The Reformed Tradition has long referred to Genesis 1:28 as the “Cultural Mandate” (cf. Francis Shaefer and Abraham Kuyper). Culture, defined by Ken Myers, is “what human beings make of the world - in both senses” — as humans create and interpret they are making culture.
This “cultural mandate” is given it’s shape in Genesis through two hendiadys (that is, two words working together to infer one meaning - two through one): First, “fruitful and multiply” and second, “subdue and dominion”:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.”
(Genesis 1:28 ESV)
The command to be fruitful and multiple is given four times in Genesis alone: 1:18, 9:1, 35:11, and 47:27 — God demonstrates his commitment to this instruction even after sin enters the world. To bear fruit, while often spoken of in the abstract sense, is most concretely about reproduction. Just as the grapes on a vine have the purpose of spreading vine seeds, so also humanity from the very beginning was created with the intent that they would produce offspring. Children are not peripheral to the mission of God in the world, but rather are central to the first commandment the Lord ever gives! Multiplication in this context is absolutely linked with the theme of biological reproduction and elsewhere is even used to speak explicitly of child rearing (Ezekiel 19:2). The goal here of covering the earth with the imago dei is reinforced by the ambitious tone of the word.
Often when theologians refer to the cultural mandate, they focus on the second half (subdue & dominion). This is, generally speaking, helpful as Evangelicals have often flattened their role in the world and therefore dismissed the depth and breadth of the value of work as it relates to the Kingdom of God and the mission of God (more on that later). However, we cannot overlook the most basic building block of our social fabric and it’s importance in the flourishing of society: husband, wife, and child. Procreation and parenting are not tangental but rather are instrumental to the call on humanity.
As the Story of God moves forward, the theme of fruitful and multiply takes on a more “spiritual” dynamic and becomes connected to discipleship and evangelism (cf Psalm 1:3, Hosea 9:10-17, Matt 21:18-19, 33-43). However, the concrete sense that has to do with procreation never goes away. The call to practice “true religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the orphans has everything to do with Genesis 1:28 in that it alleviates the ways in which the curse of sin has inhibited the first call of humanity. Many Christians live this out today vis-à-vis adoption, foster care, teaching, serving struggling parents, etc.
The second hendiadys in Genesis 1:28 is less obviously clear to us. Subdue and dominion both have monarchical connotations have have to do with authority. Subdue (kabash) most concretely has to do with trampling underfoot (Micah 7:19) and is therefore appropriately connected with the footstool of a throne (2 Chronicles 9:18). In other cognate languages, subdue has to do with kneading, pressing, and massaging (see entry for ַָב in BDB).
The word for dominion is tied to a concrete meaning that has to do with treading a wine-press (Joel 4:13), but the most frequent usage is abstract and has to do with the rule and reign of a king (i.e. 1 Kings 5:4, Psalm 110:2, Numbers 24:19). This is in spite of the fact that “the basic meaning of the verb is not to rule; the word actually denotes the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (HALOT, page 1190). So, if God’s people are to have dominion in the way that he desires, our authority is to be chiefly expressed within a shepherd—sheep level of care and concern instead of a cold or distant subjugation.
It is worth noting that both words have a basic meaning that has to do with cultivation: you have dominion on the grapes in order to make them wine; you subdue the dough through kneading to help it become bread. This is the essence of work— “we are commissioned as God’s image bearers, his vice-regents, charged with the task of “ruling” and caring for creation, which includes the task of cultivating it, unfolding and unfurling its latent possibilities through human making — in short, through culture” (James KA Smith, You Are What You Love, 7.4).
Humanity should be confident in her calling to have authority over the world. Rather than being power hungry, we should engage this calling with the heart of a shepherd — all that has been given to us we are called to love towards it’s teleological end. This work of culture making is accomplished primarily along two horizons: first, the household (fruitful/multiply), and, second, the cultivation of everything else (subdue/dominion).
Seth Troutt is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary (MDiv), a doctoral student at Covenant Seminary, and a pastor at Redemption Gateway in Mesa, AZ.