Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture
It is exciting to see the wealth of new scholarship being produced around the interrelationships between the Christian faith and human cultures, as Christians ask important questions about how religion relates to other aspects of human cultures, how Christianity relates to particular cultures (or to particular aspects of cultures), and how the Christian church should position itself in relation to cultural institutions, objects, and mindsets. These questions are fundamentally about who we are as humans created in the image of God and about how God has created us, and called us as Christians, to live in relationship with God, with other humans, and with the created order.
William Edgar’s Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture is a valuable contribution to this field of inquiry, required reading for all Christians interested in the questions above—which, I would say, should be all Christians. Edgar is an ideal person to write such a book: professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) and associate professor at the Faculté Jean Calvin (Aix-en Provence, France), Edgar holds an undergraduate degree in music and pursued graduate study in ethnomusicology, in addition to earning a Master of Divinity degree and terminal degrees in theology. As Edgar writes in the Acknowledgments, he has “been thinking about culture and the biblical approach to culture for some fifty years” (ix). Created and Creating demonstrates Edgar’s profound knowledge not only of biblical studies and systematic theology, but also of philosophy, aesthetics, cultural studies, and the arts. The volume is extensively researched and footnoted, reflecting Edgar’s mastery both of biblical texts and a wide range of literature in various fields.
This is not a “Christianity and culture” book, as such. It is markedly distinct in its approach from such volumes as Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2008), James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), or any of the books in IVP Academic’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series, for example, each of which I see as in some way taking up questions framed by H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture (Harper Colophon, 1951). As Edgar notes, “This book [is] largely a study of biblical theology” (233). As such, I see it more in the vein of Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker (HarperCollins, 1941), with its focus on theological and philosophical approaches to creativity and culture. In my reading of these two classic works, I see Niebuhr as focused on applying Christian theology to questions of culture, and Sayers focused rather on the development of a systematic Christian theology/ philosophy of culture.
Edgar states his thesis thus: “the cultural mandate, declared at the dawn of human history, culminating in Jesus’ Great Commission, is the central calling for humanity” (233). He notes that his goal for the book was to explore and explain such a theological perspective, not to probe examples of how such a theology might be applied to understandings of human cultures (see Epilogue, 233-234). Edgar first declares his thesis at the opening of chapter 3 (87). Before that, he frames his approach and defines his understanding in Part One, Parameters of Cultures. Chapter 1 presents a broad history of cultural studies in three sections: (1) Civilization, Progress, and Beauty (24-35); (2) Culture and Power: Marxism (35-43); and (3) The Anthropological Turn (43-50).1 Chapter 2 then provides a broad introduction to Christianity and culture, exploring the Bible as culture and then the word “culture” in the Bible. It then turns to a historical overview of key Christian scholars who have “tried to undertake a vision of how the Bible looks at culture, with a view to informing not only the community of believers but the larger world as well” (55), from H. Richard Niebuhr to the Gospel Coalition. While these opening chapters provide valuable summaries of key ideas in cultural studies and in biblical and theological perspectives on culture, they are not necessary for understanding Edgar’s own approach in the remainder of the book. Created and Creating can fruitfully be read starting with chapter 3, especially for readers already familiar with the fields of cultural studies and Christianity and culture.
It is in chapter 3, “Facing the Contra Mundum Texts,” that Edgar’s distinctive contributions begin to be revealed. Chapters 3-5 form a unit, beginning with Edgar presenting in chapter 3 a number of “contra mundum” texts, that is, those biblical passages “that appear to speak against the hazards of cultural involvement” (89). After exploring in chapter 3 such contra mundum texts and how they have sometimes been interpreted in certain Christian traditions, Edgar proceeds in chapters 4 and 5 to reinterpret these same passages within a biblical theology that affirms the goodness of God’s creation, the effects of sin, and the reality of God’s kingdom from a perspective that “reflects the vision of the entire Bible, one that justifies cultural engagement without violating the spirit of these texts” (103). Fundamentally, Edgar argues “that our duty to oppose cultural evil is not a war against creation but against the malignancy of sin” (100). For example, rather than interpreting a passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-33) as excluding concern for food, clothing, and shelter, Edgar affirms that the kingdom of God “brings transformation of every aspect of existence, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous” and takes “the attention off of ourselves and [places] it on God and his designs” (104; see 89-91 and 104-108).
