This article was originally published in 1990.
In Genesis One, God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). In Christian worldview literature, this verse is referred to as the “cultural mandate” or the “dominion mandate,” because it instructs humanity to cultivate and take dominion over the creation.
There is, however, a precondition for such dominion: Godliness. When Adam rebelled against God, he was cast out of the Garden, and lost much of his dominion privilege. Men who do not repent eventually lose all dominion by being consigned to hell.
Godliness, in the sense we are speaking of here, is not an instant affair, however. It is not a matter of saying, “Well, now you are a Christian. Go out and take dominion!” Such a simplistic formula is fraught with spiritual danger, and the history of Christian social movements illustrates it well. Our purpose in this essay is to reflect on what we may call “the dominion trap.”
What the Bible actually teaches is that spiritual maturity or wisdom results from a process of growth, and it is the precondition for dominion all along the way. This is fairly obvious to us if we think of children. We expect our children to grow and become mature and wise before we burden them with adult, dominion tasks. To load such a burden on a child would be to crush him. For a child to presume to take such adult responsibilities on himself would be arrogant and destructive. We don’t wish, after all, to be ruled by children.
The Bible sets forth this teaching in Genesis 2 and 3, using some very powerful images and metaphors. If we can understand these images and their implications, we may avoid some of the disastrous mistakes Christians have made in the past.
To begin with, let us consider the two prominent trees in the Garden of Eden. We are told in Genesis 2:9, “And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst [center] of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” What were these two trees? In some way, the fruit of these trees communicated properties to man. They mediated certain blessings to man. The blessings came from God, particularly from the Holy Spirit, but in some way eating the fruit was tied up with the communication of these blessings.
Theologians wrestle with exactly how this mediation takes place, but we can use a common example to get the gist of it. We cannot live without food and drink. If we don’t eat, we starve. If we don’t drink, we die of thirst. Yet as Christians we know that all life comes from God; as the Nicene Creed says, the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life.” In the created economy of God, however, this life is mediated, in part, through food.
What, then, was the Tree of Life? In some special sense, the Tree of Life mediated life to man. After Adam sinned, God cast him out of the Garden for his own protection, “lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” in a condition of sin (Gen. 3:22).
Similarly, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil also communicated something to man. The serpent told Adam and Eve that “in the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Sure enough, when they ate “the eyes of both of them were opened” (Gen. 3:7), and God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). The Tree of Knowledge, then, communicated three spiritual qualities: open eyes, Godlikeness, and knowledge of good and evil. As we shall see, these three things have to do with judicial authority. The Tree of Knowledge communicated an investiture with office to man.
God told Adam and Eve how to eat of these trees. First of all, He told them “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; it shall be food for you” (Gen. 1:29). Every tree, without exception, was made for man. At the same time, however, God said, “from any tree of the garden you may eat freely, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). The Tree of Knowledge, then, was forbidden. Adam and Eve knew, however, that this prohibition was only temporary. It could not be permanent, because God had said that eventually they would eat of every fruit tree in creation.
How about the Tree of Life? There was no prohibition on it. In fact, a Godly man would make a beeline for the Tree of Life, figuring that surely this important tree had special blessings. The Godly man would realize that man does not have life in himself, but must receive life day by day from the Lord and Giver of life. Thus, the Godly man would confess his dependence on God, and gladly eat of the Tree of Life. Eating of the Tree of Life, then, would necessarily be an act of confession and worship.
We can see the point. God required Adam and Eve to engage in confession (not of sin, but of dependence) and worship before He would permit them to be invested with an office of rule. Worship — obedience before the King of kings — is the precondition for dominion.
This is not how Adam chose to reason, however. Adam decided that he did not need God’s life. He decided that he had life in himself. Confident that he would not die, he elected to bypass the Tree of Life, and seize the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Thus he entered into a course of false dominion. Let us look at this in more detail now.
The narrative of the fall of humanity actually begins with the last verse of Genesis 2: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” This statement is sometimes thought to imply that sinless man would not need clothing, and would not want it. That is not the meaning, however. Adam and Eve were naked because they were newlyborn babies. God is clothed in a garb of light, an environment called “glory” in the Bible. The “glory cloud” is seen as a palace, as a temple, as a society of men and angels around Him, and in other forms as well. The glory cloud is God’s garment of regal and priestly office. Man, as God’s image, should also have such robes. The robe of office, however, is not something man is born with, but something he must mature into by acquiring wisdom based on righteousness. The robe of office is for elders, not for children. Moreover, it is never seized, but is always bestowed.
