Are all lawful vocations (even so-called “common” ones) holy before the Lord?
Does this mean that there is a “Christian” version of everything (e.g., Christian math, Christian bicycle repair, Christian spelling)?
Well, mostly no, and sort of yes, in a way.
Niels Hemmingsen gives a good summation of the Reformational view of the sanctity of all vocations and the way in which they are sanctified in his Enchiridion theologicum. As I noted in a previous post, Hemmingsen divides the doctrine of vocatio into “shared” or “common” (not in the sense used in my first sentence above) and “personal”; there I discussed our shared vocation as kings and priests in Christ.
Here is what he has to say about personal vocation:
Est autem personalis vocatio, legitima functio officii alicuius, certae personae propria, ut vocatio ad imperandum, ad docendum, discendum, operandum. In hac requiruntur multa. Primum, ut habeat vocatio verbum Dei, non enim potest legitimum esse, de quo verbum Dei non extat in genere saltem officii. Secundum, ut Fides et Charitas sint actionum in vocatione Regulae. Tertium, perpetuo respiciendum est ad verbum, unde consolationem petes, si quid adversi obtigerit. Quartum, Vocatio ad gloriam Dei et utilitatem Reipublicae in qua vivis, referenda est. Quintum, Cogitandum nihil foeliciter agi sine Deo iuvante, nullum enim officium est, nullaque vocatio, quae non multum laboris et molestiae habeat annexum. Unde saepe in invocationem Dei prorumpendum, ut ipse difficultatem pro sua bonitate mitiget.
There is, moreover, a personal vocation–the lawful performing of some duty, proper to a certain person, such as the vocation to ruling, to teaching, learning, working. In this [vocation], many things are required. First, that the vocation be approved by the Word of God–for a duty for which the Word of God does not stand as authority at least as to its genus cannot be lawful. Second, that faith and charity be the rules of your actions in your vocation. Third, that you always look to the Word, whence you will seek consolation if anything adverse will have happened. Fourth, that your vocation be referred to the glory of God and the utility of the commonwealth in which you live. Fifth, that you consider that nothing is happily done without God helping, for there is no duty and no vocation which does not have much toil and trouble joined to it. For that reason, you must often burst forth in calling upon God, in order that he may ease your difficulty in keeping with his goodness.1
Hemmingsen lists five requirements for personal vocations. For the first, one might wish that he had given a fuller view of natural or created order rather than simply stipulating the necessity of a vocation’s being approved in the Word, but that is not his approach in the Enchiridion–or, perhaps, that he had said instead that any lawful vocation cannot be forbidden by the Word. His way of putting it, however, is a function of his high view of the supereminence of the Word, and we should notice how he qualifies it: its genus must have the Word’s approval, whether it is “teaching,” “learning,” “manual labor,” or what have you. It is hard to think of a vocation commonly accepted by Christians as lawful that would not be approved by the Word in that respect.
The other things that are requisite have to do with the manner in which one’s vocation is performed: with faith and charity; with a desire to receive consolation from the Word in difficulties (something I have not seen emphasized in contemporary discussion of vocation, though perhaps it has been); with a view to every vocation’s twofold end, the glory of God and the good of the society in which God has placed you; with constant reliance on God for help, abandoning delusions of self-sufficiency for your Monday-Saturday tasks.
Hemmingsen’s approach can help Christians, I think, out of the morass of pointless debates about “Christian” this, “Christian” that, “Christian” whatever, and it can do so in two ways:
- It is true that one can refer to all lawful vocations as “Christian” in a limited way–in so far as they are approved by the Word as to genus. This allows the use of the adjective if one wishes to use it, but the claim it is making is modest. It claims that certain types of activity are underwritten by the authority of the Christian God, but not that there is a special Christian how-to manual for each and every kind of activity one might engage in. It is the latter rather than the former that generally seems to cause some to worry.
- As often is the case with such disputes, this one too can be resolved, or have its tensions significantly relieved, by attention to a simple point of grammar. Hemmingsen reminds us that when thinking about vocation, we should be thinking for the most part adverbially rather than adjectivally. That is to say, we should be concerned less with the existence of a “Christian” [x] than with doing [x] Christianly. One’s Christianity speaks to the how (in certain respects) more than it speaks to the what (aside from the stipulations in ).
With these qualifications in place, one can (and ought to) affirm the holiness, the sanctity, of all lawful vocations. Far from limiting the attribute of holiness to clerical offices and “religious” vocations, the Reformers liberated the concept such that it applied to all lawful activities. This was one of the great insights of Reformational thinkers. Indeed, one might make a further connection that Hemmingsen does not: such work done in Christ to the glory of God is one aspect of our shared dominion and priesthood that Hemmingsen discusses in relation to the commune officium Christianorum treated in the previous post.