A Cultural Mandate

© Iain D. Campbell  2002

Traditional evangelical theology has identified a three-fold mandate given to man at the very dawn of history. The first was the Sabbath ordinance, which was designed to regulate man’s week after the pattern of creation itself. The second was the marriage ordinance, patterned after the nature of God. There is one God, and that God is a Trinity. Similarly, the first married couple were, both literally and ideally, one flesh: the plurality-in-unity which lies at the heart of the biblical doctrine of God was replicated in the nature of marriage.

While the church has been unanimous, until fairly recently at least, in its view of the continuance both of the Sabbath and the marriage ordinances, the third has proved to be more of a bugbear. That is man’s cultural mandate, summarised in the first great commission: "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it".

Quite apart from the implications of this for population control, the counsel which God gives man at this primitive point of history is pregnant with responsibility. Man is to use his dominion over the environment sensibly and selflessly, harnessing all its resources and potential for the common good. In his service for God, man is to use God’s world; it is from this mandate that all scientific enquiry and philosophy derives: we are to think about the world, its existence and its meaning, and we are to rule it, measuring its limits, exploring its design and discussing its possibilities.

Included in this is a mandate for culture. The dictionary definition of culture identifies it with the improvement of mental activities, the development of intellectual and aesthetic pursuits and the social development of a group. All of these receive their warrant in the work given to man at the dawn of history. Our devolved lordship over the world includes the responsibility of developing the intellectual and aesthetic mores of our society.

Yet the church is constantly charged with having hampered these very pursuits; perhaps, at times, the charge has been justified. But even if it has, she has not been alone in the fault. How many times did schools fail to spot, develop and encourage talent? How many tyrannical teachers or parents stifled natural abilities? How often have governments failed to provide adequate funding for the development of the arts and of sport? If there has been a failure to improve our culture, we must all share the blame. And the church, in particular, has to think through her role in the evolution of culture and cultural activity.

Fifty years ago, there appeared Richard Niebuhr’s famous work Christianity and Culture, in which the theology professor at Yale identified what he understood as five possible relationships between Christianity and world culture. First, he spoke of Christ against culture – the mindset that leads to complete disengagement from the world on the grounds of its thorough-going rebellion against God. Second, he discussed the Christ of culture, which sought to find some middle road between Christian doctrine and cultural achievement. He then spoke of Christ above culture, in which the church perceives that her role is fundamental if there is to be any cultural achievement. Fourth, Niebuhr identified Christ transforming culture – the kind of Puritan ethic which saw the whole of life as in some sense requiring to be converted to Christ. Fifth, he spoke of Christ and culture in paradox, in which a tension remains between the church and the world around it, even as they interpenetrate one another.

Niebuhr’s book has recently been re-published, which is a sure sign that the discussion he begins has still not been fully concluded. Perhaps as evangelicals we may even find his distinctions too watertight; perhaps there are times when we sense the paradox even as we live for the transformation of our society.

But the issue must remain on the evangelical agenda. What are the implications for the church that a mandate was given to man – a mandate as sure and as abiding as that of the Sabbath rest and the marriage institution – to exercise a responsible dominion over the world and to harness all its potential for the glory of God? Where does that leave the Christian in relation to ecology? to literature? to music? to sport? to history? Beyond the question of whether these are valid areas of interest for Christians – and if the world and its fulness belongs to the Christian’s God, how can they not be? – is the question of our level of engagement and involvement.

This is too important a subject, in my view, to dismiss with one column. But the column will serve its purpose if it leads us to ask questions about the role of the Christian individually and that of the church institutionally in relation to the cultural world of intellectual development which surrounds us. What does it mean for us that God looked at the world and said that it was good? Are we simply to look at it and say, but now, as a result of the Fall, it is all bad and we can have nothing to do with it? Or are we rather to say that Christ died for the redemption of culture as he died for the redemption of individuals? Is it not the case that I cannot fulfill the cultural mandate aright until I learn to channel the world’s energies back in the direction in which they were originally intended to flow – to the glory of God and for the good of others?

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