Under the Eye of God: The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation for Today (Part 1)

September 22, 2014

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We have all heard the question and likely asked the question, too. We typically ask the question of a child and again of the high school graduate or college freshman. The question you do not hear in our culture, though, is this – “What is your vocation?” It’s true that the modern use of the word “vocation” often means career or job.[1] In fact, a leading scholarly book on the Puritans uses “vocation” primarily in a chapter about work.[2] This is typically what we mean when we think or speak of vocation in the Western world.

The word vocation may not be used much in modern vocabulary, but the concept of vocation is undoubtedly at the forefront of many people’s minds. The Christian book publishing industry is replete with books answering the oft-asked question, “What is God’s will for my life?”[3] Andy Crouch suggests the modern man’s vocation is “world changer,” or at least that is what modern man likes to read about in books.[4] It seems modern man thinks much of vocation without having the right vocabulary or understanding of the concept. The Puritans – English “persons of principle, devoted, determined and disciplined”[5] reformers of the 16th and 17th century – offer godly guidance in thinking about vocation, choosing vocation and living out a vocation in the spheres of the family, the marketplace, government and the church.

The Puritans used the words calling and vocation interchangeably. According to Edmund Morgan, and unlike our modern usage, the Puritans used the word calling, or vocation, in three senses, where the subject in all three senses was God, the object always man. First, God called a man to ever right action, regardless the situation. “If the Puritan felt justified in a given act, he perceived a calling or a call to do it.”[6] Second, the God called men to salvation.[7] “The substance of this call, or the thing the Lord calls unto, is to come unto him.”[8] Thomas Hooker entitled one of his books The Soul’s Vocation, or Effectual Calling.[9] Third, God called men to a personal or particular calling – a vocation – with a set of roles and tasks.[10] This third Puritan sense of the word is the subject of examination in this post, particularly its application in the family, marketplace, government and church.

Definition of Vocation

Catholic and Medieval Definition

The development of the word vocation, or in the Latin, vocatio, reveals a maturation of the word throughout Christian history. Greeks and Roman elites held intellectual work in highest esteem.[11] The monastic era in the Roman Catholic Church was marked by the use of vocation to refer to the monastic lifestyle.[12] During the Middle Ages, in the midst of the sheer drudgery of physical labor without aid of technology, the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed, “Their work is their prayer.”[13] On the eve of the Reformation, the notion of vocation or calling was restricted to members of religious orders, like priests and nuns, or those called to special ministries.[14] The usual term “estate” was used to denote one’s occupation or station in life, whereas “calling” or vocation “had been reserved for the life of prayer and fasting to which the Lord called monks and nuns.”[15]This is most notable in the common Roman Catholic prayer, “May God send us many Order-vocations,” as opposed to scholar-vocations, banker-vocations, or parent-vocations.[16]

Protestant Reformation

This understanding of vocation changed with the young monk-turned-reformer, Martin Luther.[17] “He urged the Christians to leave behind the exercises of monastic life, pilgrimages, Eucharistic parades, and various acts of pious self-denial in a struggle for [righteousness],” which was already accomplished by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and imputed to the believer by faith in the Son of God.[18] Instead, Luther understood vocation to be “first and foremost a summons to a life of faith – a call to trust in God and who and what we are by His grace – forgiven and adopted children on His love.”[19] This calling to God as a redeemed sinner, an adopted child, meant for Luther that God’s vocation for each individual is decidedly ordinary and touches us within our space, where we already live[20], as opposed to a call to a life of separation and monasticism. Luther understood Paul to mean in 1 Corinthians 7:17 that God “calls us to express our faith in Him and His righteousness by loving service within the social communities to which we already belong through the responsibilities that arise from our stations and offices within them.”[21] In applying his vision of vocation, the Protestant Reformer approvingly said, “The farmers feed us and the soldiers defend us.” Likewise, John Calvin taught that everyone received a special calling to a vocation for which he received the necessary gifts.[22] Each person should exercise those gifts in service to God and others.[23]

Puritan Definition

The Puritan movement is an heir to the Protestant Reformation and, consequently, to the vocational vision of the Reformers, like Luther and Calvin. As such, the Puritan doctrine of vocation was a specific application of God’s providence to the personal life of every Christian.[24] Puritans customarily divided God’s call of the individual into a general calling and a particular calling. The general calling was the calling to be a redeemed and holy Christian in every area of life. The particular calling was God’s direction of a person into a specific station of life, particularly in the family, marketplace, government and church.[25] The Puritans understood vocation as a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good. Every person of every degree, state, sex, or condition without exception must have some personal and particular calling to walk in.[26]

Like Luther and Calvin, the Puritans rejected the monastic, Roman Catholic understanding of vocation. As the Puritan Thomas Shepard wrote:

