Faith and Work: A Distortion Appears
January 17, 2007 • By Allistair Mackenzie
Gradually the Church Fathers began to draw more heavily on Greek and Roman motifs in their theology, and the more positive view of work gave way to a much lower view. This is reflected in the view of Eusebius, who wrote about his doctrine of two lives about AD300:
"Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone ... such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits man to join in pure nuptials, and to produce children ... it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion ... a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them."
In a similar way Augustine distinguished between the ‘active life’ (vita activa) and the ‘contemplative life’ (vita contemplativa). While both kinds of life were good, and Augustine had praise for the work of farmers, craftsmen and merchants, the contemplative life was of a higher order. At times it might be necessary to follow the active life but, according to Augustine, wherever possible, one should choose the other: "The one life is loved, the other endured ...The obligations of charity make us undertake righteous business (negotium)" but, "if no one lays this burden upon us we should give ourselves up to leisure (otium) to the perception and contemplation of truth."
This pattern shaped much of subsequent Christian thinking. Different interpretations have been offered to explain this.
According to Barnette, "the Biblical view of calling in which every man is summoned to salvation and service without a basic distinction between "clergy" and "laity" is the pattern which prevailed into second century Christianity". However, during the latter half of the second century, there developed an official clergy with Bishops possessing the sole right to ordain and rule the Church. And by the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the distinction between clergy and laity was fairly well established. With the establishment of celibacy for the clergy in the 11th century, this demarcation was complete and the laity were relegated to second-class status in the church (Barnette 1965: 39-42). Barnette attributes the bifurcation of calling into sacred and secular categories, and the subsequent subordination of the laity to the creation of a professional priesthood and consequent loss of the New Testament view of the priesthood of all believers. This interpretation also sees the consolidation of spiritual power and privilege in the hands of the clergy, with the associated elevation of their spiritual status, reflected in the way the doctrine of vocation developed.
Holl’s interpretation focuses more on the differentiation of ‘contemplative’ and ‘active’ spiritualities, with the elevation of the former over the latter, and the subsequent identification of only the former as a true ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’. For Holl, it is this pattern which shaped much of subsequent Christian thinking and in particular the evolution of monasticism. Holl maintains that when, with the growth of Christianity, infant baptism became the main route of entry into the Church so that most members were born into the church and fewer entered by means of a personal decision, the thought of a personal calling coming clearly to the consciousness of each individual began to disappear. The result was a rising tide of diluted discipleship and undemanding nominalism. Monasticism represented a break with this nominal church-Christianity (Holl 1958: 126-128).
Holl describes how monasticism desired to fulfil completely the demands of Christ once again in response to the challenge of nominalism. It saw the only solution as a call for complete separation from the world. Those who would direct their thoughts uninterrupted towards God must not be distracted by the activities of a profession, or family concerns. This did not mean that work with the hands was condemned. Work with the hands was not only allowed, it was actually demanded. However, its function was to ensure that idleness was avoided. And with the exception of the reading and writing of devotional literature, it was limited to purely mechanical processes which would not disturb a person’s ability to hold fast to thoughts of God for every moment of life.
Because this also meant letting go of all other attachments, including friends and relatives, there arose a new consciousness of a personal calling from God to adopt this radically different, more spiritual, lifestyle. Hence biblical stories like the call of Abraham and the rich young ruler were used to illustrate the challenge and opportunity that God presented to a monk. Novices in their initiation were told that God had called them and made them worthy to be disciples of Christ. They were admonished to live a life worthy of this calling, and only the monk was considered to have a klesis (calling) or vocation, and monasticism became a profession. This latter term was coming into regular use, not merely recalling the usual sense of profession as a trade or occupation, but emphasising that for the monks a vow or solemn promise defined their whole lives. But this seizure of the title vocation by monasticism meant that there was no opportunity for a proper religious evaluation of secular occupations to develop, nor for the word vocation to be applied to them. There is no passage in the writing of the early Fathers where vocation means anything like occupation.
Excerpt from Faith and Work - A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Dec. 1997 by Alistair Mackenzie. faithatwork.org.nz. Content distributed by HisChurchatWork.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.