John Ehrett’s recent Commonwealth reflections on the work of David Graeber and its connections to Protestant thought on vocation are helpful and stimulating. One of the most interesting things in Ehrett’s piece is that it surfaces elements of Luther’s thought that run closely parallel to that of Luther’s Strasbourg-based contemporary Martin Bucer (1491-1551).
Bucer, in fact, was taking up the questions raised by Ehrett quite early in the Reformed movement, writing about them in his Instructions in Christian Love, which was first published in 1523. The focus of Bucer’s book is the great preoccupation of his entire ministry: how can fallen men and women live in Christian love with one another? Bucer’s book begins with a reflection on the law of love before turning to practical matters in its final pages, which is where the passage that concerns us can be found. I will quote it in full:
God established these two orders, the spiritual ministry and the secular authority, in order to further the public good. They could perceptibly bring it about if they attended to their commission, but they could also irreparably injure it if they sought only their own interest. Below the aforesaid two orders are the most Christian orders or professions. They are agriculture, cattle-raising, and the necessary occupations therewith connected. These professions are the most profitable to the neighbors and cause them the least trouble. Every man should encourage his child to enter these professions because children should be encouraged to enter the best profession, and the best profession is the one which brings most profit to neighbors. But nowadays most men want their children to become clergymen. In the present circumstances, this means to lead a child into the most dangerous and godless position. The rest of men wish their children to become businessmen always with the idea that they would become rich without working, against the commandment of God (Gen. 3:19), and with the idea that they will seek their own profit while exploiting and ruining others, against the divine order and the whole Christian spirit. Encouraging youth to enter that road is leading them to eternal death, while the path to eternal life is only through keeping the divine commandments. And all the commands will be fulfilled in the single injunction of brother love, which always seeks the interest of the neighbor and not its own.
Bucer is willing to be quite prescriptive about what professions parents should encourage their children toward: agriculture, yes; the clergy (given its highly compromised state in Bucer’s day) and business, not so much.
Note what Bucer says about “the divine order.” For Bucer, God has actually created a world that is defined foremost by care, and so when Christians pursue work built around care for neighbor they are mimicking God and God’s creation, participating in the divine order God has made. (Man does not naturally participate in this order for Bucer because man is able to choose to do otherwise.) This passage from earlier in Instructions is representative:
All other creatures exist, indeed, not for themselves. With all they are, possess, and can do they serve God in doing good to all other creatures according to their nature and order. The sky moves and shines not for itself but for all other creatures. Likewise the earth produces not for itself but for all other created things. Similarly all the plants and all the animals, by what they are, have, can and actually do, are directed toward usefulness and helpfulness to other creatures and especially to man.
When man participates in this order, he fulfills a higher calling:
Only man is created after the image of God in order that he may understand and also choose spiritual things, and thereby grasp, follow, and fulfill the will of God. He requires us to desire to further the profit and salvation of all. Hence, before all creation, man must so direct his being that in all his doings he seeks not his own, but only the welfare of his neighbors and brethren for the honor of God. Thereby man will also use well and rightly all other creatures and blessedly rule them for their own welfare and proper honor.
This, then, is the context in which Bucer develops his own theology of work. Work, for Bucer, is chiefly an arena for following Christ by pursuing our neighbor’s profit and salvation. For Bucer, the best occupation to aid in that pursuit is the work of caring for the land and animals, for what more practical way is there to love our neighbors than to feed them? Business, for Bucer, is by contrast a dark and dangerous calling, second only to the ministerial calling of his day, which to his eyes meant inherently subjecting oneself to the papal antichrist. What makes it dangerous, in his eyes, is that it inherently involves profiting from work one hasn’t done. We should perhaps understand by “business” here not the “small business owner” as we imagine him today, but “the businessman” who sits atop wealth generated and work done by others, perhaps reaching that coveted point where he can simply live off of the interest.
In this sense, Bucer is in some ways anticipating Graeber, as well as Ehrett’s reading of Graeber: Bucer’s description of the businessman, like Ehrett’s reading of Graeber’s BS jobs, does not seem to fit the criteria of “vocation.” But whereas Graeber sees the problem centered around the pointless paper-shuffling work of knowledge economies, divorced from any kind of social utility, Bucer can see the problem five centuries sooner because for him the problem centers around the role of love in our work. To profit from work you did not do is to steal and a thief is by definition not living for their neighbor’s profit—quite the opposite, obviously.
Is Bucer correct in this? For the most part, practically speaking at least, I think he is. But we should attach one caveat to this conclusion: there are soft skills that are presupposed by a knowledge economy such as our own but that also apply, I think, to any economy in which modern banking or modern finance is involved. Certainly, Bucer’s words will still rebuke much of that work, particularly most forms of financial speculation, I think. But also: If you gave me $500 and asked me to use it to serve my neighbors and then you also gave my friend David $500 with the same command, I have little doubt David would use the money more effectively than I would. It’s not that I would be driven by ill will or would use the money on myself. It’s that I lack certain skills that David possesses, skills which would make David a better steward of that money.
