Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 1 of 7

This 7-part series originally ran under the German title “Einige biblische Culturbilder” in Der Lutheraner from August 2 to October 25, 1904. The author is Georg Stoeckhardt, who served as a professor at Concordia Seminary – St. Louis for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commonly regarded as the greatest exegete in the history of the Missouri Synod. I offer this translation in the hope it will be edifying and thought-provoking to the 21st century Lutheran reader also. – R.L.L.

Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 1

Culture and Cultural Progress – these are a few of the buzzwords of our time.  The world boasts of its culture.  Today’s generation boasts of itself, because our culture has come so far.  Our American people flatters itself, that it stands on the peak of culture and civilization.  To be sure, man’s cultural achievements are plain to see.  The St. Louis World’s Fair exhibits thousands upon thousands of products of modern culture and examples of cultural progress.  So the question lies before us: What do we Christians judge of the worldly culture?  We want to answer this question in several short articles.  To be sure, we will answer from God’s Word, from which we will put forward for our readers several biblical pictures of culture.

When God the Lord had created the earth and man, he spoke to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish in the sea, and over the birds in the air, and over all the animals, which crawl upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).  This was the appointed calling, which God gave to man, that he rule over the fish, birds, and all animals.  God appointed the man to subdue the earth and all creatures, to harness them and make them useful for himself.  To this dominion also belonged the intellectual command over the world, that man penetrate the created things with his reason.  He was to recognize every created thing according to its kind, to recognize its goal and use.  So the first man gave the animals, which God brought before him, their names.  He gave them names each after its own kind, its own essence, and its own qualities.  With this he manifested a deep insight into the nature of things.  In six-days’ work God created all things, and it was all very good.  Still, the earth awaited the work of man.  God had placed hidden treasures in the earth, like gold and jewels.  These the man was to find and lift from the earth.  God had built secret powers into nature.  He intended for man to use his eyes and wit to discover them and make them useful.  And really, this is what one calls culture.  Culture, to cultivate – this means to farm, to process, to shape, to educate.  Here belongs also God’s prescribed calling to man that he should cultivate and farm the ground.  He is to recruit and train the forces of nature to help him.  He is to process, form, and remodel the earthly things which have been given into his hand.  He is to release, develop, and make useful the secret powers of nature.  He is also to develop his own gifts, powers, and capabilities to their fullest potential.  These all serve the survival and maintenance of this earthly life, necessary for the preservation of our great human race on earth.  And man shouldn’t merely scrape by in order to survive.  According to God’s appointment, he should also enjoy his life and rejoice in God’s creation.  And to be sure, he should rejoice in God above all things, giving the creator of all things thanks, praise, and honor.

This last end-goal of creation has been thwarted.  Sin has intervened.  Man has fallen away from the living God, and for man’s sake the earth is also cursed.  But grace has also intervened.  Out of his grace God still sustains the sinful human race, and for man’s sake he keeps the entire world from perishing.  Every day, God allows the sun to rise over the good and evil, and he allows the rain to fall on the just and unjust.  As long as this earth exists, sowing and harvest, frost and heat, summer and winter, day and night – these will not cease.  So it is with the calling of man in the created world.  The cultural calling is not wiped out.  Even when sin increased, after the flood God the Lord confirmed to men his creation blessing while he spoke: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.  Into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:1-2).  To be sure, one can still detect everywhere the marks and consequences of sin.  Man must still cultivate his field by the sweat of his brow in order to earn his bread.  All work requires trouble and effort.  The work, creativity, and forward-striving of men is an ongoing struggle against resisting forces.  The dominion of man over the earth has also become a reign of fear.  Out of the death of a creature, out of the blood of animals earns the man his profit.  In all this the fallen man knows, understands, and is able to accomplish something in outer, natural things, which are under the power of his reason.  And it is the living God, who sustains the world and its giant economy with his almighty power, who keeps the work, creativity, and struggling of men in motion.  It is he who crowns man’s work on earth with success.

When we Christians look into the world which surrounds us, into the life and work of men, we well should distinguish between nature and sin.  Sin has not destroyed God’s work and creation.  We sigh justifiably over the decay of this godless world, over our own sin, and over the thousand-fold misery of this earth.  Still, even though we live in this evil world, on this cursed earth, we see the hand and work, the blessings and good gifts of our great God who made heaven, earth, and all that is in it.  We Christians are reconciled to God once again in Christ, and we serve the living God also with the work of our hands, with our earthly calling.  We work and keep busy also, just as the other children of men.  We work with earthly things and material.  We do our part to make forward progress, to enhance worldly culture, art, learning, and science.  We make these efforts so far as we can without sin, and we rejoice in all the good gifts of God.  We do it with God and in God, the God of our life.  The pious Queen Esther did not sin when she appeared before her husband in royal jewelry, in order to find his good pleasure, that he would fulfill her request.  The holy patriarchs Moses and David were shepherds of flocks.  The evangelist Luke was a physician.  The great apostle Paul was a tentmaker, and he was no despiser of art.  His way of speech was given to him by God, and he was not afraid to use worldly poetry.  The words: “We are his offspring”, namely God’s offspring (Acts 17:28), and these words: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12) – these are the verses of heathen poets.  The same Paul, who did not know and who did not want to know anything else than Christ the crucified, he reminds the Christians: “For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4).

4 thoughts on “Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 1 of 7

  1. This is excellent—helpful and encouraging. Thanks for translating this for us non-German speakers! Looking forward to following along with the rest!

  2. Excellent read! Looking forward to rest of the sermon.

  3. Fascinating. I sometimes get the impression from contemporary Lutherans that this understanding of the dominion mandate is Calvinistic. It’s nice to see it so clearly expressed by a Lutheran theologian.

  4. Stoeckhardt says here that Paul was someone who “did not know and who did not want to know anything else than Christ the crucified.” That is no doubt based on 1 Cor. 2:2, where Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    The context of what Paul says there is important, for it was particularly “when I came to you” that Paul deliberately constrained his message to what was essential and foundational to the faith. He obviously knew more, actually, and his epistles indeed expound on many other aspects of the faith: morality, spiritual gifts, church unity, etc.

    So Paul was inclined to “know” different things depending on the needs of the churches at the time he was communicating with them. He adapted his message to “become all things to all people,” (1 Cor. 9:22) yet he always stood on what was “of first importance”. (1 Cor. 15:3)

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