The Dominion of Man - a Tasmanian Perspective

by Stephen Geard,

Then God blessed them, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
- Genesis 1:28


Although often caricatured as a conservative backwater, with a sleepy English-looking countryside and even sleepier population, the island state of Tasmania has in fact led the world on environmental issues. It is apparent now that the world's first Green political party - the United Tasmania Group (UTG) - was established here during the Lake Pedder controversy in the early 1970's. Indeed, the founder of the UTG, Dr. Richard Jones, came close to winning a seat in the Tasmanian Parliament way back in 1972.[1]

Tasmania may be leading the way, but it seems to me that there is one organization that is definitely not showing a lead on these issues: the Christian church. People ought to be able to look to the Church for leadership on difficult moral issues. Yet is seems to me that the Church has no answer to the question: What is the proper relationship between humanity and the rest of creation?

As with so many other issues the church has surrendered leadership to humanists and socialists. The best it can do is tag along about 20 years behind chanting "Us too! Us too! We believe what you believe!" There has been some work done on this issue by modernists and theological liberals (e.g. the World Council of Churches). The most detailed study has been undertaken by two American theologians, H. Paul Santmire and the late Joseph Sittler. However, both these men write from a liberal Lutheran perspective. Very, very little has been written from a reformed or evangelical position. There has been virtually no attempt to construct an explicitly Biblical theology of man in nature.

This is evidenced by the kind of arguments used, even by Christians, to preserve the environment, arguments based on sentiment and emotion, not on the Law of God. The Bible is the only rule given for determining what is right and wrong. There is no other standard. For example, consider mining in Antarctica. I may think it is wrong. You may think it is wrong. But why is it wrong? As Christians we should only say something is wrong if it is sinful. Is it sinful to mine Antarctica? If so, where does the Bible condemn it?

The Lynn White Debate

Part of the reason for the church's silence is a charge brought by Lynn White, then Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in a 1967 paper entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis."[2] White charged that Christianity is responsible for the environmental crisis because it teaches the dominion of man.

White's paper has been enormously influential, and has been reprinted many times (eight that I know of). Everything written on Christianity and ecology will refer to White's paper.

Many people looking for an excuse to attack Christianity seized on the paper as more ammunition. In response many Christians rushed to defend the faith, many, unfortunately, clearly not having actually read White's paper. In short, it generated a lot of controversy.

Consider for example the comments by one of the world's leading environmental philosophers or ecophilosophers, as they prefer to call themselves (from ecology + philosophy), Dr. Warwick Fox formerly at the University of Tasmania:

For his heretical indictment of Western Christianity ... White's paper has probably generated more controversy than any other paper ... in the history of environmental thought. Moreover, this straightforward but erudite paper is still compulsory reading for anyone interested in ecophilosophy or the development of science and technology.[3]
Or consider a letter written to Hobart's The Mercury newspaper on 22 January 1992 (p. 9). The letter writer lists a number of environmental woes including clearfelling, overclearing, overgrazing, the chemical dependence of modern agriculture, and widespread land degradation. He then goes onto condemn the cause of these problems:
people and parties whose philosophy is to "go forth and multiply and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air and all living things."
Whether or not he is aware of it the writer is repeating Lynn White's charge.

White himself later wrote, in a 1973 paper in which he responded to some of his critics:

When I first published this hypothesis in 1967, a bishop wrote to me: "I agree with you completely, and am deeply troubled by it." Others were less acquiescent. I was denounced, not only in print but also on scraps of brown paper thrust anonymously into envelopes, as a junior Anti- Christ, probably in the Kremlin's pay, bent on destroying the true faith. The most common charge was that I had ignorantly misunderstood the nature of "man's dominion" and that it is not an arbitrary rule but rather a stewardship of our fellow creatures for which mankind is responsible to God.[4]
(In his own defence White points out that as a historian he was not concerned with what Genesis 1:26-28 does mean but rather with what it did mean to certain people at a certain time).

