What the cultural mandate is not
And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
There is nothing especially earth-shaking in this; it is simply affirming that, as God's image-bearers, we shape the world around us and adapt it to a diversity of uses. In recent years a number of books have been published by Christians on precisely this topic. One of the best is Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.
However, there is a persistent tendency amongst some to misidentify the Cultural Mandate as a command to redeem the larger culture from the distorting effects of sin. Chuck Colson's recent Breakpoint commentary is typical in this respect: Dual Commissions. Colson properly understands that the Cultural Mandate — or Commission — and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are not antithetical but, properly conceived, are complementary. Nevertheless, his understanding of the former is not entirely spot-on:
If Christians do not seize the moment and act on the cultural commission, there soon won’t be any culture left to save. But when we do our duty, we can change the world. Look at Christians like William Wilberforce, who spent most of his life fighting — and winning — the war against slavery in Britain, and bringing about a great cultural renewal in that country.
I will not deny that there are battles to be fought over significant issues, but that's not really what the Cultural Mandate is about. As Crouch puts it, "Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it's given to us and make something else" (p. 23). We have a God-given propensity "to make something more than we were given." This is fairly basic stuff. We fashion "paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels." Those who believe the cultural mandate was superseded by the Great Commission have only to look around: we human beings make culture willy nilly, and we always will, because God created us to do so. You don't have to be a culture warrior to recognize this reality of life.
Of course, one cannot escape the fact that our culture-making activities are affected by our sinful natures. This is the implication of Genesis 4:19-22. To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fashioning culture. Yet neither can we escape the taint of sin in all our undertakings. Moreover, a distinction must be made between obedient culture-making and disobedient culture-making, which corresponds to St. Augustine's distinction between the City of God and the City of this World. Rightly-oriented culture-making obeys the norms God has given us for life in his world: social, economic, aesthetic, ethical, political and other norms.
A good portion of what Colson calls the "Cultural Commission" must rather be understood to be the last part of the "Great Commission": "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Evangelization requires that we proclaim, not only God's saving grace, but the norms by which he intends those who are in Christ to live. In no way do mere human beings redeem culture by engaging in creative activity. This is presumptuous. Only God in Christ redeems his fallen creation. We are at most agents of his kingdom, manifesting his saving grace in everything we do — including the shaping of culture.