Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Ars and Theology: Work, Salvation, and Social Doctrine in the Early Church Fathers

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Ars and Theology: Work, Salvation, and Social Doctrine in the Early Church Fathers

Article excerpt

Work in Antiquity

The Biblical and the Greek and Roman traditions elaborated distinct but parallel approaches to the investigation of the meaning and nature of work. The first tradition focused on the theological potential of human making, or production, in imitation of God's creation. The innumerable metaphors in the Old and the New Testaments of God as builder, architect, potter, farmer, testify to the persistently sought similitude between divine and human making as a principle of self-perfection, participation in the work of creation, and, in Christianity, in the edification of the Christian community. (1) The Greek and Roman philosophical tradition concentrated on the investigation of the ethical and political aspects of work. These two strands of thought merged in what might be called the ethical-political theology of the Early Fathers of Christianity, giving origin to a revaluation of work as a fundamental element in the economy of salvation. Set within the eschatological perspective established by the Incarnation and Redemption, in the Fathers' thought work became an instrument of human cooperation with Christ in the edification of the Christian community. The period and authors here considered represent a crucial moment in the evolution and consolidation of an essential positive re-evaluation of work in practical and ideological terms. In the centuries to follow the theological and philosophical speculation on making as essential to the perfecting of human nature and society will continue and enrich the legacy of the Fathers. In particular, the idea of work as vital to the moral progress of individuals and of the community in which they live will be at the core of the conception of the human being as "homo faber" (the maker) that is central to the Italian Humanist thought of the fifteenth century.

Both Jewish and Greek ideas on work testify to a radical ambiguity inherent in the negative and positive aspects of work, viewed as punishment and redemption, enslaving, transforming, and creative). The socio-economic factors that contributed to the general negative perception of work in antiquity are present in the background of the Fathers' theoretical speculation, which aimed at defining and circumscribing a dignified and dignifying concept of work. (2) In this article I follow the thread of a theoretical re-evaluation of that particular form of human making that involves a productive process requiring method acquired through experience and teaching. In ancient thought, whether in the theological perspective of the Old Testament or in the ethical-philosophical view, work assumed a negative value when it was not the result of free choice (slave work); it implied purely physical effort ("animal" work), or work directed toward the satisfaction of greed. It had, instead, a positive value when seen as a self-educating discipline that, at the same time, contributed to the common good of the community (spiritual as well as material). (3) Only the second type was properly considered work or more specifically "production." This view owed much to the notion of work elaborated by the philosophical tradition, particularly through Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, centered on the ethical and political implications of a human endeavor as self-building and relation-building process (comparable to Plato's labor division in the ideal city, which establishes a network of social and economic relations). In this tradition, work as production according to art (techne) constituted the only dignified type of human activity versus de-humanizing, or slave, and "animal" work.

The first authoritative example of how the theological and the philosophical approaches to work tended to merge in Christian thought is found in Saint Paul's "theology of work," which already shows a distinct civic concern in its political and ethical orientation: work must benefit the community, and it should be pursued to fight idleness. (4) At the same time, the apostles as well as all Christians, by imitating Christ, become co-operarii (syn-ergoi, co-workers) with Him. …

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