The world well staged? Creation and culture revisited

This paper was presented by James Krohn at the Kirby Laing Centre (Cambridge) webinar on the Doctrine of Creation, 24 November 2020.

“Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand—in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science—he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God. He is employed in the service of his God. He has strictly to obey his God. And above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.” (2) Abraham Kuyper

i. Culture and theology

My title, The World Well-Staged: Creation and Culture Revisited, is a throw-back to an article by Kevin Vanhoozer (3) that was formative at the entry-point of my theological studies. In this article, Vanhoozer introduced the reader to the choreography of theology, culture and hermeneutics set upon the stage of life. As in the Shakespearian monologue, All the World’s a Stage (4), humanity finds itself thrust into the arena, the drama of life. And, there are no spectator booths; every man and women must play a part coram Deo (before the face of God). As Donald Bloesch put it (and I like this definition); “Culture is the divinely appointed means for men and women to realize their humanity.” (5)

Culture is thus both human achievement and divine gift. It is, to stay with our metaphor, the performance of our ultimate beliefs and values—the inevitable staging of our religion. If this is so, it is the task of theology pre-eminently to interpret and articulate the meaning of the cultures we inhabit; and to suggest the way of (biblical) wisdom throughout the stages of life. To concur with Vanhoozer, culture is “a ‘religious text’ that calls for theological interpretation.” (6)

ii. Culture reconsidered

This being so, what role does creation or nature play in our theological interpretation of culture? It is said that two of the most difficult words to define in the English language are nature and culture. If nature is what God has made of the world, then culture is what we make of the world.

The earliest meaning of the word culture, (Lat. cultura, cultivation—to grow things), is therefore not merely to leave matters as they are, but to make something with what has been given. The garden of creation invites the hand of Adam to the soil; to horticulture, agriculture, and in our part of the world, viticulture. We are homo sapiens exactly because we have been mandated and gifted as image-bearers to be homo cultor, or homo faber as the artist Makoto Fujimura suggests. We make and build things, not least a culture. As a result, the concept of cultivation has been extended into all spheres of life to embrace the whole world of human meaning, even to, according to James Davison Hunter, “the power to define reality.” (7) Might it be, in terms of our mooring in creation itself, that we have over-reached and come adrift in cultural ambition?

iii. Creation and culture in crisis

It is clear that the original mandate of cultivation presupposed an essential connection with creation, with nature. It is equally clear, in our increasingly diversified acts of ‘cultivation,’ that this connection no longer holds. Take “coffee culture” for example. Sitting in your local ‘good earth’ coffee bar with your laptop, is a long way from the soil, sweat and actual roasting of beans even if you are sitting next to a poster of it. Of course, the most crucial examples of this disconnect are in the domains of bioethics, human sexuality and gender and what that means for our human future.

How did this come about? The rise of the natural sciences in Modern times, in which nature became synonymous with natural science, is one reason. In particular, the notion of distinguishing the realm of nature from the realm of human freedom. If nature is marked by causality, by laws and the necessity of forces operating in a determined manner, human beings, on the other hand, are presented with the proposition of having genuine possibilities (8).  To employ our stage metaphor again, the actors, having been granted permission to depart from the script, wander about the stage making up their own lines. Here is how Ken Myers explains it:

“Within modern societies, nature is now assumed to be meaningless raw material, not a guide to ordering our lives. We are [have become] the sovereign makers of meaning, and culture is the repository of our creativity, the expression of our unbounded freedom. The older vision guiding what we now think of as ‘culture’—sustained within and encouraged by the Church for centuries—involved the assumption that human beings live well when they live in accordance with the order established in nature.”

In other words, nature reflects auctoritas (authorship) which translates into cultural intelligibility. Myers continues:

“Cultural forms and institutions were assumed to be authoritative guides to the meaning and requirements of that order. Just as agriculture cultivated the land, the shared experience of good practices, true beliefs, and beautiful artifacts served as an ecosystem that cultivated us. This older view recognised that we required cultivation in order to be in synch with reality. In the modern view, by contrast, we shape the indifferent components of nature in order to satisfy our untutored desires.” (9)

This idea of cultivation as inherently connected to creation (and its concomitant presumption of authority), is offensive to our modern ideal of freedom. In the absence however, of acting responsibly on the basis of our contingent nature as human beings, cultures form that reject the order of the good, the true and the beautiful. Instead, cultures are nurtured that frequently result in dehumanising, distorting or denying the attributes of our basic humanity. As Myers concludes, “One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe.” (10)

iv. Creation and culture revisited

This situation presents a mounting challenge to our theological analysis of culture, one that even Richard Niebuhr in his classic analysis, Christ and Culture (11), failed to anticipate or address. Evaluating Niebuhr’s now familiar and celebrated typologies, Ashford and Bartholomew note the following:

