Course Module in Church History - The Development of the Doctrine of Vocation

Seminary Curriculum / Produced by TOW Project

Studying the history of biblical interpretation is an important part of studying the history of Christian thought. A recent experience opened my eyes to how the doctrine of vocation has developed in the church. Classes on church history or historical theology can introduce students to this vital area of the church’s development.

Although I have taught in the seminary and college contexts for over a decade, I now mainly spend my time as the editor of Christian History and the content editor for The High Calling at the Theology of Work Project. A few years ago, with the assistance of some people familiar to the Oikonomia Network, Christian History put together an issue on vocation throughout church history.

While working on the issue, I was struck by how differently calling and vocation have been interpreted throughout history. Sometimes this history of Christian understandings of vocation gets reduced to a simple story: the biblical concept of vocation was spiritualized by an otherworldly early church and used solely to promote clerical and monastic vocations in the Middle Ages until Luther came on the scene. The reality is far more complex than that.

When students exegete, they tend to assume that they need to understand the historical world of the Bible and how to apply the Bible to our own day. Yet they seldom consider conversing with interpreters of the passages in question throughout church history before they settle on their modern application.

In light of this omission, the assignment below – from the Theology of Work Project – seeks to help students develop this habit and technique, focusing on questions of work and vocation and exposing them to significant biblical material from the Theology of Work Project for the modern component.


Choose one of these passages, which have been historically significant in discussions of work and vocation. Compare interpretations found in the TOW Bible Commentary with those of 4-5 famous theologians and Biblical scholars. What are the similarities? What are the differences? What theological, historical, social, and cultural reasons might explain the differences? What applications can you draw for your own current ministry based on these historical opinions?

Here are some sets of theologians students might be given to consider:

  • “Jesus to Now”: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Barth
  • Western Church Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome
  • Eastern Church Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor
  • Middle Ages: Gregory the Great, Abelard, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich
  • Reformation: Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, John Knox, Richard Hooker, Thomas Cranmer, Menno Simons, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales
  • 17th-18th Centuries: Jacob Arminius, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, Phillip Jakob Spener, John and Charles Wesley, John Owen, Richard Baxter, William Law
  • 19th-20th Centuries: Borden Parker Bowne, Horace Bushnell, Søren Kierkegaard, F. D. Maurice, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, Walter Rauschenbusch, Frederic Schleiermacher, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Georgia Harkness, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton

Not all these figures will have discussed all the passages, of course, so students will need to do some research to find the best people to compare based on the passage they choose. Denominational or other focused lists could also be developed.