Or consider the following, recorded by a minister in NSW who had attended a meeting of environmentalists:

When it came out in conversation that I had more than a peripheral involvement in the Christian church, a woman drew my attention to my imputed criminality. She asked what I thought I was doing in their company. Didn't I realize that it seemed hypocritical, or at least bad form, to represent the church among the Greenies? Didn't I accept that I was under sentence?[5]
He goes on to speak of White's charge in terms of a court case, writing:
The outcome of the case of The Earth v Christianity was that Christianity, having been found guilty of complicity in ecocide, was ordered to re-enter the struggle for global survival - only this time on the side of the earth.[6]
("Ecocide" is an environmentalists' word akin to genocide, but referring to the mass destruction of the natural environment). As all of the above clearly demonstrate, White's ideas have been very influential.

So what did White actually say? He claimed the ecologic crisis came about because of the merging of science and technology in the Nineteenth Century. Certainly this was one of the causes. Possibly there were others, political and economic. He further claimed that science and technology as we know them are of medieval Christian origin. Therefore, indirectly, Christianity must take the blame for the environmental crisis. He wrote the following to illustrate his argument:

In the ninth century a picture drawn near Reims [France] shows mankind divided into two contending camps: the righteous and the unrighteous. In each camp a sword is being conspicuously sharpened. The ungodly are content to use a large whetstone, whereas the righteous possess the first rotary grindstone (sharpener) known anywhere, and it is being turned by the first crank outside China.[7]
He then notes:
this is a clear statement by the Benedictine monk who drew the picture that technological advance is morally good.[8]
Thus the idea that technology is good and there ought to be more of it is not new. It was not invented by some bourgeois capitalists in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, but rather is an idea that has completely permeated European thinking for over 1000 years.

Three Historical Considerations

How did European science and technology arise? And what role did Christianity play in their origin? White and other historians of ideas argue that Christianity contributed three fundamental ideas that encouraged the rise of science and technology in Europe. Those ideas were: the concept of progress, the disenchantment of nature and the dominion of man. We shall consider each of these ideas in turn.

1. Concept of Progress

Briefly, Christianity teaches a straight line view of history. History does not go round and round in eternal cycles as in many pagan philosophies and religions. The Bible teaches that history had a beginning and will have an end, thus changing things has meaning, progress is possible. This is not so in an eternal cycles philosophy. After all, what is the point of changing things if everything is eventually just going to come back round to the way it is at the moment?

2. Disenchantment of Nature

Also briefly, Christianity disenchanted nature, that is, it abolished the idea that nature is divine or magical or enchanted or populated with divine spirits. It necessarily did this because it teaches belief in a transcendent God who is distinct from and not part of His creation. If nature is not seen as divine, magical, enchanted or populated with spirits, then an important restraint on its exploitation is removed.

At this point we should issue a caution regarding some aspects of the environmental movement and attempts by some to re- enchant nature, that is, to return to a pantheistic or animistic view of nature, which again sees nature as divine or populated by spirits. Such ideas clearly conflict with Biblical teaching regarding the transcendence of God and should be rejected.

3. Dominion of Man

To properly understand the nature of the dominion of man we need to have a close look at the words used in the so-called Dominion Mandate (Genesis 1:26-28). The two Hebrew words employed are: râdâ translated "have dominion" (KJV) or "rule over" (NIV); and kâwbash translated "subdue".

Other uses made of râdâ in the Old Testament refer to ruling over slaves, the rule of kings (both good and bad, good like Solomon, bad like the Egyptians and Babylonians), commanding in an army, and the rule of Christ.

With regard to kâwbash, it most commonly refers to conquest, most often Israel's invasion of Canaan. It is also used to refer to defeat, the holding of slaves, oppression through debt, and even rape (Esther 7:8).

