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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?
Culture, Technology, and Common Grace
The simple answer is “grace.” According to the Bible, God does not completely abandon mankind in his sinful state, but he shows kindness or grace. To be more specific, God bestows two kinds of grace: common grace and saving grace.
I think we’re all pretty familiar with God’s saving grace, which enables us to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus—the grace by which God endows us with every spiritual blessing in Christ and secures for us an eternal inheritance. But sometimes we lose sight of God’s common grace. What is “common grace” from a biblical point of view? Like the word “culture,” the phrase “common grace” doesn’t appear in the Bible. But the concept of common grace does. Common grace refers to God’s blessings on the human race that fall short of salvation from sin. Theologians usually classify these blessings as follows:6
1. God restrains human sin.
When God confused human speech at Babel (Gen 11:6-9), he was restraining the extent to which that societal sin would develop. Similarly, God doesn’t allow every human being to develop into an Adoph Hitler or a Charles Manson or a Jeffrey Dahmer. Every human has the moral capacity to develop into cruel dictators or serial killers. But God doesn’t allow every human being to become as evil as he potentially could become.
Jesus recognizes this when he says to Pilate, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Pilate was guilty. But Pilate’s sin was not as grave as the Jewish leaders who delivered Jesus to Pilate.
Thanks to God’s common grace, we don’t have to live in the wilderness of Montana for fear that our next-door neighbors might kill us and eat us. We don’t have to ban our child from Little League baseball team because we’re afraid he’ll be kidnapped and sent to a concentration camp. In fact, here in America there’s been such a high degree of common grace that very few Christians have had to endure serious hostility or persecution from unbelievers. And because of God’s common grace, we have many opportunities to develop cordial relationships with unbelievers in the hopes of winning them to Jesus Christ.
2. God bestows some temporal blessings on humans indiscriminately.
Jesus alludes to this when he instructs his disciples to love their enemies on the basis of God’s indiscriminate love to mankind. “For,” says Jesus, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). God doesn’t just do nice things for Christians and bad things for unbelievers. In this life, God is often kind to both. And Jesus wants us to imitate our heavenly Father. He doesn’t want us to form little Christian colonies that are separate from unbelievers. On the contrary, he says to us,
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden…. In 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).
And the people before whom we’re to shine are not just fellow Christians. Jesus wants us to be engaged with unbelievers. “Father,” he prays in John 17, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (17:15). Jesus wants us to remain separate from sin. But Jesus wants us to engage sinners. He wants us be proactive in our gospel outreach. Remember the words of Paul, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor 9:19).
3. God endows unbelievers with knowledge and skills that benefit society as a whole.
Cain was a murderer, and his descendants turned out to be an ungodly lot. But as we read the Genesis account we discover that God was pleased to endow some of Cain’s descendants with a great deal of knowledge and skill. In Genesis 4:20-22 we read that Cain’s descendant Jabal,
was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. [And] Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.
Here we have the first mention of such technologies as animal husbandry, musical instruments, and metallurgy. We could broaden the categories and classify them as the technologies of agriculture, the arts, and the sciences. Commenting on this text, John Calvin remarks,
[Moses] expressly celebrates the remaining benediction on that race, which otherwise would have been deemed void and barren of all good. Let us then know, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind; just as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life.7
Christians are not the only ones who can selectively breed livestock, or make good music, or develop metallurgy. God has endowed many unbelievers with knowledge and skill to provide services, create art, and invent technologies that benefit everyone.
Indeed, God’s people can employ the skills and technologies of unbelievers to advance the kingdom of God! For example, in 1 Kings 5:6, we read that Solomon employed the Sidonians to provide him with the timber because they were among the most skilled in the ancient Near Eastern world in cutting and transporting timber. If the men of Sidon were the best lumberjacks, the men of Tyre were the best craftsmen and builders.8 So when Solomon begins work on the Temple, he sends word to King Hiram of Tyre and asks Hiram to send him a skilled craftsman to oversee the project. So Hiram responds,
Now I have sent a skilled man, who has understanding, Huram-abi…. He is trained to work in gold, silver, bronze, iron, stone, and wood, and in purple, blue, and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and to do all sorts of engraving and execute any design that may be assigned him, with your craftsmen, the craftsmen of my lord, David your father (2 Chron 2:13-14).
So Solomon does not place a fellow Israelite over the building project. He chooses a pagan from Tyre! And Solomon doesn’t limit the use of their products and services to secular buildings. He employs their technology in the Temple of God even though the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon were some of the most notorious sinners in the Bible!
