Implications of the Creation Mandate for Christian Education

Dennis E. Bills, MA, MEd


The Creation Mandate< xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" prefix="o" namespace="">

The creation mandate (also known as the cultural and dominion mandate) implies both the command to educate and the scope of the command.  According to Wolters, the creation account describes three levels of the creation:  1) Creatio ex nihilo:   God created the world out of nothing, 2)  Creatio secunda:  God created Laws of nature that govern the development of our physical reality.  In this way God governs his creation immediately, or directly.  3)  Creatio tertia:  God governs his creation mediately, or indirectly, through the involvement of human responsibility (Wolters, 1985).   This third facet of the creation account is known as the creation mandate (Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8:3-9).  From it we deduce that God created man to be the governor and developer of the creation: 

“Just as a human sovereign does certain things himself, but gives orders to his subordinates for other things, so with God himself.  He put the planets in their orbits, makes the seasons come and go at the proper time, makes seeds grow and animals reproduce, but entrusts to mankind the tasks of making tools, doing justice, producing art, and pursuing scholarship.  In other words, God’s rule of law is immediate in the nonhuman realm but mediate in culture and society.  In the human realm men and women become coworkers with God; as creatures made in God’s image, they too have a kind of lordship over the earth, are God’s viceroys in creation”  (p. 14).

Education is Normative

The creation mandate therefore is “societal and cultural in nature,” i.e., having to do with the substance of civilization (Wolters, 1985).   Just as material laws for nature may be adduced by the scientific method, immaterial norms for society and culture may adduced through means such as general revelation, the conscience, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit (Graham, 2003).  Government, science and medicine, leisure and entertainment, art and literature are among the most obvious of these cultural norms. That education is also a norm seems self-evident: “Education, therefore, is fundamental to humanity’s task of developing and conserving this created order” (Van Dyk, n.d.).

The concession that identifying creational norms is a debatable process should “lead us to humility and dependence on God in trying to do our cultural work” (Graham, p. 26). But we should not assume we are left without strong guidance for discerning creation’s normative structures.  A careful, biblically informed study of the development of civilization should reveal the broad outlines of God’s creational structures.   “The fundamental knowability of the creation order is the basis of all human understanding, both in science and in every day life” (Wolters, pp. 28-29). 

The Scope of Education

In addition to implying the norm of education itself, the creation mandate also implies the scope of education:  it authorizes and commands the exploration of any academic subjects that support its own fulfillment.  The scope of education takes “the whole realm of human culture for its domain” (Wolterstorff, p. 29).  Van Til states that “education is implication into God’s interpretation” (Van Til, 1989, p. 44).  By this he means that “there are not because there cannot be other facts than God-interpreted facts” (Van Til, 1948).     There is, therefore, only one way to view the world—God’s way. Representatively, the studies of math, science, art, literature, etc, are all divinely mandated, God-glorifying activities.   Furthermore, as creator, God is also responsible for the unified cohesion of these separate subjects into their practical applications in reality (De Jong,1989).  Knowledge for the unification of these separate subjects and skill-sets for their application are therefore the legitimate scope of education. We may conclude that the creation mandate justifies schools, validates the teaching profession, and motivates the learner.  

The Value of Vocation

The creation mandate further supports the doctrine of vocation: that God has given us each a divinely appointed "calling" or responsibility to apply the creation mandate in our everyday lives.  Common labor becomes worship when we not only understand its sacredness, but embrace it and consecrate our labors to God’s glory.   The doctrine explains how our vocations fit into God's plan for the development of civilization and turns "just another day at work" into a worshipful, God-glorifying experience (Veith, 2002). 

Vocation is the means by which God uses people to normally govern and care for his creation.  God chooses to work through human beings (creatio tertia) who in their different capacities and according to their different talents serve each other.   We ask God for our daily bread, and he answers that prayer through the normal providence of farmers, bakers, meal-preparers, truck drivers, factory and warehouse workers, wholesale distributers, stockboys, cashiers, bankers, futures investors, advertisers, lawyers, agricultural scientists, mechanical engineers, etc.  All these were instrumental in enabling you to eat your morning bagel.    We pray for healing and God calls doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and lab technicians.  We pray for protection and God provides governments, armies, and police officers.  We long for beauty and God provides artists and writers.   We need to travel and God provides autoworkers, mechanics, road crews, and airline employees.  We aspire to cleanliness through garbage collectors, plumbers, sanitation workers, and even undocumented aliens who clean our hotel rooms.   We need salvation and spiritual growth so God gives us pastors, and evangelists.  And in support of all these vocations, God gives us teachers.

