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The Dominion Mandate: lessons for pastors, theologians and believers

Tuesday, 4 August 2020  | Neville Carr




Currently we’re confronted in the media by how a pandemic is undermining community and family life, as well as economic and political stability (not to mention all the wars and natural disasters we’ve had recently).

Many people, Christians included, are responding in various ways: denial, paranoia, fear, protest, longing for the good old days, frustration; but also resignation, resilience, neighbourliness, calmness, kindness and forbearance. The elderly, the vulnerable and their relatives prevented from visiting them during lockdown all suffer – not to mention families and friends of the dead. Thousands are out of work, bolstered financially for a precarious period by government support. Many businesses have gone to the wall. Mental health problems are multiplying. Economists suggest recovery will possibly take decades. Population growth could be halved. Sport, recreation and religion are all affected. Even the AFL grand final’s sacred turf might be shifted to the north!

At a time when life’s certainties are being challenged, and when science thus far has failed to come up with a vaccine, people are questioning fundamental values, beliefs, assumptions and customs: Do we need to work in an office, travel to a meeting or shop so often? How important is connectedness, family and mental health? What are the drawbacks of virtual connectedness? What disparities are there in health and education provision between the affluent and disadvantaged or disabled?

All such questions relate specifically to issues of worldview, religion and morality - of what being fully human involves - despite the real control over our lives science has advanced.

This article offers a way forward in negotiating a biblical pathway through these times, by outlining God’s original plan for human flourishing.

What difference would it make to Christian life and Gospel impact if more attention were paid to the creation narrative? I’ve been fascinated for decades by the ‘mandates’ in Genesis 1 and 2, and why the Bible starts and finishes with a good creation and a gloriously renewed one. Why is so much emphasis in preaching, worship and Christian education on individual sin, piety, evangelism and worship, but so little on creation care, justice, and cultural and social transformation?

I want to suggest a link between Paul’s idea of equipping the saints for service (diakonia: Ephesians 4.11-16) and the ‘Commissions’ of Genesis 1.26-28 and Matthew 28.19 - Adam’s ‘dominion’ and the ‘authority’ of the first Christians. The apostle refers back to Adam in Psalm 8.6-8, applying it by saying how God not only put all things under Christ’s feet, but raised him and us to rule with him in heaven, empowering us for good works (Ephesians 1.22; 2.6, 10).

Dominion in Genesis presupposes a violent, formless world in need of ordering (Andreas Schule, Theology from the Beginning, 2017, 58-61). When the author opens with ‘In the beginning’, he is looking back and inferring from the current darkness of exile in Babylon, or the more dysfunctional condition of humanity, that, ‘long before such a disaster, in the beginning … God brought order out of the chaos’. The fact that the river flowed down from Eden’s heights (Ezekiel 28. 14, 16; cf. Revelation 21.10) through tributaries into the then-known world suggests a divine plan to prosper all nations (2.10-14; cf. Ezekiel 47, Revelation 22) – a core missiological theme.

This connects to the delegated ‘authority’ for restoring creational order ((rule of a benevolent king, not a despot out for his own gain, which dominion can imply) and Adamic blessedness via discipleship and spiritual and social transformation. ‘The environmental movement has a strong case against Christianity because in practice many have ruled the environment as a despot resulting in the degradation which we now see all around us. Creation belongs to God, it is the object of His affection, God communicates with us through His creation, and mankind is invited and commanded by God to help Him take care of it’ (Dr Judy Lund, personal communication, 31/07/2020).

The dominion mandate has four components: i. Building community (1.28: ‘be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth’); ii. Economic production and creation care (2.15: ‘till and guard’ Eden); iii. Meaning-making (2.19, 20: ‘naming’); iv. Rest, reflection and worship (‘sabbath’).

