This article first appeared in the Christian Teachers Journal (Australia) and is reprinted here with permission.
Try these questions on for size: is a student’s math work as pleasing to God as her prayer? And do you think that a child’s oil painting is as sacred as his personal testimony of coming to Christ? And are you convinced that studying history is not only obedience to the government, but obedience to God?
It is critical that Christian educators have a clear answer to these questions. In this article, I want to tackle these questions by explaining what has been called the “cultural mandate,” and then showing its significance for our classrooms. The phrase “cultural mandate” is often heard in staff meetings and school corridors—and so it should be. Yet outside Christian schools, the concept of the cultural mandate is rarely spoken about or preached on—so our understanding of this important concept has faded. Recovery of it will display the deep significance of learning in God’s world, so let’s give the cultural mandate some close attention.
A key text for understanding the cultural mandate is Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
While you have probably read these words one hundred times, they may have never grabbed you—the idea of the image of God isn’t a metaphor familiar to Western culture. Yet for Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors, this idea was rich with meaning—this is temple language. The “image of god” was the statue (or idol) that stood in the sanctuary as a representation of the deity.
The importance of these temple images for ancient Near Eastern religion is displayed in the complex rituals surrounding the installation of an image in the temple. First, the image is carved by skilled craftsmen from wood or stone. Then the carving tools are thrown away, often into water, as a sign that the image was made by the gods. Third, the image is brought to life through various rituals, for example mouth washing ceremonies. Fourth, the image is installed in the temple with great reverence—here is the image of god!
In order to understand the biblical concept of humanity bearing the image of God, we need to explore the role of these temple images. Bearing the image of the deity was both relational and functional. By relational, I mean that the temple image was the nexus between the gods and the world. The gods were fed here, placated, worshipped, and inquired of here. By functional, I mean that the image was the location from which the gods ruled the world, by blessing, cursing, providing rain, healing the sick, and so on.
You might pause now and try to work through the implications of all this for our bearing the image of God: what does Genesis 1:27 mean when it says that humanity is created in God’s image? You might like to take a moment and jot some ideas down.
With the words “in the image of God,” Genesis 1 presents humanity as installed by God in his temple (the world) to display his image, reflecting his loving rule to the rest of creation. Genesis 1 portrays the whole world as God’s temple (“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool,” Isaiah 66:1). And in his world-temple, God has placed his image-bearers to display his life-giving rule. Humanity represents God both relationally and functionally—we display both his character and his gracious rule.
The verse that follows clarifies what it means to bear the image of God: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28).
The command “to rule over” indicates that bearing the image of God is something we do. We are to image God the creator in and to his world, by ruling over it (or, as other translations say, “having dominion” over it.) The plain meaning of the Hebrew word “to have dominion” is: rule, lead, direct. This task of providing guidance and leadership in God’s good world is central to what it means to be human.
Yet what is the nature of humanity’s responsibility toward creation? What is the shape of humanity’s leadership?