Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the summer 2018.
Westminster Seminary professor William Edgar explains that his new book, “Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture,” has been years in the making. “I have been thinking about culture and the biblical approach to culture for some 50 years,” Edgar writes. “Whether in the practice of the arts, particularly music, or in theorizing about issues such as meaning, power, values, symbols, and aesthetics, my concerns about the matter of culture have been close at hand.”
In the early pages of the book, Edgar gives readers a brief overview of recent Christian thinking on the subject. He discusses the “realms of culture,” and comes to the conclusion that, “Culture characterizes our calling here on earth. It distinguishes our common humanity, but also our differences. Culture can be positive, leading to human flourishing, or negative, bringing corruption and abuse.” Hence the need to investigate and discuss the relationship between Christianity and the surrounding culture.
After a half-century’s search, Edgar is certain: “The Bible teaches that cultural engagement before the living God is, along with worship, the fundamental calling for the human race.”
ByFaith editor Richard Doster asked Edgar about a few of the book’s main assertions.
Q To understand our proper role in culture, you argue that we need “a proper grounding in the doctrine of creation.” How does such a grounding help?
The doctrine of creation is absolutely crucial for the Christian worldview. The account in Genesis tells us that God made the universe and that it was “good and very good.” To be sure, there would be a fall, but not because of any flaw in the creation. Every non-Christian worldview believes there is a limitation or a defect which means evil is not really our fault.
Culture making and culture care are not later additions to the human agenda. Nor are they provisional as we await the new covenant. They were given as ordinances from the very beginning (Genesis 1:26-30), and are a permanent feature of our human calling. They follow directly from the creation of humans, made after the image of God. Thus, engaging in culture is not a concession to the temporary nature of the present world, but ingrained in our vocation from the very beginning.
This does not mean that there are no developments or modifications as we move through the successive eras of redemptive history. The creation ordinances — work, marriage, worship, and the like — are permanent for human vocation, but they take on different forms according to the contours of the epoch.
Jesus Christ is the One who came to earth and revealed the glory of the Father, and then gave the Holy Spirit to His people. He is thus the One in whom the Fall is being reversed, because He is reconciling all things to Himself.
Among the many implications of the cultural mandate are, that because the creation qua creation is good, even today — in our broken world — we may enjoy it, invest in it, and develop it. 1 Timothy 4:1-4 teaches that it is a heresy to deny this goodness in our cultural activities, whether they be in family life or the partaking of food. Even with the coming of the Fall, followed by God’s redemption of His people, cultural activity is not abrogated but given new and deeper meanings.
Q You point out that in Colossians 1:15-20 Paul makes a powerful comparison between the supremacy of Christ in creation and His supremacy in redemption. There is no separation, you argue, between Christ’s rule over creation and His rule over the church. What does that mean? And how does it shape our attitude about culture?
What it means is that the one who is Lord over the creation is also the cause and the goal of redemption. Jesus is the ruler of the world, and all things hold together in Him. To use Abraham Kuyper’s well-known phrase, there is not one square inch of creation about which He does not say, “Mine.” If to our ears this sounds imperialistic, it is meant to proclaim Christ’s sovereignty over all things. It is important to note that Christ is not merely above the creation (though in one sense He is), but that He rules over it and through it. To quote James Skillen, discussing the Christian view of politics, a subset of culture, “Christ does not sit on a supernatural throne above the natural world but on the throne of creation’s fulfillment, which includes the fulfillment of human governing responsibility.”
Of course, creation and redemption are different activities. But still the Second Person is the link between the two. Each member of the Holy Trinity is at work in redemption, just as they were in the original creation. But Jesus Christ is the One who came to earth and revealed the glory of the Father, and then gave the Holy Spirit to His people. He is thus the One in whom the Fall is being reversed, because He is reconciling all things to Himself, as it says in this same passage.
One of the implications of this rule of the Second Person over both creation and redemption was mentioned earlier. It is that our cultural activity is in continuity with the order of creation. Put negatively, it means our human calling is much more (though no less) than simply obtaining a passage to heaven for our soul, although that could not be more crucial. Put positively, it means that salvation is all-encompassing. Indeed, it has cosmic implications. The Letter to the Colossians goes on to describe an entire array of human endeavors which are good because they are being redeemed. Thus when Paul tells the Romans that the Gospel is the power of salvation, he does not restrict it to something narrowly spiritual. Or, put better, everything is spiritual!
In Colossians, Paul was combatting the gnostic heresy that taught a special, secret knowledge of God through an elite spiritual posture. Instead, all human activity (outside of idolatry) is good: family life, legitimate philosophy, the search for the benefit of your neighbor, the godly use of the tongue, proper employment practices, and the rest.
Q In Colossians 1:20 Paul writes that God, through Christ, reconciles “all things to himself.” This, you state, “is cultural activity in the deepest sense.” How does that inform our attitude toward culture?
The fundamental antithesis in human life is not between the “sacred” and the “secular.” Nor is it between heaven and earth. And it certainly is not between the church and the state. It is between good and evil. It is between a life that seeks to submit all things to Jesus Christ and one that hates His rule. So when Paul says Christ is busy reconciling all things to Himself he does not mean that Christianity is pantheistic. He means Christ is reconciling things that were inimical and bringing healing to them, because the evil of them is being removed so that they may unite with Himself.
