Dominion and the Children of God

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Peaceable Kingdom by John August Swanson

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven … and there was given him dominion, and glory, and kingdom …. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. — Daniel 7:13-14,27

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Laudato Si’, the recent papal encyclical on care of the environment, has been met in some quarters by assertions that, contra Francis, the Bible gives absolute dominion over the earth to human beings as a species. However, as George Fox and other Friends saw in the seventeenth century, scripture actually says something quite different.

Dominion belongs to Christ, the Son of Man who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45). That is not to say that no human beings can share in that dominion, for Christ includes all who are children of God. Does that not mean everyone? Perhaps surprisingly, it does not. Although some contemporary Quakers might demur, original Quaker thought followed scripture in defining as children of God only those who are “reborn” into Christ and thereby partake of the divine nature, which is agapē. (See 2 Pt 1:4 and 1 Jn 4:16.) Only they, as members of the body of Christ, are entrusted with dominion over the earth, for “the earth, and the abundance thereof, is the Lord’s” (1 Cor 10:26, quoting Ps 24). But unregenerate human beings are, as Fox put it in his book called The Great Mystery [GM], “destroyers and defacers of the workmanship of God” (GM, 553) — a verdict that accords with what we see around us.

I have made a twofold assertion that goes against popular opinion: the Bible grants to human beings in general neither (1) dominion over nature nor (2) the status of child of God. What is my justification?

We begin in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.

[26] 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. [27] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. [28] And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Note that dominion does not include the right to kill and eat other animals: in Eden, God gives herbs and other plants for food to humans and other animals.]

According to our creation myth, then, the first human beings were made in the image of God. What does that mean? Recall Paul’s statement in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things whether in heaven or on earth, the seen and the unseen …. All things were created through him and for him; and he is before all things, and in him all things cohere” (cf. Jn 1). To be created in the image of God is to be created in Christ. And to be in Christ is to be a child of God, for Christ is the only-begotten one. (See, for example, Jn 3:16.) Those who are members of his body (1 Cor 12:27) are the Son, the only Child, of God. They share in the divine nature, and in them all things cohere — are in right relationship.

But is not everyone a member of his body? In a word, no. When, for example, Paul wrote (in 1 Cor 12), “For we are all baptized into one spirit … and … given to drink of that spirit,” he was writing to those who had been “born again” in Christ. As Christ says in Jn 3:5-6, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit, one cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is generated of the flesh is flesh, and that which is generated of the spirit is spirit.”

If human beings were created in the image of God — that is, in Christ — why is it that not all of us are now in that image? Why do we need to be, in the spiritual sense, created anew? George Fox explained it in this way:

For man in the beginning lost his uprightness by transgressing the law, and so the devil’s seed comes to be sowed in mankind, and the image of God lost, and the image of the devil is set up in man, and so come darkness, hardness, mists, dimness, and blindness. [GM, 553]

The Genesis myth recognizes that, from almost the beginning of their existence, humans beings lose their innocence: the children of God quickly become the children of evil (see 1 Jn 3:10). By nature, humans “have sin within them” (GM, 486): in other words, and whether we can acknowledge it or not, our hearts are naturally hard and darkened by blindness. Again, liberal Quakers may find that difficult to accept, but it is a key insight of the Quaker tradition and a prerequisite to understanding Fox’s teaching. Although human beings were created in Christ the image of God, as a species we have lost that divine image and the dominion that is proper to it. Fox:

[F]or God made man in his image, and placed him over all the creatures, and gave him an understanding capable of his law, and to know dominion; but when man lost his dominion [initially, over nature within himself], he transgressed his law …. (GM, 483-484)

As we see not only from the results of environmental and climate studies but also from the resistance of those who reject science in service of selfish interests and prejudices, unregenerate human beings cannot be trusted with dominion over the earth. As Fox pointed out, we lack dominion even over our own inward nature: we sin repeatedly, putting our comfort, pleasure, and security over the basic needs of other beings and the planet. And the facts of our contingent and fragile life belie any pretense at dominion over nature at large, which kills us all. For “through one man [i.e., Adam] death entered the world” (see Rom 5:12, 1 Cor 15:21), and while Christianity believes that Christ has conquered death, it recognizes his victory as proleptic: at present, obviously, death remains in power. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26).