Lest we’re tempted to fault Solomon, we should remember that as modern Christians we employ the technologies of the unregenerate in our church ministry. For instance, we’re all greatly indebted to the inventions of Thomas Edison. He developed the carbon microphone that would later be used in telephones. He invented the light bulb and then patented a system for electricity distribution in 1880. Later he invented the phonograph and an early motion picture camera (“the Kinétograph”).
Think of what life would be like without electricity, light bulbs, audio and video recording. If you were Amish, you’d probably say, “Better.” But if you’re like the rest of us, you’re grateful for all the technology that came out of Thomas Edison’s inventions. And we employ much of it to facilitate our church worship and ministry. Yet it’s highly unlikely Edison was a genuine believer!9
Implications for Church Ministry
What’s my point? Not everything produced by an unbelieving world is intrinsically evil or bad in-and-of-itself. True, unbelievers cannot fill and subdue the earth for the glory of God. So in terms of their motives, unbelievers are unable to do good. Moreover, unbelievers often transgress God’s laws. They take another man’s life or another man’s wife. They steal and lie in order to make money. And they create technologies that either serve as their idols or facilitate their idolatry.
Nevertheless, thanks to God’s common grace unbelievers are able to write good books. They’re able to create beautiful music. They’re able to invent surgical techniques and medication that save lives. And for our purposes, they’re able to create technologies that the church may employ in order to advance the cause of the gospel and the kingdom of God.
It might be helpful at this point to highlight the relationship between culture and religion. Religion is actually an aspect of human culture. This is why one can speak use the terms “religion” and “worldview” somewhat synonymously. Of course, false religions and worldviews are distortions of human culture. But Christianity, which is animated by special grace and guided by Scripture, is the true cultus of human culture.10 Not surprisingly, there’s a striking analogy between the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 and the Great Commission of the Gospels. I note this connection in my paper on the creation covenant:
God had commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it for God’s glory. Jesus has taken up that task. And just as the First Adam had a bride to serve as his helper (Gen. 2:18-24), so too the Second Adam has chosen a bride to serve as his helper, namely, the church (Eph. 5:31-32). And together with His bride Jesus is fulfilling the original mandate God had given to Adam by filling earth with regenerated images of God who are in turn are submitted to God’s rule and are subduing the earth for His glory. To state it differently, the primary objectives of the creation mandate God gave to the First Adam and his bride have now become the primary objectives of the Great Commission, which God has given to Christ (Isa. 42:1-12; 49:1-26) and through Christ to the church (Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8; 13:47-47; Rom. 15:18).11
Viewing religion as a vital part of human culture reminds us that it’s impossible for the church to function outside of culture. While it may be appropriate to distinguish religious or Christian culture from secular culture, it’s impossible to make an absolute dichotomy. Both are elements of the larger category of human culture and both will employ some of the same technologies to advance their respective agendas.12
6 Helpful formulations of “common grace” can be found in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 2:654-75; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 432-46; Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974); John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:93-119; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 657-68; Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 364-68; Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 860-62.
7 Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 2 vols., trans. John King (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 1:218.
8 Actually, there may be no real distinction here. The peoples of Sidon and those of Tyre were both Phoenicians known for their involvement in international trade.
9 When asked whether he believed in God, Edison responded, “What you call God I call Nature, the Supreme intelligence that rules matter.” And he goes on to assert, “It is doubtful in my opinion if our intelligence or soul or whatever one may call it lives hereafter as an entity or disperses back again from whence it came, scattered amongst the cells of which we are made.” From Paul Israel’s Edison: A Life of Invention (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2000), as cited on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison#cite_ref-Israel_34-6.
10 Interestingly, the terms “culture” and “cult,” which refers to a system of religion, derive from the same Latin term colere, which means to cultivate or to adorn.
11 This is actually an expanded section from an original article I wrote entitled, “The Covenantal Context of the Fall: Did God Make a Primeval Covenant with Adam?” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 4:2 (2007): 5-32. I express a similar idea in my article “Man: God’s Visible Replica and Vice-Regent,” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 5:2 (2008): 63-87. John Fesko develops the connection more fully in his Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1—3 with the Christ of Eschatology (Ross-shire, U.K.: Mentor Press, 2007), 167-68. For the most comprehensive study on the connection between the creation mandate and the Great Commission, see Gregory K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, in New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove, 2004).
12 For a more comprehensive and helpful study of human culture, the Christian, and the church, see John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 851-908.
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 Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.