The book of Genesis begins with the account of creation, in which human beings are blessed with the calling to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28 ESV). Human beings are the crown of this creation account, created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and given this mandate before God’s resting on the seventh day. The earlier parts of the opening chapter of the Bible describe how God had first created the cosmos out of nothing, and already had filled it with all manner of matter, from inanimate rocks and stars to living plants and breathing animals. But even as God looked and saw that everything he had made was good, he had left some important work to do. But this work wasn’t going to be the same kind of work he had done to call the world into being and to shape the world he had made. Instead, this work would be to cultivate that creation, and it was work that was to be done by human beings.
The Potential of Creation
One of the ways that humans manifest our identity as image-bearers of God is through creative work that is appropriate to our status as creatures. We are called to fruitful and creative work. But that work is categorically different from God’s work of creating the world out of nothing and filling that created order. Everything humans do is accomplished on the basis of that prior working by God. In this sense, all creative human work is relative and dependent.
And yet God has designed in his infinite goodness and grace to leave room for his creatures to have important roles to play. As the apostle Paul puts it, renewed humanity is God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10). In a fallen world renewed by Christ’s sacrificial work, those good things prepared in advance for us to do include preaching the gospel and teaching about God’s saving grace. But God also prepared good works for humanity to do in creation itself.
We see this in the work of naming the animals that God delegates to Adam as a manifestation of his calling “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Certainly God, the maker of heaven and earth, could have provided names himself “to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Gen. 2:20). Instead, we see God giving a concrete task to Adam. In his creative work, God has set the stage for the development of creation by his own creatures, human beings, created in his image to be creative in our own way.
The Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) describes this in terms of the potential God had designed in the structures of creation itself. “As many as the factors may be that contribute to the development of our social life, they all still come from what God established in the human race and in nature at their creation,” writes Kuyper. Pointing both to God’s original creation and his providential guidance of life through history, Kuyper observes that “there is nothing that comes by chance, and nothing comes from man outside God’s doing.” God’s calling for his creatures made in his image is to bring forth the potential hidden in creation, to discover, to invent, and to develop all these latent possibilities, manifesting them for the glory of God.
The Cultivation of Creation
This development of the potential of creation can be understood in terms of cultivation. God’s call for human beings to “be fruitful and multiply” is often understood as a cultural mandate: a command to cultivate and develop the world.
This cultivation is primarily accomplished through human work, which is best understood as the acts of love and service that human beings provide for one another. Often this work is paid labor, but work in its fullest sense can best be understood as involving service that is not remunerated. As the Reformed thinker Lester DeKoster (1915-2009) writes, work “gives meaning to life because it is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God. God accomplishes his purposes in the world by equipping us with talents, skills, and abilities that he expects us to use in service to others.” Work in this broad sense is a form of fulfilling the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.
Such loving work is to be of service, useful, and productive. Loving work like this seeks to find new ways to meet people’s needs and please them, bringing joy and happiness to life. Work then is the fundamental form of the cultivation of creation because it brings out the potencies hidden in the world and makes them manifest. This involves the material aspects of creation as well as the spiritual and the realm of ideas. As we learn more about how the world works, we learn how to use things in novel and creative ways, but we also learn about the character of the Creator of the world himself.
In this way Kuyper considers particular technological developments as concrete ways that human beings have cultivated creation. “Even what we call ‘inventions’—for example, the printing press, steam power, electricity, and so much more—which have had an immeasurable influence on human society, introduce nothing new to creation.” Each of these new things, and the discoveries made since Kuyper’s day, including the internet, electric guitars, space travel, cancer treatments, and atomic energy, are the manifestations of potential latent in the created order. As amazing and dizzying as such discoveries and developments can be, Kuyper contends, “they only draw from [creation] what it originally already contained, although nobody had seen or knew of it up to then.”
Significantly for Kuyper, this calling to cultivate creation is something that God had designed as fundamental to human existence itself. So in the context of a fallen but preserved world, both Christians and non-Christians participate in this common endeavor. This in part explains why technological inventions, scientific discoveries, and social advances are often made by those who are not confessors of Christ. Even unbelievers can contribute to the cultivation of creation, and this is also why the realm of productive work is so often where Christians serve alongside non-Christians.
Capital and Cultivation
If we think of work as the creative and productive service we provide to other people, thereby giving glory to God, we can also think of technology as one manifestation of that work that endures through time. There are infinite forms that work might take, but one form that it takes is the creation of tools and techniques that efficiently and productively engage the material world. Such technologies are a way of communicating the insights gained by humans working in previous generations, passing that knowledge to later workers.
Likewise capital connects us to the productive work of the past while giving us the potential to continue to cultivate creation into the future. One helpful way of understanding capital is as a form of the fruitfulness of the creative labor that has already been done. Profit and surplus beyond the needs of survival provide the basis for generative activities in the present and into the future. Technologies and accumulated capital are in this way both endowments provided by previous generations to present generations, with the attendant moral responsibility to use such bequests wisely and faithfully.
As Kuyper observed, technological advances like the printing press, steam power, and electricity are concrete manifestations of humankind’s cultivation of God’s creation. But the wealth generated through production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services are also manifestations of the cultivation of creation, as the gifts that God has given to us are used creatively to meet the needs and desires of our neighbors.
Human work has other dimensions beyond the tools, technical knowledge, and capital accumulation that it enables. Most notably our work as human beings helps to shape our soul and form our character. We should not think of God’s calling to cultivate creation simply in material or financial terms, things that can merely be touched or measured. But as we look through time at the progress of human civilization, we see the significance of this historical development of technology and wealth that provides the context for greater and greater advances and discoveries in the future.
Streams in the Desert
The prophet Isaiah described the salvation of Israel with the image of blooming flowers in the desert: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa. 35:1-2). This spiritual truth is grounded in a material reality of our world. Even in the wildernesses of our world there are plants that are waiting for the right conditions to bloom and to flourish. God provides “water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (Isa. 43:20) not only spiritually but also in the rain that falls on all human beings, whether just or unjust (Matt. 5:45).
In the same way that the application of water and sunlight is necessary for plants to flourish— whether in a backyard garden or in the spectacular surprise of a desert bloom—technology and capital are necessary for the continued cultivation of creation. Human beings participate in this communal endeavor, one that encompasses the work not only of everyone alive on the planet today, but everyone who has lived in the past and who will live in the future.
The gifts given to us through toil and devoted labor of previous generations come with a mandate: to faithfully continue in the calling that God has given to everyone to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Whether these gifts take the form of wisdom from mentors, best practices for a particular industry, mathematical formulas, ideas and insights in books, or in the capital to invest in new ventures, each one of us has a unique task to find ways to be of creative service to others, and in so doing to bring glory to God.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.