Interview with William Edgar, author of CREATED AND CREATING: A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF CULTURE

Published on March 14, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

IVP, 2017 | 272 pages

What is “culture”? And what does the Bible have to say about culture? How should Christians think about culture? And how should it inform our gospel-shaped mission?

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and these are the kinds of questions we’ll take up today with our guest, Dr. William Edgar. Dr. Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia, and author of the new book, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture

Dr Edgar, congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us today.

Edgar:
Thanks for having me.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s start at the beginning: What is culture?

Edgar:
As Raymond Williams once said, it is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. However, I think what we can safely say is that it’s possible to break the word down into three components. These, interestingly, confirm what the Bible says about culture. The first component from the English word is its medieval origins, the word cultair. Cultair means cultivation. Literally it means the sharp edge of the plow. Culture has a lot to do with cultivation. Of course, it is directly an agricultural word and so when you’re plowing the field, you’re engaging in cultivation. But it has a more metaphorical sense, which is to develop and bring fruit to bear in all kinds of areas of life. For example, in the 19th century, to be a cultivated person meant to have a fertile mind. In her novel, Emma, Jane Austen describes Jane Fairfax is a woman who had every advantage of discipline and culture. So, generally speaking, the first sense is that we are investing in some aspect of reality in order to bring fruit.

The second is colonus, from which we get the word colonial. Generally, not a very comfortable word because there has been so much ambiguity in colonialism, but the best sense of the word, the original sense of the word is very simple. It means to inhabit or to go and populate a particular part of the world. And, at its best, colonizing is not simply an oppressive inhabiting, but it’s a sharing inhabitation. You go and you have partnership with the people that you have been joined to. So it’s a mutually enriching population.

And then finally, cultus, which means worship, of course. I think it’s very important for us as Christians to respect the worship dimension of culture. There can be good culture, as we worship God; there can be negative culture as we worship idols, but nevertheless, you can’t separate culture from worship.

These three aspects I think pretty adequately summarize what culture is. You can always make shorter definitions when you try, but that’s a good starting point.

 

Zaspel:
The “cultural mandate” is a concept that enjoys a prominent role in your book. What is the cultural mandate? And while you’re at it, what is the significance of your title – Created and Creating?

Edgar:
The cultural mandate is a term that Claus Shilder gave to the first calling that God addressed mankind at the dawn of creation. You will remember in Genesis 1:26 and following, after having made mankind after his image God, told them to go and populate the earth and replenish it and subdue it, all under his blessing. I’ve come to think of the cultural mandate also as having a three-part aspect.

First, it’s a covenant blessing of God on the human race. The heart of humanity’s calling is to know the covenant presence of the Lord God. Our God calls himself our God just as he calls us his people. And so we are to take that presence and practice it in all the many realms of life.

Second, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Going back to what we said earlier about colonists, the human race was to populate the world beyond the garden and always with the purpose of using its talents in the discovery of God’s life-giving purposes.

And then, third, to rule over the creation. And that idea has become criticized because there are people who blame the Christian worldview for the pollution of the world and the violation of nature, and so forth. The concept of rule in the cultural mandate is one of what I call benevolent lordship. Always under the greater rule of God, we are vicegerents in this wonderful place.

That’s the cultural mandate and I believe it is still very much in effect even though we are in a fallen world. So cultural engagement would be something like this: the human response to a divine call to enjoy and develop the world that God has generously given to us, his image-bearers.

The title of the book was actually given to me, but I am pretty pleased with it because it suggests that God created everything, certainly including human beings, but we are culture makers as we reflect him, as we think his thoughts after him, at our level we do creation. Never, never as God did out of nothing, never in his sovereign way. In fact, so much are we dependent on it that some people hesitate to use the word creativity of human beings. I think the hesitation is right, though I think we can use it, because what we are doing is creating at his level. So – Created and Creating. And then the subtitle is, a Biblical Theology of Culture, and that’s what I have attempted to do in the book.

 

Zaspel:
How does culture fit in the larger storyline of the Bible?

Edgar:
If that larger storyline is God creating us upright, and then man going into sin and misery and then God calling his people out of that sin and misery for his glory (the creation/fall/redemption),  then culture fits into that larger picture because the human beings that God has called to his glory are the culture makers. He calls us to repent of our sin and come to him in our weakness. But he then begins to sanctify us and to make holy again our activities, which include all that we’ve previously called culture. So culture making is what God calls us to do as his new creation and I believe it’s a very crucial way to see our task.