“Seeing yourself thus working in worldly employments fir him, you may easily apprehend that for that time God calls you to them and you attend upon the work of Jesus Christ in them, that you honor God as much, nay, more, by the meanest servile worldly act, than if you should have spent all that time in meditation, prayer, or any other spiritual employment, to which you had no call at that time.”[27]

The Puritan’s viewed all of life under the authority and counsel of God, which filled all human endeavors – not only religious activities – with spiritual significance.[28] William Perkins instructed that “the duties of love” should motivate every person to pursue specific vocations in their spheres of life so as to “become a servant to his brother.”[29]“The Puritan concept of the Christian’s vocation neither reduces Christian devotion to the common life of natural men, nor limits Christian devotion to the special activities of ministers and evangelists.”[30] Rather, the Puritan view of vocation weaves “spiritual motivations, a sense of the presence of the living God and a heavenly hope” into the common, ordinary life of the Christian man.[31]

Discerning the Call

Given the importance of vocation in Puritan thought, the choice of calling[32] was a solemn affair. The choice of calling was predominantly focused on choosing a career or job, but was not exclusively confined to this area alone. Since all of life is a vocation to God[33], so each choice which changed one’s station in life was a solemn moment of contemplation. The Puritans assumed that one’s calling in life was not to change without much prayer and contemplation on God’s providence, as taught by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:20.[34]

The Puritans preferred to trust such things in determining or changing a vocation as a person’s inward endowments and inclinations. Further, outward circumstances which may lead to one course of life rather than another should be considered I light of God’s providence. Also, the advice of parents, guardians, and in some cases magistrates and nature, education or gifts acquired point to a person’s vocation.[35] While, again, primarily concerned with one’s occupation or work, this three-fold plan of discernment also applied to one’s vocation in the family, government and church.

Richard Steele – a nonconformist Puritan divine – offers practical, sound guidance on choosing a vocation of employment that also offers guidance on making the best choice in all of life’s vocational decisions. First, Steele advises the reader to give the decision the attention it deserves.[36] “It’s wrong to focus on such an important matter without giving it serious thought and reason.”[37] Second, consult with faithful, discerning people, especially those with the same calling.[38] Next, choose a calling that is not harmful to your soul.[39] Certain vocational pursuits may be, in and of themselves, lawful and profitable, but are sufficiently tempting as to harm the soul.[40] Fourth, let God’s providence be acknowledged by sincerely seeking His direction and assistance.[41] Lastly, consistent with the other considerations, one’s personal preference should also be taken into account.[42] These considerations offer a wise framework by which to discern your vocation in all areas of life as we seek to live under the eye of God.

Having considered the history, definition and discernment of vocation, we will consider what the Puritan doctrine of vocation teaches us today specifically in the areas of family, the marketplace, government and the church in our next post.

[1] Clark, David K. and Robert V. Rakestraw. Readings in Christian Ethics: Issues and Applications. Vol 2. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 33.

[2] Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1990).

[3] A quick Google search returned 1,160,000 results for the phrase “God’s will for my life.” An additional search of www.lifeway.com for “God’s will” returned 329 results.

[4] Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 187-189.

[5] Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 22.

[6] Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relationships in Seventeenth Century New England (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966), 69.

[7] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[8] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[9] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[10] Clark, 33.

[11] Claar, Victor V. and Robin J. Klay. Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 166.

[12] Holl, Karl. “The History of the Word Vocation (Beruf),” trans. Heber F. Peacock. Review & Expositor, 55 (1958), 136.

[13] Claar, 166.

[14] Claar, 166.

[15] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[16] Holl, 126.

[17] Hein, Steven A. “Luther on Vocatio: Ordinary Life for Ordinary Saints.” Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership 8, (1999), 121.

[18] Hein, 121.

[19] Hein, 126.

[20] Hein, 132.

[21] Hein, 132.

[22] Claar, 166.

[23] A discussion of Luther’s “two kingdoms” teaching is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, I chose to not mention the matter. However, so to show my familiarity with the concept, a quality analysis of the doctrine related to vocation occurs in John S. Feinberg’s “Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation: Some Problems of Interpretation and Application.” Fides et Historia 12, (1979).

[24] Ryken, 15.

[25] Ryken, 15-16.

[26] Morgan, Edmund S. ed. Puritan Political Ideas 1558-1794 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003), 34.

[27] Shepard, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Shepard (Forgotten Books, 2012), 308.

[28] Beeke, Joel R. and Mark Jones. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 534.

[29] Perkins, William. A Treatise of the Vocations (Cambridge, 1605).

[30] Beeke, 534.

[31] Beeke, 534.

[32] I use “vocation” and “calling” interchangeably at points in this paper, which was common in Puritan thought.

[33] Hein, 126-134.

[34] Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[35] Ryken, 28.

[36] Steele, Richard. The Religious Tradesman (Haymarket: Vision Harvest, Inc., 2005), 26.

[37] Steele, 26.

[38] Steele, 26.

[39] Steele, 27.

[40] Steele, 27.

[41] Steele, 28.

[42] Steele, 28.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24