Death is spiritual as well as physical: that truth is harbored in the idea that death entered the world through sin. Because of the darkness of their hearts, human beings reject life in Christ, life as one who is willing to sacrifice self for love of the world. Instead of exercising divine dominion, which is characterized by right-ordering love, they devastate the creation, even rationalizing their evil by perverting scripture to claim a “right” of ruthless domination. But, as we have seen, only Christ — the one “seed” who, in his members, is as innumerable as the stars — has legitimate dominion, for “apart from him not even one thing has come to exist” (Jn 1:3). Dominion belongs, therefore, to those who die to the body of sin and are born into the body of Christ. They are the children of God who live the divine love for the creation, and it is they who would restore the earth. Thus, “the whole creation awaits the appearance of the children of God,” for “when anyone is in Christ: new creation! Behold, the primitive has passed, and all is new-made” (Rom 8:19; 2 Cor 5:17).

How does a child of Adam and Eve regain the divine image and become a child of God? Faith — trust in the power and wisdom of agapē within — is the key. George Fox summarized the process:

Christ saith, “Believe in the light, that ye may be children of the light;” and he that is a child of the light cometh to the birth born of the spirit. And Christ doth enlighten every one that cometh into the world; and “as many as received him, he gave them power to become the sons of God.” And none hear faith, but who hear the light within, which is Christ within, who is the author of it, by which the spirit is received. (GM, 122)

[M]an’s spirit in the fall is polluted, [as is] his body; but as the light is believed in, and the mind changed, his spirit and body are sanctified, and so he comes to be a child of the light, and “his spirit witnesseth with our spirits that we are the sons of God.” (GM, 362)

As we learn to trust the light of agapē that illumines the darkness of our hearts, we receive the power of regeneration and growth into the fullness of that love. Only then are we children of God who, having “come … into the wisdom of God that preserves the creation, and is not destructive” (GM, 148), can rightly exercise dominion. Until then, our rationalizations notwithstanding, we remain “destroyers and defacers of the workmanship of God.”

[T]herefore … wait in the light which comes from Christ the life, that with it you may come to receive refreshing from the Lord; and to know the wisdom of the creation, with which it must be used to the glory of the Creator. So having a light from him by whom the world was made, to whom all power in heaven and earth is given; wait in the light, from him to receive power, which brings [you] out of the world’s lusts and defilements … [and then] you will come to know the right use of the creatures ….*

 


* Concluding quotation source: George Fox, Gospel Truth Demonstrated, Vol. 1 (Vol. 4 of Works), p. 305.

8 thoughts on “Dominion and the Children of God

  1. Thank you so much for this, Friend George. I’ve recently been grieving over what I’ve been seeing as a lack of clear vision among Friends about the environmental crisis and what it asks of us. The unmentionable elephant in the room, if my Lord and Savior will forgive the metaphor, is Christ Jesus. Whatever theological language we may speak, Christian or non-Christian, if we will not be gathered into Him, washed clean, and transformed into new creatures, we’ll continue to be (a) in bondage to sin, and (b) of the nature of Cain the murderer, “cursed from the earth,” so that it no longer yields its strength to us when we till the ground (Genesis 4:11-12). If anyone doubts that we have the murderer’s nature in us, let them think back to the many times they’ve wished someone dead, or taken pleasure in war movies, the social “death” of defeated political candidates, or any other dramas involving someone’s hurt (cf. Romans 1:32-2:1). It may be our willful deadening of ourselves to the suffering of our brother Abel that also kills our natural tenderness toward nature and our living sense of symbiosis with invisible worlds, so that we hear no warning signs when our behaviors start to turn the world around us into desert. In any case, though, if we are actively broadcasting the psychic toxins generated by our own unsubdued inward violence, we should hardly be surprised when the world around us manifests famines, droughts, epidemics, and pathologies of climate. True, it may not have been us who poisoned the ground of Iraq with depleted uranium dust, but our nephew the soldier, and not us who poisons the rivers of America with glyphosate runoff, but our cousin the farmer. But does it matter? Until and unless we ourselves undergo an inward metamorphosis that renders us harmless to the environment in every way, we’re liable to merely deepen the ambient darkness, no matter how generously we give to a purely secular environmental movement. Lord, grant us that metamorphosis quickly, by whatever name we may know You: in Jesus’ name I ask this: Amen.

