Sixty years ago this year, Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture was first published. It’s still must reading today.
Why? Because it presents a clear solution to many of the controversies we’ve seen over the relationship of Christians to culture, church to state. The key to solving them is the mediatorial kingship of Christ.
Van Till—the less well-known nephew of Cornelius—makes clear the two mandates under which Christians labor: the cultural mandate and the missionary mandate.
The cultural mandate comes from Gen. 1:28, where God instructs Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion.” Culture, for Van Til, is broad—encompassing not just art and architecture, movies and music—but even more the mundane tasks of working, eating, parenting and socializing. All people, Christians and non-Christians, are still under the call of God to fulfill the cultural mandate.
The missionary mandate is expressed in Matt. 28:19, where Jesus tells His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Christians are obligated to proclaim Christ to their neighbors and to support the church leaders, who are the primary recipients of the missionary mandate.
Both of these mandates are fundamentally religious. That’s obvious with the missionary mandate. But Van Til also says that “man is to serve God in his daily calling, which is the content of religion. This service cannot be expressed except through man’s cultural activity, which gives expression to his religious faith.” (p. 37)
There have been times in history when Christians conflated these two mandates. Some have tried to achieve the missionary mandate by cultural means—including politics and warfare. Others have tried to turn all cultural activity into nothing but missionary activity. Neither is correct. The cultural mandate should support the missionary mandate, and as the missionary mandate progresses, it can even accelerate progress on the cultural mandate. But the one can never become the other.
The other error—on which Van Til focuses his writing—has been to separate the two mandates. Some regard the cultural realm as a necessary evil, something God prolongs and Christians endure only to make it possible to gather in all the saints. Some regard the cultural as lesser—viewing the missionary mandate as the only truly religious work, the only work that truly glorifies God. Some argue that cultural activity occurs in a neutral realm between Christians and non-Christians—a common realm in which we can easily cooperate.
Van Til will have none of these. Appealing regularly to Calvin’s Institutes, with additional support from Augustine and, in the end, Herman Bavinck, Van Til argues that the cultural mandate at creation and the missionary mandate spoken by Christ must be distinct but inseparable parts of every Christian life.
“Creation implies calling,” he writes. “Man receives meaning in existence by his service of God. As God’s representative in a Paradise without gates, man was called to serve His maker by exercising dominion over the earth in the name of God. The Bible teaches us that this ideal was lost through sin, so that man henceforth sought self and divorced his culture from religion, or rather made it his religion, divorcing his work from the service of God.” (p. 219)
So the separation of culture and religion, of work and worship, of recreation and religion is not part of the created order but the result of sin. It is part of the brokenness of the world. To mend this rift, Van Til argues, we need a Mediator, a Redeemer.
“But Christ as the whole man, that is, sinless and completely integrated in the service of God, came as Mediator to restore lost humanity to its lost vocation. … “Therefore, the Logos-Mediator-King is the presupposition, the Saviour and Transformer of culture. For he makes out of men what they were in the beginning—children of God, which in itself constitute the greatest cultural transformation.” (p. 219)
This focus on Christ as mediatorial king is critical for Van Til to avoid the errors of separation identified above. By mediatorial kingship, Van Til understands this: that Christ, the eternal Son of God who created the world, was also, as a reward for His death and resurrection as man, given authority over the whole word, in order to build His church.
So Christ is king of both the cultural mandate and the missionary mandate. Not only is He responsible for creation and human culture ever since creation, He is also now responsible for transforming human culture—starting with the transformation of individuals by regeneration through the church.
This rather lengthy quote is Van Til’s summary of the matter:
“To confess Christ as Saviour from sin, but to deny his relevance and power in the realm of culture, is a denial of his kingship over the believer and over the world. For in Christ as the God-man, the miracle of the wholly sound, ideal man appears in the history of humanity. And the promise of the Gospel is that Christ restores those who share in his anointing, so that they become once again a kingdom of priests unto their God. Thus Christ saves creation initially by restoring the cultural agent to a new obedience … Believers as restored creatures are called along with the rest of mankind to engage in cultural activity, in which they present their whole being as a living sacrifice unto God (Rom. 12:2). On the other hand, the church as church is given the missionary mandate; such is her calling as organized institution recognizing the kingship of Christ.” (p. 213)
Astute readers will recognize in Van Til’s words the familiar constructs of creation-fall-redemption-restoration as well as the church as organization and the church as organism. But for me, his most helpful construct is the two mandates: Christians are called by Christ, their mediatorial king, to cultivate both earth and eternity. Those two callings are distinct but never separate. In fact, each one furthers the other. And both bring glory to God.
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