Martin Luther said that vocation is a mask of God.  God himself hides in the workplace, the family, the Church, and even seemingly secular society.  To speak of God as being hidden is a way of describing his presence.  Realizing that the mundane activities that take up most of our lives – going to work, going to school, going to soccer and basketball practice, picking up things at the store, going to church – are hiding places for God can be a revelation in itself.  Most people seek God in mystical experiences, spectacular miracles, and extraordinary acts.  To find Him in vocation brings Him, literally, down to earth, makes us see how close He really is to us, and changes our everyday life (Veith, 2002). 

Implications for Education

Purpose and Value

The creation mandate has several implications for Christian School education.   It gives our education a redemptive purpose in this world.   Education itself is not just a norm to be redeemed but is also a means for preparing Christians who will themselves embrace the broader mission of redemption.   God commanded man to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over all creation.   Reformed theologians have inferred from this that man is responsible to develop a multifaceted civilization, complete with government, art, education, entertainment, science, medicine, and all else that is a part of cultured society.  After the Fall, man misdirected each of these, but redeemed man has the mission and means to turn them about to the proper direction. 

The creation mandate helps teachers locate their own place in this world through the doctrine of vocation.  They also come to understand the weight of their role in the lives of students.  They must show students that purpose in life originates with the Creator’s mandate for mankind.  While the rest of society lives for the weekends, Christian students should be taught to see their schoolwork and future occupations as a calling.  They can be encouraged to consider their value in God's plan for the development of civilization.  Additionally, an understanding of vocation will encourage students to consecrate their labors to God’s glory.  Teachers should teach students to seek meaning in life through their relationship with God.    

Unity and Goodness

The creation mandate also implies that knowledge should be taught as a unity that prevents students from dichotomizing their Christianity, dividing it artificially into the secular and the sacred.  What God made, he unequivocally declared to be good.  While creation itself was indeed subjected to the curse, the moral locus of the Fall is within the hearts of men and devils.  The antithesis of good and evil runs through every thing that man lays his hands upon, but does not bifurcate the created order into those things that are good and those things that are evil.  This would include the material of creatio ex nihilo, the physical laws of creatio secundo, and the norms and structures of creatio tertia.

The Creation-Fall-Redemption Paradigm

The Creation Mandate naturally leads to applications of the creation-fall-redemption paradigm:  First, everything God made was good.  Second, the fall misdirected or distorted the structures of creation from their original direction and purpose.  Third, the redemptive task that has been given to believers is to restore these creational structures to their original direction (Wolters, 1985).

The Fall

            Since everything was created by God to be good, we must learn to recognize the effects of the fall upon creation.   Wolters describes this in terms of “structure” and “direction.” A fundamental error that confuses our Christianity is the conflation of these two ideas.    “Structure” refers to the immaterial aspects of culture that God built into the created order. They may include church, family, education, government, etc. Like all of God’s material and immaterial creation, these structures were good when they were created.  According to the theory of creation tertia, God expects humanity to develop these structures in accordance with his revealed will.  “Direction” refers to the state of these structures as being pointed either toward or away from God’s revealed will in the hands of their human stewards.   If we grant that education is a creational structure, then we can assume that it can be directed either toward or away from God’s purposes for it.   The revealed will of God is that education is uniquely and necessarily the responsibility of parents.  Therefore, any development within the field of education that distorts this norm is an example of misdirection and evidence of the Fall’s effect upon the created order. 

An example of the fall’s misdirection of a creational structure is the increasing institutionalization of education.  Institutions for the education of students appear to be a necessary part of the created order.  However, institutional education tends to develop bureaucracies and bureaucratic tendencies at near-cancerous rates.  These structures suck power and authority from education’s biblical locus—from the hands of parents.  State responsibility for education is so built into parents’ assumptions that most do not even think to question the role of the State.  The self-interest of teachers unions, truancy laws, and federal curriculum guidelines are all examples of how power and authority has been stolen from parents. 

