A Biblical Theology of Human Culture & Technology, Part 1

Read the series.

Since culture and technology describe what humans made in God’s image do and make, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible has something to say about them. And I believe it would be useful for us to develop a biblical and theological framework for human culture and technology before we attempt to relate them to church ministry.1 As we look at the biblical data, what we discover is that the Bible portrays human culture and its corollary human technology as good, as bad, and as both good and bad.

Culture and technology as “good”

We’re first introduced to human culture and, by way of implication, to technology in the creation account of Genesis one. Here we learn not only the origin but also the nature of human culture and technology.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26-28).

Not surprisingly, this passage has been called “the cultural mandate.” God not only creates humans; he assigns them a task. They’re not to live in isolation from one another. Men are to marry women and produce children. Those families are to become clans; those clans are to become cities and nations and societies; those societies are to work together to “subdue the earth.” In other words, humans are assigned the task of taking earth’s natural resources and developing or cultivating those resources for the good of man and the glory of God.

It is not the will of God that man leave the world in its natural state, as some radical environmentalists would call us to do. We’re not to go out into the wheat fields and graze like cattle or walk up to a pine tree and chew on its bark, like Euell Gibbons might encourage us to do. On the contrary, we’re to grow the wheat, harvest the wheat with the sickle, separate the grain from the chaff, grind the grain into flour, put it into the oven, and consume it in the form of bread.

Likewise, man is to domesticate animals so that the animals serve the needs of society. Man is to mine in the earth order to extract various metals to make tools and machinery and coinage. Man is to fell trees and cut stones in order to make homes and buildings and cities.

Moreover, the cultural mandate includes learning about the world. God commands man to learn about the animals and name them according to their characteristics. We can assume God also wants man to classify details about the soil, and the water, and the air, and the trees, and the mountains, and the oceans, and the stars. And God intends one generation to pass on this knowledge to the next, from one society to another.

Furthermore, God endowed man with aesthetic capacity so that he could not only enjoy God’s creation but that man might imitate his Creator’s creativity. So men would not merely extract metal and stone from the earth, but they would distinguish some as precious metal and stone. And men would not only build places to live but he would design and adorn the buildings so that they looked attractive. And some would refine the art of communication and others painting and others music.

Hence, technology is a necessary fruit of God’s cultural mandate to humanity. As Mark Ward Jr observes,

Technology is what happens when humans, whether intentionally or no, fulfill God’s original Mandate. As soon as you get to work filling and subduing, you run into problems that require tools: grains that need scything, wheat that needs transporting to distant markets which will pay higher prices, bridges to make those markets less distant, etc., etc., ad ineluctum [from inescapable exigencies]. Technology is not an accidental add-on in Gods world, something Adam and Eve weren’t meant to discover or develop. It is a God-given good.2

What Dr. Ward concludes about the primeval “goodness” of human technology can be inferred from that the fact that it’s a fruit of God’s blessing (Gen 1:28) and also from God’s sweeping assessment at the end of creation account: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31; emphasis added). Of course, God is primarily assessing his work not man’s work in this verse. Nevertheless, God’s assessment in this verse includes the mandate he gave to humanity. In other words, as Ward asserts, God views human culture and technology as a good thing.

But we all know the story doesn’t end at Genesis 1:31.

Culture and technology as “bad”

When we come to Genesis 3, we read of man’s rebellion against God and his fall into sin. When we come to Genesis 4, we see human sin spread from the first generation to the second when Cain murders his brother Abel. Perhaps Cain took the very sickle he originally made to harvest the field and now employed it as a weapon of violence.

By the time we reach Genesis 6, the whole earth is corrupt and filled with violence. We read that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Men are no longer satisfied with God’s norm of monogamous marriage, but they give in to sexual lust and begin building harems. They can’t work together in harmony, so they hate and fight and war against each other. And it’s very likely that many of the technologies that humans developed and refined over the centuries of antediluvian history were being employed to oppose the kingdom of God and to advance the kingdom of man.

Things get so bad that God has to send a worldwide flood to destroy the whole human race with the exception of one family. But the flood didn’t wash away sin. Not long after Noah’s new beginning, we read of humans employing the tool of human language to unite together to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven.

Was their goal to bring glory to God? No, they say in Genesis 11:4, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” This is human rebellion on an international scale! As Henri Blocher observes,

The difference between Eden and Babel is that which distinguishes the individual deed and the collective act…. Having become a collective enterprise, the sinful project [Babel] takes on the face of totalitarianism, with technology and ideology as its means of realization. If Genesis 3 reveals the religious root of human evil, Genesis 11 shows it in its most logical and perhaps most terrible political expression.3

George Orwell predicted it would happen in 1984. But the Bible traces the origins of human rebellion and the resultant abuse of technology to a much earlier date.

