Martin Luther (1483–1546) is best known for starting the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg University church door on October 31, 1517, and his defiant stand against the Church and State at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. Lesser known is Luther’s prolific writings on vocation and how he redefined vocation theology. This is the first of two blogs on Luther’s vocation theology, and I referenced the writings of Dr. Gustaf Wingren (1910–2000), former Professor of Systematic Theology at Lund University (Sweden), who published Luther on Vocation (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 2004). His book was originally published in 1957, translated from Swedish to English by Carl C. Rasmussen, and referenced in many subsequent vocation books and articles.
To understand Luther’s theology, we must first define several words. The word vocation is derived from the Latin word vocatio. The original New Testament Greek word is klēsis which means to call and almost always is used in reference to God’s call to faith in Jesus Christ. Today, people speak of vocation as a job, profession, or career. Luther used the German word Beruf to mean occupation but enlarged the meaning to include multiple positions that people occupy during their life on earth: biological (father, mother, son, wife, etc.), social (master, servant, laborer, etc.), and community (officeholder, church leader, volunteer, etc.). “As to the word Beruf, on the whole it does not appear before 1522.” (page ix) Luther used this word in a new and expanded way.
Only Christians have Beruf as commanded by God, but all people have a station (Stand in German). Station, during the Middle Ages, was a person’s hierarchical social status. At the top was the regional ruler, such as a Prince or King. At the bottom were slaves, serfs, and servants. A person was born into a Stand and remained there throughout their lifetime. Luther believed that God instituted these social structures to give order to the world. “God has placed princes, nobles, citizens, etc., in a graduated scale from above downward; and that order pleases him. But when he bestows talent and character, he can give a citizen just as much as six nobles, and a noble just as much as three princes.” (pages 156–157) Stand reflected the culture of Luther’s day. In my opinion, Luther was not theologically correct as the New Testament does not support hierarchical social structure but advocates a leveling of social structures.
How did Luther derive this vocation theology? He supported it by his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” (NRSV) God’s call to faith comes to a person in their vocation within society. Luther strongly believed that God commanded Christians to remain in their Beruf at the time of their calling and obey the command of God. “Remain in your station in life, be it high or low, and continue in your vocation. Beware of overreaching.” (page 130) In our modern, ever changing world, this remain in your vocation theology is difficult to comprehend and certainly not followed. Luther lived during a period within a rigid social structure where people had few occupational options. His interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:20, although incorrect, made more sense to 16th century culture than in the 21st century. It is interesting to note that Luther, who was baptized as an infant, changed his occupation from lawyer to monk as a young adult thus violating his own theology, although he appealed to God for help.
The question then arises: how does a person know God’s will for their vocation? Again, the definition of vocation encompasses much wider positions than just an occupation. First, humans live in community and are not isolated. We are bound together with our neighbors. Vocation is the summons to work for our neighbor’s sake and show love. Even though a person is born into a lowly station, doing lowly work is just as important as a ruler’s work. Vocation is constantly fulfilled by renewed prayer. “Prayer is a door through which God enters into vocation in transforming action.” (page 84)
Second, Luther uses 1 Samuel 10:7 to support God’s directive on vocation. In this text, Samuel counsels Saul during Saul’s anointing: “Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you.” (NRSV) “Since the course of our life is shaped by factors beyond our own plans and ideas, we are to address ourselves to the present hour, to whatever is at hand, to whatever is waiting for me now and belongs to my vocation.” People are to use their skills in what they see at the time that helps their neighbors. “Continue in the definite work given you and commanded by God, eschewing such things as would hinder you.” (page 226–227)
In Part II, I will expound further on Luther’s vocation theology and will discuss dualism, the cross, God’s mask, and the resurrection.