This book is an excellent discussion of the subject of vocation from a balanced theological perspective. Placher, professor of humanities at Wabash College, has done an outstanding job in compiling a theological reader of representative historical selections on the understanding of vocation in the first two millennia of Christianity. Callings is a part of a larger initiative with the Lilly Endowment’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), a network of undergraduate colleges across the United States that are examining how to assist students in their understanding of vocation in their lives. A second volume, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2006) is also a part of this initiative.
Of course when the Bible speaks of calling, it most often refers to the call to salvation and the call to sanctification. But when the question “Now what?” is posed, the variety of life enters the picture. The idea of vocation, of God calling believers to something bigger than themselves, gives meaning and purpose to life. Placher introduces readers to the saints of old and what these men and women of faith were thinking when they considered their personal calling. Some of the accounts in the book, such as “The Martyrdom of Perpetua,” are gripping.
Placher gives his readers over fifty sizable selections of original source material from writers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth, and others.
Placher frames his work around four time periods, recognizing the societal changes that influenced vocational thought in each age. With each time period he also summarizes the key questions Christian thinkers of that time were pondering. Placher sees the early church (A.D. 100–500) as a time of transition from martyrdom before Constantine to the ascetism of early monastic life, with believers first asking, “How public should my faith be?” and later asking, “How do I practice ‘self-sacrifice’ in my faith?” in a post-Constantine “Christian” world (pp. 6, 23).
The second period is the medieval church (A.D. 500–1500), with the deeper divide between the “religious” life of the orders (priests, monks, nuns, or friars) and the “secular” life of the common people. The question for these believers was what “kind” of Christian they should be, where having a vocation was seen almost exclusively as membership in the religious orders. The third period is the Reformation and its repercussions (A.D. 1500–1800), in which the barrier between the “religious” life of the orders and the life of the common people was shattered. Instead of the limited view of vocation in the Middle Ages, Luther and those who followed him saw radical understanding of all of life as under the banner of vocation.
Placher says that since A.D. 1800 the situation in the Western world is a return in many ways to the conditions faced by the early church. He notes that in this “post-Christian” world Christianity is no longer taken for granted and neighbors are no longer fellow believers. Also in this time period there seems to be no unifying voice on the meaning of vocation.
The combination of original source material and Placher’s introductions make Callings a significant tool in the current conversation on vocation. This book could be interesting reading for both students and pastors.
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