Things haven’t improved much since Babel. Now, in light of mankind’s fall into sin and his subsequent history, how should we evaluate human culture and technology? At this point, the “counter-cultural” Christians begin to smile and say, “See, we told you. Culture and technology are bad. We must not accommodate to culture or use modern technology; we must avoid them. We must keep them out of the church. It’s “Christ against culture,” plain and simple.

There definitely are aspects and dimensions of human culture that we must reject because they’ve been corrupted by human sin. Moreover, we must because of the temptation to idolize and misuse technology in ways that facilitate our rebellion against God. Thus, there are ways in which we must be “counter-culture” and wary of human technology.

Culture and technology as “good and bad”

However, I don’t believe a “counter-culture only” position is a good position. In the first place, it’s not possible. There’s no way for us to completely escape human culture and contemporary technologies. Certain sects like the Amish have attempted to do this. But in reality, they’re only exchanging one form of human culture and technology for another. They simply reject the American culture and technologies of 2012 and attempt to revert back to the American culture of the late 1800s.

While not as radical in their counter-culturalism, some branches of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism make a similar mistake of confusing “cultural conservativism” with theological fidelity and of pining nostalgically for the “good ol’ days.”4 But the only “good ol’ days” the Bible knows of are those in the Garden before the Fall!5

More importantly, if we’re only “counter-culture,” then we’re only partly biblical, and to be only “partly” biblical is often, in fact, to be “unbiblical.” Certainly, none of us wants to be unbiblical. Therefore, we need to consider more biblical data in order to have a more accurate view of human culture and technology.

What biblical reality do we need to add to creation and the fall in order to cultivate a more balanced view of human culture? What part of the biblical picture do the “counter-cultural” only Christians often miss?

Notes

1 You can find Part 1 of this series here.

2 From his “Technology Giveth and Technology Taketh Away” (Unpublished manuscript, 2012). Dr. Ward gave two lectures on the benefits and dangers of technology for the pastoral ministry as part of Reformed Baptist Seminary’s pastoral theology curriculum. Tim Challies also provides a helpful theological definition of technology that highlights the God-given gift of human creativity: “God’s basic instruction to mankind is to develop the resources of the natural world and use God-given abilities to bring glory to him. To put it in more practical terms, God is glorified in our creativity, whether that leads us to craft a painting that moves our hearts to praise or to design a plow that will better allow us to plant and harvest a crop. To do these things—building cities and schools and families, planting crops and composing music—we must rely on the practical fruit of our creative abilities: technology. Technology is the creative ability of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes” (emphasis his). The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 23. Challies credits Stephen Monsma and John Dyer for helping him with his definition (199).

3 In the Beginning: the Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1984), 203-04.

4 Donald Carson makes this observation when he writes, “Churches that are faithful to the apostolic gospel are sometimes also the ones that are loyal to a culture becoming increasingly passé. In such a situation cultural conservatism can easily be mistaken for theological conservatism, for theological orthodoxy. In an age of confusing empirical pluralism and frankly frightening philosophical pluralism, in an age that seems to be stealing from us the Judeo-Christian worldview that prevailed for so long, it is easy to suppose that retrenchment and conservative responses on every conceivable axis are the only responsible courses for those who want to remain faithful to the gospel.” Carson rightly cautions against this confusion: “Such a course is neither wise nor prophetic. Sometimes it is not even faithful. The church may slip back into a defensive, conservatism that is fundamentally ill-equipped to address postmodernism…. The challenges of biblical illiteracy demand, among other things, that we begin “farther back” in our articulation of the gospel—i.e., it is becoming more and more necessary to expound the Bible’s story-line, the main lines of a Christian theistic worldview. Cultural conservatives may think of this as succumbing to the demand for relevance; I think it is prophetic wisdom, demanded by the Scriptures themselves.” The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 470-71.

5 See John Frame’s chapter on “Christ and Our Culture” in his Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 876-87. Frame surveys a number of Christian critiques of modern culture, which often contrast contemporary culture as “bad” with some earlier era of civilization that was supposedly much better. But as Frame demonstrates, these critiques are often biased and marked by faulty reasoning. He prefers, instead, the perspective advanced by Cornelius Van Til who “knew only one turning point [in human history]: the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. History since that time, in [Van Til’s] view, has been replay after replay. Eve was a rationalist and irrationalist, modernist and postmodernist, oppressive establishment and countercultural rebel, an idolater of value and a destroyer of it, all at the same time” (886).

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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