Theology & Culture (3): A Theology of Culture (Creation & Fall)

Over the course of my time in the “ministry” (18 years now), I have heard folks use the word culture in many different ways. Often evangelicals refer to “the culture” as a synonym for “the spirit of the age” or anything that is opposed to gospel and church. However, I do not equate culture with “the spirit of the age” because although the spirit of the age is something that influences a culture to a greater or lesser extent, it is not the only influence on a culture, and therefores it is not to be equated with the notion of culture. Indeed, even God’s Word and his church are a part of culture, and they are not to be equated with the spirit of the age. So culture by no means is a comprehensively bad thing. Other times, English speakers may refer to “culture” in such a way as to mean “high culture” such as Rembrandt’s paintings and Beethoven’s music, or “wealthy culture” such as Gucci or Louis Vuitton. However, I am not referring exclusively to high culture or wealthy culture, but also to whatever sectors of culture are excluded by such terms.

Oddly enough, I’ve even heard some talk about how unhelpful it is for certain Christians, theologians, and seminaries to spend so much time talking about culture because it is not even a biblical word. However, my response to that is that the word “culture” is an English word that is used to cover a variety of things that are woven deeply into the fabric of the biblical teaching.

So what am I talking about when I use the word culture? I have in mind something similar to what Niebuhr was talking about (a definition which I provided in the previous installment) but I’d like to provide a more streamlined and well-ordered definition provided by Paul Hiebert. For him, culture is “the more or less integrated systems of beliefs, feelings and values, and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.”* Indeed, Christians and theologians have more than a little to say about beliefs, feelings, values, symbols, patterns of behavior, and products.

But where does a person begin when setting forth to articulate a theology of culture? I’d like to articulate a basic theology of culture along the lines of the biblical narrative, organizing my thoughts under the rubric “Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.” The present installment will treat Creation and the Fall, leaving Redemption and New Creation for the next installment. [Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]


The Bible’s opening narrative tells us about God’s creation, including God’s design for human culture. In the very first chapters, we are told that God created the heavens and the earth. He created out of nothing, he shaped what he created, and he called the work of his hands “good.” At each step along the way, the narrative affirms the goodness of God’s handiwork. Moreover, when God completes his creation by making humanity in his image and likeness, the narrative affirms that God’s creation was “very good” (Gen 1:31).

Humans are the culmination of God’s good creation. They are different from God’s other handiwork. Indeed, the first statement about humans is that God made them in the image and likeness of God, male and female alike. They are like God in many ways, including but not limited to their capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Man’s likeness to God, Calvin argues, “extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures.”** Because of these capacities, God could place the man and woman in the garden to have dominion over God’s good creation (Gen 1:26-27) and to work it and keep it (Gen 2:15).

After having created man, God commands him to “work” the garden, and in so doing to participate with God in his ongoing work of creation and providence. Man is to work the garden, change it, and even enhance it. His work in the garden manifests itself not only in agriculture, but in all types of culture. He may “work the garden” not only by cultivating plant life (agri-culture), but also by cultivating the arts, the sciences, or the public square (culture in general). When man obeys this command to responsibly cultivate the earth, he is pleasing God.

What, then, does the creation narrative contribute to a discussion of culture? First, human culture is part of the physical and material world, which is part of God’s creation before the fall and therefore is not inherently bad. We must not allow ourselves to fall into a form of neo-Gnosticism, treating “spiritual” things as good and “material” things as bad. We may not take a metaphysically dualist view of the creation, with its attendant impulse toward comprehensive cultural separation and withdrawal; to do so is to adopt a hollow and deceptive philosophy, to denigrate God’s good creation, and implicitly to undermine the Incarnation. Second, God gave humans the capacity to create culture and then commanded them to use those capacities. God created humans in his image and likeness, thereby giving them capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Then he commanded them to use those capacities (e.g. Gen 2:15; Ex 31:1-11).


God’s creation of the world is the opening scene of the Scriptures and constitutes the first major plot movement of the overarching biblical narrative. Immediately after this opening scene, however, Adam and Eve rebelled against God, seeking to set themselves up as autonomous. The effect of this sin for them, and for all of humanity, was disastrous (Rom 1:18-32). Humanity no longer lives in paradise, but instead lives in a world pervaded with sin and its effects. Man’s relationship with God was broken, as well as man’s relationship with himself, with others, and with the rest of the created order.

In Romans 1, Paul describes the result of humanity’s broken relationship with God, pointing out that humans now worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). The image of God in man is now distorted and defaced. However, not only is man alienated from God, he is alienated from others (Rom 1:28-31). Rather than loving his neighbors as himself, he lies, murders, rapes, and otherwise demeans his fellow image-bearers (e.g. Gen 9:6). Further, he is alienated from the created order, as his attempts to “work the garden” are full of frustration and pain (Gen 3:17-18). Finally, he is alienated even from himself, as life becomes meaningless because of his separation from God (Ecc 1:1-11).

The implications of the Fall for a discussion of human culture are massive. Sin defiles everything. Spiritually, humans are idolaters, worshiping God’s gifts instead of worshiping God himself (Col 3:5). Rationally, they have difficulty discerning the truth and they use their capacities to construct vain philosophies (Rom 1:18-21). Creatively, they use their imagination to create and worship idols rather than to worship the living God (Is 40:18-20). Relationally, they use their power to exploit others and serve themselves (Gen 5:8). As a result, any and all human culture is distorted and defaced by sin. No dimension of culture is left unscathed by sin’s pervasive reach.

The Fall and its consequences do not, however, make God’s creation (or, by implication human culture) inherently bad. Even though the world is corrupted by sin, it is still materially good. Recognizing this frees us from false asceticisms and Gnosticisms that view the use and enjoyment of God’s creation as wrong. As Al Wolters puts it, God’s creation remains structurally good, although since the Fall it is directionally corrupt.*** Structure refers to the order of creation, while direction refers to the order of sin and redemption. The directional results of the fall, for human culture, are revealed in such things as poor reasoning in the realm of science, kitsch in the realm of art, and human hatred in the realm of relationships.

Anything in creation can be directed toward God or away from him. It is this direction that distinguishes between the good and the bad, between worship and idolatry, rather than some distinction between spiritual and material. We should note, however, that in spite of the Fall, things are not as bad as they could be. Without common grace and the Spirit’s restraining work, this world would be an utter horror, and because of God’s grace through his Spirit after the Fall, we may continue to produce culture, thereby utilizing our uniquely human capacities.


*Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 30.

**John Calvin, The Institutes, I.15.3

***Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 87-114.

Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.


*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).