The common interpretation that the Genesis creation account grants humankind a lasting and comprehensive dominion over creation has been critiqued as being destructively man-centered.[1] To such critics anthropocentrism seems not to offer much promise for a positive, Biblical environmental ethic. However, the dominionist interpretation encounters more problems than just the environmental one. More importantly it also fails to properly account for the Fall described in Genesis 3 and the adjustments evident in chapters 3-9 to the original creation economy.

Shying away from some of the anthropocentric implications of the dominionist interpretation, some Bible interpreters have preferred a stewardship interpretation instead, which understands Genesis 1:26-28 to reflect stewardship more than dominion – especially the kind of stewardship described in Genesis 2. Stewardship is certainly far less anthropocentric than dominionism, but isn’t innocent of anthropocentric themes: mankind remains the epicenter of creation, having an intrinsic superiority and sovereignty over creation. Like dominionism, stewardship fails the literal grammatical-historical test. Neither of the views hold up when the grammatical-historical principles are consistently applied to the text of Genesis 3-9. Understood literally, the data of these chapters ultimately present mankind as a failed and unfit steward.

Instead this writer suggests an understanding of the early Genesis account that better reflects the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic method, accounts for the cataclysmic changes described in Genesis 3-9, and is decidedly theocentric rather than anthropocentric.[2] Redacted dominionism acknowledges that Genesis 1:26-28 expressed that humanity was originally to have dominion over creation based on being created in the image of God. With Adam and Eve having failed miserably as sovereign stewards, dominionism was redacted after the Fall (Genesis 3), and the dominion mandate is distinctly absent when the deluge survivors are given their post-deluge marching orders (Gen 8-9).

The enduring role of humanity beyond the flood is not one of intrinsic superiority to nature, but rather one of divinely determined instrumental value along with all other creatures. All creation serves the purposes of God rather than the purposes of mankind. Now, it is certain that God intends for humanity to serve instrumentally in roles distinct from the rest of nature, but the purpose is the same for all: to glorify God. Consequently, redacted dominionism does not advocate that land and creatures should be the primary objects of kindness and respect, even though kindness and respect are required.

While a proliferation mandate remains in effect, the dominion mandate does not. From this state of affairs, there are questions that arise that are worthy of exploration here, including on the two relatively unrelated topics of birth control and killing.

First, one of the ways that creatures honor God is by continuing their reproductive functions “after their kind” (e.g., Gen 1:24 and 9:11). Non-human creatures were also given a proliferation mandate (Gen 1:22 for water and air creatures; Gen 8:17 for all creatures). Yet the human proliferation mandate (Gen 9:1) does not in itself constitute a prohibition against birth control, for example. The later narration of Onan, commonly cited as a birth control proof text, actually also has nothing to do with birth control in the broad sense. When Onan “wasted his seed” it was not the wasting of the seed that was inherently wrong, it was that Onan had failed to obey a mandate from his father that would have provided for the continuation of his brother’s line (who was evil in the sight of God, and died for it). God was displeased by Onan’s action and killed Onan (Gen 34:8-10). Incidentally, some who also have considered this an anti-masturbation passage have failed to recognize that the passage offers no commentary on sexual activity whatsoever, but instead recounts Onan’s failing his father, brother, brother’s wife, and ultimately God himself. Neither the proliferation mandate nor the Onan account addresses birth control – or masturbation, for that matter. First Corinthians 7, on the other hand, is a context much more relevant to understanding those two issues (especially 7:4).

sparrowSecond, one might wonder whether killing non-human creatures for any reason at all might restrict their fulfillment of the proliferation mandate, and consequently somehow violate not only them but also their Creator. In fact, God shows great concern for creatures being allowed to fulfill their mandate, as he charges Noah to set all the living creatures free that had been housed in the ark (Gen 8:17). While there is clearly a functional difference between human and non-human creatures (by virtue of the image of God in humanity, see Gen 9:6), killing creatures arbitrarily is never endorsed by Scripture. In fact, the Proverbist noted that regarding the life of an animal was emblematic of righteousness, while cruelty to an animal was reflective of wickedness (Prov 12:10).

God relates to His people is as a loving Father (Mt 6:26), who provides for all creatures, even if not serving as a “Father” to all of them. That Father-child relationship is an instrumental valuation of humanity by God. He chooses for them to be His children, and thus they glorify Him in a different role than the rest of creation, and are “worth much more than they” (Mt 6:26). (It should be noted that this valuation is based on God’s choosing and His own character, rather than based on some intrinsic quality of humanity. Even the imago dei in humanity is by God’s choice, not His obligation. This is why I refer to human value as instrumental rather than intrinsic). Even though God uses humanity differently than non-human creatures, it is clear that God values those creatures nonetheless. He feeds and clothes them (Mt 6:26, 30), they belong to Him and He knows them (Ps 50:10-11), He wishes for them not to be taken advantage in their labor (e.g., Deut 25:4), He watches over them (Mt 10:29), and He expects humanity to have compassion on them (Lk 14:5).

Because these creatures belong to Him, when humanity interacts with non-human creatures we should consider that we are interacting with creatures that belong to the Creator, and we should act accordingly. In some interactions, though, it may seem that the value of humanity and non-human creatures unavoidably intersect and conflict. For example, what about when roaches or termites fulfill their proliferation responsibilities in your home? Dare you stand in their way? In Matthew 6:26 and 10:31 we are introduced to a hierarchy of higher order principles. Humanity is not intrinsically more valuable than non-human creatures – there is nothing in humanity that indebts God to treat humanity a certain way. On the contrary, He chose to imbue humanity with His own image so that humanity would glorify Him in a particular way. In His designing things this way, he ordered a functional (not intrinsic) hierarchy in which He would prioritize humanity, but for theocentric and not anthropocentric purposes. Consequently, the roaches and termites are not out of line for their proliferating in people’s homes, nor would a person be out of line for removing them at pain of death in order to protect family and home from disease or other harms. In short, it appears that when faced with choosing the well-being of a sparrow or a human, God has chosen the human. This does not make God anthropocentric, nor does it give humanity the right to disregard the life of the sparrow, even if there are occasions where the human is justified in taking the sparrow’s life (e.g., Gen 9:3, 5-6, etc.).

God’s design for the interaction of human and non-human creatures provides a remarkable case study on the need for consistency in handling the Scriptures and in understanding a Biblical worldview. There truly is a theological ripple effect or butterfly effect: what one believes in one area will necessarily affect other areas. Consequently, how we as human’s treat God’s possessions (the earth and the creatures therein) must be based on His truth. The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains – the world and all those who dwell in it (Ps 24:1). He is the King of glory, possessing all the sovereign rights as the Creator, and we need to seek His revealed guidance to ensure that we do not violate Him by violating His property.

 

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[1] Lynn Townsend White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in Science, Vol. 155 (Number 3767), March 1967:1204.

[2] For more detail on this view, see Christopher Cone Redacted Dominionism: A Biblical Approach to Grounding Environmental Responsibility (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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