by Rudi Hayward
Wow, really?! That phrase sounds super complicated. You may have heard that sphere sovereignty was made famous by the great theologian and stateman Abraham Kuyper, that it also served as the basis for that obscure, but brilliant, Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Well, you should know about them too! But whereas they showed that you could get really complicated with sphere sovereignty, as they wrestled with issues of society, politics, and philosophy, here my aim is to keep it simple. The reason is that the challenge to allow Jesus Christ to be Lord over all our life can seem daunting and we do not always know where to start. When a challenge seems too overwhelming there is a good principle, understand the big picture and then chunk it up, divide it into smaller bits. What I want to convince you of is that sphere sovereignty can give shape and definition to this challenge in a principled and biblical way. Put simply sphere sovereignty can help us in understanding our task in God’s world under Christ’s Lordship.
We can start by recognising that life is a unity. Why? It is a unity because human life is characterised by service to God in all we do and from out of this we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves. As Ecclesiastes puts it: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of everyone” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This service of God is what marks the unity of our lives. We cannot take the worship and honour due to God and separate it off into one small area of our life; our church life on Sundays. Our service of God must be whole-hearted. Indeed, we are instructed “guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverb 4:23) So in seeing life as a unity we must also see that life involves many different tasks. We must earn a living, promote good relationships in our community, pursue justice in society, raise and nurture the next generation and so on. This double affirmation of the unity of life before God and the variety of our tasks is the essence of sphere sovereignty.
I am going to start from basics and assume that you have never even heard the idea before. First, we will look at the Biblical background to this idea and then the idea itself.
We are going to look at (1) the cultural mandate, (2) the supremacy of Christ, and (3) Service and stewardship
- Cultural mandate
In Genesis 1:28 we get God’s first command given to the first man and woman. It reads “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it”. It is quite remarkable how unknown this command is amongst Christians; but seen in context it is difficult to overestimate its importance.
This command comes as the climax of the account of creation given in Genesis 1. God creates “the heavens and the earth”, then, over six days, God’s creation gets formed and filled before God rests on the seventh day. Just before the seventh day we reach the end point of God’s creative activity with the creation of humankind made in the image of God.
Let’s have a look at what happens:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
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.”
Whereas before God commands things into existence, “let there be…”. Now we are told that God first formulates a plan (v.26) and then carries it out (v.28). God’s purpose in making creatures in his own image is that they continue his work of filling and forming creation. Just as God forms and fills the earth so we are commanded to fill the earth and subdue it, that is, to form it. This forming is about the development of the potential God has laid within creation. It is a human development. It is about human culture and society. There is a close connection between being made in the image of God and the command to shape creation, to develop human culture and society. This means that politics, business, art, science, technology, urban development and so on are fundamentally part of who we are as religious creatures responding, in obedience and disobedience, to our Creator. Filling the earth is also about culture and not just procreation. The earth needs symphonies, poems, houses, bicycles, books, canoes, toys, footballs, pencil cases etc.
God as creator is the sovereign Lord over the works of his hand. This means that humans too, in a derived sense, are to be lords over creation. The connection is clear: “Let us make humankind in our image … and let them have dominion”. This dominion is about filling and forming in the context of serving God and caring for his world. Dominion is not domination.
Now, this fundamentally positive attitude towards human culture is made somewhat more complicated given the reality of the fall and the consequent effect of sin in human life. But the cultural mandate still stands. We can see this through Genesis. We are told how each generation responded, often in enmity against God, to this command. So we learn that Abel was a sheepherder and Cain a farmer. We get explicit mention of the sons of Lamech who made advances in technology and music. The human task of cultural development continues after the fall even if often in a disobedient direction. The story of Babel is a prime example. On the one hand we have the refusal to spread out and fill the earth and on the other hand specific mention is made of the invention of brick-making which made city-building possible (Genesis 11:3). And even into the much bigger picture of the Bible as a whole we see that what begins in a garden, ends in a city, the new Jerusalem. So we should not confuse urban development only with increasing sin, though that too is part of the story, but also see that the city is part of God’s good purpose for creation.
One more point is in order here because we should notice that the final act of creation is also the first moment of Divine revelation. God’s communication with his image bearers starts here. Once we see this we can hardly miss the truly momentous character of the cultural mandate. Having spoken briefly and in the third person “Let there be light … let there be a firmament” on the sixth day God begins to address us personally, expressing himself in terms that we can understand and to which we can and must respond. At this moment in the climax of creation God Almighty enters into communication with flesh-and-blood people, and God gives us the first command that defines who we are: “Fill the earth and subdue it!”
As the psalmist puts it “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to the human race.” (Psalm 115:16).
- The supremacy of Christ
Our position of responsibility in creation is repeated in Psalm 8, but then in Hebrews 2 we get a commentary on this Psalm which leads us to the second theme: the supremacy of Christ.
“In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.”