  2. I have some problems with this approach to earthcare concerns.

    First, I guess, is giving the Bible this level of authority in the first place, and leaning so heavily on the creation story in particular. Genesis 1-3 does not tell the true story of how the earth or humans were created. Insofar as any moral and religious messages about the nature of human evil and human nature, about our relation to other creatures, about “dominion” in the natural order of evolution and earth’s ecological systems rest on these scriptural chapters, they rest on pure myth, and a remixed pagan one at that.

    Human sin may be original, that is, part of human nature, but Genesis 3 is not how we got that way. There was no age of pure innocency in which Adam was before the fall, and to which we might go back, no First Adam. And sin is no more inborn in the human than is human love, creativity, cooperation, compassion, or conscience. The traditional obsession with sin is a kind of tunnel vision pathology that ignores the rest of human nature and obstructs religious interest in ways to develop positive human potential.

    Turning then to the Logos identity of the Christ, this is John and Paul talking, but I doubt very much that it is Jesus talking. At least, the Jesus we see in the synoptics never talks like this; he is much more grounded in this world and his primary message, of good news for the poor (Luke 4:15-31), has profound implications for our ecological crises, but no mythology that could be used to define his disciples as “children of God” in such almost purely metaphysical terms.

    I think talk of being created in the image of God is interesting metaphysics, but, as an ideological foundation for earthcare witness, it’s definitely a double-edged sword, tied as it is inseparably to the creation story. And all talk of dominion springs from an image of God that is monarchical and militarily triumphalist; I have no experience of such a Warrior King and I hope I never do.

    Furthermore, the apocalyptic Son of Man sayings, which I happen to think ARE genuine sayings of Jesus, give just the wrong message for those of us who carry earthcare concerns. The belief that God will destroy a fallen creation as one of God’s last saving acts is one of the most dangerous ideologies standing in the way of spirit-led earthcare. Especially since we actually do face an earthcare apocalypse. Now that the death of the planet at the agency of human evil is actually conceivable, we more than ever need a redeemed religious ideology of creation and of apocalyptic, one that rests on new revelation, not on one given to Israelites 2500 years ago to comfort them in their Exile.

    Even turning toward the Light, toward the inward Christ, is only good as far as it goes. Insofar as being born again in water and the spirit ignites earthcare ministry in some of us, this essential of Quaker spirituality offers real hope for earthcare renewal. But most of the evil we face behind our ecological crises are collective and systemic, not personal, though some persons working within today’s earth-destroying systems become demonically possessed by its spiritual momentum and do need release from that bondage.

    We need an evangelical mission focused, not just on bringing individual persons to Christ, but also on bringing the reign of God to the dominant idolatrous dominion system on the planet, corporate capitalism, and on bringing agape love to today’s dominant idolatrous religious ideologies of dominion and apocalyptic judgment.

    end of rant

    • Remember where we are, Friend Steven: The Postmodern Quaker. Here, I work primarily to bring the Quaker tradition into the 21st century by developing the original Quaker hermeneutical approach to the Christian tradition in context of our postmodern condition. Yes, Genesis is myth, as the essay states. And what may appear to you as metaphysics is in this context theopoetry. I’m not looking to bring persons to Christ, as to a belief or entity, but into Christ, as into a more relational way of being — and that, too, is theopoetry.

      Collectives and systems are composed of individuals. As individuals like us wake up to the fact that their “innocent” lifestyles require oppressive, destructive systems, they may begin to change their own behavior as well as work for broader change. “Think globally; act locally” — beginning with oneself.

  3. Interesting article and discussion … I am reading ‘HOMO SACER: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ by Giorgio Agamben at the moment and the article kind of resonates with some of the stuff going on in there I think!?

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