Making good progress

Continuing our series on values for scholarship, David Hanson looks at God’s calling for humans to innovate.

Scholarship is subject to cultural-formative norms. Humans never fabricate ex nihilo – only God does that. Yet the bringing of ‘new things’ into existence reflects God’s creative power in our calling to stewardly dominion of the world. Cooking a meal, composing music, writing a nation’s constitution: all respond to this calling.

In Hebrew, God’s “till and keep” command with reference to Eden (Gen 2:15) employs precisely the verbs that repeatedly call Israel to “serve and hearken to” Jahweh. This effectively spikes the guns that blame “dominion” (Gen 1:28) for human habitat-destruction. Mastery must listen to serve!

The 16th-century Reformation freed European minds from the idea that history is just unimportant ‘natural’ activity within which rare gemstones of a ‘spiritual’ reality are laid. Hitherto, Bible and Church had seemed to sparkle with alien light from an eternally static perfection where history – the forging of new things from creation’s wealth – had no place. But now Biblical ‘calling’ could inspire creativity wherever believers went: in gardening and pottery, trade, scholarship and politics.

After all, God once covenanted with “day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33). Earthly things aren’t just fascinating; they are revelatory, worth investigating with a passion. And such passion will not be resented by the Christ who reconciles “all things, in heaven and earth” to God. No other creature is so mandated: humans alone are called to convert experience, via investigation, into bodies of new interwoven knowledge that outlive their builders, whether pygmies or giants.

So, now, notice that tiny parenthesis interrupting the Genesis story: “(the gold [of Havilah] is good).” Gold, along with the onyx and aromatic resin, is useless stuff unless knowledgeably exploited. Here, one minute into reading your Bible, an author of undoubted piety relishes the thought of luxury, hinting at all kinds of productive skills. Such skills are irrelevant to the alien ‘spiritual’ life that un-reformed Christendom aspired to! Serious expertise is required to assess what’s good in such things: we need knowledge of natural environments, skills of smelting, distilling, fashioning, quality-control and trade.

Implicit in that parenthesis, then, are canons of practical anecdotal wisdom to which new observations accrue daily. Yesterday’s certainty is revised. Suggestions will need testing and peer-review. And cultural-formative power appears both in the golden or perfumed artefacts and in the burgeoning edifice of knowledge supporting the crafts. Knowledge expansion demands new vocabulary and meaningful descriptors. Guilds of recognised crafts-persons must arise.

Dooyeweerd’s philosophy identifies this cultural-formative (or historical) aspect in all human activity. It distinguishes the freely designed projects of Adam’s children from the instinctive fabrications of beavers and spiders – intricate and impressive though they be.

Readers of this blog will be especially interested in the elaboration of scholarly, scientific or theoretical knowledge, where personal, anecdotal input is largely replaced, for universality’s sake, by abstracted, analysable material. Properties of things are investigated, not unique entities. Yet all kinds of scholarly work are normed by cultural-formative challenges as well as logical-analytic ones. How to recruit the new idea and integrate it with existing knowledge? How to link it with ideas from other disciplines? How to imagine new shapes in interpretation? How to get stuff published? How to express these results? How to make my daily effort intelligible to others – not least to other members of “the household of faith”? Even: are some discoveries best undisclosed?


The parallel you notes between Gen 2.15 and, e.g., Deut 11.13 is very interesting. The usage seems to be a convention (e.g. Jer 27) employed in the context of worship/idolatry, but my hebrew is not good enough to be sure. Anyone familiar with this?

Excellent piece, David. Crisp and well expressed.
Dooyeweerd’s ontology has not gotten the credit it deserves for giving the best account in all of philosophy on how the nature of artifacts differs from natural things. Thanks for reminding us of that.

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