Evidence that the State has usurped parental authority and that parents have acquiesced can be found in public school transportation programs.  Brimley and Garfield say that “54% of the student population in the nation were provided transportation at an average cost of $493 per student and “$2,460 per special needs child” (367).  The costs of buses, drivers, mechanics, supervisors, maintenance, and fuel are exorbitant.  Complaints about how difficult it is to fund education are ironic when so much money is thrown at a service that is bloated and unnecessary.   Even if it is granted that some portion of the population needs help getting to school, it is hard to imagine that 54% of the population cannot afford to provide their own transportation. Besides being exorbitantly expensive and largely unnecessary, such a large percentage of the population’s dependence is symptomatic of the transfer of responsibility from family to state.  The fact that the legitimacy of such an expensive transportation system is hardly questioned by the public reveals how deeply we have settled into apathy regarding state authority.   Like compulsory attendance, the necessity of busing is simply assumed without question.  We have not only given over our parental responsibility to the state, but we wave goodbye and smile as the bus takes our children away.

As a result of parental acquiescence, much that should be communicated from parents to children is not.  Peer socialization tainted with unregenerate immaturities has replaced parent-child socialization.  No longer do children learn the value of hard work and responsibility that parents once taught them. The irresponsibility of adolescence has even been extended into the early years of college.  Morality devoid of Biblical direction infuses every aspect of State sponsored education.  In fact, one of the original intentions of state sponsored education was the washing out of the distinctiveness of denominations and religions.  The effect was that the Gospel and other distinctive truths of the Christian religion were removed from the classroom.   The efforts to produce common morality were divorced from any absolute ground of morality. The founders of public school education believed “that schooling is a cure all for everything that ails us” (Lasch, 160).  But by washing out true religion, they created a religion that failed to invigorate the soul, and instead, “put children to sleep” (915).  The common morality and “pure religion” envisioned by the founders of public education evolved into moral relativism.  This is an effect of State usurpation of parental authority.

Biblically, authority for educating children should be in the hands of parents.  However, since most people cannot homeschool for practical reasons, educational institutions are necessary.   If the bureaucracies of state controlled schools are at one end of the authority continuum, and if homeschools are on the other end then Christian schools must necessarily reside somewhere in the middle.   While the nature of institutional education prevents Christian schools from accommodating every parental whim, Christian schools should nevertheless be wary of depravity’s propensity to steal authority from parents and reserve it for the institution.   Christian schools that direct the creational structure of education toward God’s revealed will must reserve as much authority to parents as the nature of institutional education will allow.  If they do not constantly evaluate policies and their applications, they may find that depravity has misdirected the structure of education away from God’s intended norms.


After recognizing what is good in creation and the misdirections caused by the fall, we can and should consider what should be our role in the redemptive process. The word “redemption” describes this process because any restoration depends entirely upon the work of God in Christ.   Since depraved humanity governs creation sinfully, Christ’s sacrifice was necessary to redirect the mandate to its pre-fall state.   Salvation restores man to his pre-fall purposes.  Christ redeemed man to restore him to his creaturely role.  Man, therefore, is not the Redeemer within the creation-fall-redemption paradigm.  Instead, redemption is the work of God that gives humanity new direction and ability.   Apart from redemption, humanity would continue in its depravity and further distort the creation toward sin and destruction.  God's particular grace in the lives of believers can be used to redirect the artifacts and ceremonies of civilization to the greater glory of God.  After all, all things were made by him and for him (Col. 1:16).   Teaching students about the creation mandate gives them a mission in life, arms them to fulfill that mission, and prepares them to impact culture.

In order for students to understand their role in the redemptive process, they must first be able to recognize the misdirection and distortion of creational norms and structures.  This requires teaching students to know and understand the revealed will God.  The scriptures will necessarily take a preeminent place in the instructional program of mandate-oriented school.   The Bible program will not merely exist as a separate subject, but will be integrated throughout the curriculum in all subjects.  Subjects will be taught with an eye for distinguishing what was created to be good, how it has been distorted by depravity, and how it can be restored to its original goodness.

