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What is Culture?

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From Jesse Wisnewski at Reformed and Reforming, What is Culture?

If you were to scan the entirety of the Bible front-to-back you would not find a word or definition of culture.  With this being the case we need to begin with the English word “culture” and see if this concept matches anything the Bible teaches so that we can see what exactly the Bible says about culture.

Culture Defined

The English word culture is originally derived from the Latin word “colere.”  Colere is an agricultural word that means to “tend, guard, cultivate, and till.”  From this point culture evolved into different figurative meanings.  For instance, it is used in a figurative sense to refer to “cultivation through education,” the “collective customs and achievements of a people,” to the medical usage as “The act or process of growing living material.”

Irrespective of its usage throughout time, the term culture carries within it a sense of growing and making – both tangible and intangible things.  From growing corn to building buildings, to growing living material in a Petri dish to developing complex mathematical equations, culture encompasses all of these facets.

Now that we have an idea of what exactly culture is, let’s take a look in the Bible to see if there is any concept

Culture by the Book

After creating mankind in His image and after His likeness, the act of culture begins with God’s blessing of humanity:

“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” (Genesis 1.28).

In addition to the tasks encapsulated within this mandate we observe further responsibilities in Genesis 2.15, which says,

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

There is a lot to be said at this point, but I would like to draw our attention to two observations

Creation vs. Culture

The first thing we observe from these passages is the difference between creation and culture.  Simply put, creation is what God makes and culture is what we make.  During his lectures at Pensacola Theological Seminary on Christ and Culture, John Frame said,

Now of course God is sovereign, so everything we make is also his in one sense. Or, somewhat better: creation is what God makes by himself, and culture is what he makes through us. The sun, moon and stars are not culture. The light and darkness are not culture. The basic chemistry of the earth, and the original genetic structure of life forms are not culture; they are God’s creation.

So, from Genesis 1.1 to 1.28 – including humanity – we read of all that God created, which was created by God and is not considered culture.  Now, beginning with Genesis 1.28 cultural activities begin and are further clarified in Genesis 2.15.

Cultural Activities

From these two passages we see that cultural activities are comprised of four facets: filling, subduing, working, and keeping.

First, culture includes the act of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth.  This act was and is to be brought about through the birth of children in marriages comprised of just one man and one woman (Genesis 1.27; 2.14).

Second, culture includes the act of subduing the entirety of all the earth and every living thing (also see 1 Peter 2.9; Revelation 1.6; 5.10; 22.5).  This facet of culture carries within it the implication that mankind is to develop the earth’s resources for useful purposes.  Thus, this facet of culture lays the foundation for scientific research and technological advancement (ESV Study Bible).

In addition to this, this thought carries with it the notion that mankind is to subdue all things both tangible and intangible in a way that glorifies God.  This means that science, philosophy, politics, universities, families, art, music, etc…, are to serve the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10.31; Romans 11.36; Colossians 1.20).

This act of subduing is NOT to be mistaken for tyrannical rule or the exploitation of the earth and living creatures.  The act of subduing is done so as God’s vice-regents.  In other words, we are to subdue the earth and every living thing on behalf of God.  This holds to be true for two reasons.

One, for mankind to be created in the image and likeness of God is the same as being created as God’s representative likeness (Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, pgs. 174-175).  Consequently, this means that we are to represent God in all cultural acts.

Two, God’s command implies that mankind is not to fulfill these cultural acts for him or herself, but rather for God.  For the acts of culture are derived from God’s creation and command of man.  It is for this reason that all acts of culture are to be subjected to “God’s commands, God’s desires, God’s norms, [and] God’s values” (Frame, pg. 4).

Click here to read the rest of the article.


Written by Jesse Wisnewski

October 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

Posted in Religious Freedom

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One Response

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  1. Many thanks for that, lasted just over a cup of coffee for me to read!

    Arlean Furtado

    February 28, 2010 at 12:15 pm

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