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Volume 7, Issue 4: Cultura

Covenantal Roots of Culture

Roy Atwood

Christians who lament the visible defects in our culture may still regard these as surface blemishes on an otherwise sound Western understanding of the arts that a few Bible verse band-aids can heal. But Western culture is not merely sick, needing healing or reformation; it is bone-dry dead and needs resurrection.

The temptation, particularly among those of us who seek to understand where we are by studying where we've been, is to see the residues of our Christian inheritance in our cathedrals, literature, art, and music as evidence of a kind of holy cultural autographa waiting to be uncovered somewhere among the ashes of the ancients. But Christians will not find the source of their cultural heritage in the ruins of Western civilization. Long ago, Western civilization rejected God's law, built idols of reason and gold, and despised and sold its spiritual birthright. Like Esau, it has been leeching off the bounty of another ever since. The source of the Christian cultural heritage is not found in ancient Greece or Rome, but in God's covenant with His chosen people.
A covenant, according to the Scriptures, is the sovereign administration of God's lordship over His creation. By covenant, God consecrated a people to Himself under the sanctions of divine law. The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth initiated and set the terms of His covenants with His people from the beginning, binding Himself to them with promises of blessing and curses, and sealing those promises by the formal process of the shedding of blood. The intensity of God's covenantal commitment to His people was ultimately seen in the shedding of His own blood. By covenant, God and His people are bound for life and death.
From the beginning, God's dealing with man involved a sovereignly initiated covenant. Though the term covenant is not found in the creation account in the early chapters of Genesis, God nonetheless bound Himself in covenantal relationship to Adam, as our covenant representative.[*] God instituted in His covenant of creation the Sabbath, marriage, and cultural activity as privileges and duties for Adam and his seed. The cultural activity expected of Adam was rooted in God's very own work of creation. Using His own perfect creative example, God called His imagebearers--before the fall--to fill the earth and to subdue it (Gen. 1:27-28) and to cultivate and to nurture His garden. When Adam failed personally and covenantally to keep God's law, God established the two antithetically opposed lines of human development and culture, and revealed His promise of redemption and judgment for them (Gen. 3).
After the fall, God expanded and clarified these two lines of human life in His everlasting covenant with Noah following the flood. In Genesis 9, God repeated the creation mandate to subdue the earth and linked Noah's cultural activity to the divine work of redemption. So too, the decalogue of the Mosaic covenant did two things: it reaffirmed man's duty to be busy about His divinely appointed cultural labor, following the pattern of God's creative labor ("Six days you shall labor and do all your work . . . for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them," Ex. 20:9, 11); and it expanded the covenantal obligations and promises associated with human culture by marking it explicitly with the holy seal of the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11). God reaffirmed the creational ordinance of cultural labor in the Mosaic covenant and bound Himself again to man by committing Himself to redeem a people to Himself from lost humanity.
When God dictated the terms of His everlasting covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12-17), the Lord promised not only to redeem Abraham and his descendants, and to create from Him a great nation, but also to bless all the nations of the world through Him. The work God called Abraham to do by faith ( Heb. 11:8) was not just for himself or his immediate family, but for his covenant descendants after him. Though Abraham was "as good as dead" (Heb. 11:12), God fulfilled His covenant promise ultimately in the person and redemptive work of Christ.
Thus, when the apostle Paul admonishes Christians to perform their cultural labor--whatever they do, whether in word or deed (Col. 3:17)--they are to do their work as God's chosen, holy, and loved covenant people (Col. 3:12), descendants of Abraham's promise, and in the name of Jesus, who offered Himself as the blood atonement for sin and satisfied the demands of God's covenant with Abraham. Christ also succeeded, where Adam failed, to keep God's creation mandate by bringing all things--all His thoughts, words and deeds--under His sovereign Lordship. Christ, the New Covenant head, fulfilled the divine promise of redemption. And by His death and resurrection, Christ will not merely reform, but redeem human culture.

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