Imago Dei is More than "Dominion"

Assessing The Cornwall Alliance’s “An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming”

Here are two statements (one affirmation and one denial) that are included in the Cornwall Alliance’s “An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming”:
  • We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.
  • We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

In today’s discussion, I’m going to begin looking at their theological underpinnings for these statements. In their supporting document (A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor), there are three chapters. Chapter One is entitled “Theology, Worldview, and Ethics of Global Warming Policy” (pp. 3-25) and is authored by Craig Vincent Mitchell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, along with a number of contributing authors, including E. Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance. Beisner has been the go-to guy in the conservative side of evangelicalism when it comes to opposition to environmental causes. He has been attacking the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change since 1989.

Before I get into my critique, I want to re-state that there are a a number of statements in the theology chapter of Renewed Call to Truth that can be affirmed by most, if not all, evangelicals. See my last post.

Things We Need to Critique
The theology of the Cornwall Alliance sounds good at first pass, but when I read it more in-depth, I find three things particularly troubling.
  1. The first is a narrow understanding of the imago Dei to merely “dominion,”
  2. the second is a dismissal of the Fall’s effect on the environment due to humanity’s sinful use of it, and
  3. the third is an ideological slant toward free market capitalism (production and consumption) as defining a Christian worldview.
Today I will look at the first of my concerns, that the Cornwall Alliance has a narrow understanding of the imago Dei, reducing it to merely “dominion.”

Over and over again, they point to the Genesis 1 mandate that humans are to “have dominion.”
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.” (Genesis 1:26-28, ESV)

They state,

“Men and women were created in the image of God. Humanity is the pinnacle of God’s created order, unique in all of creation. God gave people a privileged place among creatures and commanded them to exercise stewardship over the Earth.” (p. 7)

In the theology of the Cornwall Alliance, human beings, as the imago Dei, are not only given the authority to rule over the creation, but they are to do so knowing that they have the privileged place of primacy in that creation, giving them the right to make decisions that will benefit humanity even though it might harm other creatures in that creation. What is troubling about this theology is that it does not bring into account the fact that humanity’s choices are deeply flawed—their thinking is futile and their foolish hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21). If we act out of perceived privilege, we all too often do so for our own selfish benefit. I will get more into the Cornwall Alliance’s dismissive attitude toward human sinfulness in my next post.

The Cornwall Alliance's insistence on narrowly defining the imago Dei as humanity's "dominion" over the rest of creation exacerbates the problem. They place the phrase “have dominion” in Genesis 1:28 above anything else that might give this phrase a fuller, more nuanced meaning.

“Some Christian environmentalists have argued that Genesis 2:15—which they suggest should be translated to say that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to “serve and keep” it—governs the interpretation of 1:28. Assuming this, they resist the idea that 1:28 mandates a powerful subduing and ruling of the Earth by mankind. But the language in the two stipulations differs radically. In 1:28 God used kabash and radah, words meaning, respectively, to subdue or bring into bondage, and to have dominion or rule. The words denote strong and forceful action. In 2:15 God used abad and shamar, words meaning, respectively, to work, till, serve, or sometimes by extension to worship, and to keep, watch, preserve, or sometimes by extension to obey. Further, if, as these writers understand it, the object of these verbs is the Garden (or by extension the Earth), then translating the Hebrew abad in this instance as “serve” is mistaken. Although it may bear that sense when followed by a personal object, it does not when followed by an impersonal object. It is unlikely, then, abad and shamar in 2:15 were intended to define kabash and radah in 1:28.”

I find this argument incoherent and unconvincing. In their attempt to make dominion the primary purpose of the Image of God, they dismiss the cultivation and keeping of the earth as being somehow subservient to the mandate to rule it. This makes no sense. Most interpreters see the cultural mandate in Genesis 2:15 ("Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.") as a further description of the mandate found in Genesis 1:26-28. I have to wonder what ideology is driving the Cornwall Alliance to so elevate “dominion” over “cultivation,” “keeping,” and even “serving” the creation. Perhaps it is an ideology that equates the gospel with free market capitalism. This I will address in a later post.

The imago Dei in humanity does not give us a “privileged place” over the creation, but a mandate to act as God’s stewards of his creation. As Genesis 2:15 shows, we need to exercise dominion in the same manner that God exercises his dominion. God does not “lord over” his creation, but rather “lords under” it by way of serving it. Jesus Christ is our model here (see Mark 10:45); our Lord shows that God has dominion by caring for the well-being of his creatures. The Hebrew abad (work, cultivate, serve) can, and should, be seen as the mandate for humanity to serve the creation. We are to cultivate the creation to make it all that God wants it to be. And when we do this, we are glorifying God by being the "Image of God," for we are reflecting the very character of God.

Again, I have to wonder if the Cornwall Alliance’s dismissal of Genesis 2:15 is ideologically driven, not exegetically driven. Biblically, to “have dominion” is to act as God’s vice-regent for the care of his creation. This means that humans are to love God's creation as He does. This means that humans are not to exploit the creation for our own "privileged" desires.

The Cornwall Alliance believes that what's driving the environmental movement is a desire to demean the pinnacle of God’s creation (humanity). I understand this concern. However, a biblical worldview places humanity as part of the Creation that God created, loves, and redeems. In their attempt to make a clear ontological difference between humanity and the rest of creation, they lose the fact that the ontological difference in Genesis is not so much between humans and everything else, but between God and all of his creatures. Humanity is described as yet another creature. We are surely the pinnacle of the creation because we are created in the image of God, but this image-bearing does not place us in a privileged position as much as it places us in charge of caring for the rest of the Creation.


Cornwall Alliance's Denial of the Power of the Fall

Other posts of interest on "Global Warming:"
Evangelicals Divided Over Climate Change
Do All Evangelicals Hold to a Conservative Political Viewpoint on Economics?
Fundamentalist Suspicion Toward the Scientific Community Dies Hard
Things We Can Affirm in Cornwall Alliance's Declaration

Cornwall Alliance’s “Christian Worldview”: Free Market Capitalism

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Bob. Helpful and insightful. Seems like I've caught this belief coming through fairly loud and clear among Christians who buy into this -dominion and earth being resilient over whatever humankind does- notion.