Dominion of Humankind in Rest of Creation: Consumers? Stewards? Shepherds!
Genesis 1:26-28 says that we have 'dominion' (Hebrew word
radah). In view of this, how should we relate to the rest of creation?
You have heard it said that we should not see ourselves as consumers of the rest of creation, using it for our own pleasure, convenience or to serve our own agendas (as Humanism has assumed), but as stewards of it. We should recognise that the rest of creation belongs to God and so we should care for it for that reason. But I want to suggest another role: shepherds of the rest of creation.
I suggest that our
radah of the rest of creation ...
- is not there for our sake,
- not even mainly for His sake,
- but primarily for its sake
- because "God is love" and we are 'image' God, be like God, represent God to the rest of creation.
Note: Initially, this theme of shepherding was directed at environmental responsibility to other species, but I believe now that its application can be widened to all creation, to 'open up' its potential. For example, I believe God's people are called to 'shepherd' mainstream scholarship.)
For a short summary of the content of this page, see Andrew Hartley's Ruling Well over Creation.
The idea of shepherding Creation has been worked out for academic life as: Gospel and Academia: Why and How Should We Engage? Motivation, Approach, Method and Tools or in pdf form as Shepherding Academia.
The Idea of Stewards
Stewards are responsible to the Owner to manage his resources, and expect to give an account when the Owner returns. As long as we remember Whose it is, do our duty, don't mess it up, and can give a good account for what we have done with it, then we have been good stewards. This is better than seeing creation as ours, but it does not go far enough, for several reasons:
- The steward view has no foundation. If we are stewards, why are we stewards? Why does God need stewards? Is it because (as some middle-eastern old religions suggest) he is bored or lazy and left humans in charge while he went off to play? On the other hand, why does he not just let the rest of creation get on without us? He can still rejoice in it. I'm not sure that the idea of stewards has a good answer to that.
- The steward idea tends to see Creation in terms of resources and/or possessions. I have just received a letter in which the writer, who anticipates moving house, writes "The work we are doing on the building is about being good stewards who develop that with which they are gifted / entrusted .." Though this is better than a totally selfish view and does bespeak some responsibility, and it may be appropriate for a house or some other inanimate object, is it really appropriate to see the rest of Creation this way? It sees the house (or the talent in Jesus' parable) as a largely passive object to use or develop> The steward view sees the rest of Creation that way too, rather then as a fellow-creature to which we relate. Is it not notable that land animals, who share the "spirit/breath of life" along with humans, were created on the same day as humans rather than on an earlier day? There is no love in stewardship, only responsibility yet, as I argue below, are we not called to love the rest of Creation as God does? And, as such, there is also a tendency to focus on ourselves ("What should I do about this house?") rather than on the other ("What does this sheep need?").
- Theologically, the steward view separates radah from being in the image of God. There is no need for stewards to be Image of God. Would not angels be better stewards than we are? They are more powerful, more intelligent, more obedient to God. Why did God both make humans in his image and give us authority over the rest of creation? The Genesis passage seems to link radah and image of God as though each is intimiately bound up with the other. Why does it? I argue below that since God loves the Creation, so should humans, and our radah should be an expression of love, not just of responsibility.
- The steward view is not compelling enough. The idea of stewardship might act to prevent the worst excesses of the humanist view, but it is not compelling enough to get us to change our lifestyles or value systems. We will still use the rest of creation as though we own it. Stewardship in this context is essentially a negative view, thought up to counteract the humanist and mediaeval view. Stewards need not love or really care for what they are looking after, and there is no inner necessity to try to bless the rest of creation.
This is where the New View comes in. Perhaps we should see ourselves, not as stewards, but more like good shepherds.
A good shepherd does not just look after the sheep on behalf of the owner, but actively loves the sheep and even lays down his life for the sheep. (Where have Christians heard that before?) God wants more than mere management or stewardship; he wants us to love the rest of creation as he does. Since God is love [I John 4] God gives himself on behalf of those less than him.
