Throughout most of history, the Church has taken an instrumental view of human work and economic activity. There is no question that work has such value. Through our labors we provide food, clothing, and shelter. Work is what sustains us so we can do those distinctly human activities like worship God, meditate on who God is, educate our minds, and enjoy community with others. Our work gives us resources to share with others in need and invest in the lives of others. Within the context of the Church today our work environment is often characterized as a staging ground for evangelism and a context where we can exhibit Kingdom principles of living. Work is also frequently valued because of the funds it provides for the institutions, programs, and ministries of the Church.
In addition to the instrumental view, there has been teaching that values work in an ontological sense. It tends to be grounded in the creation narrative. Human beings were created to be stewards over the earth. Human labor is seen as a way to glorify God by dutifully caring for the created order, in essence keeping the status quo until Christ’s return when the pre-fall order of things will be restored.
These instrumental and ontological views express much of what the Church has taught over the centuries. There is little wrong with either of these views as far as they go. The problem is what they are missing: an eschatological view.
My shorthand observation for the eschatological view is this: The narrative of the Bible begins in the garden (Eden) and ends in a city (New Jerusalem). Many Christians today (especially postmodern deconstructionists) falsely attribute the idea of material progress to the Enlightenment. The idea of progress was appropriated from Christianity by Enlightenment thinkers and wedded to the idea of human self-autonomy achieved through reason. The biblical narrative is pregnant with the idea of progress, including material progress, under God’s direction.
Judaism introduced the idea of linear type. Ancient cultures had cyclical notions of time. Religious rituals celebrated the cycles of nature and sought to earn the gods’ favor by honoring nature’s cycles. Judaism postulated a beginning to creation. Humanity was created and instructed to multiply and fill the earth. Humanity was instructed to till and keep the Garden but humanity was also instructed to “subdue” (kabash) and exercise “dominion” (radah) over the earth. The Hebrew words here are powerful and violent. They mean “to tread down; hence, negatively, to disregard; positively, to conquer, subjugate, violate” in the case of kabash and “to tread down, i.e. subjugate; specifically, to crumble off” in the case of radah. (Strong’s Concordance) Contrary to ancient notions of worshiping and conforming to nature, the Genesis account envisions humanity filling the earth and reshaping it; bringing creation to fruition. There is linearity to the presentation of events. (It is beyond my scope here to give a fully qualified presentation of “subdue” and “dominion” but just for clarity’s sake I’m not suggesting the natural world has no intrinsic value and that it may be exploited for any purpose. My emphasis is that passive preservation of pristine creation is not in sight in the Genesis account.)
After the fall and expulsion from Eden in Genesis 3, we see something new emerging in the Old Testament. From Noah, through Abraham, and through Moses we see an unfolding vision of restored shalom (peace, security, prosperity, physical health, and healthy relationships.) God establishes a people to be a light to the world and at the end of time God will bring the entire world into his kingdom and restore shalom (Isaiah 25:6-10) As we know from other Old Testament writings, a messiah will lead people into this eschatological reality. This coming shalom unquestionably had material implications. Please revisit the listing of the blessings for obedience to God’s covenant with Israel in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. Resist the temptation to spiritualize them in some Gnostic way or to explain them away because prosperity gospel heresies. Material prosperity for all God’s people is linked with shalom.
Christianity is where we see the idea of progress fully emerge. Rodney Stark points that while Judaism had a linear timeframe it tended to see the people of Israel processing through time, as opposed to progressing through time. They were oriented to the past and to keeping the Mosaic Covenant in anticipation of something God would do in the future. (Stark notes a similar orientation with Islam toward the writings of Muhammad in anticipation of a future reality.) Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God. He declares it is here but not yet consummated. Consummation will be accomplished at his return. Meanwhile, Christians are told to live as if the Kingdom is already here. (i.e., proleptically) The orientation shifts from compliance to a legal code in the past toward realizing a vision of a coming future. Christians are to be yeast in the dough of the world, causing it to rise and come to fullness, all the time aware that true fullness will not happen until Christ returns.
It is the physical image of the new order in its completeness that is instructive. The new order is not a protological return to the Garden of Eden. The image is of a magnificently and extravagantly abundant garden city called the New Jerusalem. Cities in ancient cultures were the highest symbols of human commerce, government, art, and culture in general. The image communicates that that which is made of human labor is incorporated into the coming New Creation and becomes the dwelling place of God with humanity. It suggests that progress in the development of human culture, including in economic and material well-being, are part of the unfolding vision.
Jesus is the prototype for the new humanity, the firstborn of the new creation. (Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1) And, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23, NRSV) It is Christ who is ushering in the New Creation and we are united to Christ as his body and his temple in the earth. Therefore, we are also participating proleptically in his work of redemption and transformation of creation (human and non-human). Few Christians have problems subscribing to the idea of a spiritual “leavening” occurring over time because of Christ working in the world but many Christians, in a dualistic split, are resistant to the idea of “progress” in human culture including economic transformation.
How then does our work in this time of the Kingdom “already but not yet” have an eschatological impact?