This has many implications. If He is reconciling “all things” to Himself, then we may engage in any legitimate cultural pursuit, because we know that Christ is busy working them into the good, for His own purposes. Thus, when we engage in culture making and culture care we may be assured that Christ is in our midst, blessing what we do and think. It should also mean that we can take parts of culture found in many different places, and made by all kinds of people, and then re-work them for Christian purposes.
Various examples come to mind. One thinks of modern art, with its tendency toward abstraction; we can reconfigure those insights and engage in well-crafted abstraction to the glory of God. Think of artists such as Georges Rouault or Makoto Fujimura, who are not afraid of abstraction (in very different ways) because they tell the Christian story. Or, one thinks of a Christian-inspired business where wise principles of commerce are subjected to the biblical purpose of human flourishing and the proper use of good products. Thus, the Christian approach to employment and working conditions will help reverse the nefarious practices of slave labor and the abuse of workers. Additionally, one may think of the work of the Christian psychologist who is addressing human distress, or even trauma and abuse, in order to skillfully knit relations back together.
Q You describe the succeeding versions of the creation mandate, given to Adam, then Noah, then Abraham. Later, the mandate comes to Israel in exile. Each version, you state, has a particular significance in the history of redemption. What do you want readers to take away from this?
In the discipline known as biblical theology, themes and persons throughout the successive eras in the history of redemption build upon one another until they culminate in the New Testament, then the new heavens, through the work of Jesus Christ. Think of the advancement between the earlier forms of worship following a theophany, then the tabernacle, then the temple, then Jesus, the true temple who then builds the church like a divine edifice. The cultural mandate, which can be summarized as to be fruitful, to have proper dominion, and to be in covenant relation with God, also progressed from its earliest forms, under Noah, Moses, David, and Jeremiah, until it became the Great Commission.
David meditates on the grandeur of the starry host in Psalm 8. He asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” God’s answer? The cultural mandate. Significantly, this Psalm is quoted in Hebrews 2, making the comparison between “man” and Jesus Christ, who leads the new humanity to the ultimate time when all things are made new. Even in exile, counterintuitively, the Lord through Jeremiah (Chapter 29) tells the people to invest in the welfare of the city. He tells them the opposite of what the false prophet Hananiah had said. Basically, Hananiah tells the people God is going to break the yoke of the king of Babylon. But the Lord, through Jeremiah, says instead, there is going to be a
long wait. Yet during this wait, do have families, plant vineyards, and even pray for the shalom of the oppressive city!
The Great Commission, the call to make disciples of the nations, is a reiteration of the cultural mandate, though one which is appropriate in a context of a world full of sin and in need of grace.
Of course, Jesus Himself engaged in cultural activity, broadly speaking. His teaching touched on every sphere of life, from economics to warfare to keeping sheep. One never senses in the Gospels a tension between “heavenly” and “earthly” pursuits. The only tension is between good and evil, righteousness and evil.
Q You begin Chapter 11 with a quote from John Frame: “The Great Commission, therefore, can be understood as a republication of the cultural mandate.” How so? How are we to view the “mission mandate” in relation to the Great Commission?
This is a very precious insight for me. The Great Commission, the call to make disciples of the nations, is a reiteration of the cultural mandate, though one which is appropriate in a context of a world full of sin and in need of grace. Consider the three aspects of the cultural mandate. Being fruitful is now more than having children (it includes spiritual gifts). Now, exercising dominion is more than lordship over the creation (it includes cleansing from sin and purposing to follow Christ). And finally, the covenant relation is the wonderful final installment of the arrangement between the Lord and His people (it includes being a new creation in Christ).
This understanding may come as a surprise to those who are used to thinking the Great Commission somehow supersedes, or even replaces, the cultural mandate. True enough, the message of the Gospel is at the center of the church’s activity. But that message is not a narrow invitation to “accept Christ.” Rather, it is termed discipleship, which is a comprehensive concept meaning to place every aspect of life under the Lordship of Christ. There are four commandments in the Great Commission: Go, make disciples, teach, and baptize. Only one is an imperative: Make disciples. The others are participles. Thus, we could read it as, “make disciples by going, by teaching, and by baptizing.” That puts a different emphasis on the mandate. Too often, we see a banner that says, “Go ….” But the banner should say, “Make disciples ….”
Q You close the book by saying that culture and cultural engagement are not suspended in the afterlife but given their full impetus. How so?
Although details are missing, every indication is that the new heavens and new earth will be in continuity with the former heavens and earth, only without corruption. The treasures of kings will be brought in (Revelation 21:24) and will have value in the New Jerusalem. People will rule over cities, and engage in the fullness of human life as never before.
The characteristics of the resurrection life, when we have a glimpse of them, are portrayed as human, concrete, and cultural. In His post-resurrection appearances Jesus ate fish, He invited Thomas to touch Him, He walked along the Emmaus Road, and ordered the apostles to go into all the world to make disciples. Francis Schaeffer used to describe heaven as “non-static.” He would then suggest we will go on learning, working, visiting, and exploring forever. Art historian Hans Rookmaaker, Schaeffer’s good friend, used to say, provocatively, “Christ did not come into the world to make Christians but to make humans.” Of course the two are the same. But Rookmaaker was arguing against a false super-spirituality. In the new heavens we will finally be all that we are meant to be as human beings.
William Edgar is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author of several books, including “A Transforming Vision: The Lord’s Prayer as a Lens for Life,” “Schaeffer on the Christian Life,” and “Truth in All Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith.”
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith.