Reformed Biblical-theological foundations for Christian cultural activity


Preface: To give credit where it’s due, as I recall, the criticism that Irons raises was similarly raised to me by Dr. William D. Dennison (Pastor of Emmanuel OPC in Kent, WA; Professor Emeritus of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College) sometime around 1994-1996 during one of his private Geerhardus Vos seminars (from which I benefited immensely, personally and academically). Although not very articulately, I attempted to raise the issue with Dr. Albert M. Wolters around 2002. I hope the main point of criticism is clearer in this article.

By Reformed “Biblical theology” is meant not only Reformed theology that is according to the teaching of the Bible, but particularly a sub-discipline of exegetical theology that studies Scripture in terms of the historical, ‘organic’ progress of God’s special revelation. The understanding of the teaching of Scripture that results from such study has foundational significance for Christian cultural activity, that is, for the question of how Christians can do cultural activity in a distinctly Christian way.

One of the foundational teachings highlighted by a Reformed Biblical theology is what may be called pre-redemptive (or creational) eschatology. This has significance for Christian cultural activity because the cultural mandate was initially given by God before the fall in the context of this eschatology. After the fall, when redemption is established and eschatology is set in that redemptive context, the cultural task is also set within that new context. Our understanding of cultural activity must take proper account of the important changes God introduced in the context of the fall and redemption.

Dr. Charles Lee Irons offers superb introductory material on various topics related to Reformed Biblical theology in his The Upper Register videos/podcast. Before presenting a few notes of clarification on his piece about ethics and a view of cultural activity, I summarize what he explained about Reformed Biblical-theological teaching on Adam’s Probation and the Priority of Eschatology. I recommend listening to his full piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_NJwB_f1P4 .

In summary, our “first parents” were created in God’s image with a prospect of advancement to a consummated, glorified existence. This may be seen by the two special trees in Eden (Gen 2:9): the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, symbolizing Adam’s probationary testing in the Covenant of Works (Gen 2:15-17), and the Tree of [Eternal] Life, symbolizing confirmation of successfully passing the test, and the reward of advancement (Gen 3:22-24).

In Eden, God gave humanity a mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth, to have dominion over it, to work and guard it (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). This involved both kingly and priestly elements together. In a unique theocratic arrangement, humans were to protect, extend, and populate the holy sanctuary throughout the world, and so obtain the eschatological fulfillment of God's kingdom. This work was to occur in a condition of confirmed righteousness, having successfully passed the probation. And as a sign of the prospective completion of their labor, God established the Sabbath, symbolizing the consummate and glorified eternal rest (Gen 2:1-3; Heb 4:1-10).

In Adam’s having failed the test and breaking the Covenant of Works, our first parents and their natural posterity became liable to eternal death/damnation. However, God had mercy and in Gen 3:15 made the first promise of the gospel, establishing the Covenant of Grace. Christ would defeat Satan as Adam failed to do. The eschatological judgement would be postponed, and there would be a temporal common curse, frustrating cultural labors in pain and temporal death.

Now, Christ successfully passed the test for His people, took their eschatological curse, obtained the eschatological advancement, fulfills the cultural mandate (fruitfully, bringing many sons to glory, Heb 2; 1Cor 15:20-28), and will bring the consummate kingdom of God. After Gen 3:15, everything in Scripture unfolds that first gospel promise, and this gospel must be understood in terms of Christ fulfilling what Adam did not, and achieving that advancement to consummate glory for those redeemed in Him.

With that in view, the following is a summary of what Irons explained about Reformed Biblical-theological teaching on Ethics (and Christian cultural activity). I recommend listening to his full piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVkJMD3U7vQ

In summary, the misuse of Scripture in ethics can be either libertine, permitting immorality (such as theologically liberal attempts to erroneously define sexual immorality as non-sinful), or legalistic, imposing extra-Scriptural duties (such as unorthodox ‘neocalvinist’ attempts to erroneously define the cultural mandate as imperative in the same way it was pre-fall). Irons does not criticize neocalvinism as developed by Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, but rather he addresses a specific, partial distortion of neocalvinism, for example as articulated by Dr. Albert M. Wolters in certain statements from his book Creation Regained (CR).

While even a distorted neocalvinism recognizes the historical development of Scripture in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, it nevertheless does not treat the cultural mandate properly in that context. A proper Reformed Biblical-theological view can help correct the distortions. The key issue is this: after the fall into sin, are believers now able in Christ to eschatologically fulfill the cultural mandate as it was given before the fall in order to bring the consummation of God’s kingdom? Wolters says we are (eg, “the kingdom of God will not come in its fullness without the ‘redemption’ [by Christians’ activity] of this area of human [life]” [CR, p.95, 2nd ed. p.114]), but such a claim is a Biblical-theological error.

The distorted view incorrectly argues that Christians may re-direct their cultural activity to its original pre-fall purpose since the fall did not affect the ‘Structure’ (law order) given in creation, but only negatively affected the ‘Direction’ of (viz, mis-directed) our use of creation, for example in cultural activity, and that therefore Christians have a duty to redeem every area of life, thereby contributing to the consummation.

It is, however, a Biblical-theological error to suppose that the fall has not altered the meaning of the cultural mandate in relation to the consummation, and to suppose that Christians have a duty to fulfill the cultural mandate in order to bring-in the consummate kingdom of God, eschatologically.

Rather, a proper Reformed Biblical-theological view recognizes that in response to the fall and in establishing redemption, God separated the objectively holy and priestly ‘cult’ tasks and the (possibly subjectively holy) common and kingly ‘cultural’ tasks. Prior to the fall, these tasks were entirely integrated as one. In the Edenic theocracy, kingly tasks of cultural dominion would extend the objectively holy realm throughout the earth and had a priestly-cultic goal of resulting in the consummate cosmic temple.

However, after the fall, God introduces a particular differentiation into human societal life. God establishes a structural dualism or separation between a.) the objectively holy kingdom of God in a special/redemptive grace covenant community of the institutional church, and b.) the common grace order, in which reality, though under a temporal common curse, is preserved, and the eschatological judgement is postponed, as a context for the objectively holy kingdom to operate alongside those outside the institutional church, and as a context in which both believers and unbelievers participate in cultural activity.

In the non-theocratic context, after the fall, the cultural mandate properly has only this refracted or differentiated form, such that cultural activity is no longer a means of bringing-in the consummate kingdom of God. The fact of the temporal curse in the pains of birth and ground -labors and the ultimate frustration of human temporal death testifies to this significant change. The redemptive kingdom of God is accomplished and obtained by Christ’s work as the second/last Adam, in His calling the elect, and it is finally consummated by Him, not through believers’ cultural activities.

Christians have a duty to subjectively sanctify their cultural activity in their doing it to the glory of God, witnessing to their heavenly hope obtained by Christ. But this does not objectively transform common cultural activity into the holy kingdom, nor contribute to the eschatological consummation of that objectively holy kingdom.


With the foregoing in mind, what follows are four points of clarification about how this foundational Reformed Biblical-theological understanding of the priority of eschatology and the changes concerning cultural activity after the fall relate to a proper view of how Christians can do cultural activity in a distinctly Christian way.

First, while after the fall God separated 'cult' and 'culture’, establishing the Covenant of Grace and the institutional church, as well as a common grace order, this did not involve creating any kind of "religious neutrality" in life or in any area of life. Reformed Biblical-theologian Meredith G. Kline affirms with orthodox neocalvinism that after the fall, every person and everyone's life in every area, including one's cultural life, whether believer or unbeliever, remains religious. After the fall, believers should recognize that all their cultural activities "are to be carried out under God’s mandate as service to Him for His glory and thus are thoroughly religious" (Kline, Kingdom Prologue [KP], p.67).

As there has been a distortion of neocalvinism, there has also been a distortion of Kline's views in a sort of scholasticism. This distortion falsely interprets God's post-fall separation of 'cult' and 'culture' in terms of a supposed religious realm of grace and a supposed non-religious realm of nature, which then has consequences for how, for example, the relationship between faith and reason is (erroneously) conceived and a Christian’s cultural activity is (erroneously) understood.

Some who have such a distorted view deny that cultural activity can be done in a Christian way. I begin to address that here: https://honest2blog.blogspot.com/2012/04/sanctifying-common-2.html

In chapter 5 of Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality, he summarizes the scholastic view.

Clouser speaks of scholasticism as a view holding that "the proper understanding of [most of] culture does not differ depending on what one’s religion is." It [scholasticism] is "the general relation of divinity [religious] beliefs to theories as corresponding to two very different kinds of information: beliefs which are the deliverances of reason, and beliefs which are the deliverances of [special] revelation accepted by faith, where faith is understood to be a distinct mental faculty from reason.

Scholasticism "emphasizes the need to harmonize [the authoritative] deliverances [of faith and reason] so as to avoid contradiction between them." It appeals "to the biblical teaching that there are two dimensions of creation, which the Bible calls 'heaven' and 'earth'. The proposal [is] that each of these dimensions be taken as known in a different way, one by reason and the other by faith. The dimension of earth [nature] ...was held to be the dimension of reality known by perception and reason. Such knowledge was held to be the same for all people. Concerning nature, reason ...is [religiously] neutral, and the final authority for all ['natural'] truth.

"The heavenly dimension of reality [supernature] ...was [mostly] taken to be known only by [special] revelation from God which must be accepted on faith. These revealed truths conveyed knowledge not provable by reason, such as information about God, the nature of the human soul, angels, and life after death. These truths are therefore not available to all people but only those to whom God’s grace has given the gift of faith. For without faith to accept revelation, reason is relatively helpless to discover truth about the supernatural realm [other than the fact of the existence of God and of human souls]. In this way, each [reason and faith, respectively] is the supreme authority in its own realm.

Nevertheless, the scholastic view is that ..."there is a two-way interaction between faith and reason. [They] each have duties toward one another; each has its own proper domain, but each also affects the other. For example, reason not only discovers truth about nature and proves the existence of a supernatural realm, but also systematizes revealed doctrines and checks all rational theories for their compatibility with those doctrines. This is the task of theology. In case a theory of philosophy or science is found to be irreconcilably in contradiction with revealed truth, that theory is then to be discarded as false [but can sometimes be adequately modified, in this view, by adding God to it].

The duty of faith toward reason is thus to supply an external check on whether reason has fallen into error, and it is seen as an advantage for reason to have such infallible truths by which to test its hypotheses. In the final analysis, therefore, the authority of revelation taken on faith is superior to that of reason alone. ...The guidance that faith offers to reason is a largely negative and external check on what reason may accept. It is not seen as an internally regulating influence."

So, if one held to this scholastic view of the relation of faith and reason, and one associated culture and common grace with the "realm of nature" understood primarily by reason, then it could be supposed that the only significant Christian distinction in cultural activity might be the (partial) contribution of Christian morals/morality. It could be supposed that while it would be advantageous to have special revelation, such an addition wouldn't involve anything distinctively Christian (or otherwise necessarily religious) about cultural activity per se.

Furthermore, if one held to this scholastic view of the relation of faith and reason, and restricted the kingdom of God exclusively to the "supernatural" and its institutional expression in the institutional church, then it could be supposed that expressions of the subjective recognition of the reign of God in a believer's cultural activity were not expressions of the kingdom of God (or, as above, simply not a matter of cultural activity per se).

This response from Clouser to a Thomist's views might shed further light. In any case, Kline’s views are distorted if interpreted through such scholastic assumptions.

