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Creation Ordinances

by: John Murray

J. I. Packer writes in the Forward to Principles of Conduct, “Had John Murray been blessed with the luminous literary grace of a C. S. Lewis, or the punchy rhetoric of Charles Hodge, his name would have been up in lights for the past half-century as the nest Reformed theologian of our time...He invested his creativity not so much in apologetics and polemics as in strengthening the basic framework of the Reformed faith.” Packer goes on to call Principles of Conduct “Murray’s masterpiece” because he is able to clearly and practically tie together the law of God and the grace of God. We have included a brief selection from the second chapter “Creation Ordinances” to give you a taste of Murray’s work and to help develop an understanding of the Biblical view of work before the fall.

We have had occasion already to refer to the commandments or mandates given to man in the state of integrity. These creation ordinances, as we may call them, are the procreation of offspring, the replenishing of the earth, subduing of the same, dominion over the creatures, labour, the weekly sabbath, and marriage. When we consider them and seek to assess their significance, we discover how relevant they are to the elementary instincts of man and to the interests that lay closest to his heart, how inclusive they are in respect of the occupations which would have engaged man’s thought and action, and how intimately related they are one to another. Implied in the institution of procreation are the acts and processes for both man and woman by which the mandate was to be carried into effect and the family and social responsibilities resulting from the fulfilment of the mandate. We have to envisage also the far-reaching implications for the structure of society. When we consider the second mandate, the replenishing of the earth, we must appreciate that the geographical expansion involved was not merely for the purpose of filling the earth with people, but also for the purpose of subduing the earth and its resources, and of exercising dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and everything that moves upon the face of the earth. There is a complementation of these mandates and they interpenetrate one another.

We may examine in more detail a few of these ordinances in order to discover their precise character and their bearing upon the biblical ethic in general.…


It is perhaps not sufficiently appreciated that the mandate respecting labour is implicit in the sabbath ordinance. The day of rest has no meaning apart from the background of labour. God’s day of rest is the sequel to six days of creative activity and has no relevance in any other context. The sabbath institution implies labour; and its most significant feature in reference to labour is that is prescribes and defines, in terms of an established cycle, the extent of labour­­–six days of labour followed by one of cessation from that specific kind of employment which labour denotes. It is not, however in the sabbath institution alone that the labour mandate was revealed to man. The Lord God put Adam into ‘the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15). Here is explicit allusion to Adam’s specific employment, and we must recognize that such labour is not a cures but a blessing. It finds its ground and sanction in the fact that man’s life is patterned after the divine exemplar established in the creation and formation of the universe which constitutes the realm of man’s existence and activity.

That Adam’s labour is consisted in dressing the garden and keeping it informs us that it was highly worthy of man’s dignity as created after the divine image to be employed in so mundane a task. This is eloquent warning against the impiety of despising and judging unworthy of our dignity the tasks which we call menial. And one cannot but suspect that the widespread tendency to take flight from agricultural and related pursuits springs from an underestimate of the dignity of manual toil and oftentimes reflects an unwholesome ambition which is the fruit of impiety. There is warrant for the judgment that economics, culture, morality, and piety have suffered grave havoc by failure to appreciate the nobility of manual labour. Multitudes of men and women, if they had thought in terms of this principle and had been taught in the home, in the church, and in the school to think in these terms, would have been saved from the catastrophe of economic, moral, and religious ruin because they would have been preserved from the vain ambition of pursuing vocations for which they were not equipped and which, on sober and enlightened reflection, they would have sought. It is a fallacy to think, and it is one that has greatly impoverished the life of society, that culture cannot exist and flourish among manual toilers. It may well be that it actually does not exist and flourish among such. But, if so, it is because our thinking and our social structure have been to such an extent based upon and oriented to this false and pernicious premiss. And this premiss has embroiled us in a vortex from which only revolution in thought and practice will deliver us. Culture on a high level has been developed and can be developed concurrently with, and to a considerable extent through the instrumentality of, tasks which are not professional such as those of the farmer, the artisan, the tradesman, and the labourer. The Bible does not waste words. It tells us comparatively little respecting the employment of a man as he was created. But in a few strokes it established a principle. And if, in light of that principle, we examine our history, we discover how far astray from divinely instituted order have been the guiding principles of our civilization. All of this is but another index to the fact that man has fallen. In reality the marvel is that the labyrinth of our woes is not more complex and tangled than it is.

There is an indication in Genesis 1 and 2 of the variety which would have characterized the labours of mankind in the state of innocence, and would have characterized his labours in a state of confirmed integrity. The other mandates – the replenishing of the earth and subduing it – involved labour also. Even in the genial conditions which would have obtained in an uncursed earth it is not difficult to imagine the labour entailed in geographical expansion and the necessity of making adequate provision for sustenance and comfort in this process of expansion. But more significant in respect of labour is the mandate to subdue the earth. This means nothing if it does not mean the harnessing and utilizing of the earth’s resources and forces. We are not to suppose that the earth is represented as offering resistance to man’s dominion and that the subduing was to be that of conquering alien and recalcitrant powers. But the subduing of the earth must imply that the expenditure of thought and skill and energy in bringing the earth and its resources under such control that they would be channeled to the promotion of certain ends which they were suited and designed to fulfill but which would not be fulfilled apart from the exercise of man’s design and labour. In the sense in which Jesus spoke of the sabbath as made for man and not man for them; he was to exercise dominion over them, they were not to rule over him. The earth and all its resources were to be brought into the service of his well-being, enjoyment, and pleasure.

The nature of man is richly diversified. There is not only a diversity of basic need but there is also a profuse variety of taste and interest, of aptitude and endowment, of desires to be satisfied and of pleasures to be gratified. When we consider the manifold ways in which the earth is fashioned and equipped to meet and gratify the diverse nature and endowments of man, we can catch a glimpse of the vastness and variety of the task involved in subduing the earth, a task directed to the end of developing man’s nature, gifts, interests, and powers in engagement with the resources deposited by God in the earth and the sea.

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John Murray

John Murray (1898-1975) was born in Scotland and served in the British Army during WWI. After the war he studied at the University of Glasgow and Princeton Theological Seminary under J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. Murray taught at Princeton for a year, and then he joined his former professors to help found Westminster Theological Seminary. Murray was a staple at Westminster for many years. During his lifetime he was regarded as one of the foremost conservative theologians in the English-speaking world. J. I. Packer writes in the Forward to Principles of Conduct, “Had John Murray been blessed with the luminous literary grace of a C. S. Lewis, or the punchy rhetoric of Charles Hodge, his name would have been up in lights for the past half-century as the best Reformed theologian of our time...He invested his creativity not so much in apologetics and polemics as in strengthening the basic framework of the Reformed faith.” 

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