The topic of mankind’s “dominion” over God’s created order is one that has been misunderstood by entire generations of Americans in the last half century. Many conscientious people of faith worry that the traditional Judeo-Christian values system in the West has dropped the ball when it comes to the environment and our usage of natural resources. While there are more than a few grains of truth in these charges, the emotional appeal of being on the side of Mother Nature can take its intellectual (and eventually, moral) toll on even the most sincere of Believers.
Let’s take a quick look at what Scripture has to say about all of this.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 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”
In the verses above God says what He is going to do (i.e. make man in His image, let him have dominion over the earth), does what He said He would do, and then, a few verses later (31), says that what He did was “good.”
Dominion is a good thing. Before sin entered the world Adam was given work to do. He was made the foreman of planet earth. In Genesis 3, after The Fall, Adam is still the foreman, still has dominion, and again is commanded to “subdue” the earth. It is at this point, however, that God warns him of how difficult and toilsome his work will now become.
But what does dominion mean? What does subduing the earth look like?
The term “subdue” (in Hebrew, “kabash”) is used in the Old Testament to describe when someone takes control of a piece of land or group of people and subjugates it (or them) with the express purpose of yielding a benefit from it (or them).
One of the most important implications of this verse is that human beings are supposed to cultivate, investigate, develop, and look after the planet and its resources. This would reasonably include the cultivation and development of ideas themselves. Certain ways of doing things are verifiably better than others. It’s not good subjugation to continually re-tread ineffective (and in some cases, disastrous) ideas.
In short, we are to derive benefits from what God has blessed us with and given us stewardship over.
God knew that mankind would feel tempted to worship nature because of how awe-inspiring it can be, and because the worship of nature carries with it no compulsory moral code to bind us. He knew that we would mistake (or intentionally replace) the creation for the Creator.
This, I believe, is a big reason He made sure to give us dominion over nature. If we could adequately appreciate that it (nature) is subservient to us, we might be more inclined to remember that we, in turn, are subservient to Him. We might then, perhaps, learn to thank Him in light of the former and worship Him in light of the latter.
There is a pecking order in God’s universe, and while He is over and above all things, He graciously gave us rank and responsibility over and above nature.
As is the case with all positions of leadership and responsibility, there are perks and there are duties. I would venture to say that one perk of having dominion over nature is that we can subdue the earth to the extent that we establish civilizations, which affords us the opportunity to create things like art and poetry and Dostoevsky novels. But it’s not supposed to be all fun and games. Our duties include the aforementioned “toilsome” work that, thousands of years after the events of Genesis, Saint Paul will teach that “a man shall not eat” if he won’t do.
Will Rogers once wrote, “Freedom isn’t free.” Well, neither is dominion.
To many modern Americans, the very notion of human beings being more important than nature may be jolting to the senses. In truth, this notion shouldn’t be anything but an interesting blend of humbling and comforting. Christ speaks of our superior worth in Matthew 7 when he says:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
I can’t tell you why everything is the way it is, but I can tell you how things are. God made us in His image, and subsequently we have (conditional) dominion, responsibility to subdue the earth, and the capabilities to create, innovate, develop, and improve the world around us. This dominion isn’t unlimited. Human beings can’t fix, solve or control everything. Human beings also cannot simply do whatever they want to the earth and its resources. Stewardship is an impediment not only to exploitation, but to indifference to exploitation.
So what are the practical worldview implications here? Scripture doesn’t just suggest dominion, productivity, and development of natural resources – it commands it. Appreciating that we live in an imperfect world, and that we won’t always get to reside in the most God-honoring system of government and/or economy, the primary concern of a follower of Christ ought to be what God’s standard is. Christians living in China, Iran, and even Socialist Europe have very little say or sway in terms of how their governments and economic marketplaces function. Traditionally, Americans have had much more opportunity to mold and shape their culture, and as the saying goes: “politics” is down-stream of culture.
Therefore, I believe that part of my job as a believer in the public square is to –as best I can – advocate and vote for people, ideas, and mechanisms that – as best they can – honor and pursue my biblical worldview.