After close hermeneutical attention to key biblical passages in chapters 3-5, Edgar shifts in chapters 6 and 7 to an approach more grounded in systematic theology. In chapter 6, Edgar explores the question of what is meant by the “new heavens and new earth” (127), citing numerous biblical texts to affirm the “enduring quality of creation” (129), that “the images of destruction signal not the complete annihilation of God’s creation but the purging of evil” (133). Then chapter 7, “Creation and Redemption,” provides a beautiful affirmation of “the permanence and goodness of the created order, even in a world that is fallen” (144) and that “redemption is not a radical departure from the created order but builds on it and extends it” (155). Edgar concludes: “The goal of human history is the full redemption of all things now and for all eternity (Lk. 21:28; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 1:20). This includes the redemption of our bodies and of all the cultural activities we are privileged to pursue (Rom. 8:23)” (154).
Edgar states his framing concept for the remainder of Created and Creating in his title for Part Three: The Cultural Mandate. In fact, Edgar’s citation of Jacques Ellul earlier in the book introduces well his perspective in this final part:
Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. (qtd. 127)
In chapter 8, Edgar presents a compelling exposition of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1-2 as the blessing of God, with particular attention to creation and to common grace. Edgar distills the key points of the cultural mandate in three headings: (1) “the covenant blessing of God on the human race”; (2) “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with our productive presence”; and (3) “to rule over the creation with benevolent lordship” (176). In chapters 9-12, Edgar employs this foundational understanding of the cultural mandate as framework for understanding God’s reaffirmations of it to Noah (187), to Abraham (193), in Psalm 8 and the New Testament (202), to Jeremiah and the exiles (207), in the Great Commission (215), and in the promise of the new creation (230). Edgar’s deeply biblical interpretations of the cultural mandate are summarized thus at the conclusion of chapter 8:
Cultural engagement is the human response to the divine call to enjoy and develop the world that God has generously given to his image-bearers. Culture includes the symbols, the tools, the conventions, the social ties, and all else contributing to this call. Cultural activity occurs in a historical setting, and is meant to improve the human condition. Because of the fall, culture can and has become sinister. Christ’s redeeming grace moves culture in the right direction, ennobles it, and allows it to extend the realm of God’s shalom, his goodness, his justice, his love. (176-177, italics original)
As I hope this review has revealed, Edgar’s Created and Creating is both wide-ranging and remarkably cohesive in its biblical perspectives on human culture. In addition, it is appropriate and accessible for both undergraduate and graduate students. While the book as a whole would be fitting for courses focused on Christianity and culture, each of its three parts could also be extracted for use on its own. Part Two, for example, would serve well in biblical studies courses, either for expositions of particular passages or as a model for a careful and faithful hermeneutical approach. Its conclusion, chapter 7, provides an excellent entry point into a discussion of the continuity of the purposes and acts of God in the creation and the new creation. Similarly, Part Three would serve well any course, in any discipline, thinking about how Christians should live in relation to culture, with its opening, chapter 8, providing an excellent starting point for discussing this topic in light of the creation mandate in Genesis 1-2.
At some points, students may need guidance to discern which arguments are primary and which are secondary. For example, Edgar’s discussion of the plural “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) could have been left out or relegated to a footnote, as it distracts from his main discussion of what it means for humans to be created in God’s image (162-165). And the explanation of various interpretations of the binding of Isaac is likewise not necessary for understanding Edgar’s exposition of God’s reiteration of the cultural mandate to Abraham (190-193).
But such issues are minor. In short, William Edgar’s fifty years of probing culture and biblical approaches to culture have led to this valuable resource to help Christians today—in the church, in academia, anywhere in this world—take up the call to engage culture actively, faithfully, and biblically. Edgar rightly calls us, in light of Christ’s redeeming grace, to continue to work for and toward “the realm of God’s shalom, his goodness, his justice, his love” (177).