The community God desires is reflected in his own ‘sociality’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘limitation’ (Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed, 2010, 29): God’s people are given a theological and ethical framework (e.g. Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy 10.12-22, Sermon on the Mount) to navigate the entire breadth of life as  a ‘holy nation’, a ‘priestly kingdom’ called to ‘proclaim the mighty acts’ of God (1 Peter 2.9), ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (Romans 8.29), and to ‘do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [your] God’ (Micah 6.8). Today’s community-builders might include parents, educators, lawmakers and health professionals. With this and subsequent mandates, all such activities are sacred, none more important than another; each contributing to human flourishing and the honouring of God, yet mostly unrecognised in churches and theological institutions as ‘ministry’ (Hendrik Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 1958, 9,10).

Work (Heb. ‘cultivate’, ‘till’, ‘serve’) has links to sacred Temple service. Adam is a kingly priest (a word currently bearing sinister connotations) worshipping in a ‘garden sanctuary’ (Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 2012, 215).

The word ‘guard’ both in Eden (like the heavenly city, a place of precious stones) and Temple means keeping evil out (G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 2004, 84, 85; cf. Revelation 21.8). As princely stewards of earth’s resources, humans are to nurture and never exploit them for selfish gain; they must be used for ‘goals that don’t turn to power and abuse’ (Lund). When they ‘serve’ (respect) the earth, it will ‘serve’ them with produce; when they exploit, degrade or pollute the land, oceans and rivers, they disobey God, leading to barrenness, flood and famine (Deuteronomy 28, Jeremiah 3.2-3, Hosea 2; 9.10-14, Joel 2). Cultural activity is included: Genesis 4.17-22 describes urban development (Enoch’s city), Jabal’s livestock and Jubal’s musicians. Tubal-Cain is a metal worker, Noah a craftsman, zookeeper and viticulturist (Genesis 6, 9), Nimrod a ‘mighty hunter’ (Genesis 10.8,9). Here in embryonic form is a theology of technology, work and culture, all honourable, yet deeply flawed - what Christopher Wright labels ‘arrogant abuse’ (The Mission of God’s People, 2010, 51) - aspects of kingdom service after the Fall. Yet in the heavenly city, earthly rulers and people will bring their ‘glory and the honour of the nations’ into it (Revelation 19.8 and 21.24, 26), a reference to knowledge, skills and cultural products purged of all evil – ‘the best of human workmanship that has been developed throughout history’. The ‘fine linen’ is described as ‘the righteous deeds of the saints’ (J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 2014, 173). Such a process has already been begun by modern-day ‘tillers and guardians’ serving in vocations that value stewardship, beauty and harmony.

Naming animals prefigures the development of science and humanities, education and communications. Science within Christian theology becomes ‘the grounded outworking of “the ministry of reconciliation” between humankind and the world’ (Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, 2014, 209). Understanding our natural world, our self and others draws on the senses to unlock mysteries of creation: observing, classifying (animal, mineral), making distinctions (colours, sounds), replicating, hypothesising, testing, documenting. A three year-old asking ‘How’ or ‘Why?’ is engaging in this sacred project, in the same, though less rigorous, manner as a philosopher, historian or epidemiologist.

In the latter case, the critical place of science in ordering the confusion of the present pandemic cannot be underestimated: economic life collapsing, social order unravelling, while the search for a vaccine continues globally.

Solomon’s wisdom and literary, scientific and musical achievements were famous (1 Kings 4.29-34); their theological and educational significance, however, is profound in terms of ‘naming’ (Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach, 2006, 156-159). God gave him such ‘wisdom, discernment and breadth of understanding’, making him ‘wiser than anyone else’, that ‘people came from all the nations to hear’ him (29, 31, 34). All knowledge, insight and wisdom derive from God. To separate knowledge and love of God from that of his creation, as some modern theologies, bible college curricula and sermons do, is to distort the notion of theology and worship itself, with their roots in Creation and Christology (cf. Exodus 20.11, Deuteronomy 10.12-22, Psalm 19, John 1.1-18, Acts 17.22-31, Colossians 1.15-23). Theological and missiological education, preaching, pastoral care and worship might well revisit these texts, rethink the role of a ‘renewed natural theology’ (N.T. Wright, History and Eschatology, 2019, xiv), and revise their curriculum and instruction accordingly - what one writer calls ‘failed pedagogy’ (James K.A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, 2017, 175).

