"Men were created to employ themselves": Calvin on Gen. 2.15
August 16, 2014
We tend towards one of two extremes in our attitudes towards work: either we make too little of it, or we make too much of it. We make too little of work when we regard it with contempt, when we treat it as an evil -- albeit a necessary one since it supplies the financial resources necessary to pursue the things we actually value (relationships, possessions, status, leisure, etc.).
Against any such tendency, we need to be reminded that God gave Adam a job immediately after he made him. "The earth was given to man... that he should occupy himself in its cultivation." Calvin doesn't hesitate to draw a universal principle from this -- not that we should all, in imitation of Adam, set ourselves to farming (or even manual labor), but that we should set ourselves to doing something. "Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness." Indeed, "nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do."
Calvin has much to say, in due course, about how we go about choosing something "to do." Selecting a job or career is a matter of measuring one's desires and abilities, and determining how one might best serve God and others -- not so much one's self -- with those desires and abilities. The fundamental point here, however, is that work is a good thing, an integral aspect of creaturely existence in a pre-fallen world, and so also in our fallen world. Work is not the product or penalty of humankind's rebellion against God, granted that some -- indeed a fairly significant -- degree of frustration has been introduced to all human work in consequence of that rebellion (Gen. 3.18-19).
But recognition of work's intrinsic goodness can leave us exposed to that other error to be avoided, making too much of work. We make too much of work when we treat it - rather than glorifying and enjoying God - as man's chief end, or as an indubitably permanent feature of creaturely existence. Against any tendency to over-value work, we must be reminded of two things: first, the relationship which work sustained to rest/worship in Eden; and second, the relationship which Eden itself as a whole, with work as one ingredient, sustained (and still sustains) to the eternal state (heaven, if you will).
According to Calvin, God's image bearers had a corporate calling which was higher than their individual vocations from the very beginning; namely, that they "daily exercise themselves to consider the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, in this magnificent theater of heaven and earth." God, in order to direct his image bearers towards that end, set apart one specific day--first by his own example, and then by benediction made upon his own day of rest (Gen 2:2-3)--for the exercise of such activity. In Calvin's judgment, the obligation for all men and women to desist from "other business" and "apply their minds to the Creator of the world" can be traced back to creation; it is, of course, an obligation binding "the whole human race."
God's sanctification of the seventh day (Gen. 2.3) and the peculiar responsibilities entrusted to us on that seventh day -- both rest, in imitation of God's own cessation from the work of creation, and worshipful contemplation of God and His ways -- mutually indicate that man's seventh-day activities are more significant than his other-six-day doings. If is, of course, a more profound thing "to celebrate the justice, wisdom, and power of God" in worship than it is to cultivate the soil (although both work and worship, in Calvin's vision, should ultimately be done to God's glory). This privileging of rest/worship over work, the latter succumbing to the former in a weekly pattern established by God, puts work in proper perspective.
Considering the relationship of the original, Edenic state to the eternal, heavenly state also serves to put work in proper perspective. In Calvin's judgment, Adam's life in Eden was ultimately a temporary one, regardless of whether he stood or fell. "His earthly life truly would have been temporal; ...he would have passed into heaven without death, and without injury." Thus Adam too, before he fell, was called to "meditate on heavenly glory" while "passing through his earthly life." This was no idiosyncratic view on Calvin's part; both before and after the Reformation the view was prevalent that God always intended something surpassing Eden's splendors for his human creatures.
If Adam's "earthly life" was in fact temporary, so also was the job he was given. In other words, even in a sinless world, work would have given way to that eternal rest, worship, and fellowship with God which was from the very beginning prophetically imaged in humankind's weekly rest, worship, and fellowship with God. This may prove a hard pill to swallow for those who, quite frankly, value work so highly, or so find identity in their occupations, that the promise of a heaven without work sounds like the loss of all they cherish and the dissolution of self (i.e., hell). But neither Calvin nor Scripture offer any suggestion that work in general, or our specific callings in this life, will survive the transition to the next. Our lives in the life to come will, I suspect, be rather busy (without being tiring), but that busyness won't entail finishing up those projects we never quite managed to complete before the present heavens and earth were rolled up like scroll (Isa. 34.4).
Calvin calls us to walk a fine line in our assessment of work, neither underestimating nor overestimating its value. His vision of a work/rest pattern for God's image bearers makes ideas about work championed by our present-day culture seem rather thin by comparison. His vision simply cannot be reconciled with models which treat work as the rather unpleasant but necessary price of admission to weekends and holidays of self-indulgence, or those which make occupation the definition of a person, and offer him or her weekends and holidays (rest) as a mere chance to recharge the batteries for greater productivity. Against either unsatisfactory view, Calvin offers us his vision: six days of fruitful, God-glorifying work (a high calling) culminating in one day of rest and concentrated worship and enjoyment of God (an even higher calling), which day of rest and worship anticipates and prophetically images that eternal rest and enjoyment of God which he, the fall notwithstanding, has prepared for his people (the highest calling).