In the same way, we who are like God are called not just to manage, but to love and give ourselves on behalf of those less than we are. As God loves and desires to bless the other (his creation) even at his own expense, so we are called to love the rest of creation and desire to bless even at our own expense. (Good) shepherds do this for their sheep. This New View in theology calls us to go further than being stewards, to be shepherds of the rest of creation.
When we love the rest of creation, as the New View interpretation of radah implies, we are relating to it in the way God would: with self-giving love. He loves everything he has made. We also should love it. In this way, we are like God to the rest of creation: we are the image of God. Being image of God is constituted in showing what God is like to the rest of creation, in a way that the rest of creation can appreciate and respond to. If the trees clap their hands in the presence of the Living God, they should feel similar joy in the presence of those who bear the image of God. Being image of God implies having the same attitude towards the rest of creation that God has, and enacting that attitude in our lives.
As we shall see later, this radah-as-love is not just for the pre-Fall Garden of Eden, but is what is restored in Rich Redemption and is what will continue into eternity under the theme of Representation.
Evangelical US Christians like Richard Cizik have moved from the wrong-radah of James Watt [Note 1] through into stewardship. Cizik says "Dominion does not mean destroy, subdue does not mean take advantage of. There's a new concept of stewardship we intend to present to religious communities." This emerging view is to be welcomed. Am I criticising it too harshly? No, but just as to pull yourself up higher you need a handhold above you, so perhaps what I propose is that handhold.
This New View does not negate the idea of stewards, or even using the rest of creation as resources. These are still included, but it puts them both in perspective:
- We are called, primarily, to love the rest of creation, desiring to bless it even at our own expense (ethical aspect of self-giving).
- In doing this, we need to manage the rest of creation on behalf of its Owner, and hence are stewards (juridical aspect)
- Then, as part of creation itself and not 'above' it, we are allowed use it as resource (economic aspect) and may enjoy it (aesthetic aspect) - as long as we don't do so unjustly or selfishly.
So, to sum up, the good-shepherd, radah-as-love view of our relationship with the rest of creation, does three things that the steward view on its own does not.
- It provides a foundation for stewardship.
- It is not merely negative, but gives us a positive role.
- It links dominion with being in the image of God, in a way that is coherent with the rest of Scripture. [Note 2]
So, while there is some validity in the steward view, it is not the whole, nor even main truth. Our role is not just to be stewards but to be good shepherds.
Now, one should never build a theology on a single verse or two. So, is there support elsewhere? consider a couple of other points:
- In the parallel account of creation in Genesis 2. What is the role for which God puts the man into the garden? To use and enjoy it? No! "To tend and care for it."
- The Bible reveals something about God that no other religion does: "God is love" (I John). Love (Greek agapé) implies self-giving, expending oneself for the other. God created an Other for which he could expend himself, because he is love; that Other is the whole creation. But he went further and made one part of that creation (humankind) such that we could experience something of the joy of this kind of love, self-giving, like this:
In both cases, authority is tied in with, should not be separated from, self-giving love.
- God -----love-----> creation
- Humankind ----love----> rest of creation
- For a practical support of this view, see the piece on animals.
- I have found very few others who expound this view, except perhaps for Cordell Schulten who, In his paper Imago Dei, argues that Image of God and rulership are linked, as they are here, that humanity is to represent God to the rest of creation, and radah should not be seen as either lordship or stewardship but as servanthood. Humanity is to be servant of the rest of creation. He nuances this with Zizioulas's idea of communion, and references to Jesus, the perfect representative of God who came to serve rather than be served. This is very helpful, and I give a more thorough treatment of Schulten's article elsewhere. (He perhaps skews the meaning somewhat too far, and there is also a theological quibble I have with Schulten, argued there, but which is not relevant here.)
(See also an earlier page on Radah.)
For Its Sake
To sum up, we can ask for whose sake we have been given dominion.
Here we are saying that God gave us this dominion over the rest of creation:
- Not for our sake,
- Not even mainly for His sake,
- But primarily for its sake - because he is love.
Why does it matter? It matters both practically and theologically. Theologically, because only the third ties in with our also having a role of being image of God and with God as love; the other two are in tension with these. Practically, because it affects how we treat it.