It is clear that these words are military terms referring to the conquest and rule over one's enemies. Even Christ is seen as ruling over His enemies; c.f. Psalm 110:2, where God the Father commands God the Son: "Rule [râdâ] in the midst of your enemies!" This raises a very obvious problem, given the context of Genesis 1:26-28. Since God pronounced the whole of creation "very good" (v.31), where then are Adam's enemies? Who was it that he was to conquer and have dominion over? Clearly there was no-one opposing Adam at that stage. Thus the context will not allow us to interpret râdâ and kâwbash in their normal military sense.

Indeed it is difficult to see what exactly rule (dominion) meant prior to the Fall, as the three principle responsibilities of Old Testament rulers were to defend the land, to punish wickedness, and to arbitrate in disputes. Yet before the Fall there was nothing to defend the land from, no wickedness to punish and (presumably) no disputes to arbitrate. It is also difficult to see exactly how Adam was to rule over nature, as plants and animals are quite capable (in the providence of God) of running themselves and do not need anyone to rule over them.

Nevertheless we can say that Adam's dominion did not mean indiscriminate rape, pillage and plunder of the land. For even though râdâ and kâwbash can mean that, it is always of one's enemies - and Adam had no enemies! Certainly nature was not his enemy.

It is important also to note that dominion does not mean being able to use nature (in this case, plants) for food, because (v.30) the animals were given the plants as food and yet they were not given dominion.

However, things changed markedly after the Fall, as the land was cursed and as a result is not always on man's "side". God cursed the ground in Genesis 3:17b-19:

Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.
Thus after the Fall the military nature of the terms râdâ and kâwbash starts to have meaning. Man is, in a sense, at war with nature. The thorns and thistles need to be cleared out of the way before the land can be used productively.

Thus with regard to White's charge that Christianity's teaching of the dominion of man brought about the environmental crisis, we must acknowledge that since the Fall the military nature of the terms râdâ and kâwbash does license man to forcibly take dominion over nature.

Three Theological Principles

Given the above, does humanity now - after the Fall - have permission to indiscriminately rape, pillage and plunder the land? I believe not, and will expound two suggestive principles. However, prior to dealing with them we must first deal with an important preliminary question: the meaning of the word nature, a word I have been using rather carelessly up till now.

1. Creation and Nature

As with the analysis of any issue we must begin with God. Genesis 1:1 states, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". This must be our starting point. We must recognize that all things are created by God and ultimately belong to Him.

An important implication of this is that properly speaking Christians do not believe in nature - but in creation. We do not believe in nature as something that exists by itself, that evolved itself into existence and is governed by natural law or by chance (i.e. no law at all). But we believe in creation, created by God and governed by His law.

What then should we call the natural (created) environment that surrounds us all? Some environmental philosophers, also wary of the word nature, use the term "nonhuman world." Likewise some Christian scholars suggest "nonhuman creation", meaning by that all creation excluding humanity and human constructions.

The difficulty with a term like nonhuman creation is: where do the angels fit and where does the Devil fit? The Devil, for example, is not human and he is created, so logically he would be part of the nonhuman creation. Yet we would not normally consider the Devil to be part of nature, at least not in the same way as a tree or a penguin is part of nature. Perhaps we should speak of "the nonhuman and nonangelic creation." But that is starting to get to be a bit of a mouthful. It is easier to just call it nature! Which is what I shall continue to do. However I shall define nature as follows: All of God's creation excluding humanity, human constructions and all angels, elect and fallen.

We shall now consider the two principles which I suggest limit man's exploitation of nature.

2. Orchards and Sieges

Amongst the instructions God gave to Israel prior to their invasion of Canaan was the command (Deuteronomy 20:19-20):

When you besiege a city a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use them in the siege, for the tree of the field is man's food.
Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it be subdued.
This is a direction not to conquer (take dominion) over the land in such a way as to decrease its agricultural productivity, because that productivity was God's gift to Israel. Canaan could not have been a "land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8) if, in the process of conquering it, Israel had rendered it infertile.

