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Earthly Vocation and Eternal Salvation

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Leonardus LessiusOne of the issues that arose during last week’s law and religion symposium (in the questions following Wim Decock’s thorough and engaging paper on Leonardus Lessius’ engagement of commercial affairs from the perspective of moral theology and philosophy) had to do with the understanding of the relationship between material pursuits and eternal salvation. In some way you might say that Lessius held to a view of commercial activity as a worthy expression of the stewardship responsibilities of human beings.

At the time I noted that one of the origins of this biblical idea is in a formulation found in Augustine, that temporal goods are given by God “under a most fair condition: that every mortal who makes right use of these goods suited to the peace of mortal men shall receive ampler and better goods, namely, the peace of immortality and the glory and honour appropriate to it, in an eternal life made fit for the enjoyment of God and of one’s neighbor in God.”

There is clearly a sense in which this could be taken in what the Reformed would consider a semi-Pelagian manner associated with Jesuits like Lessius. But I also note this passage from Augustine in my new book on Wolfgang Musculus, observing the continuities with it as understood by a variety of the early Reformers.

And I recently ran across a remarkably similar sentiment in reviewing an essay by Herman Bavinck (1891), in which he writes about the confluence of what he calls the human person’s “double vocation,” regarding both temporal and spiritual matters:

This eternal destiny in no way forecloses our earthly vocations. The spiritual does not come first; the natural does. The first man was earthly, from the earth (1 Cor. 15:45–47), and was given a vocation also for this world. Thanks to his body, man is connected to the earth, dependent on it for his existence, and in many respects shares its life. With a view to earth, humans are given a double task, to fill the earth and rule over it (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). This earthly calling is distinguished from the eternal destiny of humans, just as the institution of the Sabbath alongside the workweek bears testimony. They, however, are not in conflict and form no contradiction; true fulfillment of our earthly vocation is exactly what prepares us for eternal salvation, and putting our minds on those things that are above equips us for genuine satisfaction of our earthly desires.

The unity of and connection between earthly vocation and eternal salvation seems to be a significant Augustinian legacy, and one which is embraced by those with varying soteriological views. Such a notion also appears in Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the general rubric of “preparing the way” for Christians: “In following Christ their heavenly home has become so certain that they are truly free for life in this world.”

For further reading on such matters, Wim’s forthcoming volume from Brill looks indispensable, Theologians and Contract Law: The Moral Transformation of the Ius Commune (ca. 1500-1650), and he also did fine work translating and introducing a Scholia in the Journal of Markets & Morality featuring Lessius, “On Buying and Selling (1605).”

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.