Today we find ourselves in a battle royal over how to act toward “the environment.”

“Handyman for the earth” describes for Lewis Thomas the relationship each of us should cherish toward our planet. As he sees it, the earth has produced us. Now, because it has fallen on hard times, we owe it the devotion of tender care.

By contrast, many think “bulldozer of the earth” describes the modern Christian more aptly, and believe the Bible and the church have fueled the West’s technological extravagance.

It may seem surprising, then, that among today’s defenders of the earth the fine old biblical word “steward” has gained great currency. One conservation group, for instance, calls its donors “stewards.” And a book about living on a wildlife preserve bears the title, Planet Steward.

In the Bible, a steward managed a household for the householder, his master. A steward was an oikonómos, one who gave order (nomos) to a house (oikos). Oikos is also used more broadly in the phrase, “house of Israel.” And combined with the word for “dwell” it gives rise to oikoumén, which refers to the whole inhabited world.

We can see, then, why the new science studying this “house” we all live in, the world, was named “ecology” by nineteenth-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Today when we use such terms as “eco-sphere” (which means about the same as the biblical oikoumén) and “ecofreak,” we employ close cousins of the biblical word for “steward.” It is the planet-wide dimension of the word that has made it (and its “eco” relatives) an appropriate way to express the new perspective on managing this household planet.

What has stimulated this new interest? First, in taking a step outside our planet into deep space, we have been able to look back at ourselves and see that our oikos is limited—and thus requires an oikonómos, a steward.

Second, we have recognized that whatever else we are, we are organisms, enmeshed in a network of other life. The young science of ecology is teaching us that all living things affect our environment, and are affected by it. The main sources of the oxygen we breathe, for instance, are the phytoplankton in the seas and the vast rain forests of equatorial regions. Yet we are removing the tropical forests at a rate that will practically eliminate them by the end of the century. And we are treating the seas not as lungs for the planet, but as dumps for our waste. So by seeing that we too are organisms, depending on the organisms of the “ecosphere,” we have gained a new concern for planetary management, “stewardship.”

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A third change producing this concern is a growing awareness—half-fearful, half-exultant—that we have a plant manager’s powers. As our knowledge has increased, so has our ability to turn that knowledge into power. This is reflected in the title chosen by a leading technological optimist, Buckminster Fuller, for one of his books: An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

These three changes in perspective—our recognition that the earth is limited, that we ourselves are organisms, and that we possess vast technological powers—underlie this broadening of the concept of stewardship to refer to management of this household planet.

Different from the Earth

Leaders in this movement, however, have accused the Christian world view of causing many of the problems that now make stewardship so urgently needed. They speak of irresponsibility, not to the planet’s Creator, but to the planet itself. As this reasoning goes, the planet has produced us: now we owe it the wise and caring use of the powers it produced in us. Thus Lewis Thomas, a contemporary biologist with a strong sense of both man and planet as organisms, says each of us should be a “handyman for the planet.” This is an appealing concept. Is there any biblical basis for the idea that humans have a responsibility to their oikos as well as to their Master? Critics of Christendom have said that the Bible has rather caused the trouble and its concept of “dominion.”

The first two chapters of Genesis certainly reveal a strong doctrine of human dominion. It is clear, for example, that humans are different from anything else in creation: God made only them “in his image.” Likewise the Garden of Eden was clearly created for them. This uniqueness in what humans are is borne out by a uniqueness in what they are told to do. Genesis 1:28 is explicit in its command: “And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Two verbs forcefully express the intended human relationship to the earth: “subdue,” and “have dominion,” the Hebrew kabash and radah. The metaphor behind these words is instructive. Kabash comes from a Hebrew root meaning to tread down; it conveys the image of a heavy-footed man making a path by smashing everything in his way. The connotation of radah is no less harsh: it also conveys a picture of “treading” or “trampling” and suggests the image of a conqueror placing his foot on the neck of a slave.

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These commands to men, who bear God’s image, do not sound very stewardly. They seem more in line with those enormous powers over the earth that humans have recently developed. Nevertheless, it is clear from these two words that such power over the earth is appropriate. The idea of legitimate human dominion is restated clearly in Psalm 8: “Thou [God] hast put all things under his [man’s] feet.” (Interestingly, the passage continues the picture of trampling or treading begun in Genesis 1.) This view of the relation of humans to creation has dominated Christian thought, and perhaps explains why the ideal of “stewards of the earth” has not played a very significant part in Christian teaching.