Thus the first principle: we must not take dominion over the land in such a way as to destroy it, because the land's production is God's gift. It would be like unwrapping a present with such violence that you destroy the gift wrapped inside.

3. Human Arrogance toward Nature

The prophet Isaiah pronounced God's judgement against Sennacherib King of Assyria (2 Kings 19:23-24,27-28):

By your messengers you have reproached the Lord, And said: "By the multitude of my chariots
I have come up to the height of the mountains,
To the limits of Lebanon;
I will cut down its tall cedars
And its choice cyprus trees;
I will enter the extremity of its borders,
To its fruitful forest.
I have dug and drunk strange water,
And with the souls of my feet have I dried up
All the brooks of defence.
But I know your dwelling place,
Your going out, and your coming in,
And your rage against me.
Because your rage against me and your tumult
Have come up to my ears,
Therefore I will put my hook in your nose
And my bridle in your lips,
And I will turn you back
By the way which you came.
What is being condemned is the boastful, arrogant destruction of nature: destroying forests to make a name for oneself. Perhaps I am being unfair, but it seems there has been something of this in some of our politicians. Surely some, at least, have been thinking: if I can just destroy this forest, dam this river, or flood this lake then I can prove what a hero I am. But we cannot blame the politicians - we must blame the people who voted for them!


It is this arrogant, boastful attitude toward nature that lies at the heart of our environmental problems. Christian economist Dr. Gary North writes:
This century has been a radical historical aberration: large-scale mass production, financed by monetary inflation, accompanied by mass pollution, compounding annually, decade after decade. This is not the culmination of Christian orthodoxy but of arrogant secular humanism which is steadily consuming its moral foundation, namely, the cultural veneer of Christian orthodoxy.[9]
North argues that Western civilization has become a society like that warned against in Deuteronomy 8, a society that believes its wealth to be of its own making. Consider Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17-18:
Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments, his judgements, and his statutes, which I command you today,
lest - when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them;
And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied;
when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
then you say in your heart, "My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth."
And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he that gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
We have come to think of ourselves as the masters of the universe, and that everything was created for us. Lynn White wrote in his "Historical Roots" paper:
we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.
Whilst White is wrong to call that a Christian axiom, it is certainly a common one.

The Bible's best answer to the arrogance of man is found in Job chapters 38-41. Interestingly this was recognized by environmental philosopher David Ehrenfeld in his book The Arrogance of Humanism, in which he is highly critical of Western civilization and the philosophies that underscore it. Inside the front cover of the book he quotes Job 39:26-27:

Does the hawk fly by your wisdom,
And spread its wings toward the south?
Does the eagle mount up at your command,
And make its nest on high?
The meaning is clear: we do not control the world, let alone own it.

Thus the gospel is the proper solution to the environmental crisis. We must recognize that the world was created by and is governed by God, and so are we. Furthermore we are in rebellion against God and have come to think of ourselves as masters of the world's destiny. We must repent and place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ and only then can we come to exercise a responsible dominion over the land.


  1. Pamela Walker, "The United Tasmania Group: An Analysis of the World's First Green Party," in Peter Hay, Robyn Eckersley & Geoff Holloway, eds., Environmental Politics in Australia and New Zealand (Hobart: Occasional Paper No.23, Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, 1989), pp.161-174.
  2. Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis", Science vol. 155 (1967), pp.1203-1207.
  3. Warwick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), p.6.
  4. Lynn White, "Continuing the Conversation," in Ian G. Barbour, ed., Western Man and Environmental Ethics (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1973), p.60.
  5. Andrew Dutney, "Creation and the Church: Proposals and Prospects for an Ecological Ecclesiology," in Ecopolitics II Proceedings (Hobart: Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, 1987), p.84.
  6. idem.
  7. White, "Continuing the Conversation," p.58.
  8. idem.
  9. Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis, rev. ed. (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), p.124.
Last modified: 5 February 2009