The robe theme is important in Scripture. When Ham sought to steal Noah’s robe of office, Shem and Japheth upheld their father by holding up his robe (Gen. 8:22-23). At the climax of the book of Genesis, we see the Godly Joseph invested thrice with robes of office, once by his father, once by Potiphar, and once by Pharaoh (Gen. 37:3; 39:12-18; 41:41-43). Tremendous attention is given to the robe of Aaron, the high priest, because he was the representive man for all Israel (Ex. 28, 39). When Joseph’s robe was stripped from him by Potiphar’s wife, it signified his loss of position and authority, and the same is true when our Lord was stripped at His crucifixion. The soldiers casting lots for Christ’s robe of office signify the powers of the world contesting for dominion over God’s creation (John 19:23-24). The glorious white robes of the saints signify not only their cleansing, but also their privilege to follow Christ in judging the world (Rev. 19:8, 14). Thus, Adam and Eve were not going to remain naked forever. Investment with robes of office would come in time, and in connection with the Tree of Knowledge.
The crafty serpent approached the woman, with Adam standing by listening (Gen. 3:6). He told them that their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil. What does this mean? Were Adam and Eve blind? Clearly not, for the woman saw that the tree was good for food (correctly, 2:9), and a delight to the eyes (correctly, 2:9), and that it was desirable for wisdom (correctly, but wisdom would come from patiently waiting for it, not from seizing it). Also, how about being like God? Weren’t they created in God’s image and after His likeness (Gen. 1:26)? How, then, was it a temptation to become like God, if man is already like God? And again, how about knowing good and evil? Were Adam and Eve in a state of moral neutrality at this point? Obviously not, for they were in covenant with God. They were morally good, and they knew right from wrong. Adam especially, we are told, was not deceived about what was going on (1 Tim. 2:14).
The matter becomes more curious when we read in the sequel that their eyes were opened and they became like God, knowing good and evil. Clearly in some sense the tempter was telling the truth, though he lied in saying they would not die.
All these questions are answered when we realize that the opening of the eyes, the maturation in Godlikeness, and the knowledge of good and evil, all have to do with investiture with the robe of judicial office. Concerning the eyes, we note in Genesis One that God’s seeing is part of His passing judgment: “And God saw that it was good.” We find in Jeremiah 32:18-19 that God’s “eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” In Psalm 11:4, the eyes of the Lord “behold, His eyelids try, the children of men.” False gods are witnesses, says Isaiah 44:9, that “see not, nor know,” and that are “put to shame,” all language reminiscent of Genesis 3. Meredith M. Kline summarizes, saying that “the picture is of the eyes of God functioning in the legal sphere to give a conclusive judgment concerning the lives of men which have been observed by God.” Thus, God’s eyes either spare or do not spare men His judgments (Ezk. 5:11; 7:4; 20:17). [Meredith M. Kline, “The Holy Spirit as Covenant Witness” (Th. M. Thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1972), p. 72. I am indebted to Kline’s discussion for the verses cited in this section of this essay.]
Concerning becoming more like God, we notice in the text itself that man was already like God, morally, and from this we can draw the inference that the temporary prohibition on the Tree of Judgment was designed to foster man’s maturity in Godlikeness. The rest of Scripture confirms this for us, in that when men are invested with special office as judges, they are called gods: “God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the gods. How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? . . . They do not know nor do they understand [knowledge of good and evil]; they walk about in darkness [eyes not open]; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I on My part said, `You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless, you will die like men’” (Psalm 82:1-2, 5-7; Jesus cites this passage in John 10:34). The rulers of Israel are called gods in Exodus 21:6; 2:8, and 28. This language may make us nervous, because we are so used to thinking of man’s making himself into a god as sinful — and rightly so. It is God alone who can invest men properly with the robe of judicial godhood, and it is the essence of original sin for man to seize that robe for himself and seek to make himself into a god (a judge).
[Though strange today, the language of “deification” and “divinization” was common among the Church Fathers. The Fathers clearly understood the creator/creature distinction, and never taught that man becomes God. Rather, they meant that salvation restores and completes the image and likeness of God in man, so that man becomes fully like God through “deification.” See the discussion in Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers (New York: Seabury,  1982), pp. 416ff.]
