The question arises: since the fall of mankind is radical, affecting all areas of life, is the cultural mandate abrogated, or replaced by pure evangelism? Famously, Dwight L. Moody affirmed “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, 'Moody, save all you can.'” In view of the hopeless direction of so many human solutions to the problems facing us, this sentiment has a certain plausibility. And certainly, there could be no greater priority than to make disciples of the nations (Mt 28:16-20).
On the surface it might appear that the so-called cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26ff.) has no more relevance. The human race was charged with extending throughout the earth, cultivating it, all for the glory of God. After the great fault, such a project would seem to be obsolete. People who engage in so-called cultural activity are considered at best to be practicing a distraction, and at worst deception. Thus, many voices have arisen sharply criticizing cultural engagement.
There are several major problems with this view. The first is that after the fall, cultural engagement continues of characterize the life of God’s people. Cities are built, families are raised, the arts are practiced, as is business. One of the most crucial teachings on the exercise of culture-making in a hostile environment is from the counter-intuitive letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. Instead of gritting their teeth until they can return, the Lord tells them through his prophet to plant vineyards, engage in marriage, and above all to work for the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 29).
Psalm 8 reminds us that the calling of the human race is still to subdue the earth: “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…” (v. 6) Fascinatingly, Hebrews 2:6-9 attributes this calling to Jesus Christ, the “champion” of the new humanity.
Second, the Great Commission itself is not a Platonic save-the-soul only mandate, as is the impression we sometimes get from critics of culture-making. Making disciples is a bid to put into practice all of what Jesus has taught. That is quite a good deal. In his earthly life he taught with authority about every realm of human endeavor: the forgiveness of sins, of course, but also economic life, marriage, being salt and light in a dark world, and much more. As if one considers that he is the author of Scripture, as many of us do, then all of what he taught is massive.
Third, I want to put this delicately, it could be that critics of cultural engagement display a lack of love for the world and its inhabitants. An extreme version of this, surely not share by all, is the refusal of Southern American churches in the 1850s to preach against slavery, in the name of the spirituality of the church. Yes, our hope is for the new heavens and the new earth, but it is not right to say, with the hymn, “I’m just passing through”. What we do here counts not only now, but for all eternity.
Culture-making was not abrogated after the fall. It was given a new significance and a new impetus in the grace of God through Jesus Christ and his atoning death and resurrection. It will carry us through to the resurrection.
William Edgar, Ph.D. is professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and Associate Professor at the Faculté Jean Calvin.
For Professor Edgar's full treatment of this question:
William Edgar, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture