Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review (#76 of 2014) Work by Ben Witherington III

Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor
This book should be a part of the library of anyone who is interested in the theology of work, work as worship, or business as missions movements. Witherington wrote this book out of his perceived dearth of material on the theology of work, and that is one weakness of the book-- he examines a few sources in depth but somehow has missed so many others. If you read Hugh Wenchel's How Now Shall We Work or Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor you can find a host of sources over the centuries on this topic that Witherington somehow missed.
Andy Crouch, Mirslov Volf, H. Richard Niebuhr are three he extensively cites that are also cited by the aforementioned works. As such, there is much agreement between all of these books. But Witherington offers his insights which are different than the Reformed writers above. He offers this critique of other attempts to look at a theology of work: "they work forward through the Bible, rather than backward, and...never get to an eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, that is, work in light of the in-breaking Kingdom," which is Witherington's contribution (p. xvi.)

Witherington offers his own definition of work: "any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation" (p. xii). 

Human beings were intended to work, and not just to do any kind of work, but to do good works, and do them in accord with the way we have been fashioned, the abilities we have been given, and therefore the vocations for which we are best suited (p. 7). Expanding on his definition of work, Witherington writes

"Before we engage in any sort of work, we have to as whether it will glorify God and edify other persons, whether it can be an epression of love of God and love of neighbor...Work is not a secular activity; it is a sacred one originally ordained by God, and so it must be undertaken in holy ways...Whatever we do, we are to strive for excellence...'Good enough' is not good enough whe the standard of excellence is the example of Christ the worker" (p.15). 

Christians can inhabit many spheres of vocation, but activities like prostitution do not fit the definition of "work." Witherington likewise contends that Christians cannot be soldiers, since Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to bless them, not kill them. All work can be God-glorifying, even if it is not our specific vocation:
"The truth is that even when work seems like drudgery, if it is done to God's glory it is good in character, and if it is done for the edification of others it is at the very least divine drudgery, not mere toil, not mere activity. It has meaning, purpose, direction. It is Kingdom-bringing." (p. 21)

Witherington looks at Veith's God at Work, which I am not familiar with, particularly to analyze Martin Luther's views on work. Luther held the probelmatic sacred vs. secular view of work, which Witherington (like Keller et al) rightly critiques:
"But the Bible says nothing about God having two kingdoms, one spiritual and one physical, one sacred and one secular. The only Kingdom in the Bible that has the name God appended to it is the one Jesus claimed to be bringing in through his preaching, teaching, healing, dying, and rising" (p. 28).

Witherington later approvingly quotes Andy Crouch that "If the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in the New Jersualem, our work, no matter how 'secular,' can too." (p. 123).

"the sacred-versus-secular dichotomy doesn't work when it comes to defining Christian work. Any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing, can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind. And while we are at it, any such work is full-time ministry" (p. 126).

The Lutheran view focused on serving one's neighbor in his work, not God Himself. Witherington rightly points out that this does not conform with Paul's epistles and personal example.

Witherington contends that when Jesus says "my yoke is easy and my burden is light," (Matthew 11) He means that Christ shares our yoke-- we are co-laborers with God (1 Cor. 3:9) in His work in the world. "(W)hen we are doing Christ's work he is sharing our yoke...this is what makes the burdens light...The Christian...(must) recognize that the whole yoke does not fall on our shoulders" (p. 64).   This also plays into Witherington's thoughts on the important of taking a Sabbath from all activities, which he develops in the latter parts of the book. He encourages Christians to take a day of rest, say, Saturday as separate from their day of worship (Sunday).We must consider how we should best Sabbath.

Vocation is something that was defined pretty well in Hugh Whelchel's book-- and Witherington works to hash out a definition as well. Your vocation is basically what God has called and equipped you to do. Many Christians may work in a profession that is not their vocation, even though they are working in that profession in a Christian manner. The author then looks at the parable of talents from Matthew 25:14-30. God does not give everyone the same amount of faith (Romans 12:3-6), but we are called to step out and work with what we have. Our work ethic ("zeal") and quality matter to the Master who is going to return one day (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-15) (p.71-76).

"Everything is to be done coram Deo, before the face of God, not merely bearing in mind that God is watching, but bearing in mind that God is now working, and also will one day do the quality control test on one's work" (p. 89).

"(A)ll persons in Christ are called to both ministry and discipleship of various sorts. Labor is part of this calling...Work is part of what we offer to God on a daily basis as we respond to God's call to do various things that matter in life, even do things that change life for the better, or even save lives" (p.81)

Witherington is clear, work doesn't save us or endear us to God, but it is an expression of our holiness and desire to do the will of God. He critique's David Jenson's statement that "Human work can never detract from or add to the work God has already accomplished," as being unbiblical and something that "undevalues our work" (p. 130). Witherington elaborates:

"God could have chosen to redeem the world and bring in his Kingdom without us, but he has not chosen to do that. He has chosen to use us as his instruments to do His work. Our work, then, if it is good and godly, can never be seen as merely a response to the work of God, though it is often that as well. The work of God can be hindered or helped, added to or destroyed by what we do" (see Romans 14:20, 1 Cor. 3:9, and Ephesians 2:10) (p. 130).  

Witherington echoes Andy Crouch's call for Christians to "make culture."
"Christians must work hard to produce the best art, the best movies, the best neighborhoods, the best restaurants, the best athletics possible, not merely by copying, but by coming up with something fresh, new, interesting, life-changing" (p. 111). 

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Witherington is mainly critiquing a few other works and adding his own contributions. But it lacks supporting evidence and anecdotes from those who work in professions other than theology, like himself, and is therefore weaker than Keller or Crouch's work. It is a necessary read, and I would like to explore more Wesleyan/Methodist views on work as worship.

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