The Reformation (1517–1648) that Luther started spread into the surrounding European countries and manifested itself in various ways. Scriptural interpretation was hotly debated, thousands were martyred for their beliefs, and hundreds of thousands died from wars, diseases, or hunger. Theology was not just a topic for scholars; it was a deadly, divisive subject for the 16th and 17th century European Christian population.
Dr. William C. Placher, previously the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College, author of Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, pages 262–266), highlights the Puritan vocational theology of William Perkins (1558–1603) that was posthumously published (1631) in A Treatise of the Vocations:
“Perkins uses ‘general’ and ‘particular’ calling in what would become their standard meanings: ‘general’ for the call to become a Christian, ‘particular’ for the call to some particular vocation.”
General calling is fairly easy to comprehend as it is the grace that God extends to all humans. If you are a Calvinist, it is irresistible. If you are of Wesleyan belief, then individuals have a choice to accept or reject God’s call through faith.
Particular calling is a bit trickier to understand. “Now follows the second kind of calling, and that is personal. A personal calling is the execution of some particular office, arising of that distinction which God makes between man and man in every society.” Perkins believes that God appoints everyone to a vocation. For example, God calls a magistrate, a father, a physician, etc. These vocations are “for the common good.” A person that “employs it for himself, seeking wholly his own and not the common good … is wicked, and is directly against the end of every calling or honest kind of life.”
Perkins cites Scripture support for his theology: God telling Adam to dress the garden of Eden, God telling Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery to the promised land, the Holy Spirit calling the elders of Ephesus, etc. “The author of every calling is God himself.” Yet, except for the Genesis 2:15 verse, God does not call people to a specific vocation in Scripture. It can easily be argued that God did not tell Adam he could not fish, hunt, mine, or build a computer. Adam could enjoy many other vocations besides tilling the Garden of Eden. God calls people to perform tasks: traveling (Abram), speaking (Moses), attacking (David), passing messages (Isaiah). Abraham, Moses, and David tended animals as their vocations. They were used by God for a specific purpose or were selected as a ruler. Scripture does not discuss God calling people into the many vocations mentioned in the Bible.
Perkins quotes 1 Corinthians 7:20 (“Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” NRSV) to support his belief, a common Protestant Reformation belief, that Christians were to remain in their vocation for life: “every man is to live as he is called of God.” God commands and Christians are to follow. Perkins uses soldiers as an example. Generals order soldiers to their station “whereof he is to live and die.”
For modern workers, this theology unreasonable. If you examine more verses (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), Paul is discussing the vocations of newly converted Christians and his belief that the end of the world is fast approaching (1 Corinthians 7:29). Why change your present condition when Paul believes that Jesus will be returning soon to usher in the new creation? The Holy Spirit can and certainly does move people to perform tasks assigned by God. But God gives Christians many gifts along with the freedom to decide how best to use them. This could be in one or more vocations over a lifetime of service to the community. Binding Christians to a single vocation places limits on the Holy Spirit and our God-given gifts.
It is understandable why Perkins developed this vocational theology during the Reformation when people had fewer vocational options. Taking a single verse out of context and creating a generic vocational rule for society can lead to poor use of our God-given gifts. In a rapidly changing world, modern Christians must adapt to shifting vocational conditions. God gave people many adaptable gifts to uplift our community, something the Reformation leaders desired as a meaningful Christian purpose.