At the heart of our philosophy of the church’s responsibility toward culture is a proper understanding of how God rules sovereignly over all things, how he specifically rules his redeemed people—particularly now the NT church, and how his rule will culminate in the future. Another way of saying this is that central to a biblical philosophy of cultural engagement is how Scripture uses language like “rule,” “reign,” and “kingdom” to describe God’s plan in history, and essential to this understanding is recognition that Scripture uses these kinds of “kingdom” terms to describe a couple different concepts in God’s working out of his sovereign plan. I’ll summarize what I mean here and then develop it over the next few weeks.
Sometimes Scripture uses “kingdom” terminology as a metaphor to describe God’s universal sovereign rule over all. Other times Scripture uses “kingdom” language as a metaphor to describe his redemptive rule over his people. And other times Scripture describes a very concrete, literal kingdom on earth. Exploring these three uses of kingdom language in God’s plan will help us to understand our relationship to each.
First, there is one clear sense in which the Bible refers to a kingdom that is eternal and universal in scope. The psalmist proclaims, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps 103:19) and “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps 145:13). All aspects of the universe fall under this rule, including what we might commonly consider culture: social and family structures, agriculture, the arts, and so forth. God rules it all.
Within this universal reign, God has chosen humankind to serve as his vice regents on earth, ruling over every living thing. He created Adam and Eve in his image and blessed them with dominion over his kingdom: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). This dominion blessing enables humankind to take the raw materials of God’s creation and use them for his glory and their good, thus giving humankind a definite biblical basis for involvement in cultural endeavors. This blessing establishes the basis for common human institutions such as marriage, family, agriculture, horticulture, and husbandry. Important to note here is that God gives this dominion to all human beings, not just believers; this blessing occurs before the Fall. All humans have been blessed with dominion over creation, and thus God rules his universal kingdom through all people created in his image.
However, God intended Adam to be not only a king, but also a priest. Genesis 2:15 says that God placed Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it.” Most Hebrew scholars note that when the two Hebrew words “work” and “keep” are used together in the Old Testament, they almost always refer to priestly work. In other words, God intended for a perfect union between the civil and the religious to exist in the garden—Adam was supposed to be the perfect king/priest.
However, this role as king/priest included with it certain responsibilities, among them the command to abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), a command intended to test Adam’s role as king/priest of the garden. Had Adam obeyed this command, he would have been confirmed in holiness, and mankind would have continued to perfectly rule the natural world as mediators of God’s universal rule. But Adam failed to preserve the purity of the garden, thus bringing a curse upon humankind and all creation.
This curse did not end the universal rule of God, nor did it end humankind’s blessing of rule over creation. God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 reveals this in specifically repeating the dominion blessings of Genesis 1:28—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Yet now because of the presence of sin, in God’s covenant with Noah he added additional measures to preserve peace in the midst of that sin, the most notable of which is the earthly institution of human government, with its God-given responsibility of capital punishment first outlined in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God gave this responsibility to govern the world and its people once again to all humankind as a means through which God would sovereignly control man’s sinfulness and preserve the world and its order. Romans 13:1 reiterates this point when it says that governing authorities “have been instituted by God.” When governing authorities fulfill responsibilities given to them by God, verse 6 calls them “ministers of God”; when they punish wrongdoing, governing authorities are actually “carr[ying] out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). Even the existence of separate languages and nations spreading “over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:9) is a God-ordained outgrowth of the dominion blessing to “fill the earth.”
Therefore, God now continues to rule universally over all things through these human institutions that he himself ordained for this purpose. These human institutions encompass all people, believers and unbelievers alike, who exercise dominion over what he has made and attempt to maintain order and stability in the midst of a cursed world. The dominion blessing of Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 as well as the human institutions God established in conjunction with these blessings, are not redemptive in nature; rather, they encompass the manner through which God rules all of common humanity. This is what we might call the Universal Common Kingdom of God.