David, for instance, might have an idea about how he could use that money to invest in several small businesses in the developing world. He would know who to give the money to and probably how to help them use the money well for their business, so that that money would turn into more money for them, providing them with a livelihood and perhaps even creating jobs for others in their community. Or, on the other hand, David might know how to turn that $500 of private funding he now possesses into more money that he will possess and can, in turn, use to build up churches, support other ministries, and so on.
Do I think most people who are savvy with money and investments think in these terms? Certainly not. Many of them use their skill and wealth in demonstrably bad ways. And yet it is not as if investment bankers are unique in regards to using money in demonstrably bad ways. That trait is simply human. Their soul is at greater risk, certainly, just on the basis of the plain words of Our Lord: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:24).
Yet also, Christ’s grave was the donation of a rich man. Paul’s ministry was subsidized largely by wealthy patrons. In Ephesians 4:28, Paul tells Christians to work “that they may have something to share with those in need” (although it is noteworthy that he tells them to first “steal no longer” and do “something useful with their own hands”). And Our Lord himself, in the perplexing Parable of the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16, commands us to “use worldly wealth to gain friends for [our]selves, so that when it is gone, [we] will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (16:9).
What is my point in all this? It is a narrow but important one: we should distinguish between different ways of being savvy with money, different forms of investment, and suchlike.
If any kind of act that involves turning some money into more money through investment without the production of any material goods or material labor in the world falls prey to Bucer’s critique, then it seems to me that we have destroyed all of modern economics and banking in one fell swoop. And with that we have destroyed not only the bad things that come from it, but also the good: I am writing this from inside a home I own thanks to a mortgage loan. Yet I am only three generations removed from poor immigrant ancestors who did not own property for most of their adult lives. That I can now afford property is largely a function of modern finance.
If we want to stop short of that blanket condemnation, that will force us to consider what forms of investment can be licit, what types of financial savvy can be encouraged in Christian believers, and, most importantly for Bucer, how those skills align with the call to love neighbor. Some forms of speculation will need to be condemned as being inherently unloving and vicious, no matter how the profits they generate are put to use. Here I am reminded of Charlie Clark’s delightful question he posed many years ago: “We believe that God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids. Must we believe that God sells the credit default swaps through the vocation of the ISDA Negotiator and Client Regulatory Consultant?” No, we needn’t believe that. In fact we must not believe that, I think.
This is a pressing question for orthodox believers, too. As institutional collapse proceeds apace in historic denominations, seminaries etc. many are thinking hard about how we can build or retain robust Christian institutions for the future, fit for “the negative world” and “the digital age.” In short, this will take money. This reality has generated many calls for a renewed entrepreneurialism among orthodox Christians, encouraging people to harness the new financial opportunities of the digital age in service of the cause. Christians must be wary here–not simply of the dangers of the amount of wealth they accrue, but the means by which they do so. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager cannot cover a multitude of sins.
On the other hand, if a person is good at anticipating risk and seeing economic opportunity in arenas that are not inherently corrosive of virtue and the good life and if they are good at using money prudently, and through that skill and intelligence they amass more money, what then? Well, you are reading this piece in Ad Fontes, a publication of the Davenant Institute. Without the generosity of such financially savvy people, you wouldn’t be able to do so. Likewise, my employer is Mere Orthodoxy, another organization that could not support my work apart from similar sorts of generosity from similar sorts of people. I would argue that through their generosity, these individuals are living lives of Christian love, using their skills and intelligence for the profit and even salvation of their neighbors.
To be sure, to take this approach comes with a certain danger: to adjudicate which forms of investment are categorically bad and which are conditionally acceptable is difficult. The test is more stringent than simply “what are the person’s motives and are they generous with what they make?” The aforementioned predatory banker might have been generous with their money, but their work was still itself predatory. But it does mean that we can’t issue a blanket condemnation of all knowledge work or financial investment. We honor Bucer’s thought here not by lazily seeking to repristinate it today, but rather by thinking with him about scripture, about wealth, and about how the timeless norms of Scripture direct us to act in our contemporary setting.
Certainly, this is a harder path. Yet it seems the better, more faithful path forward to me. How can these questions be thought about? There are others better equipped than me to answer that question–the aforementioned Charlie Clark’s writing on “Five Theses on Christianity and Political Economy” and “Good Work” come to mind, as well as Brad Littlejohn’s writing on money. What is clear to me is that the Protestant Reformation anticipated Graeber’s notion of “bullshit jobs” by several centuries, that the category of neighborly love is essential to any serious reflection on the nature of good work, and that our own society has so comprehensively lost sight of this fact that virtually anything Christians do to recover authentically Christian understandings of work will be, relatively speaking, quite radical and remarkably disruptive.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He lives in his hometown of Lincoln, NE with his family. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, First Things, Commonweal, and National Review, amongst others.
*Image Credit: “The Worship of Mammon” by Evelyn De Morgan