Benjamin Quinn, assistant professor of theology and history of ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.
Co-laboring with the creator himself is one of the many amazing attributes of the imago dei. When God placed our first parents in the garden, he set them apart as the only creatures that bear his image, and part of their image-bearing was to continue God’s work in his world. This is clearly seen in Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:15, where God’s instructions to Adam and Eve include fruitfulness, multiplication, filling the earth, subduing it, working it and watching over it.
There are manifold implications of this important doctrine; here we will consider the implications that are especially important for us as theological educators. Our curriculum ought to equip students to understand the central importance of our role as God’s co-laborers.
First, it is important to notice the continuity between God’s work in creating the world and people’s responsibility to continue working in God’s world. We are not capable of creating ex nihilo like God, but we image God by working within the world he made. This stands in sharp contrast to most non-Christian views, both ancient and modern, of our role as human beings.
Second, we must recognize the inherent goodness of work as a creational ordinance and not a result of the fall. To be sure, the nature of work and how humans relate to it is affected by sin according to Genesis 3, but the creator’s original design for image-bearers included work as a central component. This alerts us to the material, indeed earthy, nature of the human constitution. Man was formed “from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7), then God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Both the body and the soul/spirit are good. It is the whole person, not just the body or just the soul/spirit, that images God. The God-given rhythm of work and rest also pertains to the whole person, body and soul/spirit.
Third, working according to God’s way promotes goodness, truth, beauty, justice, wisdom and love in God’s world. To call it working in God’s “way” draws on specific biblical language; to work as God intended is not merely an activity but a way. God built the world to work a certain way, and placed image-bearers in his world to live a particular way. Moses speaks of this in Deuteronomy 10:12 when he summarizes, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God by walking in all his ways, to love him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul?” Proverbs further illumines this theme of way by insisting that those who fear the Lord must walk in the way of wisdom, and not the way of folly – there is no other way. Finally, Jesus refers to Himself as the “way, the truth, and the life,” and those who follow Jesus are called people of the “way” (Acts 9 & 19). Thus, when we work according to God’s way we promote God’s way of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, love and beyond in his world.
Fourth, by working God’s way we co-labor with God in his mission of making all things new in Christ. Part of the good news of the Gospel is that by virtue of our newness in Christ, we receive the “ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18). Thus the Spirit of God empowers Christians to apply healing power of the Gospel to the brokenness in God’s world. The curse of sin stretches deep and wide across all of seen and unseen reality, but “far as the curse is found” the healing power of the Gospel stretches further still, bringing the dead to life and ultimately restoring all creation back to God. What a privilege to join God in this great mission!
So, what are the brass tacks for the theological curriculum? Here are a few brief thoughts.
In the classroom, the touchpoints above connect especially to the doctrine of humanity. They also connect directly to the doctrines of God, creation, sin, Christ, Spirit, salvation, Christian living, ecclesiology and eschatology. Indeed, work is part of God’s story of the world from beginning to end, and thus it should be laced through the whole theological curriculum.
In reading assignments for systematic theology, consider assigning a supplementary text such as Cornelius Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World or Al Wolters’ Creation Regained, both of which combine the overarching story of the Bible with a framework for cultural engagement that includes foundational teaching on work and vocation. These books and others like them are invaluable for introductory theology courses, as they weave together systematic doctrine, biblical theology and practical Christian living.
In the syllabus consider assigning an essay that asks students to describe the relationships between God’s work in the world and human work in the world. Ask students to consider the nature and purpose of human work, how sin affects our work, how Christ’s work relates to ours, how our work contributes to God’s world and how our work relates to the new heavens and earth. An assignment like this is especially helpful as a reflexive tool that allows professors to see how well they integrated the topic of work as co-labor into the curriculum.
“We’ll work, we’ll work till Jesus comes, then we’ll be gathered home” goes the old hymn. As teachers, we have the privilege and the responsibility to help students see the meaning and purpose of work, not as mere toil, but as labor that joins the work of God himself.