Is a child’s math work as “sacred” as his prayer-life, as one Christian article argues?1 The reasoning behind a positive answer is the concept of a creation or cultural mandate given by God to Adam and Eve, thought to be applicable to Christians today. This mandate appears in discussions ranging from care of the Earth to the Christian attitude towards work. Yet, for all the implications drawn from it, I have continually questioned its biblical basis. I intend in future work to write a significant piece on the cultural mandate; for now, I hope only to offer a brief analysis of the cultural mandate and some thoughts on why I don’t think it is applicable to the Christian today.
The Cultural Mandate
The idea of a cultural, or creation, mandate emerges from Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subject it; rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, and over all the living creatures that crawl upon the earth.’” 2 In this command, proponents of the cultural mandate see a commission to imitate God’s creation acts and to rule as God’s vice-regents upon the earth.3 Culture is the fulfillment of this commission, imitating God in the creation of tools and art, putting the earth to the service of man: this is seen almost immediately in the works of Cain and his descendants.4 The culture creation God commissioned, though, is not the creation of culture for the sake of culture but for the sake of the extension of God’s kingdom throughout the earth. Thus, after the fall, Cain and his descendants highjack the cultural mandate for the glory of man.5 Christians, it is supposed, fulfill the mandate by renewing the earth, spreading God’s kingdom through the work of their hands.6 Though many scholars whom I highly respect hold to this view, I am not convinced that there is a cultural mandate in effect for Christians today—at least not in the sense that it is envisioned by these scholars.
Cultural Mandate in the Old Testament
In Genesis 1:28, God blesses humanity and commissions them to rule in His stead, to glorify Him by imitating His acts upon the earth and putting His good creation to service. Yet, when we reach Genesis 3, something goes terribly wrong—humanity usurps the role of God, attempts to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong. In the following generations, we see the creation mandate being fulfilled but not for the glory of God: Adam and Eve bear two children, yet Cain murders his brother, a serious affront to God (Gen. 9:6).
It is Cain’s children who begin the task of subduing the earth—making tools, cities, beginning agriculture. This new civilization culminates in the idolatrous society God wipes out with the flood. God then recommission Noah to fulfill this task, but Noah’s descendants gather together at Babel and again further culture to their own glory. God intervenes and declares the cultural task as they have pursued it idolatrous; He disperses them across the land and confuses their languages so that they could never again work together for their own kingdom.
The next echo of the cultural mandate language appears in Genesis 12: God will multiply Abraham and fill the earth with his descendants (12:2; 17:6). With Abraham begins God’s plan of redemption, to bless all the peoples of the earth through him. From Abraham until the coming of Christ, history takes a different path than that envisioned in Gen. 1:28: God’s kingdom does not come through humanity as a whole subduing the earth; it comes through Abraham’s descendants—Israel—and an earthly theocracy intended to bless all the nations.
Even here though, Israel fails their task: the cultural mandate, now the redemption of humanity through a chosen people, is again subverted for the glory of man. So in the OT, the cultural mandate begins as the commission for man to fill the earth and rule it representing God, yet humanity subdues and fills the earth for its own glory. God then begins to bring His kingdom on the earth through Abraham and his descendants, yet even here sin mares this task.