Of the Earth

But it is important not to stop with this forceful picture of dominion and subduing. The Genesis account not only portrays man as different from the earth, and having legitimate power over it: it portrays him (as recent ecological studies have also confirmed) as enmeshed in the earth, and told to care for it. This other role of man’s relationship to creation is reflected powerfully in the statement that God made man (Hebrew: adam) out of the “dust of the earth” (Hebrew adamah). The words adam and adamah are obviously related. No translation catches the richness of the Hebrew pun here; it is as though the biblical writer declared that God made humans out of humus. Matching this intimate involvement with the earth, his oikos, man is given his task: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Again (as in Gen. 1:28) two verbs delineate human action. The word translated “dress” is elsewhere translated “till” or “work”; it is the Hebrew word abad, also the Hebrew word for servant. Though it is the most common Hebrew expression for agricultural labor it implies the labor is to be undertaken for the sake of the earth—not primarily for the sake of the laborer.

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The other verb, shamar, here translated “keep,” has the connotation of “being vigilant for the sake of another.” When Adam and Eve were driven from the garden, the cherubim placed at the gate were told to “keep” or “guard” it, as man had been told to do; later, Cain used the same word when he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”


In these chapters—which provide the mandate for human stewardship of the planet—we thus find a striking polarity. On one hand, man is described as being, like God, transcendent over the earth, and told to dominate it; on the other, he is described as being immanent in the earth, and told to serve it.

These same two apparently contradictory perspectives underlie today’s renewed interest in the concept of stewardship. Part of what prompts modern-day stewards is the recognition that humans are, in fact, humus: our life is enmeshed in the life of soil, air, water. But another source of stewardly concern is the fearful recognition that man has supreme manipulative power: we can transcend the earth; we can shape it; we can trample it.

Looking further afield in our culture we find the polarity everywhere. Man longs deeply to build cities, machines, power plants, and strip mines. Longshore-man-philosopher Eric Hoffer speaks for a large part of humanity when he declares: “Man should wipe out the jungles, turn deserts and swamps into arable land, terrace barren mountains, regulate rivers, eradicate all pests, control the weather, and make the whole land mass fit habitation for man. The globe should be ours and not nature’s home.”

But another part of us longs to flee the city—if not to the wilderness, at least to the suburbs. We seek the natural, the organic, the “wild.” Sometimes the division is clear between one person and another; more often, however, we are individually torn within ourselves between these two views of human nature and the human task. We argue against the depredations of technology—then reinforce our antitechnological statement by traveling to the wilderness in our high-technology camping gear. On the other hand, we argue that the earth should be tamed—and breathe with pleasure the air wild nature produced, eat food bred from the wild earth’s plants, and drink water stored for our reservoirs in the spongy humus of unlogged forest.

We cannot escape the dilemma: we are of the earth, and want to care for it; we are other than the earth, and want to dominate it. Remarkably, the dilemma of both our nature and our task is clearly set forth in Scripture.

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Given such a dilemma, how are we to live? How are we to balance our legitimate urge to dominate the earth with our equally legitimate task to steward it, to look out for its welfare? Clearly, on biblical grounds, we owe a certain stewardship to the earth. God’s command to tend the garden can only be deepened by our contemporary awareness of how thoroughly our human lives are entwined with the life of the planet. Yet Genesis also makes it clear that we are God’s stewards of his creation. Thus we are stewards of the earth in a double sense: we owe the garden, which sustains us, care; and we owe its Creator our responsible management of it.

Resolution: Balance

The Christian’s task of stewarding the earth might be easier if the Genesis account did not recognize so clearly the duality in our nature. But the duality is unmistakable: other than the earth, and of it; dominating the earth, and serving it. Presumably God intended man to achieve the balance between these two poles, and to learn to be both lord and servant.

But the tragedy of the human story is that we did not follow the way God established: we sinned, choosing to grasp at godhead on our own terms. Thus we began to set ourselves up as lords on the earth—only rarely exercising a lordship balanced by service. One way of understanding the Fall is to see it simply as the choice to have dominion, but not to serve; to lord, but not to husband. It is not that the towering achievements of human art, science, and technology are wrong. It is rather that man has usually undertaken them for himself alone, without an awareness of his rootedness in the earth, and his obligation to care for it.

Of course, man’s relationship to the earth is only one of his relationships; his failure there is only one of his sins. We experience the same tension in our relationship with other people. We can use our separateness, our God-given individuality, to suck them up into ourselves, to increase our power at their expense. Or we can use our “transcendence” to be immanent in them—to “put ourselves in their place,” to be touched with their infirmities. But whether we turn to the earth or to other persons, we are skewed and twisted: our “natural” proclivity is to expand our well-being at the expense of others.