What about the phrase “knowing good and evil”? Again, in context, God has been seen pronouncing things good in Genesis One. Thus, for man to get knowledge of good and evil would mean that man has the privilege of making judicial pronouncements, like God. Indeed, the rest of Scripture confirms this. Solomon, the first fulfillment of the Davidic Son-covenant and the most splendid type of Christ, prays to be given “an understanding heart to judge Thy people, to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this weighty people of Thine?” (1 Kings 3:9). Notice that Solomon does not assume that he already possesses this discernment. God grants his request, and immediately we see Solomon exercise Godlike judgment, in the story of the two harlots (v. 28).
We can also look at what the wise woman said to David in 2 Samuel 14:17: “For as the angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and evil.” In other words, man’s judicial authority is a copy, an image, of God’s. The angel of God has wisdom to “know all that is in the earth” (v. 20), and this knowing entails seeing: “My lord the king is the like the angel of God, therefore do what is good in your sight” (2 Sam. 19:27). Infants do not have the wisdom to know good and evil in this judicial sense (Dt. 1:39), and frequently the aged lose this capacity due to senility (2 Sam. 19:35). Thus, it is not moral knowledge but judicial discernment that is involved.
I stressed the word “weight” in the citation from 1 Kings above. The burden of judgment is a heavy weight, as anyone who has had to shoulder it knows. The Bible uses this language to describe judicial responsibility. Noah’s robe was so “heavy” that it took both of his sons to carry it, an action whereby they confessed that they were not yet ready to take it up (Gen. 8:23). Jethro advised Moses that the burden of judging all the people was too weighty for him to bear alone (Ex. 18:18), and Moses made the same complaint in Numbers 11:14. The burden of rule was pictured in that the twelve tribes of Israel were symbolically born on the shoulders of Aaron (Ex. 28:6-12). The Hebrew term for weight or heaviness is related to the term for “glory.” Glory is, in part, weightiness of presence. Thus, a glorious robe of investiture is a weighty robe, and a person must be strong in order to carry it. (Aaron’s garments, described in Exodus 28, were very heavy.) Such a person must be fully grown and mature in wisdom. Solomon feared this heavy weight, and that it why he asked for inner wisdom and spiritual strength. In this we see again that worship and inner piety are the preconditions for dominion.
What we can draw from all this information is that Adam and Eve were supposed to be patient. They were to feed on the Tree of Life, and become gradually built up in wisdom and understanding. Then, when they were strong enough and wise enough, God would let them eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and would invest them with authority.
Adam fell, however, into the “dominion trap.” He assumed that because he was a child of God he was ready to take on mature responsibilities. He was unwilling to wait for the prerogatives of age. He was unwilling to remain passive and wait on the Lord, but instead seized the throne.
God elected to honor man’s decision. Immediately Adam and Eve found out that the devil had lied about wisdom. They had the office, but they lacked the wisdom, the psychological heaviness, to bear it. They were embarrassed. What they had expected to be robes of office — garments they made for themselves — now had to do double duty as a means of concealing their inadequacy. With a sinking feeling in their bellies, they realized that had gotten themselves into a position they could not handle. They did not have wisdom, but now they had to judge.
Right away, God called on them to exercise their new office by evaluating their own actions. “Judge righteous judgment,” said God. Did they do so? No, they called evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20). They did not each blame himself or herself, but they tried to shift the blame to each other and even to God.
God clothed them in animal skins, showing in part that they should have awaited His investiture of them rather than seizing the prerogative themselves. Perhaps the animal skins were a token of their new bestial status; seeking to become gods, they became less than men. Certainly evil rulers are likened to beasts often enough in the rest of Scripture, thinking only for the moment of the beasts in Daniel and Revelation. But we may also see in the clothing with animals skins another meaning as well, which is that God intended to establish His covenant and to bring humanity eventually to a place of true office, but now only on the basis of a blood sacrifice.
Adam and Eve, and later Ham and many others, were impatient. They fell into the trap of ignoring the primacy of wisdom, which wisdom develops slowly. The proper model for dominion is Abraham, and we are told to imitate him. Hebrews 6 tells us to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises [dominion]” (v. 12), and as for Abraham, we are told, “having patiently waited, he obtained the promise” (v. 15).
The crisis in American society has provoked a good deal of Christian social activist literature. I have a fear, a fear based on nearly twenty years of involvement with Christian social causes, that this literature and these movements can sometimes have the unintended effect of orienting their disciples toward the Tree of Knowledge rather than toward the Tree of Life. My reading and involvement has made me aware that some of the literature emerging from Christian activist circles openly disparages traditional Christian piety. Some of this literature simply redefines “piety” as “dominion activity.” Other literature may not criticize piety, but in focusing so heavily on the need for Christian action, it can have the effect of orienting the reader away from the primacy of the Tree of Life.
