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The Cultural Mandate

Lately I've been thinking a fair amount about what is referred to as the "Cultural Mandate" in scripture. Nancy Pearcey summarizes it well in her book Total Truth. She writes,

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." The first phrase, "be fruitful and multiply" means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, "subdue the earth," means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations-nothing less.

On this view, which is commonly tied to covenant theology, the Cultural Mandate given to Adam and Eve before the Fall applies in the same way to us today and becomes our motivation for honoring God through work in all disciplines and areas of life. The gospel then is more than simply personal salvation. Justification and redemption from sin is the important entry point for humans into new life and kingdom work, which seeks to bring redemption to bear on every aspect of creation.

This view clashes with a large segment of contemporary evangelical thought, especially of the dispensational variety, which rejects the existence of a Cultural Mandate (at least as applying to the church), and instead views evangelism and personal holiness as the only tasks of real value in this life. Our only goal on earth, according to this understanding, is to save as many people as possible and pursue holiness until Christ returns, when he (in the views of many evangelical Christians) destroys the old world and creates a new one. Any attempt at "culture building" or realizing the redemption of creation is ultimately futile because nothing will last except souls.*

In some ways, the two aren't so different. Adherents of both views should pursue evangelism, and even those who reject the Cultural Mandate often say that Christians can enjoy the created world, work, and pursue cultural activity, so long as it never overshadows the real work of evangelism. Still, the difference is extremely important. If the covenantal view is correct, then by focusing only on evangelism, Christians are ignoring a very large part of their responsibilities on earth. If the dispensational view is correct, Christians who pursue a cultural mandate are wasting their time with things that ultimately won't matter in eternity and distracting themselves from the real responsibility of evangelism and discipleship. Clearly, then, there's a lot at stake in how we see our responsibilities.

I've been thinking about both views in light of scriptural references to the last days, specifically Romans 8 and 2 Peter 3. At first glance, the passages seem to contradict one another. Romans 8 stresses the continuity between old creation and new creation, stating that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (v. 21). This seems to fit well with covenantal view that God will bring redemption to existing creation. 2 Peter 3, on the other hand, stresses discontinuity between old and new creation, saying that "the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved" (v. 10). So the question is, while God destroy or renew creation on the day of judgment. The question is an important one because a renewal or restoration of creation fits better with the Cultural Mandate, while the ultimate destruction of creation and all of culture seems to make the Cultural Mandate senseless. A few thoughts on interpreting these passages:
  • I think Romans 8 should control our reading of 2 Peter 3. Verse 23 of Romans 8 makes it clear that we as humans receive the "redemption of our bodies" as a forerunner of the redemption of all creation. When God redeems us, he does not annihilate his original creation, but purifies it of sin and the effects of the fall. Our resurrection bodies will be different, but still maintain continuity with our present bodies (as did Jesus's). The same is true, I think, of the larger creation.
  • 2 Peter 3 is written in response to those who deny the second coming and any change in creation. Therefore, Peter is rightly stressing one side of the Day of the Lord: judgment by God and radical discontinuity with the fallen-ness of creation upon his return. This fits with OT imagery of the Day of the Lord being a violent one of judgment and purgation.
  • Peter compares this final judgment by fire with Noah's flood. The flood, while creating discontinuity, did not destroy the original creation, but merely changed much of it. I think this gives us a reason to see the final judgment with fire in the same way.
If you haven't guessed by now, I stand pretty firmly in support of the Cultural Mandate. Based on my covenant understanding of scripture, I see no reason why the command to cultivate a culture glorifying to God would not apply to Christians in the 21st century. Rather, I see the church as renewed people taking part in the "birth pains" of this new creation that will be fully and finally achieved upon Christ's return. In addition, the Cultural Mandate simply presents a fuller, more coherent view of redemptive history. God's original creation was good and we still celebrate that goodness because it glorifies God, while working toward and longing for the day when all of creation will be set free from the effects of the Fall.

The danger for me, however, is to use the Cultural Mandate as an excuse to ignore evangelism or discipleship, pursuing the cultivation of historiography or the arts at the expense of seeking to bring salvation and sanctification to lost people. While different Christians have different tasks to accomplish, we are all still called to evangelism, discipleship, and personal holiness. The most God-exalting vision places both the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission in a wonderful balance, seeking to build a God-glorifying culture populated by an ever-growing number of renewed humans, eagerly awaiting Christ's return.

*I call this is the "fire escape mentality." The world is burning up, going under, and our only task to get as many people as possible out of it onto the "fire escape" (personal salvation).

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Good thoughts. Life is a constant struggle to strike a God-honoring balance between the extremes we seem to waver between. Why is it so hard to live in the middle? Who was it that said we're like drunkards trying to mount a horse who fall off the other side...it's difficult to find that balance, but the struggle is at least a glorious calling.

Here's a question: in what way is evangelism in itself a means of transforming culture?

I'd would say it transforms culture in that the actions done by the redeemed human, made alive through Christ through the process of evangelism, become a part of redeemed culture. Transformed human life is transformed culture.

However, it's entirely possible for a transformed human life to have very little impact on broader human culture, as seen, I think, in the broader cultural impact (or lack thereof) of those who focus on evangelism to the exclusion of other forms of culture-building.

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