‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’: The Cultural Mandate Is Work for Image-Bearers

‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’: The Cultural Mandate Is Work for Image-Bearers

Written by N. Gray Sutanto |
Tuesday, January 2, 2024

If religion should animate humanity’s work, the dominion that image-bearers have over creation isn’t merely kingly but priestly—the cultural mandate is at once a heavenly mandate, as that vertical relation with God determines how humans represent God on earth. Joshua Farris sums this up well: “As priests of creation, humanity has the function and privilege to assist the creation to realize and evidence its rational order and beauty and thus to express God’s beauty and being back to God.”

The responsibility of humanity to obey the “cultural mandate” is well recognized in evangelical discourse as a way of understanding the relationship between Christianity and culture. But perhaps less known are the textual origins of this discussion, in the tradition of neo-Calvinism, and the relationship of that mandate to the metaphysical makeup of human beings.

There are two aspects to the cultural mandate in the state of innocence: (1) the task of begetting and the organic multiplication of people and (2) the task of forming a diversity of cultures.

Embedded in the creation of humanity, therefore, is a teleological orientation—humanity was meant to spread and cultivate creation in obedience to their God, and no single community can possibly reflect the richness of the image. Irwyn Ince writes, “The image of God is much too rich for it to be realized in a single race, ethnic group, or culture.”

Exercise Dominion

The call of the cultural mandate therefore fittingly corresponds to the proper dominion that image-bearers of God are supposed to have over creation. It’s recognized by more contemporary thinkers as the “vocational” aspect of the image of God.

God gave the tasks of work and cultivation before the fall, showing the inherent goodness of human labor in culture making. To “be fruitful and multiply” refers to the natural multiplication of human beings and the work that cultivates nature for their own good, in accordance with God’s command.

William Edgar aptly describes the labor of image-bearers in obedience to the mandate as an exercise of “analogous power” given to human beings from God:

Embedded in this human activity is (at least in germ form) the development of agriculture, the arts, economics, family dynamics, and everything that contributes to human flourishing, to the glory of God. This management is of course in imitation of God’s greater stewardship over his creation. The so-called nature psalms attest to the overarching sovereignty of God over his creation, and yet to his delegating analogous power to human beings.

Psalm 104:14–15 situates human work as in parallel with and yet dependent on God’s work. God causes the livestock and plants to grow so that humanity might make wine and bread to gladden his heart. To put it in theological terms, God creates ex nihilo while humans create ex naturam. God speaks and nature comes to be, but humanity, in an analogous fashion, creates out of the preexisting natural material God creates.

Dominion, therefore, refers to this human cultivation of the natural world, going with the grain of God’s design. Human dominion thus means stewardship, displaying both humanity’s dignity and humanity’s servitude before God. J. H. Bavinck says it this way:

We, the human race, are predestined to fulfil a distinctive calling in that history; as humanity, we are assigned an exceptional place in the greater context of the kingdom from the very first. We are simultaneously subjects and to some extent co-rulers, viceroys over certain regions. Not everything is subjected to us: we are not given authority over the course of the stars and the planets or the tides of the never-resting seas.

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