Christian activist literature too often reduces or even perverts Christianity into an ideology, a set of ideas. Christianity is not, however, an ideology to be implemented through crusading activism. Rather, Christianity is a new creation. It grows holistically and organically out of the life of faith and prayer. It is as men draw near to God and acquire wisdom and maturity from the Scriptures that they are built up and prepared for dominical responsibilities, and God will confer these upon His people in due time.
Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things” — dominion in the world — “will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). By this command our Lord orients us toward the Tree of Life. We pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth and His will to be done on earth as in heaven, but the kingdom does not come through direct action. Rather, it is bestowed, as a gift (Luke 12:32). It comes indirectly as a result of piety. Dominion is not given to those who seek it directly, but it is given to those who seek Life, confessing that they do not have it in themselves. Thus, the Church — the institution of piety — exists for the purpose of building men up so that they can take Life to the world and transform it.
David expressed this sentiment when he wrote, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes lofty, nor do I involve myself in great matters or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child upon his mother. My soul is like a weaned child within me” (Ps. 131:1-2). David affirmed that the heart and wellspring of the Christian faith is not activity but rest in God. He affirmed the primacy of active piety.
If we would see reformation in our day, our first priority must be the restoration of prayer and full Bible teaching in our churches. Our people must feed on Christ at the Lord’s Supper weekly. We must restore God’s hymnal, the Psalter, to a central position in worship. These are the true keys to dominion, for they put God’s people in touch with the Tree of Life, and begin to build them up.
When we say that the Bible has the answer, we must be careful not to treat the Bible first of all as a “blueprint for dominion,” a “handbook of activism,” or a “lawbook for society.” While the Bible does function as a Tree of Knowledge, guiding us in the exercise of true dominion, first and foremost the Bible must function as a Tree of Life. Each and every passage of Scripture, including every bit of the Mosaic Law, is first of all a pointer to Christ. We must feed on Christ in the Scriptures before we can use the Scriptures as a guidebook for dominion.
Christian activist literature, thus, can have the effect of leading men to fall into the “dominion trap.” This is the result when authors fail to keep the Tree of Life central by affirming repeatedly the primacy of wisdom and prayer. The result is that readers are pointed toward the Tree of Knowledge prematurely. Godly readers are tempted to take on matters too big for them.
Activist churches and organizations run the danger of attracting large numbers of prayerless, trouble-making, violent people, zealots in the worst sense. The result is all too often the creation of monsters. As a twenty-year insider to such matters I have seen this repeatedly, in the form of tax revolting, church splitting, and crusading arrogance. These are all the effects of turning the Christian faith into an ideology to be implemented through a crusade.
We live in an age of incredible Bible ignorance. We need to overcome that ignorance, and approach the Bible as a Tree of Life, acquiring insight, wisdom, and understanding. We need to build up ourselves, our families, and our local church communities. Only when we have such a generation will we be ready for God to bestow wider responsibilities upon us.
In conclusion, my point is not to disparage Christian activists or Christian activist literature. Much of it is very valuable and needed. I have seen repeatedly, however, that saturation in such literature can have the effect of orienting the reader away from the first things, the most important things. Important as dominion is, it is not the same thing as piety, nor it is primary. Piety — worship in response to truth — is primary, and it must remain primary at every stage of life. It is possible for social activism and reform to run ahead of spiritual wisdom and strength, and when that happens men are hurt and Christ is dishonored.
I believe that there are two keys to maintaining proper balance. The first is to keep worship and piety central. God’s house and kingdom is first of all a house of prayer. The second is for Christian good works to develop in a context of charity. Works of mercy should have primacy over political activity. People love nurses, but fear crusaders. When the church has transformed societies in the past, she has done so through works of charity. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum, but deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.” [Ernest W. Shurtleff, “Lead on, O King eternal.”]
Finally, I don’t want to be misunderstood as condemning abortion rescues. I have written this article as a general caveat or warning. I am not trying to say that all political and direct action is wrong, or that every Christian who feels called to sit in the doorway of an abortion chamber is sinfully running ahead of the Kingdom. By no means. I have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit is calling some of the brethren to engage in non-violent protest. I am saying, however, that such activity is not by itself anything more than a small tactical maneuver in a larger operation, and that the fundamental strategies for social change must evolve out of piety, charity, and church life, and not out of political or direct action.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.
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