Bringing It All Together

Christian education teaches creation’s material aspects of physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences, as well as creation’s immaterial aspects—history, sociology, geography, logic, math, art, etc.  Just as the physical creation is governed by laws of physics, the immaterial aspects of God’s creation are governed by “norms” (Graham, 2003).  The creation-fall-redemption paradigm informs us that these material and immaterial aspects of God’s creation are not evil in themselves; on the contrary, God explicitly pronounces them good.   

It stands to reason then that a significant responsibility of Christian educators is to discern and teach creational norms:  That God intends the organizations and institutions of culture and society to be directed according to the norms he has established.  This involves discerning what is good about them, how the fall has distorted that goodness, and what we can we do to redirect them to the glory of God.  What is controversial about this is the suggestion that God’s created order was and remains good.  Many have been taught for decades that the artifacts, institutions, and organizations of this world are so evil that the most appropriate responses to them are to either separate themselves from them entirely or to conquer them as moral dictators. Instead, depravity has not erased creational norms, but has rather invaded them.  The fall introduced evil into this world, causing mankind’s depravity to operate within the domain of God’s good creation.  Man has, through his depravity, misdirected and distorted the immaterial structures of God’s creation.  The paradigm, therefore, helps us to understand that the antithesis of good and evil does not bifurcate this world into categories that are exclusively good and evil.  Instead, the antithesis of good and evil runs through people and institutions.  

Wolters provides some diagrams and explanations that help illustrate the goodness of God’s creational norms:

Let us imagine that a square represents creation in all its variety and extent. . . It is important to note that the lines separating the different areas represent or approximate real distinctions drawn by the Creator, not by the fall or some arbitrary human convention.  Church life is different from family life, because God created the church and the family unique and different. . . The lines dividing different kinds of creatures are God ordained and good (66).


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Plants and animals

Inanimate matter


Wolters explains that a common Christian worldview unfortunately separates these different areas of creation into what is considered holy and what is considered common, profane or worldly.  For instance:

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The Kingdom of God (sacred)






“the world” (secular)





Plants and animals

Inanimate matter


Christians who embrace this worldview tend to limit godly activity to what can be accomplished on the sacred side of the line.  What is below the line may be necessary to get through this reality on the way to heaven, but does not contribute to and may even inhibit godliness.  This results in a sort of separatistic pietism that denies the goodness of God’s creation and the intention of God to give each of these areas a meaningful and God-glorifying role in our lives.  “We must be careful not to assign the status of evil to anything that God has created.  Rather we must understand evil as a distortion of what is good” (Graham, 28).

Sin impacts every area of the creation.  Instead of arbitrarily separating creation into what is holy and what is sinful, the entirety of creation is the battleground between depravity and holiness. Instead of abandoning certain areas to the world, the battle ought to be fought hard in each (Wolters, 69).    Depravity runs throughout all of creation, and all creation is our responsibility.  Wolters illustrates this with another diagram.







The Kingdom of God (sacred)




“the world” (secular)











and animals





The application of the paradigm requires that we attempt to distinguish between what is good, and what has been distorted by the fall.  While we should not underestimate or downplay the effects of the fall, original sin, and the total depravity of mankind, we should not automatically assume that the work of human hands and minds are devoid of good.  The growth and development of civilization, with all its artifacts and ceremonies, though affected significantly by the fall, are not entirely evil.   Mankind has been over the centuries fulfilling his reflective purpose upon this earth, whether he likes it or not. The fact of God’s good creation combined with God’s common grace and redemptive activity does much to preserve and implement God's rule in this world. 

Christian schools should consider this when evaluating curriculum for instance.  Curriculum need not be written by Christians or have bible verses printed throughout its pages to be useful in Christian schools.  We should also consider this when establishing rules, prohibiting certain kinds of music, making rules against movies, banning certain library books from use in the curriculum, when taking sides in political issues, etc.  

An understanding of creational norms forces schools to determine what sort school they will be.  Will they teach pietistic separatism or cultural engagement?  Pietistic separatism is prevalent in many Christian schools.  In spite of claiming to be Christian, these schools have bypassed an affirmative Christian philosophy in favor of defensive and escapist purposes.  They do not exist to be Christian but to be different from public schools. 

