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Do Christians Really Have To Subdue The Earth?

Made in God’s own image, man has a unique responsibility to “subdue” the earth

and rule over every living creature (Gen. 1:27, 28).

—O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (1980)

Is the Dominion Mandate Still in Force?

dominion garden eden adam eveOn the sixth day of Earth’s history, God made man in His own image and granted him dominion, stewardship, over the whole of the lower creation (Gen. 1: 28).  In fact, God made man expressly for this purpose (Gen. 1:26; cf. Ps. 8).  God made man to rule His world.  But that meant that man had to learn to rule on God’s terms, not his own.  Of course, man chose rebellion over obedience and brought sin and death into the world.  And then God promised a Savior:  God proclaimed a gospel of grace.

Today there are many in the Church who are ready to dismiss the Dominion Mandate as a failed program, once best forgotten in the light of the New Testament gospel.  The gospel is seen as a better, higher, and fundamentally different program from that God set forth in the first chapters of Genesis.  The Dominion Mandate, so the thinking often goes, dealt in overtly material responsibilities. The gospel deals in higher spiritual blessings.

There are strains of Gnosticism and antinomianism in such thinking, but more, perhaps, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Dominion Mandate itself and its place in the creation covenant described in Genesis 1 and 2.  Too often we look at each piece of that covenant and miss its essential unity and goal.  We pull on the ear or the tail and mistake the elephant.

So to understand man’s task of dominion more fully, let’s start at the very beginning.

Imaging the Creator God

When God first created heaven and the earth, our world was formless, empty, and dark (Gen. 1:2).  But God immediately set about remedying this situation.  He created light.  He separated the waters from the waters and the land from the sea.  He placed light bearers—the sun, moon, and stars—in the heavens.  He filled the seas with fish and the skies with fowl.  He created cattle, beast, and creeping things.  Then He created man as His very image (Gen. 1:26).  And to man He entrusted the work of finishing what He Himself had begun:  bringing structure to the world; filling it with people; and spreading light to dispel the darkness.

It is significant that God spread out His creative activity over six calendar days.  God could have created the whole cosmos in a day or a moment.  But He didn’t.  He chose to order and structure it in six days so that man could follow His example (Ex. 20:11).  The six-day creation week anticipated man’s six-day workweek.

In like manner, God’s rest on the seventh day set an example for man.  God could have issued a command with regard to that day; He could have ordered man to rest and worship one day in seven as He later did from Mt. Sinai.  But here at the beginning of all things, He merely set an example, one which man as His obedient image would recognize and delight to follow.

Together, then, God’s six days of labor and one day of rest set a pattern for man’s work of dominion.  From the beginning, dominion, work, and weekly rest and worship were all bound up together.

Marriage and Children

God issued the Dominion Mandate towards the end of the sixth day.  But God had already assigned Adam the task of dressing (improving) and keeping (guarding) the Garden.  This was a sort of apprenticeship.  It was the Dominion Mandate in miniature.  And it is with regard to Adam’s apprenticeship in the Garden that God observed of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18).  So God made the woman from Adam’s side, brought her to the man, and consecrated the first marriage.  “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish (fill) the earth, and subdue it” (v. 28).

So it is within the Dominion Mandate that God first insisted on human procreation.  Three times God told the man and the woman—and humanity generally—to have children: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish.”  God made marriage and children integral to man’s task of dominion.  After all, two persons can’t rule or develop a whole planet.  The program that God set forth required mankind to fill the whole world.  Now, that plan had a finite, if temporally distant goal.  God never expected humanity to go on reproducing throughout eternity (cf. Matt. 22:29-20).  Man’s task had a goal and an end, a finish line.  So then from the beginning dominion, marriage, and children were all bound up together.

The Forbidden Tree

Finally, it’s important to consider man’s dominion in the light of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We must understand that the Tree wasn’t magical.  Its fruit wasn’t poisonous.  The meaning and significance of the Tree fits in God’s command concerning it:  If you eat of its fruit, you will die (Gen. 2:17).  Adam received this word from God at the beginning of his apprenticeship.  Eve didn’t hear the command directly:  Adam had to explain it to her.  He had to teach his wife the word of God.  If he failed—or if she failed to listen—the whole dominion project would miscarry.  Death would swallow the whole thing up.

Here’s the deal: The forbidden Tree was a testimony to God’s sovereign authority over His creation.  Adam and his wife had to refrain from eating its fruit simply because God said so.  The Tree was an opportunity for man to die to self, to live by every word of God precisely because it was the word of God.  It was an opportunity for man to learn obedience by setting aside his own desires and passions and yielding to God’s spoken word.  Unless and until Adam chose this spiritual maturity, he wouldn’t be ready or able to carry on the larger and far more long-term work of dominion over the whole Earth.

And so, like marriage, work and Sabbath rest, the forbidden Tree was inextricably woven into the creation covenant and into God’s original program for dominion.  The Tree was a crucial test of man’s loyalty and a necessary means for man to grow into spiritual maturity.  It was, in fact, a sacrament of sorts.  But abstinence from the Tree’s fruit didn’t exhaust Adams duty toward God or his task in this world.  So we may rightly distinguish the task from the test, but we have no grounds to so emphasize the test that we wholly set aside the task—that is, man’s responsibility to exercise dominion over God’s world.  Man’s fall didn’t excuse him from the very thing he was designed and created to do.

Conclusion

Man’s task of dominion and his role as vicegerent over God’s creation is not a matter incidental to creation, the creation covenant, or God’s plan for history.  The bulk of Genesis 1 moves toward the creation of man and his role as “master steward” of creation under God.  Genesis 2 focuses on man’s creation and shows us how all that God gave to us and requires of us was wrapped up together in a bundle of covenant life and responsibility.

The creation week, the task of dominion, the day of rest, marriage and children, the forbidden Tree, and man’s very existence as the image of God all hang together.  Adam ate of the Tree and brought sin and death upon the world.  But the grace of God that promised redemption didn’t erase, invalidate, or cast aside the very thing for which man was made.  The goal of redemption is the dominion of Christ over all things and the dominion of the redeemed man in Christ, now and in eternity (Rev. 22:3-5).  Most importantly, what Adam lost, Christ regained—and much more besides (Rom. 5:15-21).

For Further Reading:

O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980).

David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope, Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 1999).

Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (N. p.:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976).

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