Second, we should understand, as Kline says: “The Scriptures compel us to distinguish between the kingdom of God as realm and reign and to recognize that though everything is embraced under the reign of God, not everything can be identified as part of the kingdom of God viewed as a holy realm” (KP, p.170). ...“The cultural activity of God’s people is common grace activity ...[yet] it is an expression of the reign of God in their lives, [although] it is not a building of the kingdom of God as institution or realm” (KP, p.201). ...“The kingdom was already present in the reign of God through his re-creating Spirit within [the regenerate]” (KP, p.382).

This is in agreement with Reformed Biblical-theologian Geerhardus Vos, who in his book The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church [TKGC], says: "To [Jesus] the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings man to the willing recognition of the same [through regeneration] (TKGC, p.85-86). ...Undoubtedly the kingship [reign] of God, as his recognized and applied supremacy, is intended to pervade and control the whole of human life in all its forms of existence. ...Whenever one of these spheres [of activity] comes under the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory, and this outwardly reveals itself, there we can truly say that the kingdom of God has become manifest" (TKGC, p.162-163).
[free online version here.

So while a Christian's cultural activity is not, and does not become, the objective holy realm of God's kingdom, it can be, nevertheless, a true manifestation of God's kingdom as believers’ subjective recognition of God's reign in their cultural activities, wrought in them by Christ's redemption applied in their regeneration.

Third, we should be clear about the "structure" to which Kline’s term "structural dualism" refers. We must distinguish "Structure" in the sense of "Structure for", that is, the laws and norms God has established for reality and human life in creation (and preserved in God's providence and common grace), from "structure" in the sense of "structures of" human society, such as the objectively holy institutional church, and the various common kinds of societal communities (or spheres of cultural activity).

That is, when someone refers to an "institution" such as the institutional church, or another distinct kind of societal community (such as the family, or civil governance), as "structures", this doesn't refer to Structure (namely, God's abiding laws and norms) in the Structure and Direction distinction.  Rather, to call a societal community, such as the institutional church a "structure" is to say an institution OF society, that is, a societal institution/community; a "structure" OF society, not a law or a norm, but something that is subject to God-given laws and norms.

It is true that "the fall does not affect the 'Structure' given in creation." After the fall, physical laws, such gravity, are not changed; nor does God change His moral law or other norms. However, God did change the forms that human societal life would take in the fallen world. Apart from a typologically theocratic, old (Mosaic) covenant Israel, the objectively holy special grace community of the institutional church would be distinct from common cultural activity; even while a believer's redemption would entail their subjective sanctification of such cultural activity.

Fourth, in addition to conforming to the standards of Christian morality in our cultural activities, so that we follow God's moral commands from a regenerate heart of faith, in the ways He requires in His Word (eg, in loving service and witness to our neighbor), and doing all things to the ultimate purpose of God’s glory, how else might Christians subjectively sanctify their cultural activities? How else in their cultural activities and each area of life might believers consciously recognize God's reign? One way, is to grow in our understanding of the various areas of life as thoroughly religious and in relation to the preeminence of Christ. For more on that see here: https://sites.google.com/site/christianviewofeverything/

Again, the issue is: after the fall, are believers now able in Christ to eschatologically fulfill the cultural mandate as it was given before the fall in order to bring the consummation of God's kingdom?

The answer to that question from an orthodox, proper neocalvinist perspective is: absolutely NOT. The further question is then: after the fall, what does the subjective sanctification of a believer's cultural activity actually mean?

An orthodox neocalvinist answer to that further question elaborates Kline's stated view.

     i. Kline's view is that, by the application of Christ's accomplishment of redemption in regeneration, Christians are able to (subjectively) rightly recognize the reign of God in all areas of life, and in all those areas perform those activities to the ultimate end of God's glory.

     ii. The orthodox neocalvinist view elaborates on what that involves more particularly, saying that such subjective recognition and ultimate end in a believer's cultural activity (which constitutes subjective sanctification) includes (however imperfect in this life) Christian good works (increasingly according to the moral normativity of God's abiding moral will), and increasing conformity to whatever other abiding norms God has established for human action generally, and for cultural activity.



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