What Scriptures Tell Us About Environmental Stewardship
by Samuel Casey Carter
Now that secular liberalism has all but driven orthodox religion out of public life, it should come as no surprise that heterodox spirituality has become the latest battering ram of the left. In a time when the Bible has been expunged from schoolrooms as an icon of Western bigotry, biblical arguments are now oddly on the comeback, recast as a fashionable means of pushing a leftist agenda. What is not to be expected is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have become the spokesmen of these distortions. Embracing the tenets of radical environmentalism without an eye to the manner in which these teachings are fundamentally hostile to Christian tradition, a new brand of Christian is out to save the earth, but in so doing he may well flip his faith upon its head.
Man and the Environment
A number of Evangelical organizations have recently risen to prominence by popularizing what they take to be biblical mandates for their activist brand of environmentalism. With names like the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Christian Environmental Association, and the Christian Society of the Green Cross, a whole swarm of seemingly mainstream Protestant organizations conjures support for their activist programs through specious readings of disconnected biblical texts. Although much of what they do is fairly benign local activism of the sort promoted everywhere these days, much of what they say only counsels further governmental intervention into areas where government has already complicated delicate environmental situations. But regardless of anyone's support for the Endangered Species Act, Superfund, or any of the programs initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the specific manipulation of biblical passages in order to achieve certain political goals is an abuse that must be met head on. If the Bible says anything about man's sound management of natural resources, it does so only in the setting of man's relationship with God. Our moral concern for the environment, in other words, is primarily a concern for the dignity of the human person who alone was entrusted by God with the stewardship of creation. Although all of creation celebrates the glory of God, the human person alone is equipped to discern the will of his creator regarding the proper use of that creation. As the only rational animal, man is uniquely qualified to discern not only that there is order in the universe, but, given his freedom of choice, how he is to act within that order to the pleasure and satisfaction of his God.
The dignity of the human person, therefore, is the essential starting point in all matters of environmental responsibility, because it is both for the common good of humanity that our environmental policy must be supremely directed, and it is from the ingenuity of individual human persons that appropriate solutions to our environmental problems will emerge. Any reading of the Bible that says otherwise only puts man in service to that creation that was originally given to him for his use and enjoyment.
Because the good of a clean environment is self-evident, while the true meaning of Scripture is bound in tradition and prayerful study, the challenge here is to keep two very different fields of inquiry in balance. Scripture does not teach science, for example, but to know that demands a clear understanding of the tradition. Likewise, the creation account in Genesis requires a knowledge of the tradition so that its literal reading is not mistaken for scientific fact. Discerning what the Bible says is a science in itself not to be confused with environmental science taken simply.
Negotiating the sweeping statements of green theologians, therefore, requires some care, even if the challenge they present is painfully uncomplicated. It is the proper handling of the Bible that requires our patience. If, however, we take the time to read the Scriptures as they have been understood for centuries, so much of this greenery goes away. As we will see, its teachings are simply at odds with even the most basic Christian doctrines.
Christianity and Science
Christian environmentalists pride themselves on their interdisciplinary approach that blends scientific rigor with the fullest interpretation of the Gospel. Before turning to any specific passages they cite from Scripture, we should say a few words about the Christian origins of science. Knowing where science came from will help us to judge its proper use.
Without Christianity, science is impossible. The rational investigation of the world can proceed only on the assumption that the universe is an ordered place. The laws of physics, for example, are regular and predictable. If instead, physical laws were the whim of some capricious rock nymph, no coherent account could ever be given for the way things work. Pantheism and paganism of any kind just don't allow for scientific inquiry.
Against this, the Judeo-Christian worldview was the first to see that God, the creator of all, is himself a transcendent God apart from his creation. Once God is distinguished from nature in this way, nature can be freely explored without fear of transgression. As Robert Whelan has so memorably put it, people won't be squeamish to put things under a microscope once they are certain that a god doesn't live in them. (i)
Perhaps even more important to the rise of science is the Christian conception of time. When all other cultures, including those of Ancient Greece and Arabia, were trapped in eternally recurring temporal cycles, the Hebrew Scriptures tell of a God who created all the known universe out of nothing and in time. The story of the people Israel, begun in creation and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a story with a unified purpose from the beginning of time until its end in the second coming. Time, in this conception, has meaning. Every historical moment follows on another unique moment in time, shaping the whole of creation into a setting where progress and purpose are possible.
