I'm currently reading (very slowly) The Calvinistic Concept of Culture by Henry R. Van Til and he has the following very provocative quote on page 34:
But culture, as such, is a gift of God to man as well as an obligation. The Germans have a word for it Gabe und Aufgabe. Thus man was at once servant and child. Man stood in that relationship to his Maker, wherein he knew God as his friend, and loved him as his Father. At the same time he had received dominion over all God's created world, to be lord and master in the name of his God. Unto this end he was to populate the earth with his kind and to cultivate it. This was not a matter of choice but of divine precept and it entered into the very constitution of man, so that man is essentially a cultural being. The cultural urge, the will to rule and have power is increated. This is not demonic, or satanic, but divine in origin. True, men may misues and abuse power after the entrance of sin into the world, but to say with Lord Acton that all power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutlely, which is quoted promiscuously by men who ought to know the Scriptures, is not wisdom but folly and confusion. For power belongs to man by virtue of his creation as a cultural creature. He was made to function in the realm of power and to develop his power to its highest potency - for God, of course! There's the rub! Men continually forget the divine original in paradise and take the condition of Paradise lost for granted as being normative.
With the caveat that I am 35 pages into a 245 page book and that Van Til will obviously explain himself further as the book goes along, here ar ea few initial, knee jerk reactions to these statements.
1. Van Til convinces me that Lord Acton's statement is not self-evident, and is not a truism. I agree that there is a sense in which man was created to wield power to the glory of God.
2. That power is not inherently evil or corrupt is confirmed in that power will still be wielded in the New Heavens and New Earth. God will still be ruling His people. We will be ruling and reigning with Him in the new creation.
3. Nevertheless, Van Til doesn't convince me that Lord Acton's statement is false, only that it should be qualified properly when stated.
4. Van Til's statements here must likewise be qualified. For one, we must consider the implications of Genesis 1:28-30:
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Then God said, "I give you ever seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and all the creatures that move on the grond - everything that has the breath of life in it - I give every green plant for food." And it was so.
This passage supports Van Til's assertion of the cultural implications of being human, that the creation of culture involves the exercise of power.
Yet it should be equally stressed that the power and dominion given here is power over earth, and plants and animals. There is no discussion here of the power of one human being over another. This does not mean that humans are never to exercise power over one another. But this is not in view in Genesis 1:28-30.
5. The first discussion of the use of power in a human to human sense is in Genesis 3:16, where Eve is told:
Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.
Iin this passage the "desire" which Eve will have for her husband is a desire to control. The word for "desire" here is used in Genesis 4:7 of sin's desire to "have" Cain. This desire is not a benevolent desire, it is the original "will to power." So, Eve will desire to control her husband and the husband will "rule" over her. Again, because this is in the context of the fall, it is difficult to see this desire to rule on the part of the man as being a benevolent desire. It seems to be more of a desire to conquer the woman.
Again, my point is not that the exercise of power in human relationships is always in and of itself sinful. But we must keep in mind that the fall introduced a kind of desire for power that is tyrannical and despotic by nature.
6. Thus, when speaking of shaping culture, we ought to speak differently about the use of power in relationsihp to humans vs. inanimate objects. But even that gets tricky because it is humans who are using the inanimate objects, so issues of power amongst humans will almost always be involved.
7. Though Van Til is right, that power doesn't necessarily corrupt, throughout history, humans in general and Christians in particular, haven't had the greatest track record when it comes to using power. The tension is real. Some of the cardinal Christian virtues are love, humility, lowliness, and self-abnegation. To be sure, these aren't necessarily antithetical to the use of power, but a real tension ensues when these virtues mix with positios of power. Further, Jesus is constantly telling His follower to prefer the lower place, to be servants rather than masterrs. Jesus has a special concern for the less powerful, and calls us to gravitate toward the less powerful positions of life.
So, though the phrase "humble ruler" is not always an oxymoron, it is difficult to achieve, at best.
8. It seems that power is something like sex, a great and wonderful gift of God when used properly, devastating when used improperly. And maybe the solution to the power problem is something like the solution to the sex iproblem. Both are given and to be used as expressions of love, for the glory of God and the good of another. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely when it is divorced from love, and when it is used for the glory and good of the individual.
9. So, I think Van Til is on to something we ought to consider, Maybe we ought not take Lord Acton's famous saying at face value, as a truism. Christians ought to see realms of power as possible callings in life.
Yet, we must also be conscious that the exercise of power by one human being over another is uniquely fraught with the effects of fallenness. And any exercise of power must be driven by a desire to recover the original benevolent intentions of Godly power while simultaneously being willing and ready to battle against the natural drifts of our human fallenness.