Working the Story: Theology of Work Meets Eschatology

By Mark Saucy Jan. 18, 2017 9:00 a.m. Church Life, Culture, New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

“But I just don’t see how knowing eschatology helps me love Jesus more…” the plaintive voice sounds more and more from the evangelical church. If Biola Torrey grad, Matthew Anderson is the spokesman for his crowd of younger evangelicals he claims, then eschatology for this group is indeed something their parents got way out of balance and should be dumped in lieu of more attention to working out Jesus’ reign in the world now.[1] Ouch — that’s talking about my generation (or maybe my father’s [?!]). But there is some truth to the charge, I must admit. I mean I haven’t been to a good prophecy conference in decades! Still, there is more to eschatology than the dumpster merits, especially if we aim to be about Jesus’ reign in the present, which we should.

The topic is work. Something important for all of us, and it’s one that has interested me in particular teaching already five years now a theology of work course for Biola’s Crowell School of Business MBA program. Work is also a topic that naturally engages the desire for kingdom impact in the culture, because, as Karl Barth says, “human culture is produced in work.”[2] So the Faith and Work movement is right on target for engaging a ready audience in a worthy endeavor. This of course isn’t the only good of theology of work. This relatively new domain for theological reflection has helped me tons to think better about the sources and consequences of a stubborn sacred-secular division of labor we still embrace that robs the Church of virtually 90% of its missional strength because what we do Sunday leaves people thinking what they do Monday doesn’t count for God — or it counts less. I’ve learned better a doctrine of calling and vocation and the intrinsic value of work to just being a human being — it’s part of the image of God, after all! Check it out in the story — you don’t have to go long before Adam and Eve, as the image of God, are mandated work to do (Gen 1:26-28; see also 2:5 and 15).

And speaking of the Bible’s Story, Adam and Eve and human mandates, I’ve also seen how one’s telling of the Bible’s Story, including its ending (that’s eschatology folks!) impacts how one sees the meaning of work in the present. Indeed, every one of the books I’ve encountered — every one — that go at work through a “biblical lens,” telling the story of work from Genesis to Revelation operate with the same version of the Story — the same eschatology, and derive similar conclusions for our work.

That version of the Story R. Kendall Soulen, in his insightful book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Fortress, 1994), calls the “traditional narrative,” and it’s familiar to us all. It has 4 episodes: creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and re-creation/consummation (Heaven). We use this narrative all the time to systematize everything from the Gospel, to christology, to soteriology, to anthropology, to everything. But Soulen asks, “Is this the right narrative—or is something missing”? His frank answer comes off a little bracing: you don’t need 2/3 of the Bible to tell this version of the Story. Put that way, it just sounds like something is out of whack with the “traditional” approach. “Uh, Houston, we have a problem.”

In the book, Soulen will detail the consequences for Christian theology of not attending to Israel’s place in the Story—past, but especially future as laid out by the prophets. It truncates christology making Jesus the incarnation of the eternal Logos, not the incarnation of the God of Israel; it reduces salvation to the Christ the Lord of hearts rather than His being the Lord of nations also. And etc. For work, better attention to the Old Testament means a better chance to leverage meaning for human work beyond the usual redemptive, “God traces”, foreshadowing of Heaven, or “soul work” most accounts resign our work to now. Andy Crouch’s hugely popular and award winning book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity, 2008), and more recent to me, Tom Nelson’s very well done, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway, 2011) both conclude this way for work.[3] Crouch even dedicates an entire chapter to “Why We Can’t Change the World.”

So this is the end hope for our work? Do your best, but really, it’s about hanging on for Heaven…?

Missing from this account is a Story for work a different eschatology would offer. Missing is the robust Israelite hope of the prophets for human work that one day will bring a bona fide God-culture to this world — not Heaven, but this world — under the patronage of a returned and visible Messianic Servant/Prince. Missing is the Story where human work actually solves the world’s problems of injustice, poverty, scarcity, and war, instead of toiling under them. Missing is an account for work that accomplishes humanity’s original mandate to “expand Eden’s order to the whole earth” by our work, as many biblical theologians are rightly reading Genesis 1-2 these days (e.g., G.K. Beale and Mitchel Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth [IVP, 2014]). A human “ruling” and “subduing” that actually extended the order of Eden’s Garden to the whole earth, in spite of the presence of a hostile foe, is what it means to be in God’s image in the first creation narrative (Gen. 1:26-28). It’s what is held as a full-throated hope to us in the last narrative too (Rev. 2:25-27 and Rev. 20:5), and Israel’s Story still holds this as the hope for human work in this world once Jesus returns for the reward of his sufferings.

In the meantime, yes, work suffers under this world’s system still energized by the so-called “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). We suffer and groan in our creative culture-making enterprises, and we may never get out alive before Jesus’ return. But that is not the end for our work this side of Heaven. No, Israel’s hope is still the world’s hope and that eschatology says our work’s achievements, our increases of knowledge, discovery and service for the common good of our fellow man will one day contribute to a culture that dominates and rules evil, injustice, inequality, and scarcity God’s way. Now there’s a hope for work to believe in.

 

[1] Matthew Lee Anderson, “The New Evangelical Scandal,” The City 1 (2008): 48-65.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4.

[3] And by the way, both are worth the time of a close reading.

Comments

  • Tim Jan. 18, 2017 at 6:41 PM

    "... a stubborn sacred-secular division of labor we still embrace that robs the Church of virtually 90% of its missional strength because what we do Sunday leaves people thinking what they do Monday doesn’t count for God..."

    In response many Bible experts are writing books to allegedly resolve this corruption. It's just that most, if not all of them are written by men who claim a "higher calling" to never work in the marketplace. Example: Every Great Endeavor by Timothy Keller. Here is what I think of this book and others just like it.

