A conversation with one of my critics #2

More of my debate with Ken Witherington, author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, which takes issue with what I say about vocation in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point):

 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.

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A conversation with one of my critics #1

Someone asks me a few weeks ago if anyone ever disagreed with what I have written about vocation.  I said, not really.  I have presented on that topic to a wide variety of groups who hold to all kinds of different theologies and everyone seems to resonate with what I say.  Luther’s doctrine of vocation is so clearly Biblical and it makes so much sense that it seems like a teaching that just about everyone finds enormously helpful and illuminating. 

But I spoke too soon.  A new book DOES take issue with what I say in God at Work.  Ben Witherington is a professor at Asbery Seminary, a Wesleyan/Arminian school, who is the author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. (You can go to the link on Amazon and use the “Look Inside This Book” feature, searching for “Veith” and most of what he says about me will come up.)

So Baptist blogger Trevin Wax set up an online interview/discussion in which the two of us thrashed out our differences. He is posting the exchange over the next several days, so I will too. (When you hit “continue reading,” you’ll go to Trevin’s blog. Come back here to comment, and if you comment at his site, please copy what you say here also.)

WAX: What role does the church play in relation to a man or woman who is seeking to discern God’s call to a particular vocation?

 VEITH: I think that the church’s main role is, quite simply, to teach the doctrine of vocation, according to its own theological light.

As Dr. Witherington says in his book, this is a topic that has been neglected by churches, despite how much the Bible teaches about the topic and despite the huge role that work plays in people’s lives today.

After that, the man or woman struggling over questions of vocation simply needs to be encouraged to see God’s hand in the normal processes and decision-making that goes into finding a job.  Dissatisfaction with what one is currently doing, particular interests and talents, opportunities that arise, doors that open and doors that slam in your face – all of these are factors in going in one direction or another.  Christians are still subject to all of these “secular” factors, but, through the eyes of faith, they can trust in God’s leading.

WITHERINGTON: I would say from the outset we need to distinguish between being called by God and some particular vocation.   So calling and ‘vocation’ should be distinguished.

I certainly think the church has an obligation to help persons discern the call of God on their lives at this or that point in time in their lives.  But a person can be called to a variety of tasks on a variety of occasions for a variety of ways of serving the Lord and edifying others.  As, you will have deduced from my book entitled Work,  I don’t really agree with either Luther’s two kingdoms approach, nor the subset of that, the notion that we are called to some specific vocation over the long haul  (e.g. one to be a plumber one to be a preacher etc.)

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Public vs. Private tourist spots

My wife had a meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia, last week, so I tagged along.  While she was busy, I explored.  I went to Appomattox Court House to see where the Civil War ended.  (Did you know that Appomattox Court House is not the name of the building where Lee and Grant met to sign the terms of surrender?  Rather, Appomattox Court House is the name of the TOWN.  Not to be confused with Appomattox, Virginia, which is nearby.   Appomattox Court House was a little town that doesn’t exist any more, but the National Park Service has rebuilt part of it, restoring about half of the original buildings.  You can go to the Court House, but it’s now the Visitors’ Center.  The site of the surrender is the McLean House, which was owned by a prominent local merchant.   Most of the population had fled the war, but Grant’s adjutant, looking for a place to hold the meeting, did not want to break into someone’s home without permission.  Fortunately, Mr. McClean was still around and offered his home.   The site today is very moving, portrayed as the place where the nation came together again.  The film and exhibits put a lot of emphasis on how Grant and his army honored Lee and the defeated Confederates, refusing to vaunt over them and how both armies put on elaborate rituals of mutual respect.

Then I went to Red Hill, which was Patrick Henry’s home.  He had a nice spread, on the top of a beautiful hill, but his house was tiny, just a simple square whitewashed dwelling, far different from the palatial Mt. Vernon of George Washington and the sophisticated Monticello of Thomas Jefferson.  The obligatory movie had some fascinating clips of Henry’s speeches.  He really could turn a phrase, and his eloquence is moving even today.  Red Hill is run by a privately endowed foundation.  It is quite nice and well-preserved, out in the middle of nowhere, and I was the only visitor at the time.

Later, on our way back home, we stopped at Natural Bridge, a huge stone archway some 200 feet tall.  Perhaps Virginia’s oldest tourist attraction, George Washington as a young surveyor supposedly carved “G.W.” in the stone, initials that go way back and that are currently marked with a white rectangle.  Then we drove home by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which turned into Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park, 105 miles of a 35 mph speedlimit, winding roads of sublime vistas.

Here is my topic for discussion:  Conservatives generally prefer privatization to the government running things.  But when it comes to National Parks and other National Monuments (such as Appomattox Court House and Shenandoah National Park), they tend to be better presented than commercially-run attractions.   The Natural Bridge was magnificent, but you had to go through a souvenir shop to get to the path through the woods, and it was accompanied by a wax museum, an Indian village, a toy museum, a butterfly exhibit, and a hotel.   Don’t get me wrong:  the attraction is worth going to, with well-kept paths and helpful staff.  But there sure was a lot of commercialism.  The National Park service, in contrast, made everything accessible, but it was also kept relatively pristine, with a helpful ranger to tell you all about it.  I suppose the Patrick Henry site shows another option:  It is private but not commercial, with the foundation being devoted to preservation rather than turning a profit, so it doesn’t matter that much whether anyone comes to see it or not.  Still, could we agree that certain historical and natural sites are best thought of as public goods, like roads and the military, and so the legitimate business of the federal government?  Or do you think the principle of private ownership should extend even to what are now national parks and monuments, with the inevitable commercialization simply the price we have to pay?

Updating myself at Redeemed Reader

J. B. Cheaney writes for World and for children.  With fellow children’s lit author Emily Whitten, she has a blog entitled  Redeemed Reader | Kids books. Culture. Christ.  They discuss kiddy-lit, yes, but also lots of other things, from homeschooling to our current cultural condition.  Anyway, they did an interview with me, which they are posting in two parts.  In addition to discussing classical education and vocation,  I take the occasion to update some of what I wrote in my books Reading Between the Lines and Postmodern Times.

Joplin is all but destroyed

Joplin, Missouri–an hour’s drive from where I grew up, where we would often go when we wanted a “big city”–was struck by a tornado that is said to have destroyed three-fourths of the city, killing 89 people!

UPDATE: Now the report is that “only” one fourth of the city of 50,000 was destroyed. But the death toll has risen to 116.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma finally has a professional sports team–the Oklahoma Sooner don’t count–and, within just a few years, it’s in the championship hunt!  The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 105-90, to win the seventh game playoff, putting them up against the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Division championship in the NBA.  The winner will play the Eastern champion, either the formerly always dominant Chicago Bulls or the superstar team of today the Miami Heat.   Wouldn’t it be something if the Thunder could beat either of those teams?  At any rate, the performance of the Thunder this year, with its great player Kevin Durant, is great for Oklahoma City and for all of my fellow Okies, including those of us in the post-Dust Bowl diaspora.

via Thunder top Grizzlies 105-90 to reach West finals – dailytribune.com.


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