Tag Archives: Martin Luther


Last week I finished a book that I think many of you might appreciate.  You won’t find it in the “history” section of your local bookstore.  Amazon categorizes it as a “Bible study,” but it’s a work that also wonderfully models the value of historical consciousness.  The book is Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, by Tim Keller.

You may already be familiar with Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of works like The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Every Good Endeavor.  I knew of him but had read nothing by him until my wife encouraged me to read Keller’s meditation on the meaning of suffering.  I am thankful that I did, and I am glad to recommend it, whether you are trying to make sense of your own suffering or looking for ways to support someone else in the midst of affliction.  And if you really haven’t experienced deep pain in your life yet, this book is also for you.  Jesus taught that the wise man built his house on the rock before the flood waters rose, so it’s prudent to lay a biblical foundation for your understanding of suffering now, not when the trial comes.


In fairness to the bean counters at Amazon, most of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is a Bible study.  Keller devotes the latter two thirds of the book to a careful examination of what the Scriptures would teach us about the meaning of suffering.  But the author clearly wants to do more than offer a biblical answer to the problem of suffering.  More than simply console or encourage us, he wants to equip us, to help us think more deeply and see more clearly so that we can live more faithfully.

And so Keller doesn’t immediately open his Bible and start taking us to proof texts.  He wants us to think about the assumptions of contemporary western culture and alert us to the ways that we—and here I mean twenty-first century American Christians—have gradually let the world squeeze us into its mold.  The first third of the book is all about putting our own views (whatever they are) in a larger context.

Keller does this in part by comparing orthodox Christian teaching on suffering to that of five other broad, non-Christian views, but he also devotes an entire chapter to tracing how the predominant view among Christians has evolved across the past five hundred years.  That view has changed dramatically.  The early reformers began with the bedrock truth that humanity exists for the glory of God, not the other way round.  As the Westminster Confession phrased it in the 1640s, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  To this they added three attributes of God that framed their approach to pain and suffering: First, God is sovereign, so when we suffer it is not because God is too weak to protect us.  Second, God is loving, so when we suffer it is never because God doesn’t care.  Finally, God is incomprehensible, which means not that God is wholly beyond human comprehension, but that humans can never wholly comprehend Him.  When it comes to suffering, this attribute meant that there was no reason to expect (much less demand) that God’s purposes in each instance of suffering should be clear to us.  “His ways are above our ways,” as the prophet Isaiah declared.  When pain and suffering didn’t make sense, this wasn’t an argument against the existence of God, but rather a reminder that “His thoughts are not our thoughts.”  God is God and we are not.

Then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Enlightenment began to fashion a new approach to suffering grounded in a new understanding of both God and humanity.  Keller offers a quick, effective sketch of Deism, which began to make inroads during this time.  Deists advanced two axioms irreconcilable with Christian orthodoxy: Reason, not revelation, should be our highest  authority, they taught.  Happiness, not the glory of God, should be our ultimate aim.  This meant that suffering was never a blessing, but by definition an obstacle to the fulfillment of our highest purpose.  In a word, suffering now made less sense.

Unfortunately, deism is alive and well in America today.  To underscore this point, Keller summarizes the seminal research of sociologist Christian Smith, now of the University of Notre Dame.  In a series of detailed studies of teens and twenty-somethings, Smith determined that the beliefs of the rising generation—even those who identify themselves as Christian—bear far less resemblance to historic, orthodox Christianity than to what Smith styles “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Like the deists of three centuries ago, the typical respondent to Smith’s surveys thinks of God as a remote abstraction who wants us to be good and happy but asks nothing of us and has little practical impact on our world.  Smith goes on to note that the young people he interviewed were not consciously rejecting or modifying the orthodox teaching of their parents.  If anything, they had learned all too well the watered-down doctrine their parents had passed on to them.

At bottom, Smith’s research suggests that many American Christians have been shaped by the Enlightenment far more than by the Gospel.  And these assumptions about God and the human condition have immediate, tangible implications for how contemporary believers respond to pain or affliction.  Keller points out that, because we tend to exalt the primacy of reason and to assume that the chief end of life is personal happiness, we are also likely to conclude that, whenever we “can see no good reason for a particular instance of suffering, God could not have any justifiable reasons for it either.”