Christian schools manifest this philosophy through stringently regulated environments and overly pietistic instruction.  They celebrate rules and regulations, primness and properness, strict moral expectations and uniform codes.   Their discipline programs often create mere façades of good behavior.  They often demand curricula written by Christians and published by Christian publishing houses. By carefully governing the school environment they seek to protect their students from influences that they have deemed evil.  They behave as if the created world was sinful, and they preach that the primary responsibility of Christians is to separate themselves from all that is “worldly” (Hall,  1991).  

On the other hand, schools that embrace the creation mandate are more likely to see themselves as cultural engagers.  They will expose their students to a wider array of ideas, even controversial ones.  They will recognize the value of science, history, art, music, etc. even though the curricula are produced by unbelievers. They will produce students who know, value, and enjoy God’s good creation, who discern and are wary of the fall’s effects, and who are able to formulate plans for redirecting structures within their sphere of influence toward God’s intended direction.  Ideally, they will produce students who discerningly engage culture.


The creation mandate implies that education must necessarily be evangelistic.  Since education is grounded in the creation mandate, true education cannot take place apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Without the Gospel, there is no redemption of souls, no restoration to God’s intention, no redemption of God’s creation, and no fulfilling of the mandate.  The Gospel is therefore fundamental to education and cannot legitimately be excluded by those whose mission to educate is informed by the creation mandate.   

Institutional Obstacles to the Creation Mandate

Unfortunately, many people do not understand the prior mission of the cultural mandate and its implications for education.   They may be more concerned about “excellence” in education, high standardized test scores, transferability of classes to other schools, and graduation requirements.  These concerns create conflicts, bringing about political and economic problems for the school.  Because Christian schools may not teach to secular, standardized objectives, our test scores sometimes risk not being as consistently high as some people would like to see them.  Christian schools may not offer the wide variety of classes that parents think colleges desire.  Christian school credits might not all be transferable because their content is significantly different in that they attempt to relate, wherever possible, content from each class and subject to the others.  They may not offer the wide variety of extracurricular activities that other schools do, having other, more biblically derived priorities.

All this means that retention will always be an issue for a school that attempts to educate biblically:   many students will leave after the eighth grade in order to get the athletics, class variety, and sense of “real life” that the public schools offer.  This creates serious economic problems that not only inhibit our ability to pursue our mission, but prevent us from offering the class variety, athletics and student life that so many parents covet for their children (an awkward catch-22).   The pressure to keep students creates a very real temptation for schools to accommodate parental concerns particularly in class offerings and content.   Schools that face this temptation may make accommodations that slow down their desired advance toward a full mandate-oriented curriculum.

One answer to this dilemma may be an effective education program for parents.   Mandate-oriented schools must help them realize that the purpose for education is very different from the purpose of schools to which they are often compared.   They must come to believe and embrace this purpose for themselves and their children. Schools should especially focus on young families whose children are just beginning the program.  With these parents and children, schools stand more of a chance of growing them up into its own sense of mission.   In the meanwhile, as they work out the specifics of an education program for parents, they simply need to muster the courage to be consistent with their mission in spite of its political and economic ramifications. If He wills, God can take care of schools financially so that they should not fear the effects of losing students because of an emphasis upon the creation mandate. 


·         Brimley, V., Jr., & Garfield, R. R. (2005). Financing education in a climate of change (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

  • De Jong, N. (1989). Education in the truth.  Lansing, IL: Redeemer Books.
  • Graham, D. L. (2003).  Teaching redemptively: Bringing grace and truth into your classroom. Colorado Springs:  Purposeful Publications.

·         Hall, W. W. (1991).  “Here world, take my children.” In J.W. Deuink (ed). Preparing the christian school for the 21st century. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press (pp.23-28).

·         Lasch, C. (1995). The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy. New York: W.W. Norton.

·         Van Dyk, J. (n.d.). “Chapter II:  Context.” No further information is available. 

  • Van Til, C. (1948). “Introduction.” In B. B. Warfield, The inspiration and authority of the bible. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed (pp. 3-68).
  • Van Til, C. & L. Berkhof (1989). Foundations of christian education: Addresses to christian teachers (D. J. Johnson, ed). Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed.
  • Vieth, G. E. (2002). God at work. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
  • Wolters, A. (1985). Creation regained:  Biblical basics for a reformational worldview. Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  • Wolterstorff, N. (2002). Educating for life (G. G. Stronks & C.W. Joldersma, eds.). Grand Rapids: Baker.