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Vocation: A Reformational Perspective

When going through some old papers recently I had occasion to revisit the following, which was given as a brief talk at New St Andrews College last year in commemoration of Reformation Day. I haven’t done anything with it since, and had no plans to, and thought it might be useful to post it here. (The other talk I gave while I was there, which was a Hemmingsonian take on the role of the Christian magistrate in the magisterial (ahem) Reformation, is, I gather, available on iTunes, though I think it wasn’t very good.) All translations are my own. The piece, as you will see, derives from and is a combination of some previous posts on TCI that I have attempted to bring together into one coherent whole. The talk has been lightly edited for publication here.

Niels Hemmingsen on Vocation

For this brief talk, I’d like to address another central pillar of the Reformation of church and society in the sixteenth century, the doctrine of vocation, and I’d like to do so through the lens of Niels Hemmingsen and with the particular help of his Enchiridion Theologicum.

Hemmingsen divides “vocation” into two kinds in the Enchiridion, the first common to all Christians and the second personal, namely, any lawful discharging of any office.1

Our “shared” or “common vocation,” the one to which all Christians are called, comes by way of the Gospel, by which we are called to be kings and priests. God is spirit; his kingdom is spiritual; he is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth; and so the priestly and royal offices that Christians perform are spiritual offices. Thus the language of “rule” and “sacrifice” are transposed to their properly spiritual referents. These offices, it must be stressed again, are common: they belong to all Christians as such, and not to some subset of the faithful.

Est…Communis vocatio, qua sumus per Evangelium evocati ex mundo, ut simus nova creatura, seu spirituales reges seu sacerdotes. Quare regia officia et sacerdotalia a nobis praestanda sunt, ut iusticia induti simus, et in sanctitate exultemus, perpetua laude Deum celebrantes, offerendo illi hostias placentes, primum spiritum contribulatum. Secundo, sacrificium iusticiae. Tertio, sacrificium laudis, ac vitulos labiorum, confitentium nomini eius. Quarto, hostias beneficentiae et communionis, quibus…oblectatur Deus, seu placemus Deo. Quinto, hostiam rationalem propriorum corporum. Breviter, omnem nostram obedientiam, quam in hac communi nostra vocatione praestamus, iuxta ipsius voluntatem, sacrificij nomine dignatur Deus….

Porro regium munus, quod commune omnium piorum est, in eo consistit: ut iam peccato et mundo dominemur, ac superemus ea per fidem, quae mundi victoria est, ut quae nos inserit in Christum, qui solus est mundi victor. (Enchiridion theologicum, pp. 194-5)

The common vocation…is that by which we are called out of the world by the Gospel, in order that we may be a new creation, or spiritual kings or priests. Therefore, we must perform royal and priestly duties, such that we be clothed in justice and rejoice in holiness, celebrating God with uninterrupted praise, pleasing him by offering sacrifices to him: first, a contrite spirit; second, the sacrifice of justice; third, the sacrifice of praise, and the sacrifice of lips that confess his name; fourth, the sacrifices of kindness and fellowship, by which…God is delighted, or by which we please God; fifth, the reasonable sacrifice of our own bodies. In short, God honors all of our obedience that we perform in this common vocation of ours, according to his will, with the name of “sacrifice”….

Next, the royal office, which is common to all the pious, consists in this: that we now rule over sin and the world, and overcome these things by faith, which is the victory over the world, since it ingrafts us into Christ, who alone is the victor over the world.

In his discussion of sacrifice, Hemmingsen uses a number of concrete terms: sacrificium; hostia(s) (“sacrificial victim(s)”); vitulos labiorum (“the bulls of our lips”). They might all be rendered as “sacrifice,” as they were above, but we should note the variations: our spiritual worship and service (which is another word for the same thing) is the analogue of the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, which were fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We present a broken spirit, justice, praise, confession, kindness, fellowship, and our very selves to God as our “sacrificial victims”; he is pleased by these things and is pleased to accept them (only, as Hemmingsen elsewhere makes clear, through the mediation of Christ). It is important to note here that God really is pleased by the obedience of his children, cleansed and purified in the blood of his Son.

Our royal office consists, he says, of “ruling over the world and sin.” How do we do this? By faith. Why? Faith overcomes the world. How so? Instrumentally: because it unites one to Christ, who alone is victor over the world.

Hemmingsen comes next to “personal vocation.” A couple of questions immediately arise:2

Are all lawful vocations–even so-called “common” vocations (though “common” is here used in a different sense from that above)–holy before the Lord?

For Hemmingsen, yes.

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.

Precisely because the Enchiridion is intended as an introductory work, his discussion serves as a good summation of the Reformational view of the sanctity of all vocations and the way in which they are sanctified. Hemmingsen says this:

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.

Hemmingsen lists five requirements for personal vocations. For the first, one might wish that he had said a bit more. For instance, what role is to be played by reflection upon natural or created order in thinking about vocation in addition to simply stipulating the necessity of a vocation’s being approved in the Word? More on this in a moment; for now, suffice it to say that his way of putting it is a function of his high view of the supereminence of the Word, and is absolutely of a piece with his basic approach in the Enchiridion. We should notice, moreover, 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: it must be 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 one has been placed by God; with constant reliance on God for help, abandoning delusions of self-sufficiency for your Monday-Saturday tasks.

It is perhaps of some significance that in later editions of the Enchiridion Theologicum Hemmingsen expands upon the first two requirements. The first, about the Word’s approval, is of particular interest. To his original exposition he adds the following:

Quare haec regula tenenda est: omne officium faciens ad conservandos et adiuvandos status a Deo ordinatos, ut oeconomicum, politicum, Ecclesiasticum, mandatur primo et quarto praecepto, atque ideo in se legitimum, licitum et sanctum est. Si huc accesserit iusta et ordinaria vocationis designatio, fit etiam officium legitimum personae respectu, et praeterea cultus Dei in conversis et sanctis. Requiritur ergo ut vocatio sit, legitima et ratione officii, et respectu personae.

Therefore we must hold to the following rule: every duty that contributes to the preservation and aid of the estates ordained by God–such as the domestic, the political, [and] the ecclesiastical–is commanded by the First and Fourth Commandment, and for that reason is lawful in itself. If a just and ordinary selection of vocation will be added to it, it also becomes a lawful office in respect of the person, and, moreover, [its performance becomes] the worship of God in the converted and the saints. Therefore it is required that a vocation be lawful both by reason of the duty and in respect of the person.

The foregoing clarifies what he meant when he said that every vocation must be approved by the Word as to genus: it must fall under the First and Fourth Commandments (Fifth for the Reformed) construed broadly. As we know from elsewhere in Hemmingsen–and as I have written about elsewhere–the duties required in the Fourth (Fifth) Commandment are also known and demonstrable by nature, so that Hemmingsen’s view of vocation is firmly rooted both in Scripture and in creation.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 [1]).

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 only hints at in the expansion upon his first requirement in later editions of the Enchiridion: 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.

It will do us well, I think, in a time of massive social confusion, in which the church might be tempted to withdraw into herself and to focus on the sanctity of her own institutional structures while letting the world go its own way, to remember this fundamental insight of the Reformers, viz., that, while we serve a Savior who died on a tree, we do not nevertheless serve a truncated Savior. All of us, in our various walks of life, have the responsibility of kings and priests, as we seek by the help of the Spirit to serve the world and offer it back up to our great King and High Priest.

  1. This first section comes from a previous post at TCI found here.
  2. This section appeared previously here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.