As the stubborn Pharaoh of Egypt suffered with his people through the terrible plague of thunder and hail, he called for Moses and Aaron and begged them to entreat the Lord (Yahweh) that the plague would cease. Moses responded by saying that he would go out of the city and pray to the Lord "and the thunder shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that thou mayest know how that the earth is the Lord's" (Ex. 9:29). The proud Pharaoh of Egypt had refused to believe that all things in heaven and earth were the property of Yahweh and subject to His rule; but Pharaoh was receiving a first-hand display that Yahweh was indeed Lord of all. Later, as Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses taught the people the fact of their election by God. This election is all the more awesome to contemplate when Israel remembers that Yahweh is no mere tribal deity, nor one god among many, but the Creator of heaven and earth. Moses states, "Behold, the heaven and the heaven of the heavens is the Lord's thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is" (Dt. 10:14). David stated the truth that God is Master and Owner of all things when he wrote, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). According to these words, the whole earth belongs to God, including all its elements and all the people who dwell therein.
An important scriptural term to designate God's comprehensive ownership and rule of the world is the term "dominion" (cf. Job 25:2; Ps. 103:22; 145:13; Dan. 4:3, 34). As Creator, God has dominion over all — the entire world belongs to Him and is under His jurisdiction and command. Significantly, the word "dominion" is used by God to describe man's place and calling in the world (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:6). It is imperative that the modern church understands the dominion calling of covenant men and women, and the purpose of this article is to give a brief introduction to this calling.
Man, the Image of God, and Dominion
Genesis 1:26 is one of the most important verses in all of Scripture concerning the being and calling of man. In this verse, the divine counsel concerning the creation of man is stated: "And 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." There has been much discussion concerning the precise definition of the image of God in man, but the general agreement is that it refers to the fact that man will be comparable to his Maker in certain aspects of his being and his work — the Creator Himself will serve as the pattern from which man will be contrived. In regard to his being, man will have a moral and spiritual likeness to God (i.e., he will be a rational being, a self-conscious person, able to exercise a will in moral choices; and a pure being, untainted by sin). In regard to his work, man will, like God, possess authority and power to rule the earth and its creatures (i.e., have dominion). These two aspects — man's being and work — encapsulate the image of God in man. The two are intimately related: man is able to exercise dominion in the earth because he is a rational, self-conscious, and righteous man; and, the dominion responsibility provides the province for the exercise of man's moral and spiritual powers.
It is God's purpose that man serves as His representative in the earth. To adequately fulfill this calling, man is made in God's image. God has endowed man with the faculties needed, the authority required, and the materials and creatures requisite to show forth the glory of God and to provide for his life on earth.
The Charge to Take Dominion
From the beginning it was God's will that man would have dominion in the earth. This dominion is part of the image of God in man. The charge to take dominion in Genesis 1:28 is preceded by the grant of dominion in Genesis 1:26, "and let them have dominion...." The Hebrew word that is here translated "dominion" means to subdue, rule over, or have the mastery of. It can also carry the meaning of "to possess oneself of," or "take possession of." According to the context of Genesis 1, it appears that both connotations of the word "dominion" are represented here. In this grant of dominion, God gives the earth and all that is in it to man as his possession and also gives him the authority to rule it. Because God's dominion must remain absolute, man's dominion is one of stewardship. The authority man exercises over the earth has been delegated to him by God, and the assets that man holds are ultimately the property of God. Man, as God's steward and representative, is to use his authority and possessions for the glory of his Lord and Master.
The charge to take dominion in the earth is stated in Genesis 1:28. Here God commands the man and woman "to have dominion over" the earth and all living creatures. The command reflects the grant of dominion, but reveals the fact that man must actively take dominion; that is, his work is to take possession of all the earth and exercise a hands-on rule of the earth and its creatures. The necessary steps to fulfill the dominion mandate are stated as: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…" The work of dominion requires man to be fruitful (i.e., have many children)1 and fill the earth with people, and for man to "subdue" the earth. The word "subdue" indicates that man must bring all space and resources of the earth under his control.
