The Reformation and Work I

The Legacy of the Reformation

The new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brought with it a new appreciation of the value of work. As was the case with science, Protestant contributions to this area were firmly anchored in the historic Christian tradition, though by the time of the Reformation, the clergy and elites had largely forgotten the positive view of work taught in the Scriptures and in earlier centuries in the church.

 

So far in this series, we have looked at the impact of the Reformation on marriage and private life, education, and science. In this article, we need to return to a theme we have seen in connection with private life and education: the priesthood of all believers. This idea, which was central to Luther’s thought, was critical to breaking down the sacred/secular divide, and thus changed much of the structure of European life.

The new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brought with it a new appreciation of the value of work. As was the case with science, Protestant contributions to this area were firmly anchored in the historic Christian tradition, though by the time of the Reformation, the clergy and elites had largely forgotten the positive view of work taught in the Scriptures and in earlier centuries in the church. Thus, in order to understand Protestant contributions to the theology of work, we need to look at the Bible, church history, and shifting cultural attitudes toward work.

Work and the Bible

In the ancient world, work was seen as toil and drudgery, fit only for slaves and the lower classes. The elites believed that superior people should not engage in physical labor or production; instead, they should spend their time contemplating beauty and higher things, an idea that led them straight down the road to hedonism.

The main exception to this outlook in the ancient world was the Jews. Genesis said that God labored and rested, and that was the paradigm for our labor and rest. If God worked, if He labored and produced the world, then how could work be bad?

Further, when God created Adam and Eve, he gave them work tending and protecting the Garden of Eden. God had begun the process of Creation; now He gave to humanity as His regents in the world the right and responsibility to complete the creation by building culture. Work thus predates the fall into sin and thus is an intrinsic good, not a necessary evil.

Work only turned into drudgery as a result of God’s judgment on sin, and since we are all living with the consequences of that judgment, it is no wonder that in the classical world work was seen as toil, tedium, and drudgery. The Jews, however, knew better from Genesis and argued that God’s purpose in the world right now, which He shared with the Jews, is tikkun olam, to repair the world. Work is thus intended to have a redemptive purpose, in Jewish thought.

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