    The book speaks of God's design and empowerment of believers who work in the marketplace, but Timothy Keller exempts himself from ever working there. He functions in an 1800 year old bubble of clergyism where some claim an alleged call from God to never work in the marketplace and "devote" their lives to "the ministry". Clergyism and it's perpetuated pulpit and pew routines called "worship services" is why 99% of believers who work in the marketplace have been categorized out of ministry and placed in the box of "secular" work. Keller panders to this system at many points. Mr, Keller, you can't merely talk different about marketplace work, and keep all the same routines and get different results. You must change the system. If I walk into your worship service I will see the marketplace ministers relegated to zero personal expression of truth to their fellow body members and you will do 100% of the expression of truth! This shows you view them as incompetents. Even after you have lectured them for 5 - 20 years! Hebrews 10:24,25 tells us the "habit of meeting" believers are "not to forsake" is devoted to "provoking one another" and "encouraging one another" on to "love and good works". You keep them silent and expect a salary for hogging the truth expression. As long as the saints in church are content with this outsourcing of their God given responsibility to hired experts in exchange for spectator status, the small portion of this book that is true will be nullified to a large extent by Mr Kellers perpetuating a bogus system of church.

  • Tim Jan. 18, 2017 at 6:42 PM

    Part 2
    The NT is loaded with passionate teaching from Paul on the combining of marketplace work and spiritual leadership. Timothy Keller repudiates it with his life. 1 Corinthians 9: 15 - 27; 2 Corinthians 11: 7 - 13; 2 Corinthians 12:11 - 19; 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-12 ; 2 Thessalonians. 3:6-15; Acts 18:1-5; 1 Cor. 4:11 - 20: Acts 20:31-35 Every Bible expert on the planet will reject all these texts by twisting 1 Tim. 5:17,18 to push "double honor" equals a full pay check. They will twist 1 Cor. 9:1-15 so "those who preach the gospel" equals those who lecture the Bible to believers every week of their life in perpetual dependency. A side effect tragedy of this is that 84% of the giving goes to buy this routine and only 16% on average goes to get the gospel to those who have never heard it and have no one to tell them! Those are Leadership Journals statistics on "normal" church budgeting. Paul expected his example to be imitated:1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; Philippians 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:15 ; 2 Timothy 3:10.

    I found it interesting as I read chapter 7 on idols and "making a name for ourselves" that the font size of Timothy Keller on the front of the book is at the top and massive sized compared to everything else. The first 7 pages of the book are "Praise for Timothy Keller and his books." Amazing commercializing of the gospel", all of which Mr Keller has received for free. Jesus spoke to this when he sent out the 12 saying "You received without paying; give without pay." Matthew 10:8 I realize the traditions of men have a very powerful hold on men like Mr. Keller who are beholden to getting their paycheck from the very system that leads believers to weekly spectating gatherings called "teaching". I'm not trying to be mean with this, but something must be said about this corruption of the truth by Bible experts. As a businessman I'm doing a little "...preach the word, reprove, rebuke and exhort..." If I'm missing something, I'm open to it.

  • Mark Jan. 20, 2017 at 2:04 PM

    I don't think the problem it's thinking what Christians do at work doesn’t count for God as much as it is Christians becoming confused about what is the work of the church. It seems to me too many churches are trying to build perfect churches, "communities", and families. Their leaders have convinced them that perfection in Christlikeness (discipleship) is really all about attempting perfection in all our relationships. Relational idealism.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that one's view of real actual work can be a guidepost. People often recall the parables in the Bible on work. People often think about their own work and also the work of exemplary people they've known as a lens to view reality. I do. I always have. In our work we come up against reality quite clearly and directly.

    The problem about using work as a lens though, is that like any other lens it can become distorted. Society generally has become profoundly disconnected about work itself, and idealism has replaced pragmatism on work. So we have unemployment and employers not being able find enough workers at the same time. For many their view of work does not represent a realistic view of reality itself. It’s not about the dignity of work in the abstract, it’s about the disconnect between what we think about work and everything else, so that there are significant gaps between what we think of work and how things really are.

    That is why Mike Rowe has made such an impact. Listen to him talk about this profound disconnect. www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTysDJak9js&t=35m0s

    He speaks of the "incredible disconnect between our food and our assumption of where it comes from, and energy, and work, and education". At the 38 minute mark and on he gives an example of how absurd it's all become:

    "The word ‘farmer’ has become an impediment to recruitment. We’re so disconnected from our food that the people who grow it, and the people who feed us, can no longer refer to themselves as farmers because it’s hurting their ability to duplicate their work. … We’re at the point now where 1.5% of the population feeds 300 million people … and we’re just not all that impressed … by the fact that that miracle happens every day. … What’s going on in skilled trades isn’t really so different. …"

    Listen to two videos by Cal Newport at the bottom of this page, where he speaks of the profound disconnect between words and reality on work. Much of it is because of and reflected by the mantras that real work is pursuing "passion" and "dreams". Such idealism is highly damaging and distorting for those who try to follow this advice. calnewport.com/books/so-good/

  • Mark Jan. 21, 2017 at 1:49 PM

    In this commentary, Rowe schools a few pundits or journalists on the danger of accepting generalities and refusing to accept the scripted assumptions handed to us about people or statistics. It’s simply masterful.

    video.foxnews.com/v/5242727630001

    He explicitly makes the analogy between relational idealism and I guess what might be called vocational idealism. It’s no accident that we’re mired in both. As he rightly notes, our leaders are now teaching that such things chosen correctly will become “the proximate cause of your happiness”, and how that simply can't work.

    If only our Christian leaders could muster half as much wisdom, subtlety, and independence of thought as Rowe displays here, instead of oscillating between ignoring these dreams and co-opting them.

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