the money back before anyone notices.  From that time on, he works as an honest employee.  He has the agency to do that also, though we would say the credit for his repentance goes to the Holy Spirit working through God’s Law.  Now that he is doing what he should, does he earn merit for that before God?  Well, not really.  He is now doing what he was supposed to do all along.  ”When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:10).   The man, however, assuming he is a Christian, is in the process of being sanctified.   The struggle with sin, finding forgiveness, and doing what is right made him grow in his faith, which bears fruit in good works, and so he has grown in sanctification.   (Vocation is where sanctification happens.  You make that point too, associating our work with our sanctification, but you seem to think Lutherans don’t believe that.  We do!)

WITHERINGTON: Interesting.   I don’t think a banker has a calling to be a banker in the Biblical sense of the term calling, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.  A big part of my objection to what you write about work is the Lutheran understanding of God’s involvement in human work, that He uses human beings as His instruments and is somehow “hidden” in vocation.

VEITH: What would you say to the atheist father who refuses to let his family say grace before a meal because “God didn’t provide this food!  I did!”  Aren’t we right to thank God for our food because He “gives us this day our daily bread” through the instrumentality of farmers, bakers, and the person who prepared our meal?   Isn’t it true that God creates new life through the instrumentality of mothers and fathers; that is, in vocations of parenthood?  It is surely true, as I believe you said in your book, that the Holy Spirit is active in pastoral ministry, when the pastor preaches God’s Word and gives spiritual care to the congregation.

I totally agree that the farmer who grew the grain that went into my daily piece of toast and my mother and father who brought me into existence have their own identity and their own moral agency.  They can resist God’s will or they can co-operate with Him.   Nevertheless, isn’t there some sense in which God is active in their work?

I do not understand God’s presence and activity in human work in a deterministic or even Calvinistic sense, as I believe you are assuming.

WITHERINGTON: The question is: in what sense is God involved in what I do or others do? Does it involve his permissive will or his active will, and if the latter in what sense and in what way?

I see God as a guider, a giver of wisdom, an empowerer, in such situations.  I see God as a lover and a persuader. I don’t see him as ‘doing’ the activity itself.  God gives us our daily bread through the hands of human beings.  We can talk about God setting up the world and the economy and the crops in such a way that it is possible for human hands to make bread and me to buy it.  But it is not God who is directly baking the bread or selling it to me.  If that is not the case, then I don’t really understand what it means to say We are co-operating with God when we buy daily bread.

VEITH: We don’t co-operate with God when we buy our daily bread.  But when we make a loaf of bread and give it to someone who is hungry, yes, we are co-operating with God.

No, God doesn’t do it “directly”.  But God’s normal way of doing things is through means.  Usually physical means.  God doesn’t have to use physical means–he can certainly do things directly, as with miracles and with giving the children of Israel their daily bread directly with the manna in the desert–but he usually works through His created order.   (I suppose some of this is distinctly Lutheran, as in our emphasis about how God conveys His gospel in the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the paper and ink and soundwaves of God’s Word, but surely we can agree that God is active in His creation, including in non-miraculous processes.  We don’t want to be Gnostics.)

One of the great virtues of your book is to break down the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular.  Doesn’t limiting God’s action to direct, “spiritual” things and not also to ordinary material life put up that wall once again?

WITHERINGTON: I guess my problem is with the word co-operating.  To my Wesleyan ears that sounds like ‘God makes you an offer you can’t refuse’ - turning God into the Godfather. Honestly, I have read a lot of Luther including the Bondage of the Will and I must say I much prefer you and modern Lutheran theologians to Luther!  Luther frequently sounds to me more Augustinian than either Augustine or Calvin, especially in the Bondage of the Will, more deterministic, and with less of a proper sense of second causes, and when he starting talking about the Devil being God’s Devil whom he has pre-programmed, I break out in rash, because at the end of day, in too many places, Luther sure seems to be making God the author of evil.

VEITH: Well, thanks for the compliment!   It took Luther a long time to break out of his Augustinian monastery.

Lutheran theology is defined not by the writings of Martin Luther, as such – the man was mind-bogglingly prolific, churning out tons of often contradictory material throughout his life as his theology developed – but by the Book of Concord, the collection of confessions of faith from the early Creeds through the Reformation confessions by Melanchthon and Chemnitz to the Catechisms.   I’m pretty sure that my formulation is that of the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism, both by a kinder and gentler Luther.

That’s a great and humorous line, that Luther in the Bondage of the Will is more Augustinian than Augustine!  In Luther’s defense, a lot of these writings are undecipherable apart from their polemical contexts and Luther’s love of paradoxes, not to mention his not necessarily commendable desire to shock the scholastics and the humanists.  He is also doing things with what he called “the theology of the Cross,” as opposed to “the theology of Glory,” which is a subject unto itself, but in which he really tears into both the scholastics and what would become Calvinism (which you should appreciate)!  You’ve got to balance the Bondage of the Will with The Freedom of the Christian.

The thing is, Lutheranism often gets conflated with Calvinism.  Even though Lutherans tend to treat Calvin as their major theological adversary! Part of the problem is that Calvinists claim Luther for themselves, so that much of what people hear about Luther comes through Calvinist filters!  Lutherans actually agree with Wesleyans in affirming the Universal Atonement, that it is possible to lose salvation, and in rejecting double predestination.

WITHERINGTON: I’m glad to hear all this, but it’s not the Luther I remember.  Nor the Luther I learned about from Roland Bainton either. If you think Luther was voluminous you should try and read Wesley, even just all his journal and sermons and tracts, never mind his zillion letters.  I think he and Luther could compete in the most words in print contest.

VEITH: How were these guys able, with their quill pens and candle light, to be so much more productive than we are, with our computers and electricity?  And on top of all of their writing, they were preaching nearly every day of the week!  And doing lots of other things, like meeting with people, counseling, travelling, and trying to solve intractable problems.  There is an example for us of  ”work.”

WAX: We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow and focus on the place of rewards and virtue when it comes to work.

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3 thoughts on “Co-operating with God in our Work: The Witherington/Veith Discussion Part 2”

  1. Jeff Guernsey says:

    very glad to see this conversation. I had read Veith’s book several years ago, and am reading Witherington’s book currently.

    Still wondering what each man means in using the words “calling” and “vocation”.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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