The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the most recent clear and present witness that environmental issues are not the intellectual hobby of the dilettante, but instead have everything to do with life and death.
Life: The holistic health and daily provision of countless men, women, and children of the Gulf region have been threatened. Death: human deaths are enough, let alone the death of the Gulf's ecosystem, once teeming with biodiversity. While recent reports suggest that the spill is dissipating much faster than we had feared, we won't know the full effects for years. And the present scope of the disaster has been bad enough, almost unfathomable.
The oil spill has raised the environmental consciousness of the American public. But if publishing trends are any indication, evangelicals' concern for the environment was surging even before April 20. In the past year, practically every evangelical publishing house has published or re-released a book on creation care. Some, frankly, are naïve: While the Bible contains many references to rivers, seas, mountains, and animals, and portrays a God who cares for the sparrow and a Son who commonly used agrarian images in his teachings, this does not qualify God as "green." Other books, thankfully, mine rich biblical themes.
Let me highlight four of these books, and then suggest one biblical theme worth exploring more deeply and broadly as we seek to learn what it means to care for creation as Christians.
An Environmental Sampling
Of the four books I highlight, three represent a common theology of creation care.
One of the most popular said books is Matthew Sleeth's The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book Is a Green Book, released by HarperOne this March. A former er doctor, Sleeth has been one of the more effective evangelists for creation care in the evangelical movement, a popular speaker on many Christian college campuses.
His book recounts the roots of his environmental conversion: "So, I asked myself, What, if anything, does the Bible have to say about caring for the earth?" He read the Bible from cover to cover, underlining everything that had to do with nature. "What I ended up with was an underlined Bible," he writes. Sleeth's intent is "[to explore] some of the deepest themes of Scripture—repeating patterns … that counsel us to lead lives closer to the example set by Jesus."
Unfortunately, with some exceptions, Sleeth offers a piecemeal collection of anecdotes and biblical passages that are often de-contextualized or merely contain nature imagery. For example, in examining the theme of work in Genesis 1-3, Sleeth challenges us to rethink our captivity to American consumerism and recommit to simple living. These are good admonitions, but his interaction with the Bible is frustratingly cutesy. He imagines the apple in Genesis 3 as a "labor-saving device" and Adam's temptation as avoiding the "honest work" that God prepared for him. From this, Sleeth challenges our over-dependence on labor-saving devices (think electric dryers) and provides practical ways we can care for creation by adopting "retro-technology" (think clotheslines).
Strangely, what motivated Sleeth's family to live in retro was "to honor the commandment to tend and care for the garden." However, he continues, "It is not the primary reason we continue to do it. We do this labor-increasing activity because it gives us more life." But doesn't honoring God and his commands always give us more life?
He calls for water conservation due to its ubiquity in Scripture: the Flood, human development in the waters of the womb, Jesus' "rebirth" (not "resurrection"?), and the fact that salvation is a rebirth through "water and spirit." Curiously, Sleeth notes how water is also a symbol of chaos, darkness, and danger in the ancient world, but emphasizes its positive associations in John 3, in Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus. But amassing texts that include nature symbols does not suffice for supporting creation care.
Sleeth does call us to live simply, communally, and to truly rest—all biblical themes. In a chapter titled "Gleaning," he challenges readers to avoid wasting food and other resources. The Book of Ruth is the controlling text that he paraphrases into a modern scenario. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are his texts for discussing God's care for the widow and stranger, as well as God's intention for the land and its resources. That's more like it. I only wish Sleeth would have done this more.
Like Sleeth, Jonathan Merritt—in Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (Faith Words, April 2010)—writes with humility and charity. He addresses the political, cultural, and biblical assumptions that many of us hold, and dismisses faddish "pop environmentalism" for what he calls a "Deeper Shade of Green," a creation care approach that is grounded in God's Word.
Merritt brings his seminary education to bear in offering thoughtful, researched, and faithful engagement with the Bible and its original cultures. For example, he describes humanity's role as divine monarchs who are to steward the earth on God's behalf. Merritt also reflects on the theological implications of the Incarnation, one of which is God's affirmation and love for the physical world.