“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:8-9)
God put all things under our responsibility, but it is made clear that we have failed. We could not achieve the goal set for us. Now the administration of the world is given to Christ as the new Adam, but also as the one through whom all things were created. Christ is the true ‘lord of creation’. All things are to be brought to unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:10)
So we come back to the point that life is a unity. The many issues of life are to be brought into singled-hearted service of God in the whole of creation. Here we also understand the significance of Christ as the one who completely fulfilled the requirement to serve God and was raised to the highest position so that he would have supremacy.
So Christ is
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20
The point is clear: Christ has total and absolute sovereignty, he is Lord of lords and king of kings. Since only Christ has total sovereignty, any human authority must then be limited and delegated. Since there is also no mediator between us and Christ, since he himself is the sole mediator we should reject a hierarchy of offices as if some tasks were more important than others. Our model of leadership and authority must be based on the teaching and example of Christ. So to the third theme.
(3) Service and stewardship
In Ephesians we are told that all tasks are given by Christ, and their purpose is:
“to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (4:12-13)
The fullness of Christ is where ‘all things hold together’ so we have the theme of unity. This building up of the body of Christ is to be done “in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph 4:16) which suggests the variety of tasks. No individual task should take priority. We are not to “lord it over” each other. Instead the greatest must become a servant (Matt. 20:25-28). Our various tasks must be understood in the context of stewardship and service.
And so as Paul puts it:
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12: 21-22).
So every human task with its own authority is (1) delegated since it derives its authority from Christ; is (2) limited and so cannot claim absolute rights; and (3) must be coordinated with other tasks working together and not against or in competition.
When we are made a new creation then the Kingdom of God becomes the perspective under which we understand the whole of human life as it is redirected to service of God, then the diversity of spheres in our life must be so many aspects of that fullness of life.
Here’s how Peter puts it:
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 4:10-11
Being a steward, notice, does not imply any superiority over others, rather it means to serve others. It applies not just to so-called ‘religious’ tasks and activities but to “whatever gift” we have, with a reminder that gifts come in a variety of forms. And it is so that “in all things” God may be glorified. In some ways there is a certain indifference to what the task is, since there are many, the important point is the way that it is done. Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)
Sphere Sovereignty – What is it?
In this section we will look briefly at how each sphere is limited, should be co-ordinated with the other spheres and is subject to norms.
With the Biblical principles in mind we should turn to reality and what presents itself for explanation and understanding. There are marriages and families, social ties and business deals, universities and scholarly associations, art galleries and charities of various kinds. We must remember that before intellectuals come along with all their theories, life, in all its variety, is there first. This richness of human life is a gift of God; it exists in virtue of God’s good creation. Our thinking about and reflecting on this richness arises out of life and does not create it. We can only hope to see this reality right when it is accepted in its richness, but also subjected to the great command that stands over all human endeavour: to love God above all else and in doing so love and serve our neighbour.
The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper was the Christian thinker and activist who really got things going with respect to sphere sovereignty. In particular he linked the diversity of social institutions to creation, and to God’s commands that give order to creation. Later Dooyeweerd developed this into a cosmological principle of the basic diversity of created reality (each thing created after its kind), but when Kuyper used the words “sphere sovereignty” he was thinking primarily of the diversity of creation ordinances for everyday societal connections like church, state, and business enterprise. He was concerned about situations where leaders from one sector of society infringed upon the authority of office bearers in another sector. The relation between church and state has involved a good deal of this, the medieval conflicts between emperor and pope. These conflicts lead to problems in daily life. But not just church and state, other spheres as well overreach their God intended purposes and causes conflict and damage.
The diversity of these spheres has their origin in the abundance of God’s work of creation. The Biblical principle is that we ought to obey God rather than man. Therefore no human institution has the right to lay a total claim on human life. Human institutions are authorized to lay their claim upon us and exercise authority over us only within their own sphere. That’s sphere sovereignty.
So first of all, every social sphere, every area of our life, each task is limited. What this means is that in thinking about our task in God’s world we need to think carefully about what sphere we are working in and what the purpose of that sphere is. We will inevitably have a number of different tasks since we are never confined to one sphere. Not only is each sphere limited, but our role in each sphere is also limited. This is both humbling, since we cannot change everything, but also liberating because we can do something of significance. I will not present anything like a complete analysis of all the spheres, just a few suggestions to give you the general idea and hopefully stimulate some ideas you can continue to reflect on and research further.
A church needs to communicate well, it does after all have an important message! But the focus of communication should be about building up faith in the gospel and not just communicating it. The church service should be imaginative and not dull, but it is not an imaginative exploration of reality for its own sake, it must service its overriding purpose. The way a church community is lead must be just, its finances must be kept in order, but a church should not be dominated by politics, whether internal ‘church politics’ or as a policy pressure group, nor should it become a business. Church has a duty to nurture children in the faith, but it can never replace the role of the parents. I expect that most of these points are fairly obvious and common sense. I hope though that you can also see that this is not just a matter of pragmatic convenience. It is rather a basic principle inherent in creation and in our nature as creatures with the task to cultivate and care for God’s world. The gathering of the faithful in local congregations has a purpose, a specific purpose to which it should stick. The thought that somehow the church can or should do everything, that it should direct the whole life of a Christian to the extent that it would be a Christian life is to misunderstand its task and to misshape the lives of its congregation. Equally, the church should be free to be church and not suffer the interference of other spheres on its core responsibility.