The dominion commandment instructs man to develop all the riches of the earth so that the full potential of the creation can be realized to the glory of God and the good of mankind. The dominion mandate is comprehensive, calling man to rule the entire world, its creatures, and all aspects of life in accord with the will and purpose of God. David states it this way: "Thou madest him [man] to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet…" (Ps. 8:6).
The Corruption of Dominion
Man's fall into sin radically changed him. He remained a rational being, but because he had established his own mind as the standard of truth, he would no longer think God's thoughts after Him, so his ability to reason was corrupted. He remained a self-conscious person, but because he did not derive the concept of his personality from the fact of his creation in the image of God, his self-consciousness was perverted into selfishness and self-aggrandizement. He retained the power to will, but lost the ability to choose righteousness, and thus became a slave to sin. But not only was his being corrupted, so was his capacity for dominion. Man's original endowments enabled him to serve as God's representative and exercise dominion in the earth, but when these endowments were depraved through sin, man could no longer carry out his calling. But his ability for dominion was not the only thing he lost; he also forfeited his authority. By rejecting God's rule, man came under the rule of sin and Satan — he became a slave, and slaves do not exercise dominion. Only a righteous man operating in the liberty of obedience to God can carry out the charge of taking dominion.
There is a widespread misconception that unregenerate man can still fulfill the dominion mandate. This perspective is based on the view that the dominion calling of man is essentially agricultural and technical. But it is not. The dominion calling is inherently ethical, i.e., it calls man to rule the earth and develop its resources as God's representative for the honor and glory of his Creator. Man is charged with the task of governing the earth according to the ethical standards of God's law as summarized in the two great commandments of the law: love of God and love of one's neighbor. Unregenerate man does not carry out any of his activities out of a love for God and almost never out of a true love for other men. To some degree, unsaved man still retains the image of God in his person and also an impulse to take dominion, but his focus is limited to the technological, and his motive is his own power and glory. How can it be a fulfillment of the dominion mandate when a man uses his gifts and resources in the context of rebellion against God? The dominion charge is to build the kingdom of God on earth! It is true, that in a limited, physical sense, the unregenerate may contribute procreationally to the filling of the earth and technologically, agriculturally, or scientifically to the subduing of the earth — God uses even the wrath of man to praise Him and serve His purposes. These contributions of the wicked are part of the wealth that is laid up for the righteous (cf., Pr. 13:22; Eccl. 2:26). Only righteous men can fulfill the dominion calling, and that is why in the Bible the charge to take dominion is not addressed to unregenerate men.
The Restoration of Dominion
After the Fall, wherein man lost his ability and authority for dominion, God in mercy intervened with His Promise (Gen. 3:15). The promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent provided hope for man that what he had lost would one day be restored through one of his descendants. This promise also provided the objective basis for man's faith in God and His saving grace. From the beginning, the Scripture differentiates between the chosen line of the seed of the woman and the reprobate line of the seed of the serpent. The line of the seed of the woman originates in Adam's son, Seth, continues in Noah and Shem, and leads to Abraham, the father of all who believe. The promise of Genesis 3:15 is greatly expanded in God's promises to Abraham and his seed (Gen. 12:2-3; 17:4-8), and it is revealed that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18; 26:4), and that his seed shall take dominion in the earth (Gen. 22:17). These promises are secured by the covenant that God makes with Abraham (Gen. 15). Therefore, the Old Testament shows that God's covenant with Abraham will be the means of restoring righteousness and dominion to fallen man.