His criticisms of pop eschatology are also refreshing; however, his own end-times reflections are a little confusing. He writes, "Future knowledge doesn't change our present obligations," and, "The knowledge of a returning Master does not free us from our earthly obligations; it calls us to them" (emphases mine). While I agree with the latter point, it's more true to say that biblical eschatology is not concerned for the present because of any knowledge we possess, but rather because God's future is a reality that has already broken into the present through Jesus.
In Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God's People (Judson, February 2010), Scott C. Sabin doesn't articulate as much as assume that the Bible justifies caring for creation. The book describes his epiphany about the inseparable relationship between poverty and the environment, a connection he made through his work as president of the nonprofit Plant With Purpose.
At one point, Sabin does discuss standard creation care texts, but he is not tempted to squeeze unnatural interpretations in to suit his ends. His overarching message is that we must jettison a self-centered gospel and embrace a cosmic one. Sabin points out the economic details in the lives of the people Jesus encountered. In our efforts to move to the spiritual application of Jesus' interactions, Sabin says, we often pass by the flesh-and-bone poor and dirty—much like the priest and Levite passed the half-dead man lying on the road to Jericho (Luke 10). Overall, Sabin's book is a wonderful vignette of how the church is striving to embody new creation in the present.
Steven Bouma-Prediger's For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Baker Academic) is the newly released second edition of a well-respected work from 2001, when creation care was not to any great extent on the evangelical radar. For the Beauty of the Earth is by far the most commendable of the four books. (Both Merritt and Sabin lean heavily on the first edition in their respective works.) Bouma-Prediger brings together well-researched biblical study and solid ecological, philosophical, and poetic material. He begins by having readers focus on whatever backyard they call "home." He says that we Westerners do not have an ecological sense of place—we are ignorant of the state of our land—and must renew our affections for our own "placed-ness." He writes, "We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience."
Accessibly and engagingly, he outlines an ecological state of the union and then surveys a biblical view of ecology. He says his interpretation is "rooted in the text, warranted by what we know of the time and place and culture of that now-ancient world of meaning, and put into explicit conversation with the questions and challenges of our time … a faithful attempt to hear the message of Scripture, while attentive to a groaning earth." He largely succeeds, for he faithfully treats texts in light of the larger biblical narrative and the cultures in which they were written.
Creation and Covenant
All of these books suggest that the Bible is indeed a rich resource for understanding God's love for his creation. But one theme deserving greater attention from evangelicals—especially if we aim to ground our creation care in Christ—is covenant.
Most everyone today understands that the "dominion" described in Genesis 1 is really about stewardship of creation. Created in God's image, we were designed to function as God's representatives.
In fact, the original Hebrew in Genesis 1 and 2 implies that we are to be both kingly and priestly representatives. Genesis 2:15 says, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (ESV, emphasis mine). This language is used later in the Old Testament to describe the priests' and Levites' service in the tabernacle (Num. 3:7-8; 18:7). In a profound way, then, to be a human is to be a priest. We have been placed within creation to mediate God's presence, embody God's posture, and enact God's purposes on the earth. And, like priests, we offer creation back to God; we ought not to regard any of our earthly labors as profane or secular, but as sacred service to God on behalf of the world.
Ellen F. Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, has suggested that instead of dominion, we translate the original Hebrew verb as "exercise skilled mastery." What we do with creation matters to God. Do we seek to work and shape it faithfully and beautifully in relationship with God and his purposes for the world, or, perversely, to satisfy our selfish desires?
Having a relationship with God, biblically speaking, is always understood in the context of covenant. Biblical covenants are not unlike contracts, but they are much more personal in nature. Covenant faithfulness brought blessing; unfaithfulness, a curse. And significantly, a third party always mediated and served as witness.
