I have written much on this blog and have expounded on many topics and in many ways. My usual mode is to respond to objections to Libertarianism I come across online or in discussions with people. This can be good, but I think what is better is to look to the Scriptures. The Word of God is thrown around quite a lot and can be made to say whatever you want it to say. Like any evidence, it can be interpreted through a bias of presuppositions that lead to error. So I really dislike argumentation that says “Well the Bible says <insert systematic doctrine without proof text.>”.
I’m well aware that I do the same thing. We either do this as an attempt to shoehorn the Bible into the discussion as a lazy appeal to authority, or we are simply trying to be direct and avoid verbosity. Whatever our intentions, at some point these systematic doctrines must be put to the test of Biblical Exegesis. We must be noble Bereans who search the Scriptures to know what it does and does not say so that when we promote some teaching and say it’s from the Bible, we are accurately representing it.
This is my aim. I want to cut through the clutter and the chaff and get to the text. I want to throw out Systematic Theology for a bit and dig into some Biblical Exegesis. This way we can see what the Scriptures actually teach. This way we will know whether a given claim really is from Scripture.
For this reason, I embark on a trek through the Word. I plan to exegete a list of passages that have application to this topic of Civil Government. I’ve already sort of started this with Romans 13, and I think it would be helpful to go through other texts as well. I have a selection of passages that are relevant to the topic that I plan to deal with. If you have any suggestions, I would love to add them to my list.
I will try to keep these brief, and they will in no way be exhaustive. I do not aim to write full dissertations, or even full sermons on each. I do not want to get bogged down into the Greek and Hebrew any more than is necessary. I don’t believe it is all that necessary for the most part. I intend to use the grammatical-historical method to observe what the text says and to draw applications for the arena of Political Philosophy from it. By Political Philosophy, I mean the ethics of human interaction and how society is most justly to be ordered. Some of these may be direct. Others may be indirect.
So let’s dig in and start with Genesis 1:26-28
Then 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 birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image
In the image of God he created him;
Male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
You might be asking, “What does this have to do with politics?” Quite a lot actually. We see here taught a few key truths about the nature of man that are critical to our discussion. But let’s set aside the question for now. Let’s simply let the text speak plainly to us.
Here on Day 6 of creation, God steps back for a second, looks around at his good creation and says, “Let’s kick this up a notch.” So he creates man and the result is that the creation goes from “good” to “very good”. What’s so special about man? Well, there’s both an ontological and a teleological difference between man and the rest of creation. Ontology deals with the nature of things. Teleology deals with the purpose of things. God reveals both in his statement “Let us make man in our own image.”
But the question is, “what does it mean to be made in the image of God?” There are a lot of ways of trying to answer that question. Many people say “free will”, others say “reason”. But there’s a more foundational reality here that must be the bedrock of any answer we give: Man is God’s self-portrait within the tapestry of his creation. This sets him apart from the rest of creation. Ontologically, man is different from the rest of creation because he bears the likeness of God. Teleologically, man is different from the rest of creation because he has a specific purpose: to bear God’s image.
In what way does man bear God’s image? I find most attempts to answer this question overlook the obvious answer from the text. Man images God by having dominion over creation.
The dominion mandate is given twice in this text. The second time, it comes in the form of a command spoken directly to the man after his creation. But the first time, it is a purpose statement that God speaks to his Triune self while planning the creation of Man. In this purpose statement, he says that man will be made in God’s image and that he will have dominion over the rest of creation. These are not two separate realities. They are inextricably linked. The most basic and direct meaning of being made in God’s image is that we have dominion! This makes sense doesn’t it? God is revealed throughout Scripture as the Sovereign King of all the Universe. Indeed, he created the universe and all that is in it and rules over it all (Psalm 103:19).
So this text reveals man’s primary duty. It is stewardship. Man, in order to glorify God by accurately representing him to his creation, rules over creation on God’s behalf. Man’s dominion over creation does not replace God’s authority over it, but is and ought to be an act of worship and service to God.