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We can understand biblical history as a long lesson teaching humans that they are to balance dominion with service; that the true Lord is a Servant. The lesson culminates in the death of Jesus. The disciples struggled with the lesson in their years with him, as we continue to struggle with it. They clearly expected lordship to mean dominion of the ordinary sort: the conqueror’s foot on the neck of Rome, and themselves with a share in that power. Instead, Jesus began his kingdom by washing their feet.

The ultimate expression of God’s dominion as service is the death of Jesus, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–8, NASB). This passage begins by calling for the impossible—“that each of you regard one another as more important than himself.” Only the life-giving sacrifice of Christ provides the power for such an unnatural stewarding of others: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” If we are familiar with this passage, we think of it primarily with regard to interpersonal ethics. But the pattern established is the pattern for all stewardship. Just as God transcends his creation, so man transcends it: he is placed as lord over it. But just as God chose to become immanent in his creation “for the life of the world,” so man must choose to bend his transcendence into immanence.

We are not saved out of the world; we are saved for it. This is the inescapable implication of Romans 8:19: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (NIV). Our “tending” of the garden earth is not a mere preservation, nor is it a man-centered destruction: rather, it is a transformation of the earth in light of God’s purposes. This preserves the purpose and uniqueness of each thing, even as our own salvation presents us with true selfhood.

This view of the relationship between our salvation and the earth has not been common in Western Christianity, but it has long been an important doctrine of the Eastern church. One contemporary Eastern Orthodox thinker has written: “In his way to union with God, man in no way leaves creatures aside, but gathers together in his love the whole cosmos, disordered by sin, that it may at last be transfigured by Grace.” Western Christianity might learn much from this aspect of Eastern tradition. But the basic principle—that man is redeemed back into his original stewardly role towards the earth—is inescapably biblical.

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Implications of Balance

The secular concern for stewardship of the earth thus bears a certain harmony with biblical principles. Christians should be leaders, not followers, in such a movement, for God’s stewarding of us in Christ provides us with not only an example, but the power to carry it out. What does it mean, specifically, for Christians to exercise stewardship of the earth? In general, it means we cannot act as though the maintenance of our own well-being is all-important. That, of course, is basic Christian behavior. What a concern for Christian stewardship of the earth suggests, however, is that we extend our awareness of the impact of our actions beyond our family, friends, and neighbors, to all peoples of the earth, to future generations, and to the whole household: the oikoumén, or ecosphere—all the interrelated life of the planet.

Such a stewarding is enormously complex, for it must seek to match our understanding with the complexity of the ecosphere. This understanding of the earth’s complexity is, after all, nothing more than carrying out in detail the command to know and name the earth’s creatures. Nevertheless, within that complexity several principles, and some specific guidelines, can be pointed out.

1. No process of agriculture, mining, transportation, energy generation, waste disposal, recreation—in short, no resource-using human activity—should take place until its consequences for the household of life have been established with reasonable certainty. When we understand the breadth of our household, such concern becomes simply good “economy”: stewardship.

2. As planet managers, we need to know how the planet works. Careful, loving, imaginative study of creation is thus not simply a secular necessity: it is a Christian duty. Too often we have acted out of ignorance of basic “ecological” or “household” principles the science of ecology now makes available to us.

3. The demands placed on stewards by both the human population and the whole ecosphere are complementary. The biblical picture of creation does not leave room for elimination of the nonhuman at the expense of the human; nor does it suggest that the demands of other creatures need diminish the true quality of human life. It is not a case, as one recent writer put it, of “people or penguins.” There is room for the whole household—though it may take careful management to provide it.

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4. Good stewardship does not mean abandoning technology. Man is indeed in dominion over the planet; it is legitimate for him to use his knowledge to increase his power. The more power he has, however, the more he must seek to use it for the whole world.

5. Good stewardship does not place on the future greater debts than it inherited from the past. This principle is particularly important in considering our use of nonrenewable resources like metals and fossil fuels. It suggests that if we use those things, part of their use should be diverted to establishing a substitute the future can use. For example, establishment of facilities for capturing and distributing renewable solar energy should be a major goal of the burning of nonrenewable oil or coal.

All these principles could entail serious costs, and might mean that we would have to live less luxuriously, eat differently, travel less. They certainly mean rejecting the assumption, implicit in our economic system, that growth is always good.

These are some of the implications of our stewardship—the legitimate human lordship of the earth, exercised after the mind and example of Christ, who gave himself “for the life of the world”—which bids us, in our lives, and for our great household, to do the same thing.

Loren Wilkinson teaches at Trinity College’s extension in Oregon. He is the principle author of Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources—an outgrowth of the Calvin Center for Christian Stewardship—to be published this year by Eerdmans.

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