Religion & Liberty Online

How God makes a pencil

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In 1958, Leonard Read published his brilliant essay, “I, Pencil.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute recently released a wonderful video that illustrates Read’s point that the creation of a pencil requires an unfathomable level of complexity and undirected cooperation.

Read’s original essay was written from the point of view of the pencil and the humble writing implement explains why it is as much a creation of God as a tree.

Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

For Christians the idea that God creates trees is uncontroversial since that claim is made directly in Genesis 1:12. But where do we get the idea that God creates pencils? I believe it comes from a few verses later, in Genesis 1:28, when God blesses mankind . . . and then puts us to work.

And God blessed them. 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.” (ESV)

In the Reformed tradition, this command is often referred to as the “cultural mandate.” As Nancy Pearcey explains in her book Total Truth:

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.

Crops, bridges, computers, and music are all examples of cultural artifacts. Artifacts are any man-made things that are created from artifice (human skill). The range of what is classified under this term is almost endless. Artifacts include everything from stone arrowheads to skyscrapers to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to . . . the lowly pencil. Culture, therefore, is simply a collection of various artifacts within a particular grouping of peoples.

In his illuminating book Plowing in Hope, David Bruce Hegeman observes,

Culture is the concretization–the rendering in some permanent form–of mankind’s culturative acts, commonly manifested in man-made objects, structures, texts, etc. Such artifacts stand apart from but (ideally) work in harmony with God’s natural creation or “nature.”

By design, every culturative act requires the connectivity of human interaction. What we call “spontaneous order” is merely the outworking of the underlying laws and norms that God weaved into the very warp and woof of creation. Without God’s providential structuring of economic activity, we couldn’t even make cultural artifacts that are as simple as a pencil.

As the theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper once claimed, “No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Because every aspect of creation belongs to God, he can providentially use our interactions in the economic sphere—whether working at our vocations or engaging in the marketplace—to help us fulfill his cultural mandate.

When we engage in economic activity we are not only serving our fellow humans but also cooperating as sub-creators with God. Without him we couldn’t even produce tools for scratching words on paper. For while we may be the means he uses, only God knows how to make a pencil.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).