Theology of Work, by Darrell Cosden

Title:  A Theology of Work: Work in the New Creation

Author:  Darrell Cosden

Publisher: Paternoster theological monographs. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006

Reviewer:  Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology

Building from various theological articulations of work, and particularly from twentieth century voices, Darrell Cosden explores his hypothesis for a “normative theological understanding of work.” The hypothesis is twofold—or as he calls it, “a double hypothesis”—that intends to develop a new theological definition of work (10). By the end of the text his definition is composed:

Human work is a transformative activity essentially consisting of dynamically interrelated instrumental, relational, and ontological dimensions: whereby, along with work being an end in itself, the worker’s and others’ needs are providentially met; the believer’s sanctification is occasioned; and workers express, explore, and develop their humanness while building up their natural, social, and cultural environments thereby contributing protectively and productively to the order of this world and the one to come (179).

The twofold hypothesis is reflected in this concluding definition. First, Cosden emphasizes the three-fold nature of work as instrumental, relational, and ontological. Part one of his text is devoted to working through previous constructions of work to uncover this three-fold nature. Jurgen Moltmann and his writings on work serve as Cosden’s primary dialogue partner both in the first part and throughout the text. Other significant theological proposals on work are critically engaged as well, most are commended for what they offer but are ultimately considered insufficient for a complete theology of work. These proposals include Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit, Karl Marx’s views on work and ontology, the Papal encyclical “Laborem Exercens” by Pope John Paul II. There are also various small treatments on work by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Cosden draws from.

Building from this history of theological constructions on work Cosden believes that a three-fold nature of work is not only possible, but appropriate, for a theology of work. The instrumental understanding of work may be the most deeply rooted. It is found particularly in vocational approaches like those of Luther and Calvin, and remains, according to Cosden “influential in Protestant theology” during the twentieth century. While the vocational model emphasizes the importance of work “instrumentality,” it also emphasizes its “relational aspect” (41). This latter emphasis becomes more robust in the twentieth century, and now, like an instrumental understanding, is assumed in most theological articulations of work. What remains to be developed, therefore, is a rich ontological understanding which takes into account a Christian teleology and human anthropology.

This is precisely where Cosden devotes his energy during the second part of the text. His hypothesis, which seeks to interrelate the instrumental, relational, and ontological elements requires this next step because, as Cosden frequently notes, theological constructions of work remain “less than adequate” (including Moltmann’s) in this regard (77). Two more voices receive attention in Cosden’s exploration before he returns to Moltmann. Cosden considers Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to be a vital philosophical contribution to teleology. His primary engagement with MacIntyre regards the distinction and interrelatedness of the is and the ought. This is a “reviving of the lost concept of a functional (rational) teleology.” What a “thing is implies inherently how it ought to be or behave” (86). But MacIntyre, according to Cosden, isn’t enough; “for a Christian teleology it is necessary to find a way after MacIntyre” (95). This voice is Oliver O’Donovan who asserts that teleology begins with theology. “It is from the starting point of the resurrection that O’Donovan develops the two doctrines essential for his theological teleology: creation and eschatology” (87). Though Cosden finds that O’Donovan “inadvertently undermines his own project” by “his commitment to objectivism (a strong foundationalism),” Cosden remains particularly fond of the way O’Donovan holds creation and eschatology together. For too long theologies of work have been dominated by protology (doctrine of initial creation) without maintaining a proper eschatology. In bringing together creation and eschatology O’Donovan allows for a creation with movement where “resurrection vindicates created order” (90).

Cosden returns to Moltmann after giving attention to a relational anthropology developed by Colin Gunton and a trinitarian analysis by John D. Zizioulas.   Here Cosden’s intentions are more identifiable. He declares, with Moltmann, that the appropriate starting point for a theological anthropology is humanity’s purpose in creation (131). Human purpose coincides with God’s purpose for the whole creation, “to bring God glory” and even “involves humanity’s enjoyment (with the rest of creation)” as seen in Sabbath (133). Furthermore, Cosden builds on relational anthropology by encouraging a “more inter-dependent give-and-take relationship between the worker and his or her material/environment.” This means that humanity has a “relaxed relationship” with nature where the “goal must be the ‘symbiosis’ between human beings and nature” (136).   The second part of Cosden’s theological definition of work is beginning to take shape. At the end of this second part of the text Cosden brings teleology and anthropology together noting how nature and humanity (all creation) awaits completion in the new creation. His suggestion is that the two be seen in partnership. “Theologically nature is a partner. It is productive (Bloch’s term) but is also like us in that it is unfinished. Because it is unfinished, or open, like humanity nature it must be both object as well as subject” (138). Telos, therefore, is not a finished end, “but should be envisioned as a consummation and a new beginning” (144).   Work, following Cosden’s relational anthropological and ontological approach is one of the primary ways humans, who are “open beings,” apply themselves to the task of living life.” Human work, therefore, is “a central contributor to the evolution of the self both individually and socially” (183). Work is more than instrumental in its participation of the new creation. Cosden states that it becomes glorified in the new creation and even “the distinction between ‘work, ‘rest,’ and ‘play will disappear” (170). Since it is relational and ontological, work does not expire in the new creation. It has intrinsic value as part of the initial creation that will come into consummation but not be negated.

Cosden does an exceptional job exploring the various theological articulations of work, especially in light of contemporary developments in theology and concerns for ecological care. His developments of teleology and ontology are needed additions to the subject and he explores them carefully and with appropriate theological rigor. The text can be burdensome to read, not because of its language or depth (both of which are appropriate), but because it is often repetitive and unnecessarily wordy. In this regard, the text reflects its original purpose as a dissertation where proving, qualifying, and overstating is sometimes necessary. Furthermore, it remains unclear why Moltmann receives so much attention in this text. Moltmann even states in the Foreward to this text that “I have never claimed to have written a comprehensive and consistent theology of work, nor have I wanted to.” Some of Cosden’s critiques of Moltmann come from writings that Moltmann states, “are occasional remarks, in other words they are remarks which belong to a particular context.” With this being the case, the question why Moltmann? seems pertinent. It is evident how influential Moltmann’s theology is for Cosden’s theology of work, but given the critical evaluation of Moltmann specifically on the topic of work, a reader is left only to wonder.

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