“Aside from quibbles concerning Niebuhr’s categories and the historical figures who populate them, the most salient critique of Niebuhr is doctrinal, with no doctrine of Niebuhr’s more deficient than his doctrine of creation. … in fact, [when it comes to creation and culture], Niebuhr never really makes the connection.” (12)

This deficiency extends to Christology where it is noted that “Niebuhr’s Christ has feet that ‘barely touch the earth’,” being “only barely incarnate … so that one suspects an ontological dualism between [Christ] and the created order. (13)” It is remarkable in this light to note the prescience of Abraham Kuyper’s warning against the divorce of religion from creation (a century ago):

“Religion withdrew to its own arena, lost the relationship in which it stood with the other sciences, and appointed itself as the great master whose task it was to impede the unwelcome progress that the other sciences were making. All too often it forgot that our beautiful confession says that we know God from two books: the book of Scripture, as well as the book of Nature in which the majesty of the Lord of lords is revealed to us in golden letters.” (14)

In contrast to Niebuhr, Ashford and Bartholomew suggest a four-fold typology based on the relationship between nature and grace (15), signalling a return to the pattern of revelation in the biblical narrative. As such, theirs is an open invitation for theology to re-join the cultural conversation based on the presuppositions that have “shaped the way theologians and traditions have approached creation and culture over the course of the first two millennia of church history.(16)” In presenting a biblical-theological vision in which grace infuses and restores nature, they offer a view wherein Christ’s redemption is comprehensive and Christian mission is inclusive of all of human life. As Rookmaker so pertinently reminded us in The Creative Gift:

“Christ did not die simply to make men Christians. That is not enough; his work is too great. He died so that we might be human, living and acting in a human way, as God originally made us to live … he came to redeem and restore the whole creation, and to be its supreme Judge.” (17)

v. The world well-staged

Our primary human vocation is not merely a call to culture-making, but a renewed call to creation-cultivation in Christ. Creation’s goodness, through the reordering of the Creator-Spirit, is culture’s goodness. Unlike those without faith, for whom nature is but a portal to perplexity, for us who believe it is a world charged with the rekindled grandeur of God. Hopkins’ climactic line extorts, “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings,” (18) and then, the world becomes again, well-staged. ♦












1) Paper read at the Kirby Laing Centre (Cambridge) webinar on the Doctrine of Creation, 24 November 2020.

2) Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 53.

3) Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “The world well staged? Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics” in God & Culture ed. DA Carson & JD Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1-30.

4) Shakespeare, William. As You Like it (Various, first published 1599]) Act II, Scene VII.

5) Cited in Vanhoozer, Ibid, 28.

6) Ibid, 20.

7) Hunter, James Davison. “The Backdrop of Reality,” in Comment (1 Sept 2013), https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/the-backdrop-of-reality/ (Accessed 15 November 2020). Andy Crouch is fond of saying that such notions of culture-making are “beyond our paygrade” as human beings. I agree with him.

8) Ibid, 5.

9) Myers, Ken. “About,” Mars Hill Audio, https://marshillaudio.org/page/about, (Accessed 15 November 2020).

10) Ibid.

11) Niebuhr, H Richard. Christ & Culture (New York: Harper, 1951).

12) Ashford, Bruce Riley and Bartholomew, Craig G. The Doctrine of Creation: A constructive Kuyperian approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), 567.

13) Ibid, 568.

14) Kuyper, Abraham. Pro Rege: Living under Christ’s Kingship, Vol 1 (Lexam Press, 2016), II.12.2.

15) They are grace above nature (for which Aquinas is chosen as representative), grace opposed to nature (represented by Anabaptists, Pietists, Methodists and some contemporary evangelicals), grace alongside nature (originally Lutheran, but held by contemporary evangelicals such as Horton, VanDrunen and Hart, who [erroneously] claim Augustine as originator) and grace infuses and restores nature (originally Augustine, and held by many reformed theologians such as Calvin, Kuyper and Bavinck, but also some Anabaptists and Catholics such as de Lubac). Ashford and Bartholomew, Ibid, 568-582.

16) Ibid, 565.

17) Rookmaker, Hans R. The Creative Gift: The arts and the Christian life (Leicester: IVP, 1966), 23. This thought, expressed here and elsewhere, is often consolidated into the well-known aphorism “Jesus didn’t’ come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human.”

18) Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985).