What Does Historical Theology Have to Do with Faith, Work and Economics? (Part 1)

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Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series.

The Reformation not only changed the face of theology but also how Christians understand what it means to work. Martin Luther sits at the center of this change. He combated the idea that a person had to become a monk or nun to live a holy life, pleasing to God. Rather, he argued that a person can bring glory to God in his ordinary job and in family life. In his treatise On Good Work, Luther states,

A good work when a man works at his trade, walks, stands, eats, drinks, sleeps, and does all kinds of works for the nourishment of his body or for the common welfare, and … God is well pleased with them.

Luther was a pastor at heart and was concerned with the well-being of the people. He emphasized that humanity was created for work and because of this, Luther wanted to show what a proper understanding of work means for the Christian.

“Theology has a history.” This simple statement by Alister McGrath provides us perspective: we are not the first to think through and ask questions of scripture and theology; the church has been doing this for 2000 years. Historical Theology is defined by McGrath as “the branch of theological inquiry which aims to explore the historical development of Christian doctrines, and identify the factors which were influential in their formulation and adoption” (McGrath, 8). People have defined Historical Theology in many ways, but I believe McGrath captures the idea of the formulation of doctrine, but also that there is a historical context that influences the way the church has thought about theology. Historical Theology has a teaching role in the church as it serves to remind us today not just what the Church has taught, but also why it has been taught.

I have heard in church settings people remark offhand that their work is not as important as the pastor’s because they were just bank teller or waiter. This is usually related to the idea that they could not understand something found in scripture or that the pastor is better at evangelism because he is more spiritual. Historical Theology allows us to help those in our churches see the value and importance of their work for the cause of the Kingdom of God. In their work Every Waking Hour, Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland define work as “what creatures do with God’s creation” (6) and while they state that the term “vocation” is many times used interchangeably with work, they define it separately as “the way or ways that we make ourselves useful to others” (8). These two definitions help to serve as the foundation for how the church has thought through these ideas. Historical Theology allows us to identify how ideas have changed and the way that we understand these ideas.

Historical Theology serves to guide us by looking at the principles from the past and applying them to the present.

For example, in the medieval period there was a tension between whether to marry and have a family or to “have a vocation,” which people in that time understood as joining either the priesthood or a monastic order. This idea changed in the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther and his promotion of the idea of the priesthood of all believers. William Placher states,

Where Luther emphasized remaining in the calling to which you were called, his successors opened up the possibility that a good Christian might change callings during the course of life. But the basic idea remained: your job was your vocation, and thus everyone, not just priests, nuns and monks, was called by God to their particular work. (Placher, 8)

This was a fundamental shift in the way a group of believers understood work and the value of work.

Outside influences also impact the way the church has had to understand the idea of work and the value of work. Andy Crouch identifies three events that helped to shape the modern city and change what it means to work, what it means to be a family and what it is to be a person.

  1. In 1397 the Medici family in Italy created the first bank; this caused a shift in wealth from land to money.
  2. In 1769 James Watts invented the steam engine. This changed how work is done: from being done by bodies, human and animals, to engines.
  3. In 1948 Claude Shannon published his theory of information, which set into motion a process that changed where we find knowledge. We move from wisdom, which is knowledge transmitted by a community over time, to information that can be transmitted through systems of digitalization and control.

These ideas built off one another and changed the ways that the church thinks about what work and economics look like from a Christian perspective. Historical Theology serves to guide us by looking at the principles from the past and applying them to the present. The church today has to continue to learn from the ways that the church of the past has had to adapt to new situations.

The relationship between Historical Theology and faith, work and economics helps us understand three things:

  • It helps us to understand our relationship to the way that the church has understood the relationship between faith, work and economics.
  • It allows for us to see both the good and the bad. Everyone and every generation has blind spots and the value of looking back is that we are able to identify where some of those blind spots exist.
  • It provides us with clarity. It can help us to understand where we may be allowing biases to over-influence our interpretation of scripture, but can also dispel a hagiographic view of many of the heroes of the faith. It allows for us to see them as real people, with real struggles and triumphs which will allow us to learn better from them.

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in the FWE Curriculum Project.


Crouch, Andy. Flourishing Good, 2018.

Placher, William C., ed. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Edition Unstated edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2005.

Quinn, Benjamin T., and Walter R. Strickland II. Every Waking Hour: An Introduction to Work and Vocation for Christians. Lexham Press, 2016.

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  • economics
  • FWE Curriculum Project
  • history
  • theology
  • vocation
  • work
Justin Clark

Justin Clark is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology and adjunct faculty at SEBTS. He also currently works at the Library at Southeastern. He is studying eighteenth-century eschatology with an emphasis on Andrew Fuller. He lives in Wake Forest, NC and is married to Alysha.

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