Things go wrong when the institutional church, or government, or business or whatever, try to do what rightfully belongs to another sphere, or exerts power over other spheres in their core responsibilities. Think of the way industry dominated people’s lives during the industrial revolution, the overreach of the church during the middle ages, or various totalitarian governments. More subtly think of the way the language of business, or consumer choice frames the way we think about mission, or education, or the way scientific theories and ideas are sometimes used to explain every aspect of our lives.
Sphere sovereignty means that each sphere has its part to play, and if done in proper service to God and neighbours, the different spheres will support each other and work together on a basis of mutual co-operation.
- Subject to norms
Sphere sovereignty naturally speaks of authority. However it is a mistake to understand it solely or primarily in terms of human authority, since it’s whole driving principle is that human authority is delegated authority. The word ‘sphere’ points us to the idea of a centre, for every sphere or circle cannot exist without a centre. The centre of every sphere of life, the source of its own unique coherence, is not the existence of human authority, but the existence of divine norms characteristic for that sphere. The Bible speaks here of ‘ordinances,’ ‘statutes,’ ‘words,’ ‘commands’ etc. (For example, in Psalm 19). While these are not all clearly laid out in the Bible the expectation is that we can discover them in our daily living before God. This is what the Bible calls wisdom, it is there in Isaiah’s example of the farmer (Isaiah 28:24-29). We get stuck into our task and God instructs us and shows us the right way.
Those that have authority in a sphere hold it under the norm for that institution and in a relation of service and cooperation with others active in the sphere. Both employer and worker, both government and citizens, both teacher and student must bow before the divine ordinance for their task.
Those in authority do not hold it for their own sake. From a christian point of view it is unthinkable that authority should exist as an end in itself outside of any moral or normative limits. Those in authority occupy their office in order that, through cooperation, people may come to the fulfilment of their cultural calling in direct responsibility to God. After all it is God who gives us the task, it is God who calls us into His service.
Sphere Sovereignty – Bringing it down to us
Now I want to finish with a few points that bring things down to us. SS points us to understand that our task is God’s world is a task for little people, a task for women and men and a task to be getting on with.
- A task for little people
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth”. 1 Corinthians 1:26
When we think about our cultural tasks we should not think only in terms of cultural leadership and influence. We must not give ourselves as the only Biblical model Daniel in the Babylonian court of King Nebuchadnezzar, but also people like Ruth, Gideon and Mary. Think about Ruth who as a Moabite widow lacked any social standing or cultural influence yet through simple obedience became the grandmother of King David. Or think about Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant”
- A task for women and men
Sphere sovereignty is about cooperation and mutual submission rather than wielding cultural power for its own sake. And so we should also be mindful that the cultural mandate was originally given in the context of cooperation to men and women. Both men and women were made in the image of God and were made as co-helpers and co-workers. Right from the start the authority given is a shared authority. We are all to pursue our task in the light of Christ’s example that we are to love one another and therefore to serve one another.
- A task to be getting on with, not just thinking about
We have been thinking and reflecting on important Biblical principles. If loving God above all else puts our human tasks in the right perspective, then we should also acknowledge that thinking and reflecting is also a limited human task. So if sphere sovereignty is to have any effect we must do it and not just think about it. Reflecting on these issues has value and contributes to our ability to serve God in this world, but its contribution will always be, well, limited! Most of what we have to learn about sphere sovereignty will be learnt in the practice of it.
We learn what it means to pursue justice in the doing of justice, we learn what it means to love and nurture children in the actual loving and nurturing, we learn what it means to steward resources in the practice of being responsible for things. Any reflecting and thinking we do on this must be informed, as far as possible, by the experience and wisdom of such doings. We should not act as if it were the other way round, as if we must first formulate the correct approach and then apply it. So I have tried not to give you a grand theoretical structure to admire but to give you an invitation to follow a path, to walk in the way of the Lord.
Bob Goudzwaard – “Christian Politics and the Principle of Sphere Sovereignty”
Albert Wolters – “The Foundational Command: ‘Subdue the Earth!”
Both and much more available free at www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk
Herman Dooyeweerd Roots of Western Culture
Rudi Hayward is a husband and father of two boys. He teaches philosophy and religious studies at a secondary school in London, UK. He completed a BA in Philosophy and MA in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University. He has written an online introduction to reformational philosophy called Tasks and Cosmos available here, and has produced a series introducing Herman Dooyeweerd’s Roots of Western Culture here.