The Genesis of “Creation Mandate”

Klaas Schilder

The creation mandate seems as obvious in the opening chapter of Genesis as the creation itself. It is central to my theology and fundamental to what I teach in my Introduction toPolitics class. But the term is of relatively recent minting. Who gave us this term? Who made the original argument for this formulation of our human calling? When I recently wondered where I would go to find the classic work on the subject, I found it deeply disturbing that I had no clue where to turn.

Of course, Albert Wolters explains it very nicely in Creation Regained (1985), but he popularized an older idea. I was sure it was a Dutch insight. Was it Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (1898)? I was going to post the question here on the EPSA blog, but decided to go directly to the member most likely to have the answer, John Barber. He travels the world talking about the subject and has written what is said to be a very fine book on the subject but which I have not read, The Road to Eden.

John very helpfully pointed me to this passage from his book.

The centerpiece of Schilder’s theology of culture, and the point that best captures his penchant for obedience in all of life, is his claim that man’s office has as its principal purpose a “Cultural Mandate” from God. Most people are unaware that Klass Schilder was the first person to coin the phrase “Cultural Mandate,”[1] although the truth of man’s mandate to “dress the garden” is as old as the creation itself. In Christ and Culture, the author refers to Genesis 1:28 as the “creation mandate” and later as the Cultural Mandate. Schilder often alludes to the Cultural Mandate as “the ABCs”[2] of the first days of the world, and at other times, as the “first principles of the world.”[3] The expression was born out of Schilder’s dispute with Abraham Kuyper over common grace. Schilder argued that to erect the believer’s cultural activity on the ground of God’s permitting of culture after the fall is to ground it via negativa only – a position that is insufficient. Alternatively, he insisted that Scripture also bases our response to the world in a positive affirmation of dominion – specifically the command of Genesis 1:28. Kuyper justifies Christian cultural accomplishment in God’s universal grace. Schilder grounds it in a specific law of God that all believers are required to obey.[4] The aphorism that best represents Schilder’s position is Christianity, the soldier of culture


[1] Richard J. Mouw related this little-known fact to me in an email. Since Schilder’s theology of culture is based on the command of Scripture, I have little doubt that Mouw is correct.
[2] Ibid., 13.
[3] Ibid., 16.
[4] By calling Genesis 1:28 a “mandate,” Schilder may have insinuated a law-based outcome to man’s cultural activity that is not necessarily conveyed by the text. While every Word of God is certainly to be obeyed, and I stand by my claim that this portion of the Genesis narrative reveals a covenant of works, 1:28 is not in the same vein as say Exodus 20. 1:28 reveals what man ought to do, but it also conveys something more like, “this is what you are inclined to do because you are built this way.” Exodus 20 reveals what we ought to do despite the fact that as sinners we are inclined to disobey.

As far as I can tell Schilder’s Christ and Culture is out of print. Given its importance, this is amazing to me. But happily, you can read the whole thing online at 

You can also read John Barber’s chapter on common grace in which he discusses Schilder, Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til, and proposes an emphasis on the creation mandate as a way of resolving the dispute over common grace that divided these men here.

There he writes,

To this point, the reader might assume that I am in league with the detractors of common grace. Actually, my personal position differs from both the classic Kuyperian model of common grace, and from its detractors found among the Protestant Reformed Church. Permit me to explain.

Christians are to live fully in the world and this will require us to work and play side-by-side with unbelievers. This, however, does not discount the fact that there is a spiritual antithesis between Christian and non-Christian peoples, as expressed in the Bible. How do we bridge these two truths? Historically, rather than bridge these twin truths, people have adopted one extreme over the other. The common grace thinker lands too heavily in favor of his shared cooperation with non-believes in the culture while others stress the antithesis to such a degree as to reject all engagement in culture. This polarity is created when we start with common grace as the foundation for Christian cultural commitment. What I wish to propose is a different starting point for Christianity and culture, which is the cultural, or dominion, mandate of the Bible. With this new starting point we affirm both the necessity of the Christian obligation to the world and the existence of an antithesis between the people of God and the world.

Other presentations of the idea are Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (1959) and Albert Wolters’ Creation Regained (1985).

— D.C. Innes, associate professor of politics, The King’s College, New York City


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