Sabbath is a reminder that the purpose of life transcends work. The sabbath is off limits, belonging to God, the only element in creation marked as holy. What one scholar calls ‘the stopping day’ is about the home, a symbol of rest and inner quiet, an ‘opportunity for the exercise of faithfulness in the community as opposed to oppressing people’: a ‘marker’ making ‘the whole structure of life’ for God’s people different; a ‘commitment to right and avoidance of wrong’ (John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology – Israel’s Life, vol. 3, 2009, 643-648). When God completed each day’s ‘work’, he ‘saw that it was good’, pausing to review and treasure it. This indicates that God alone is the source and judge of goodness (Mark 10.18: ‘no one is good but God alone’). If devotion to God is central (not simply busyness or even Sunday worship), so too must rest and critical reflection. One prophet castigated ineffectual religious leaders for not asking God’s people, ‘Where is the Lord?’– i.e., to reflect theologically on everyday life and morality (Jeremiah 2.8). Sadly, religious leaders today, as the tragedy of child sex abuse in the church illustrates, ‘are at least as likely to pervert the inner meaning of God’s revelation as anybody else’ (Hubert Cunliffe-Jones, Jeremiah – God in History, 1960, 54). The link between sabbath observance, fasting, morality and justice is made by another prophet with devastating force (Isaiah 58).

With the uncertainty, fear and disorientation aroused by the pandemic, Christians can point people to the providence and mercy of God who may mysteriously be ‘pushing back against this random, natural evil, to restrain us from rushing to nowhere’; instead, to be still and know God (Paul Mercer, ‘Coming, Ready or Not’, Zadok papers S244 and S245, Winter 2020, 8). Work, like wealth, status or pleasure, becomes an idol when it supplants loyalty to God.

Stress and burnout are hazards for driven people - sabbath their best antidote. How then might churches during Covid-19 allow time or opportunity for corporate reflection on our lives (marriage, work, budgeting, parenting, shopping, health, conflicts etc.), answering Jeremiah’s question and distinguishing good from evil (Hebrews 5.14)? Some are already supplementing shorter online sermons with dialogue, role-plays, visual media, interviews and testimonies. Educators remind us that we forget most of what we only hear within minutes!

Summarising, neither sin nor pandemic negates the four mandates. The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit restores in us the image and call of God for dominion and his glory. Technological dominion, as the Tower of Babel, wars, environmental degradation and pandemics illustrate, has become a delusion and idol, unable to deliver to us the shalom we crave (Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 1989, 59). Jesus alone (the incarnate Word), through his vicarious suffering, death and resurrection, has overcome the dominion of darkness and death.

Jesus as an exemplary teacher-pastor asked more than three hundred questions - telling stories and posing riddles from everyday life and the created order. He demonstrated words by deeds, showing his disciples how to engage with and care for others and be fully human: walking the streets, listening, observing their suffering, healing the sick, mourning death, celebrating life, offering hope to the oppressed and marginalised. He mentored and coached his inner circle, equipping and training them, through dialogue, example and prayerfulness. He named the bigotry, hypocrisy and oppression of his religious peers. He sacrificed comfort and privilege for people’s reconciliation and wellbeing. What lessons might there be, therefore, in all of this for theologians, pastor-teachers, missionaries and believers, inhabiting, as we do, a world torn by pandemic, economic collapse, political uncertainty, starvation and death?

The word ‘ministry’ has wrongly focused on the so-called ‘sacred’ domain (church, clergy, worship). I wonder whether the all-too common neglect by both theologians and pastors of the equipping of believers for service reflects a failure to see the interconnectedness of the two ‘Commissions’, where Matthew 28 should be interpreted via Genesis 1, and vice versa.

If theological and missionary training institutions revisited Genesis 1 and 2, if theology were properly defined as the study of God and all things related to God, and if preachers, pastor-teachers and missionaries redefined their roles in the light of Jeremiah’s question and some serious reflection on the two bookends of Scripture, what effect might this have on Gospel outcomes - human flourishing, Christian maturity and the glory of God?

Neville Carr was the former Dean of Humanities and Education, St John’s University, Tanzania. He is current Chair of the Academic Board of Eastern College and Chair of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Research Association.


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