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The Yawning Gap in Adventist Theology

Looking Out Across the Gap

It is a major theme in scripture, but you cannot find it anywhere in the list of Seventh-day Adventism’s 28 fundamental beliefs. No esoteric side issue, it lies at the heart of Christianity. As one can imagine, its absence leaves a serious gap in Adventist theology that has diminished the life of the local church and its members. Theologians refer to this central teaching as the “Creation (Cultural) Mandate.” It involves both the transformation of individuals and the creation of a dynamic, multi-faceted, God-centered, society.

The Garden of Eden

We find a description of the Creation Mandate in the book of Genesis before the fall. About it, Nancy Pearsey writes in Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (2005), “After creating Adam and Eve, God gave them a job description that outlined heaven’s plan for humanity down through the ages” (pg. 47).

That plan provided humanity a glorious sense of purpose and meaning in life. It involved population growth, of course, but it also contained instructions for society. The plan appears in a compressed form that needs to be thoughtfully unpacked. We find it in Genesis 1:27-28:

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.” 

As co-workers with God—sub-creators, Adam and Even received three tasks:

  1. Be fruitful and multiply.
  2. Subdue creation. 
  3. Rule over the animal kingdom.

Be fruitful and multiply

Subby Szterszky wrote that the mandate to be fruitful and multiply means to develop an ever-expanding society that would be made up of families, communities, towns, and ultimately cities, schools, governments, and laws. All of this was to unfold over time as the building blocks of a God-centered culture. 

The plan was to cover the globe with generations of “image-bearers” whose daily lives and interactions revolved around God’s values, priorities, and love. As the human race expanded, they were to create God-centered civilizations that included all the things essential for human flourishing such as kindness, caring, beauty, music, art, sculpture, science, poetry, storytelling, and so much more. 

Subdue the earth means to cultivate nature and expand the borders of the Garden of Eden until it encompassed the entire globe. It also meant wisely employing natural resources to build and fabricate whatever good things their imaginations could conceive. 

Rule over sounds a bit authoritarian. Not so. God was willing to make humans “co-regents,” stewards, over all that he had created. Humans were given responsibility for making sure that every aspect of nature received all that was needed for it to thrive. 

God wanted mankind to exhibit wise attention and consistent care as managers of all aspects of life on planet Earth.

God’s new society was supposed to be filled with vibrancy, invention, exploration, intellectual stimulation, marvelous projects, and deeply loving relationships. Justice and equality would permeate all social structures and interactions.1  

The Fall

After Adam and Eve sinned, God’s marvelous plan for His new society, His amazing vision for human flourishing, fell apart and crumbled. Culture and civilization disintegrated in terrible, heartbreaking, ways. Sin fractured society and caused every person to turn inward. Self-interest became everyone’s top priority. 

It is vital to understand that the Creation Mandate did not end at the time of the fall. As soon as sin entered the world, the Godhead implemented an amended plan to deal with sin in such a way that Their initial purpose could still go forward. The Fall did not destroy the original vision, it did mean, however, that the plan had to include a new element, a means for redeeming mankind from sin. It required a Savior. 

A Chosen People

According to Ellen G. White’s Christ’s Object Lessons, after the fall,  God’s most prominent effort to re-create a new society focused on the call of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. (See also Isaiah 27:6; 45:14; 14:1)

Following the Israelites’ miraculous deliverance, God began revealing his vision bit by bit. The scriptures paint a mind-boggling picture of what could happen in the lives of hurting people if the Israelite community functioned as God intended. 

White wrote in Patriarchs and Prophets that many people would become intellectual giants (pg. 378). Others, skilled in agriculture, would gradually restore the entire earth to its edenic beauty and fertility (Isaiah 51:3). 

God bestowed upon craftspeople artistic abilities to create fine products of metals, gems, and wood (Exodus 31:2-6). God promised to bless his people in childbearing and producing crops and livestock. (Deuteronomy 7:13, 15). 

Such excellence and goodness would give credibility to Jewish claims regarding their God. Israel was to engage with other nations and inspire them to accept God and adopt his principles. 

Only the Holy Spirit can change hearts, but he wants to partner with humanity in accomplishing his purposes. The point was to replace evil with ever-expanding spheres of love, equity, and human flourishing. These concentric circles of transformative influence would move from the home, to the workplace, to the local community, then to society at large. God’s people were to be catalysts for societal change throughout the world. 

Sadly, despite centuries of God’s incredibly patient effort, White writes in Acts of the Apostles, God’s people ultimately spat in his face and irrevocably said “No!” They forgot the source of their blessings and lost sight of their destiny. 

Jesus and the Kingdom

After many centuries of failed attempts to raise up God’s new society, the time came to implement His plan in the most audacious way yet. The time had come for the incarnation of Christ. 

Throughout his public ministry Jesus did everything possible to win individual hearts and to lay the foundation for the rebirth of his original vision of a new society. He called it The Kingdom of God, which Mark Roberts opines was Jesus’ favorite topic. It was the same plan he had announced to Adam and Eve and essentially the same plan given to Old Testament Israel, updated for another time and place. It was the Creation Mandate revisited.2 (See Romans 5:12-21.)

The Kingdom would come in two phases. The first phase was present immediately. 

“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15 NIV)

The second phase of the Kingdom would begin at the second coming of Christ when sin is finally and fully eradicated and all things are made new. 

“After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18 NIV, emphasis supplied).

It is a huge mistake to think that Christ was only concerned with our individual salvation. His heart longed to reclaim all of those elements of society that had been impacted by evil. He understood that unless you reform the context within which people live that sinful environment can so dominate their life that they have no emotional or mental space to either comprehend or live out the gospel. The Lord understood that both the individual and the systems within which they live need to be transformed in order for human beings to flourish.  

As Andy Crouch observes, Jesus initiated a “comprehensive restructuring of social life.”3 Here is a partial list of the many ways Christ was a culture-maker in his day:

• Dramatically elevated the role of women.
• Opened the door for both genders to be educated.
• Raised the value of children of both genders.
• Redefined inclusion at social events.
• Demolished people’s warped views regarding leprosy and other diseases.
• Reformed the standards regarding divorce.
• Redefined law-keeping. 
• Shattered societal norms by eating with tax Collectors.
• Treated non-Jews like family.
• Abolished warped views of Sabbath keeping.
• Befriended cultural outcasts.
• Redefined what was clean and unclean.
• Turned society’s measure of greatness upside down.
•  Lashed out at the perversion of temple services.

Colin Holtz writes, “Social justice and the Kingdom of God are inextricable. Rome would not have bothered crucifying Jesus and killing his apostles if all Jesus cared about was the conversion of individual sinners.”4

 The Seventh-day Adventist Church

To follow Jesus’ lead, Seventh-day Adventists today need to also become culture-makers for at least the following reasons: 

•  To fulfill the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1.
•  To enact the vision given to Old Testament Israel.
•  To follow the example of Christ.
•  To give oppressed people the mental and emotional space to respond to the gospel.
•  To remove as many barriers as possible to human flourishing.
•  To attract people to a God who cares about all aspects of life.
•  To equip members to fulfill their role as priests to their world. 
•  To give Adventists a deep sense of purpose and meaning as partners with God in expanding his new society.
•  To give credibility to our words.
•  To reclaim for God what the evil one has stolen.

Unfortunately, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has predominantly chosen to focus on the future kingdom without giving adequate attention to the kingdom that Christ wants to establish here and now. We have also chosen to define redemption in terms of individual salvation without paying enough attention to the cultural systems that dictate so much of people’s life experience. 

Expanding Christ’s earthly kingdom of justice and equality is simply not a priority in many Adventist churches. What is lacking is the theological imperative to give such efforts the importance and legitimacy they deserve. It is time to finally elevate the Creation Mandate to a prominent place within our Fundamental Beliefs. Otherwise we will continue to fall far short of fulfilling God’s holistic vision.5

This is not about the Social Gospel from the early 1900’s. 
This is not about engaging in partisan politics. 
This is not about changing society by only changing the individuals within it.

This is about fulfilling the pleading of Jesus’ heart, “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt 6:10 NIV). This is about refocusing our attention onto what Ellen White said over a hundred years ago: “That which God purposed to do for the world through Israel, the chosen nation, He will finally accomplish through His church on earth today.”6

About the author

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife, Ann, live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Seventh-day Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He is also the author of eight “Life Guides” on CREATION Health. More from Kim Allan Johnson.
  1. Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (42-46); Nancy Pearsey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (47-51); Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (101-107); Hugh Welchel, “Carrying Out the Cultural Mandate Is Essential for Biblical Flourishing“; Stephen McDowell, “Fulfilling the Cultural Mandate – How Christians Have Helped Establish God’s Kingdom In
    the Nations
    “; Megan, “The Creation Mandate: What does it mean to be fruitful and multiply?”; Mark D. Roberts, “What Is Our Purpose? The Cultural Mandate”; Hugh Welchel, “The Mission of God’s People Is Found In the Cultural Mandate, The Very First Calling Given In the Bible“. ↩︎
  2. Hugh Welchel, “How the ‘Second Adam’ Fulfills the Cultural Mandate,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, March 20, 2012. ↩︎
  3. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008) 138. ↩︎
  4. Colin Holtz, “Why Social Justice, the Kingdom of God Go Hand in Hand,” Good Faith Media, February 18, 2019. ↩︎
  5.  Gabe Lyons, “Cultural Influence: An Opportunity for the Church,” Comment, March 1, 2008. ↩︎
  6. Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1943) 713, 714. ↩︎
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