The New Testament explicitly teaches that the promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:6-9, 16-18, 26-29). He is the second Adam Who restores what the first Adam lost (Rom. 5:17-19; 1 Cor. 15:22); He is the seed of the woman Who crushes the head of the serpent (Rev. 12:1-9); He is the man Who reestablishes dominion for mankind (Heb. 2:6-8); He is the Lord Who is given authority to rule all the nations of the earth (Ac. 2:33-36; Rev. 19:16). In Christ, men have their ability to exercise dominion restored (Eph. 4:24), and their authority to rule reinstated (Rev. 2:26-27). Christ is the head of a new humanity (2 Cor. 5:17) that will bring the blessings of the kingdom of God to earth as He leads them in the fulfillment of the original dominion mandate. Through Christ and His seed the task of dominion will be realized when, in time and history, "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
The Means of Dominion
But how is the dominion charge carried out in the post-Fall world, where it is not simply a matter of subduing the earth, but also of subduing sin and rebellion against God? The answer is found in the Great Commission.2 The Great Commission should be understood as a restatement of the original dominion charge for the post-Fall, post-resurrection-of- Christ world. The Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 states that the followers of Jesus have the ability ("I am with you," i.e., through the Holy Spirit that I will send to you [cf., Ac. 1:4-8]), and the authority ("All power is given unto me in heaven and earth. Go ye therefore…") to go forth as God's representatives to conquer sin and subdue the earth for the glory of God. The Great Commission as stated in the gospels is reminiscent of the commands of the original dominion charge in Genesis 1:28. Jesus' followers are to preach the gospel and gain converts (i.e., be fruitful and multiply); they are to go into all nations (i.e., fill the earth); and they are to disciple all nations in obedience to the commands of Christ (i.e., subdue the earth).
The Great Commission teaches that God's purpose for man as revealed in the dominion mandate will come to pass as the church of Jesus Christ disciples the nations by preaching the gospel, baptizing the converts, and teaching them to observe the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Thus, the Great Commission is not simply a matter of evangelism and church planting, but aims at the transformation of every institution and every sphere of life by the Word of God, and at the development of godly, Christ-honoring culture in every land. The call to Christians is to cast down the foolish imaginations of men, and everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bring every thought in every area of life captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
The tools of dominion are given explicit identification in the Scriptures. The Old Testament reveals that faith in the Word of God (Gen. 15:6) and obedience to the law of God are the means of victory for His covenant people (Dt. 4:1-8; 11:13-25; Josh. 1:5-9). The New Testament teaches that the weapons of warfare given to the covenant army of the faithful are not fleshly but spiritual (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Paul uses the figure of the Roman soldier and the weapons given to him by Rome to conquer the world to identify the spiritual weapons that God has given to Christians to subdue the earth and its rebellion to His kingdom (Eph. 6:11-18). John tells us that the followers of Christ overcome the Serpent and his seed by the power of the redeeming blood of Christ, the Word of God that forms the basis for their testimony, and through an all-out commitment to die, if necessary, for the cause of Christ (Rev. 12:11).
For redeemed man, the Scriptures are the essential tool of dominion. The Bible is the perfect revelation of God to him (Ps. 19:7-13), and it equips him for every aspect of his dominion work (2 Tim.3:15-16).
Scripture says that, "The earth is the Lord's, and fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). His ownership and authority is total. Nothing — not even the smallest grain of sand; no creature, man or beast; no institution or realm of man's life — is outside the dominion of God. Man, as the image of God, shares in this dominion on a creaturely level. That is, God has given man stewardship over the earth to possess it and rule it as His representative and for His glory. Through sin man lost his capacity for godly dominion, but Christ, the God-Man has restored it. Now, in Christ, redeemed man goes forth to take dominion over every part of the earth, every resource of the earth, every creature, every area of life, and every God-ordained institution. The dominion task is necessarily comprehensive, for the earth is the Lord's.
1. For a discussion of this aspect of the dominion charge as it applies today, see William O. Einwechter, "Children and the Dominion Mandate, Parts 1 and 2" Chalcedon Report, 400 and 401(November and December, 1998).
2. For an excellent study of the Great Commission, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, TX, 1990).
- William O. Einwechter
William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].