- If we believe we are given dominion for our sake, then we will see the rest of creation as mere resources for our use, convenience, pleasure or to serve our own agendas (e.g. economic growth, affluent lifestyle, prestige possessions), and we will always tend towards selfishness in our relationship with it - which gives the exact opposite of God's love and give the wrong image of what God is really like. It shows the image of an uncaring despot.
- If we believe we are given dominion mainly for God's sake, to look after what belongs to him, while certainly better than the first view, we see ourselves merely as stewards of their master's property - and we saw above that there are problems with that view.
- But if we are given dominion over the rest of creation for its sake, then we will have the privilege of sharing God's desire to bless the rest of creation, with a heart of love rather than duty. We will represent what God is like to the rest of creation from our very heart, so when it experiences us it experiences something of what God is like. So our dominion is intimately linked with being in the image of God.
We do go a bit too far in saying "Not". Howard Snyder [Note] discusses these three sakes (as well as a couple of others, e.g. for sake of mission). He believes they are all true. We can say that dominion is partly for our sake, in the sense that we have a right to fashion it, so that the weak species that is humanity can survive and so we can be part of the creation rather than isolated from it. Dominion is for His (God's) sake in that he owns it, rejoices in it and loves it, and wants it developed. Dominion for God's sake is stewardship which, as we saw above is not enough.
But these two sakes are very well known, and over the past thirty years there has been considerable debate that has moved Christians from the first (our sake) to the second (God's sake). But the idea that our dominion is for its sake is new and seldom yet discussed, so it needs emphasis here. And it is the third that is most commensurate with "God is love", and which is most closely linked with being the image of God.
Now, how does this radah-as-love and image of God work out in practice? For this we need to understand the interconnected nature of the creation of which we are part and within which we are to be good shepherds.
The Importance of Heart-Attitude
Love is not so much a feeling, nor an action, nor even an act of will, it is an attitude of heart. Many places in the Bible we find God revealing that it is not the outward appearance of people that God looks on, but on the heart (not the physical pump, of course, but the deepest, innermost of the person). In Hosea 6:6, God reveals "I desire mercy [an attitude] and not sacrifice [an action]."
It is from the heart-attitude that our beliefs, lifestyle, thoughts and actions arise. Did not Jesus say that it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks? Indeed, it is our attitude that enables or constrains certain actions. So attitude is important. With a certain attitude, there will be a tendency to certain kinds of actions etc. Actions are visible evidence of inner attitude. This is the basis of God's judgement: he judges our actions, because by doing so all can see our attitudes revealed.
What attitude do we have towards the rest of creation:
An attitude of consumers, of stewards, or of shepherds?
This view is still found in US Christianity, as expressed by James Watt "God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." The quotations from Richard Cizik and James Watt are cited from the UK paper, The Guardian, 20th April 2005, which reports on the US National Association of Evangelicals' adoption of a resolution that emphasises "every Christian's duty to care for the planet and the role of government in safeguarding a sustainable environment."
It may be noted that the humanist / mediaeval view, that 'dominion' means we can do with the rest of creation as we wish, does link with being in the image of God, if we see this in terms of a prince being the image of the king. But these interpretations of both dominion and image are more in line with Aristotle than with Scripture as a whole. They have no place for the love or the humility that characterize God in Scripture. The New View not only rejects both these interpretations, but suggests new interpretations commensurate with love and humility.
Snyder, H. (2005). 'Salvation means creation healed: creation, cross, kingdom, mission. Kingdom Conference, 2005. Available on Internet. Thanks to Andrew Watson for pointing this out to me.
Schulten, C.P. (2009). Imago Dei: Made in God's Image to be Lords, Stewards, or Servants of Creation?, Integrite: A Faith and Learning Journal, 8(1) (Spring 2009), 12-20.
This page, URL= 'http://abxn.org/nv/ .html',
is part of the on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology and practice that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome by emailing
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.
Created: August 2014, from text in rrrr.
Last updated: 9 May 2015 some small amendments and corrected some errors. 4 November 2020 link: ah.ruling.well, new .end, .nav, bgcolor. 16 January 2021 steward view as treating Creation as object rather than to love. 21 June 2022 gospel.acad.