A conversation with one of my critics #3

In which we conclude the “battle of the books” between my  God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point) and  Ben Witherington’s  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor and also get into some other issues:

WITHERINGTON: Why do both Jesus and Paul talk about rewards in heaven or in the Kingdom, and the lack thereof for those who are less profitable servants, shall we say? Do you think virtue is its own reward, and how does virtue relate to your notion of vocation or calling?

VEITH: Of course we are rewarded. God awards abundantly. And I have no problem with the notion that the great saints, the true heroes of the faith, will receive a greater reward than someone like me, though we are also told that the first will be last and the last first and that there will be lots of surprises in Heaven. (Some will put forward their “mighty works” only to have the Lord say, “I never knew you” [Matthew 7:22-23].)

Virtue is to do God’s will. We are to do God’s will in every part of our lives – in our families, in the workplace, in the church, and in our culture; that is, in our vocations.

The underlying question is, how do we become virtuous; that is, how do we do God’s will? We must know God in order to know His will–which means we must know and trust His Word–and to actually do His will, we need to be saved from our sinful condition through the life-changing work of Jesus Christ. Now  we are in the realm of faith.  To say that good works are the fruit of faith, which Matthew 7 also teaches in the passage immediately before the one cited above, is a very literal truth.  Knowing what Christ has done for us and personally trusting and depending on Him makes us want to do His will.

I totally agree with you when in your book you indicate that coercing someone to do something has no moral value.  And when we do something good just to be rewarded, that also compromises the work’s moral value.  The politician who shows up at a soup kitchen for 15 minutes while the cameras roll is not necessarily showing virtue, if he feeds the hungry only to boost his image and his polling numbers.  The woman who really feels compassion for the homeless and the hungry and so gives up Thanksgiving dinner with her family to serve at the soup kitchen, she is showing virtue and she will have her reward.  She is following God’s will and thus is co-operating with God in His love and care for His children.  He uses her as His hands and feet, as you say, and He honors that.  (Now He may also have used the politician to give food to the hungry during that 15 minutes, and perhaps beyond in drawing attention and building further support for the soup kitchen.  The politician himself didn’t do anything particularly virtuous, but God did something good with him anyway, though not by any kind of coercion into virtue.)

God wants us to serve Him and our neighbors because we want to (there is your free agency!) and out of love.  And love and good works grow out of faith.  ”Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).  The key is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).  And this happens in vocation.

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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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Men at Work stories

One of my students is doing an internship with William Bennet and has asked for my help. I thought I’d tap into you readers of this blog, who always manage to come up with some really good ideas on just about every subject. I’ll let the student explain what he needs:

I am working on a research project for Mr. William Bennett on Manliness and I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction.

The book is divided into various sections of manliness, such as Men at War, Men at Play, etc.

We are currently looking for excerpts from literature, history, biographical, and essays, from all of human history (I know, a rather modest goal) that deal with Men at Work. These excerpts should ideally depict good men with an exceptional work ethic. But they can also show the negative as an example of what NOT to do.

Are there any quotes, essays, stories, or great men from history that have inspired you to work hard and that depict good, hard working men? I know your specialty is English Literature. Are there maybe one or two examples from your field that exemplify hard work?

Any help at all would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

So we are looking for writings about men acting in vocation, specifically, the workplace. I thought of Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.” What else

UPDATE:  My student and Mr. Bennett won’t be able to anthologize whole books, so are there episodes in specific novels that would be good to use?  (For example, I cited the scene in Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in which Ivan builds a brick wall and how that honest, satisfying, constructive labor gave him a sense of meaning even in the indignities of the Soviet prison camp.)  He could also use examples from non-fiction (Studs Terkel’s “Working,” as has been mentioned), as well as quotations, etc.


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