The Creation Mandate
The creation mandate is the on-going charge to humanity, in the power and blessing of God, to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth and to gently subdue and cultivate the earth.
The creation mandate was given to Adam and Eve within the narrative of the original creation. Alongside the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity was blessed with God’s presence and told to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth and to gently subdue and cultivate the earth. Although sin and separation from God followed closely on the heels of this original charge, the creation mandate has been reiterated to the people of God throughout Scripture. The final and ultimate reiteration of this mandate is the Great Commission, which Jesus gave to his disciples before his ascension. Therefore, the creation mandate is on-going and is not in competition with worshipping God; Christians are to care for this world even as we hope in the second coming of Christ.
God is foundational to everything we believe and everything we love. For this reason, no biblical teaching can stand if it is not linked with the divine being. That is why the first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God ….” And then, the very first biblical disclosure we are given is that of the original creation. The first two chapters of Genesis divulge in a beautifully told narrative how God laid down the foundations of the earth and then created a special space for our first parents. And of course, the Lord did set up the test: they may eat freely of the produce of the garden, except for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We often do not pause to think how generous the Lord was to give so much to our ancestors, and by implication to us. To be sure, the prohibition against the tree was serious. But at the center of God’s commands was a life full of meaning and purpose. And this life was ordered through what we may call the creation mandate. Sometimes known as the “cultural mandate,” it was originally given alongside the account of the special creation of human beings. The connection is deeply significant. God made mankind after his own image (Gen. 1:26–27). While this carries ontological significance (the image gives us what we are), it also has functional significance (what we are called to do, as we see from the inserted verses 26, 28–30). Here the details of the original creation mandate are given.
Details of the Creation Mandate
The mandate has three components, each of them related. First, and often least noticed, it is given through and because of the blessing of God (Gen. 1:28). Because of the divine blessing it is appropriate to call it a covenant. Its purpose is above all to fulfill mankind’s relationship with God as it was originally intended. Second, the commandment is to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. The population was to increase and then fill the earth to discover its possibilities. Third, the mandate orders that mankind subdue the earth. The word for subduing (kabash) is not meant to be violent, but gentle. It is perhaps not coincidental that the three aspects of the mandate are reflected in our English word (inherited from the Medieval French) for “culture.” Cult referring to worship is one derivative. Colonization meaning to spread to other parts of the world is another. And coulter means, literally, the cutting edge of the plow, or what we ordinarily call cultivation.
The Fall and the Creation Mandate
This is the creation mandate. This is the purpose of the human race. But of course, the question is immediately raised: since our first parents, and therefore their progeny, failed to obey the probation, finding themselves cursed and estranged from God and one another, is there any sense in which this three-part mandate is ongoing? One view is that the first mandate has now been abrogated, and replaced with another, the covenant of grace, centering on preaching the gospel, culminating in the great commission (Matt. 28:18–20).
It is true that instead of leaving Adam and Eve without hope, the Lord cursed the serpent, with the words of the first gospel: “He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). It is often assumed that this means the purpose of the human race is now no longer cultural but spiritual, culminating in Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection did mean the abolition of evil and the creation of his church. If one adds a consideration of the curse of Cain recorded in chapter 4, with its description of the subsequent descendants dwelling in tents, raising livestock and playing music, one might conclude that cultural pursuits do go on, but not in the chosen people who descend from Seth and Enosh, when “people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26).
But before we drive a wedge between the original creation mandate and the call to worship, we should have a look at the subsequent covenant promises and note the reiterations of the original mandate. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon were all told in one form or another to be blessed, to replenish the earth and to subdue it. Even during exile, the Lord tells his people, through Jeremiah, to have children, plant vineyards and pray for the shalom of the city of their enemies (Jer. 29:1–9). No abrogation here. In his great Psalm praising the majesty of God, David asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him” (Ps. 8:4)? The answer is the creation mandate, slightly re-worded (vv. 5–8). Significantly this Psalm is quote in the Book of Hebrews and attributed to Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:5–9). Christ is truly the man of Psalm 8, but having died and been resurrected in order to lead the renewed human race in the mandate.
Thus, rather than an abrogation, we have a restatement of the creation mandate, but in a form appropriate to a fallen world being redeemed through grace by the new covenant head, Jesus Christ. Consider the terms of the great commission. Our three components are present, though in a context of world evangelism. Christ is present for all times with his followers (Matt. 28:20). This is God’s blessing. They are to go into all the nations (Matt. 28:19). To the Athenians, Paul makes the connection between the original multiplying over the earth and spread of the nations “on all the face of the earth” as they seek after God (Acts 17:26). And they are to make disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:19). Disciple-making is the New Testament equivalent of subduing the earth.
Implications of the Creation Mandate Today
The ongoing character of the creation mandate has a number of implications for our lives as Christians today. First, we ought always to center our endeavors around the blessing of God, who is always with us. As the title of Brother Lawrence’s book puts it, we must “practice the presence of God. Second, we continue to spread around the earth, sometimes literally through globalization and missions, sometimes with depth, making disciples. And third we lead people to become disciples with greater and greater awareness of the lordship of Christ in every area of life. Few have expressed this appeal for discipleship better than Os Guinness, in his masterpiece The Call. Guinness invites the reader to consider his or her primary call, to be reconciled with God, and then the secondary call, whether it be work, parenting, citizenship etc.
We will never have to choose between culture-making and worship. God’s original purposes are well in place, enhanced and fulfilled in Christ.
- Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
- Chris Horst, “The Cultural Mandate is Central to God’s Mission”
- Got Questions?, “What is the Creation Mandate / Cultural Mandate?”
- Greg Beale, Video: “What Is the Relationship Between The Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission?”
- Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life
- Timothy Keller, Video: “Why Culture Matters”
- William Edgar, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. See an Author Interview here and a Book Summary here.
- William Edgar, “The Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission”
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