The other interpretations of how man images God are valid, but I maintain that these are merely supportive of the primary goal. God rules his creation in wisdom, so man is given wisdom. God has a will, so man is given the power to choose.
Another key aspect is this idea of reproduction. This passage reveals that reproduction is part of this image bearing nature of man. Right in the middle of this discussion of image bearing and dominion, God reveals that he made man male and female. Then he tells man to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Much can be said about this in other respects, but its impact on the dominion mandate is that man would fill the earth in order to subdue it. The procreative act of childbearing is both an imaging of God’s creative power and a means to the end of having dominion over creation. This is a large earth, and no one man can subdue all of it, even in the pre-fall state. So he needs the help of other men so they can divide and conquer. Thus the purpose for procreation is bound up in man’s Ontological nature and Teleological responsibility to image God.
There are several implications of this dominion mandate.
First, the earth and all that is in it, while being God’s property as his creation (Psalm 24:1), is also available for man to treat as his property. Indeed it truly belongs to God, but man’s duty as God’s steward is to subdue and dominate it. More than being just permission for man to take property from the earth, this is a commandment.
Second, since the property is ultimately God’s and man’s dominion authority over this creation is a stewardship of the property for God, then our dominion must be exercised according to God’s wishes. We must rule creation the way God would rule creation and follow his laws if we are to image him appropriately. If we rule creation in a way that is contrary to God’s wishes, then we are in effect telling a lie about who God is. Much can be said about how God wants us to subdue creation, but that is beyond the scope of this analysis.
Third, mankind is conspicuously absent from the list of things dominated. God lists what we are to dominate: the earth itself, fish, birds, and land animals. Nowhere in this does it list dominating other men. This is because mankind is separate from the rest of creation. He is not a thing to be dominated. He dominates.
So what does this have to do with Political Philosophy?
Many have interpreted the dominion mandate as a pre-fall institution of government. I can only agree to this if we accept a certain definition of government. If government is broadly defined as the act of exercising dominion, then okay. But if we limit our definition of government to the exercise of dominion over other men, then I have to disagree. I don’t see that in this passage. It may be objected that we need government to organize a society so we can cooperate to subdue this large planet, but that’s not even remotely true.
First, it doesn’t say that here. Anyone who says this is eisegeting the presuppositions that government schooling has indoctrinated into them. Second, are we really to believe that, before the fall, men with no sin nature and a common language could not have voluntarily and peacefully organized to dominate an earth that was not plagued by the curse without dominating each other? Even the voluntary association of fallen men at Babel was so effective when they had a common language that God himself said, “nothing they purpose to do will be impossible for them.”
I will get into Babel in a later post. For now, I want to confine myself to this text, and I do not any institution of civil government in it. I define “civil government” as men having dominion over other men. We may try to move the goalposts and redefine government. As mentioned, I can agree to government if we define it as having dominion over creation. But I cannot agree to government that includes dominion over other men. In the interest of clarity, I will constrain my use of the term to the act of having dominion over men for now.
A civil government may or may not be a Biblical institution. We will see whether it is in future study. We can’t know that from this passage. But one thing is clear to me. If civil government is a Biblical institution, then it is a post-fall institution. It’s purpose is to deal with the realities of the fact that man is now sinful and the creation is now cursed. We will discuss what those realities are and the ways in which civil government deals with them later.
This is the final implication of Imagio-Dei: Since each man bears God’s image and since men are not, by created natural order, under the dominion of other men, then each man must be left free to carry out his own part in the dominion mandate as his own conscience dictates. We have a duty to respect God’s image in our neighbor. He has a right to life because he receives this from God. He has a right to liberty because he is God’s steward who answers only to God. Even if civil government is a Biblical institution, it ought not violate these rights. As we will see, its very purpose is to uphold these. When we leave men free like this, they will use this freedom to sin. That is unavoidable. He will answer to God for this. What are we to do about it? Is there no space for civil government to restrain such sin? We will see in future studies.