The fundamental problem in discerning how we look at “work” is dualism — the one that contends what really matters is the spiritual while the material is not as important. Darrell Cosden, in The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, turns in chp 2 to evangelicalism’s view of work — and it all leads him to the value of Luther and the problems Luther himself imported into the Christian understanding of work. The big question: Does work matter? And, for Cosden, does our earthly work actually have heavenly value?
In this chp Cosden tells his own story of moving from a focus-everything-on-heaven, which he found unsatisfying, and a focus-everything-on-obedience in the here and now, which he also found unsatisfying. He thinks the two need to be combined. This is what he will do in the rest of the book. But, first he’s got to get to Luther who shaped the Protestant view of work.
He begins by quoting Miroslav Volf: Volf ties the significance of work to creation, and he ties creation to the Eschaton, making creation and work of value. Thus, the issue is that “work” itself must be “saved”. What is your response to your work needing to be saved? Cosden says the answer to this question reveals one’s view of work.
This leads to Luther and his context: medieval theology. In medieval theology Cosden believes there was a hierarchy of callings. There is the active life (ordinary folks) and the contemplative life (priests, etc).
Luther, and here I must summarize a lot in a few words, shaped everything through justification by faith. Everything is about justification; and faith is the response. Christian ethics, including work, flow from justification by faith — the heavenly courtroom shapes the earthly workroom.
Luther saw the hierarchy of medieval Catholicism as fatally flawed: it was too absorbed with works, and only those at the top of the hierarchy were engaged in what was heavenly valuable. At least there is a massive emphasis in that direction. Luther demolished this with his theory that no works in this life matter. None whatsoever. Thus, no calling could be better than any other since no work mattered; it was all about faith in Christ.
Ordinary work then becomes secondary and instrumental. Two kingdoms theory impacts this view of work. The spiritual kingdom is heavenly; the earthly kingdom is earthly. And this is where Luther gets into a problem. He, too, has a dualism. He thinks Luther’s view of work is ultimately medieval. Work is “simply God’s providential way of meeting our own and our neighbor’s physical needs” (44).
Luther tied work to eternity; that is good for Cosden. And Luther ransomed “work” from the medieval theory of works. But, Cosden thinks Luther, too, didn’t get it completely right.
Luther developed an “evangelical” form of dualism when it came to work: ultimately, what mattered most was work directly connected to gospel and justification by faith. Work gets cut off from our deepest selves. Most of us, then, are spending our times with things that don’t matter eternally.
Cosden thinks there’s a better way. We’ll turn to that in the next post.