 

Zaspel:
How does all this inform or relate to the gospel mission of the church?

Edgar:
A way that I think some people see this is a problem. It is that culture making is a distraction from the mission of the church. The famous expression, “Why should we polish the brass on the Titanic?” comes to mind. I think the mistake of that view is, first of all, culture is a lot more than polishing brass – it is an entire human endeavor. But the larger mistake is that, while the world ultimately will be judged, the image of a world that’s only sinking, and that has few traces of God’s common grace and redemptive grace is a distorted image. I believe that the great commission is actually a republication of the original cultural mandate. So, when Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, this is in continuity with the much earlier commandment to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Of course it is not the same commandment because, number one, there has been sin and so the great commission has to be corrective to that. And number two, the mission of the church now is to preach the word and seek salvation for God’s people. So there’s continuity and discontinuity just as there is with all aspects of the coming of Christ in relationship to the Old Testament. One of my former colleagues, Harvey Conn, said, “it is not an either/or, nor a both/and, nor even simply a primary/secondary.” The two mandates are different commandments but not radically different. They represent two different stages in God’s covenant relationship with humanity. Conn adds this eschatological note, “the so-called missionary mandate is the covenant mandate’s anticipated fulfillment in redemptive grace.” This is a rather complicated way of saying that the great commission is in continuity with the cultural mandate.

 

Zaspel:
So the cultural mandate, because of the Fall and sin, necessarily has an enormous redemptive dimension to it, then.

Edgar:
Exactly. That’s right. And the critics who say we shouldn’t practice culture rightly call attention to the danger of worldliness, of being distracted from the gospel mission by practicing culture as a purely worldly practice; but in my sense, it’s not doing that at all.

 

Zaspel:
How does our particular moment in history bear on this subject? It seems to me that when society was more Christianized, Christians just didn’t think about culture as much as we do now – is that right?

Edgar:
I think that is absolutely right. And here’s one of the things that I think has happened. And that is, in a world which is declining in its Christian characteristics, in a world that is secularizing, culture can take the place of religion. A fascinating commentator who is not an evangelical believer in any sense, but he’s very thoughtful is Terry Eagleton. He talks about how culture has become what we live by and what we live for. And he says the idea of culture in the modern age has become a substitute for a fading sense of divinity and transcendence. That’s not a happy development; that’s where culture exaggerates its power. The French historian Rémi Brague is quite negative about the role of culture. He says that the concept of culture is dangerously insatiable. He says it has exceeded to the rank of a supreme explanatory principle of the human. And he says it’s begun to claim the territory that Christianity did. I think that’s our present situation; so as we try to engage in culture, what we don’t want to do is fall back into this messianic approach that for some people culture has; but put culture in its proper place as we mentioned earlier.

 

Zaspel:
Give us a brief overview of your book. And can you tell us just quickly the contribution you are hoping to make?

Edgar:
In one way, it’s quite a modest contribution. What I’m trying to do is define culture. I’ve done this partly with the help of very thoughtful cultural analysts, both from outside and inside the theological sphere. But then most of the book goes directly to Scripture and tries to highlight the cultural mandate, and to validate cultural activity for Christians. I go through some of the texts that seem to be against it. I call them the contra mundum texts. You know, “be not of this world” and so forth. Then I draw attention to a funny incident that happened in a seminar I gave a few years ago. Where a speaker was trying to emphasize the role of culture in the New Testament and one of the students said, “I don’t see any role at all.” And the guy said, “read it again.” And then he took us through all the ways in which culture is woven into the New Testament.

The bulk of the book is really to walk us through the different iterations of the cultural mandate: The very first one, which we’ve mentioned, and then after the Fall and Noah republication of it or Psalm eight, or one of my favorite places is the people in exile where Jeremiah writes his letter to them. Contrary to the false prophet who said we’re going right back, he said no, we’re here for a while. And then counterintuitively he calls us to plant vineyards and have marriage and pray for the city, and so forth. And then, what we’ve just talked about, the great commission. And then some thoughts about culture in the afterlife. So that’s basically the thrust of the book. If I wanted to put it in one sentence, it would be – a defense of the ongoing validity of the cultural mandate.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. William Edgar about his new book, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. It’s an important contribution to the subject that we trust will gain a wide hearing.

Dr. Edgar, thanks for talking to us today.

Edgar:
Thank you, Fred, very, very much.

Buy the books

Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture

IVP, 2017 | 272 pages

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