When Martin Luther penned his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door on 31 October 1517, he was challenging the church’s authority to sell indulgences. However, the implication of Luther’s challenge quickly accelerated beyond merely the indulgence controversy. By the mid 16th century the authority of the Roman Catholic church began to be disputed in virtually every other area. This included an overt challenge to the Roman Catholic doctrine of vocation.
During the Middle Ages it was routinely taken for granted that the work of the laity was spiritually of lesser value than the work of a priest or nun. As the Dutch statesmen and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837– 1920) pointed out
“Under the hierarchy of Rome the Church and the World were placed over against each other, the one as being sanctified and the other as being still under the curse….Escape from the world was the counterpoise in monastic and partly even in clerical orders, which emphasized holiness in the centrum of the Church…”
The division between sacred and profane labour restricted the idea of a spiritual calling to the work performed by the clergy. While it may never have been expressed formally as such, an implicit theology developed which assumed that the best a commoner could do, so far as his profession was concerned, was to keep from sinning. His work was at best morally neutral. Charles Taylor describes the situation like this in his book Sources of the Self:
On the degenerate, hierarchical understanding of the monastic life then prevalent, I as a layman am as it were only half-involved in my salvation: both because I need to draw on the merits of those who are more fully dedicated to the Christian life, through the mediation of the church, and because in accepting this lower level of dedication, I am settling for less than a full commitment to the faith.
The idea that all work had been sanctified by God and that a boot maker had just as much potential to glorify God in his labours as a priest, was generally an alien concept to medieval man. In fact, the Roman Catholic peoples of Europe did not even possess an expression equivalent to what we know as “a calling.” This division of medieval society into sacred and profane was reinforced by the fact that to embrace the life of a monastic or even an ecclesiastical, entailed, at some level at least, a separation from secular society. In its most basic form, this involved withdrawing from marriage. Quite often it also involved withdrawing from bread-winning labour. In order to justify the latter, Aquinas reinterpreted the Pauline injunction “if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” to be a mandate applying to the human race as a whole but not on every man.
This entire structure would be challenged by Luther, who set the template by renouncing his vows as a monk and marrying an ex-nun. “The monastic life is not only quite devoid of value as a means of justification before God,” wrote Weber summarizing Luther’s teaching, “but he also looks upon its renunciation of the duties of this world as the product of selfishness, withdrawing from temporal obligations.” As Charles Taylor has more recently put it,
“The institution of the monastic life was seen as a slur on the spiritual standing of productive labour and family life, their stigmatization as zones of spiritual underdevelopment. The repudiation of monasticism was a reaffirmation of lay life as a central locus for the fulfilment of God’s purpose.”
In place of the ascetic ideal of monasticism, Luther developed the radical concept that God required men and women to glorify him through faithful engagement in their worldly duties. No profession is morally neutral: provided our work is not sinful, it should be done explicitly and self-consciously to the glory of God. Luther thus recovered the Pauline emphasis of glorifying God in whatever you do - an emphasis that allowed the apostle to claim that even bondservants could perform their tasks unto the Lord. This idea undermined the spiritual hierarchy of medieval theology by making every lawful calling equal in the sight of God. To quote Luther himself:
What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God. We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.
This post is taken from my longer article "Recovering the Protestant Affirmation of Life", in which I suggest that the vision of reformed Protestantism was one in which the entire world became a cathedral and all legitimate human labor took on a religious significance previously limited to the clergy. I try to show that by vigorously affirming the sacredness of earthly life, the glory of the physical, the splendour of the ordinary and the intimate unison between spirit and matter, the reformation movement did more than merely dignify the most mundane professions: it altered how one thought of the world itself. To read more, click HERE.
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