Cultural Mandate in the New Testament
The OT ends there; in the NT we read of Jesus heralding the arrival of God’s kingdom in Himself, but God’s Kingdom is different than it was conceived under the Old Testament. God’s Kingdom is the in-breaking of the New Creation—the future perfection of God’s creation and eternal reign—through a people created anew by His Spirit and ransomed from their sins. It is in this context, of the New Covenant and the New Creation, that we find the next echo of the cultural mandate. Before Jesus ascends into heaven, He tells His disciples that He has all authority in heaven and earth—that is, He has dominion over all the creation—and that His disciple are to go out among all the earth and make disciples who will observe all God’s commands—they are to further the Lord’s kingdom, filling the earth with believers.7
Therefore, it seems that with the change in the nature of the kingdom of God—from an earthly kingdom to a heavenly kingdom that has broken into the world through the Church—the nature of the creation mandate has changed. We are to rule with Christ and represent God, but this is not done through an earthly dominion: we spread His kingdom through the expansion of the Church until His return.8 If I am correct, then, the cultural mandate does not give impetus to partake in the activities of the World’s cultures: it orients the role of the Christian in this world to the task of spreading the kingdom through the making, maturing, and multiplying of disciples. It is significant that the few places in the NT where the purpose of work is addressed—when the authors tell us why we should work and do it well—the creation mandate is not in view: their motivation is the success of the Gospel mission. Consider the following,
28Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Eph. 4:28)
… 11and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)
10For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:10-12)
14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)
5Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Eph. 6:5-9)
23Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Col. 3:23-25)
9Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (Tit. 2:9-10)
Three emphases emerge from these passages. First, work is meant to furnish the believer with resources to help believers who are in need (Eph. 4:28) and—related to this—to prevent any fit individual from burdening the church’s resources or taking advantage of its generosity (1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:11-12). Second, hard work and faithfulness to ones superiors prevents the Gospel from disrepute (Titus 2:9-10) and points those witnessing to God (Matt. 5:14-16). Lastly, labouring well brings reward from our Father in heaven (Eph. 6:8; Col. 2:24). The latter point gives us motivation to labour in unjust circumstances; the former two give us the reason for why we should labour at all. The pattern of behaviour associated with the cultural mandate, creating culture to the glory of the Lord, is conspicuously absent from the New Testament.
What then should we conclude? Three lines of evidence lead me to believe that the so-called “cultural mandate” is not a directive for Christians; instead, it has been replaced with the Great commission. First, Jesus commissions all His disciples to fulfill this commission, a commission that echoes the cultural mandate; this suggests that it is a “republication” of the cultural mandate in a New Covenant form. Second, the kingdom of God as conceived in the New Testament is different than that conceived of in the Old Testament, meaning that we need to rethink what kingdom living looks like as a New Covenant and not Old Covenant people. To do this, we look to the New Testament teachings: the cultural mandate is simply not taught in the New Testament, it is replaced with a radical gospel centricity that leads believers to orient their lives and work to God’s purpose in the Church.
1 Mark Glanville, “The Cultural Mandate: Is a Student’s Math Work as Sacred as Her Prayer?,” Christian Educators Journal (n.d.), accessed January 31, 2018, http://www.cejonline.com/article/the-cultural-mandate-is-a-students-math-work-as-sacred-as-her-prayer/.
5 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship 4 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 863; Cornelius Van Til, “Part 3–A. The Dilemma of Education,” in Essays on Christian Education (Phillipsburg: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979).
7 Frame recognizes in the Great Commission a “republication of the cultural mandate,” yet he argues that the original mandate is still in place, though it will only be fulfilled in at Christ’s return. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 203, 310.
8 Turner sees in the success of the Great Commission an accidental fulfillment of the original creation mandate. I am arguing here that it is no accident, that the great commission is the cultural mandate contextualized to the Kingdom of God as it is unfolding in redemptive history—post-fall and in the Church age. David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 691.
Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996.
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. A Theology of Lordship 4. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008.
Mare, W Harold. “Cultural Mandate and the New Testament Gospel Imperative.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16, no. 3 (1973): 139–147.
Turner, David L. Matthew. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Van Til, Cornelius. “Part 3–A. The Dilemma of Education.” In Essays on Christian Education. Phillipsburg: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
Glanville, Mark. “The Cultural Mandate: Is a Student’s Math Work as Sacred as Her Prayer?” Christian Educators Journal (n.d.). Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.cejonline.com/article/the-cultural-mandate-is-a-students-math-work-as-sacred-as-her-prayer/.