In summary, because we implicitly assume that God exists for our happiness and insist that His ways be wholly intelligible to us, apparently senseless suffering automatically becomes evidence against the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God.  Do you get Keller’s point?  What Keller wants us to recognize is that we inhabit a culture that “stacks the deck” against robustly Christian contemplation of suffering.  But without a sense of how our world differs from earlier times, we will be very unlikely to see this.

Without that historical perspective, we might never know that we are already socially conditioned to approach the problem of evil in a way that leads predictably to skepticism.  To think about suffering clearly, Keller concludes, to be as “thoughtful, balanced, and unprejudiced as possible,” requires that you “be highly aware of your cultural biases.”  And one of the best ways to be aware of our cultural biases, as the entire structure of Keller’s argument drives home, is through knowledge of the past.

What Keller is calling us to is historical consciousness.  When students enroll in my classes, I hope that they leave with historical knowledge, some sense of what the past was like.  I want them to acquire skills of historical analysis, the ability to evaluate historical evidence and construct historical arguments.  But my highest goal is that they develop a sense of historical consciousness.  To have a well-developed sense of historical consciousness means to be consciously and constantly aware that we live in the flow of change across time, just like the men and women from earlier ages that we study.  It means that we are mindful that our lives are influenced—not determined, but strongly influenced—by everything that has gone before us.  Finally, it means we recognize the poverty of insight that is the cost of historical ignorance, for above all, historical consciousness is the realization that history’s greatest value lies in illuminating not the past, but the present.


Wheaton College undergraduates attend chapel services three times a week during the academic year.  Typically, the entire student body meets together in our beautiful Edman Chapel, but once each term students gather in smaller groups within their home departments–biology majors with biology majors, philosophy majors with philosophy majors, etc.  Today was the appointed day for departmental chapels, and it was my privilege to be the featured speaker in the chapel service hosted by the Department of History.

The title of my talk to our majors was “Thinking Historically About Vocation.”  At the beginning of the year my History Department colleagues and I decided that we needed to do a better job of helping our students think about life after graduation and the range of career paths they might follow.  Toward that end, we plan to bring back a number of History alums to campus for a series of panel discussions about possible vocational paths.

Before we launch that initiative, however, I thought it was important to help our students think about vocation at a more foundational level.  Before asking “What is my specific vocation or calling in life?” I want them to ask, “How, as a Christian, ought I to understand the concept of calling?”

In preparing my remarks, I relied heavily on a work that I would recommend to anyone wanting to think Christianly and historically about vocation.   The book is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by the late William C. Placher.  Placher was a long-time philosopher and theologian at Wabash College, and Callings is an an anthology of fifty-seven selections from prominent Christian thinkers of the past two millennia from the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth.


In her marvelous little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes that most modern-day Christians are “stranded in the present.” Dismissing what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints”–the fellowship of believers across the ages–we cut ourselves off from the hard-won insight of believers across the centuries and rely instead on the trendy and popular musings of the moment.

Callings assaults such arrogance head on. (And it is a form of arrogance, if we’re honest about it; C. S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”) As we read systematically through the selections, we join a conversation that began long before we came on the scene and will continue long after we are gone.  In doing so, we discover that intelligent, devout believers have differed dramatically over the centuries about a concept we tend to take for granted.

Placher identifies four broad periods in history in which “calling” has had different meanings.  The first was the Early Church Period, say 100-500 A.D.  During these years it was far from easy to be a Christian.  Most Christians were in the minority in their communities.  It was common for followers of Jesus to come to faith as adults, and their decision to profess faith often came at great personal cost, sometimes meaning a break with family, sometimes leading to persecution.  During this period, when individuals wrestled with calling, they were confronting the basic question of whether to profess faith and, if they did so, how open to be in their declaration.  One of my favorites selections from this period is an excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, written around the close of the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Christian writing on calling changed significantly.  In those areas around the world where Christians were to be found, they were usually in the majority in their communities.  Christianity was pretty much the dominant religion wherever it existed at all.  Most Christians lived under the authority of the Church and were surrounded by other believers.  As a result, when Christian writers reflected on the concept of calling, they rarely had in mind the question of whether to become a Christian.  They were much more preoccupied with the question, “What kind of Christian should I be?” Specifically, now the decision at the heart of finding one’s calling was whether to pursue a “religious” life.  During these centuries, to have a calling meant to serve in the priesthood or a monastic order, becoming a priest, monk, or nun.  Not coincidentally, individuals who wrote on calling tended to belong to monastic orders themselves, such as the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas or the German monk Thomas a’ Kempis.