Just as God created Adam and Eve to be priests in relationship with him, so too God called Israel into covenant relationship with himself. But Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. God entered into this relationship with Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex. 20) with the appropriate stipulations, blessings, and curses (Lev. 26 and Deut. 28), as well as with a third party witness: "See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … by loving the Lord your God … then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it …. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today" (Deut. 30:15-20; emphasis mine). Later, the Prophets call heaven and earth as witnesses against unfaithful Israel in calling them to repent (e.g., Isa. 1:2; Mic. 1:2; 6:2).
Surveying covenant history, it becomes apparent that the relationship between human beings and the land is crucial. The ecological state of the land is dependent on Israel's relationship with Yahweh; the land responds to both the sinfulness and holiness of God's people.
For example, in the early Genesis account, the divine mandate continued on through Adam's descendants. Scripture carefully notes that Adam's son Seth inherits his father's "image and likeness" (Gen. 5:3). From Seth's line comes Noah, who is meant to bring relief to the cursed earth: "Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands" (Gen. 5:29).
God reaffirms the Adamic covenant with Noah, a new Adam. Genesis 9 tells us that the covenant is between three parties: the Lord, Noah, and the entire creation: "And God said, 'This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature … for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth'?" (v. 12-13).
But Noah is not able to bring ultimate relief to the earth. Isaiah 24 paints a picture of the earth lying defiled because of sin: "for they have … broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth" (24:5-6).
The Tree and the Cross
Despite the failures of Adam, Noah, and Israel, the Prophets spoke of a time of full and final restoration, not only for Israel and all humanity but also for the entire cosmos. As Hosea beautifully writes, "And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things on the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever" (2:18-19; see also Isa. 11; 43:16-20; 51:3; 65:17, 25; Ezek. 36-37; 47; Rev. 21-22).
The good news is that the promised new covenant has been fulfilled in Israel's Messiah—Jesus. In Christ's death and resurrection, the curse on humanity and all of creation has been lifted. The church is the new Israel, where this new creation has begun. God has been faithful to his covenant even when his people have not.
Thus, in Jesus, the new creation has dawned, and God's future world has broken into the present! The church, as Christ's body, is to embody the new creation, as the groaning creation stands "on tiptoe" (to borrow J. B. Phillips's translation of Romans 8:19), awaiting the final glorification of God's children. All of our ethics are to be lived out from this all-at-once future and present reality as we await the final consummation at Christ's second coming.
In light of the new covenant, all of our creation care is grounded in Christ. It is not grounded in our fear of ecological destruction or some romanticized view of nature—nor in political correctness. Because Christ has ushered us into this new covenant—between God and us and all of creation—our relationship to creation is inherently in Christ. The image of Adam has been reframed, restructured, and re-engineered in Christ's image. Thus, our "dominion" and "tending and keeping" of the earth is where we now work as new creation and for new creation. We are a restored kingdom of priests, and part of our mediation is between God and "every living creature," even the land itself.
As the spate of recent creation-care books shows, evangelicals are thinking more deeply and acting more faithfully than ever before when it comes to creation care. But I believe our concern should be shaped first and foremost by this great redemptive narrative that God has fulfilled in Christ, and is still telling through Christ's body, the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I wear a Celtic cross that shows Adam and Eve under the tree in the Garden, which, as the Tree of Life, points to the Cross of Christ. The couple looks like they are grasping the tree. Christian environmental stewardship must always take place at the foot of the Cross, where we grasp that the old is passing away, and that all things—people, creatures, and the land—are becoming new.
Matthew Farrelly teaches Bible and logic at Covenant Classical School in Naperville, Illinois.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on creation care include:
How Concerned Should Christians Be About Environmental Care? | Jonathan Meritt, Al Mohler, and Carl Beisner discuss how high a priority the environment should be for Christians. (June 30, 2010)
The Gulf of Mexico and the Care of Creation | We exercise dominion over creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it. (May 3, 2010)
Humans in Creation: Another View | Nature's enduring value is not in what it can provide us. (April 29, 2009)
Second Coming Ecology | We care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth. (July 18, 2008)
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