As Placher notes, it’s unlikely that either of these periods offers a perspective on calling that feels right to us.  If you’re like me, when you think about calling you’re probably not thinking about whether God might be leading you to join a monastic order, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages.  At the same time, you probably do have in mind something more specific than the general call to faith in Jesus as Lord, as calling was typically understood during the Early Church Period.  Don’t we typically think of something between these extremes–a general sense that God is summoning us to do a certain something with our lives, and that doing that something will give our lives greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?

This understanding of calling dates to the third period that Placher identifies, namely the four a half centuries or so during and after the Protestant Reformation, say from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.  Two crucial things were happening during these years that transformed thinking about calling.  First, early reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to push back against the Catholic teaching that only priests, monks, and nuns were pursuing a calling from God.  Any task undertaken as unto the Lord is “reckoned very precious in God’s sight,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Second, much of the western world was undergoing a period of increasing commercialization and economic sophistication that historians call the Market Revolution.  When Calvin wrote in the 1530s, he still inhabited a world of severely limited options.  He could take for granted that almost all females would labor as wives and mothers, while almost all males would inherit the occupations of their fathers.  The son of a peasant farmer would be a peasant farmer; the son of a craftsman would be a craftsman.  In contrast to Christian writers in earlier centuries, both Calvin and Luther tended to equate “calling” with “occupation.”  Neither, however, offered advice to Christians about how to figure out the occupation to which God was calling them, because neither really expected their readers to have much choice in the matter.  Their goal was to teach Christians that, whatever kind of work they had inherited as their lot, they could quite literally think of it as a calling fraught with religious significance.

Over time, thanks in large part to the economic changes swirling around them, the heirs of Luther and Calvin began to modify or elaborate on their teaching.  They began to distinguish between “general calling” (the calling to faith in Christ) and “particular calling,” the calling to a specific walk of life or job.  More significant, they began to offer advice for discerning the latter.  English Puritans like William Perkins (writing at the close of the sixteenth century) and Richard Baxter (writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century) pinpointed a series of criteria for identifying an appropriate “particular” calling.  Any line of work we would pursue, they taught,  a) must be something we can practice with integrity and conformity to Biblical principles;  b) should in some way serve the common good; c) should express the desires of our heart; and d) should mesh with our particular abilities or skill set.  These criteria would not point the Christian to one and only one possible line of work, but they would be helpful in narrowing down the range of acceptable particular callings.

The fourth and final period that Placher identifies is what he calls the “Post-Christian” era of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In this period it has no longer been a given that Christians are in the majority in the communities where they reside.  (In this sense our world resembles the Early Church Period.)   During these years a number of Christian writers have consciously tried to return the focus of “calling” to the divine summons to live a life of obedience to Christ and to take the focus away from paid work.  A key writer in this vein is the late Karl Barth, whose writing on the topic is one of my favorites.  Barth argued that the early Reformers were right in insisting that the Catholic definition of calling during the Middle Ages was far too narrow.  In seeking to redress this, however, they committed their own error by equating the concept of calling so exclusively with work.  According to Barth, the divine calling applies to the totality of our existence, cutting diagonally across every dimension of our lives.

The selections in Callings will not lead you to simple answers about the concept of Christian vocation.  Like any fruitful conversation with the past, however, it will help you to discern your own position more precisely and think about it more perceptively.  As Placher put it,

The past does not always have the right answers, but its answers are often at least different from those of the present, and the differences cause us to question our own previously unexamined assumptions. . . . After traveling in other countries, we come back to our own with new questions. But the past too is a different country, and, voyaging in it, we gain richer perspectives on our own time.