Seen in this way, western science is the heritage of western religion. It is only in a culture where progress can be identified and where regular physical laws are observed over time that the world becomes a place worthy of empirical investigation. Christian environmentalists are concerned that science has come to dominate nature. It is important to tell them that this is an appropriate expression of their religion.
Christianity makes the entire ascent of western science possible because it is through Christian tradition that man's ability to reason is identified as unique in nature and of a divine purpose. Man alone is made in God's image. Unlike the rest of nature that simply has a place in the world, the whole of nature has been delivered over to man for him to use as he sees fit. Man is not simply the head of the natural order, rather, that order was made for him.
What is more, Christianity teaches that after making man in his own image, God sent his only Son into the world to save man from sin and bring him the gift of everlasting life. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only is the created order set aside for man's use - now as the arena of his redemption - but the whole of eternity is singularly directed toward the achievement of man's salvation. In true Christian teaching, the role of the world is not in doubt. Man alone was made for eternal life with God - the world is simply the place where he learns that. In turning their eyes back to the Earth, Christian environmentalists are losing sight of man's salvation.
What the Bible Says
Biblical interpretation is a subtle and nuanced science. Given each of the claims just made above, literally hundreds of passages might be assembled to paint the picture now before us. But perhaps ten, twenty, thirty other passages could be marshaled against that evidence to present a rather different viewpoint than the one shown here. Is that how the Bible works? Whoever scurries amid its pages to find the most evidence for his argument eventually wins the day?
Take a few examples from what has just been said. Man alone is made in God's image. Where does it say that? Well, in Genesis 1:26 God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Okay, fine. What does it mean that God says "Let us" make man? Is God really a pantheon no different than what the Egyptians or Hindus conceived in their eternally recurring mythologies? Or is this plural form of the pronoun some foreshadowing of the Triune Christian God? More to the point, what does it mean for God to say anything anyway? I thought he was some transcendental God distinct from the created order. What's God's image anyhow? God can't have an image. God has a Son? Is he God's image then? Is that why God is plural to indicate him and his Son? Or is something else going on here? Maybe this is really about man and how man acts like God?
Needless to say, sound biblical interpretation takes time.
Throughout our entire Judeo-Christian tradition, the interpretation of Holy Scripture is an activity intimately linked with the exercise of authority. Whether you are a Jew in Palestine before the birth of Christ or a Lutheran in Reformation Germany, lurking behind every theological question, like those now before us, stands this matter of authority. Upon what authority is anything known? Is what you say taught definitively on the authority of the Bible or the Church? Answers to questions like these have brought whole religions into being.
Since the formulation of Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, the orthodox conception of authority rests on a threefold foundation: the apostolic canon of Holy Scripture; the apostolic Creed, or rule of faith through which Scripture is to be interpreted; and the apostolic episcopate, or the bishops, entrusted with the teaching function through which Scripture and faith are properly recognized.
According to Irenaeus, Christ himself is the ultimate source of Christian doctrine. Being himself the truth and the eternal Word of God the Father, Christ entrusted all revelation to his apostles, and so it is through them that the knowledge of revelation is properly obtained. As Tertullian, another early Father of the Church insisted, Christians must not pick and choose various doctrines according to their whims; their sole authorities are the apostles, who had themselves first faithfully transmitted Christ's teaching.
This transmission of Christ's revelation through the apostles is known as the tradition. Because the apostles alone are the direct heirs of Christ's teaching, they are responsible for all three aspects of its authoritative transmission - through Scripture, Creed, and Doctrine. It is in this way then, through the tradition of the Church passed down from the apostles, that the authority of Scripture and the manner in which it is to be interpreted is maintained in all its integrity. Without that authority some pretty weird things begin to happen - Christians start to pick and choose various doctrines according to their whims.
Green Cross is the official publication of the Christian Society of the Green Cross. According to its publishers, their magazine is intended to help "readers care for Creation in a way that is faithful to Jesus Christ, biblical revelation, and scientific analysis." The product of their good works taken together they call "creation care."
Creation care is also what the Evangelical Environmental Network hopes to elicit from those who sign on to its Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. "Committed to the full authority of the Scriptures," and acting to "extend Christ's healing to suffering creation," the Declaration urges "individual Christians and churches to be centers of creation's care and renewal." (ii) It's hard to know at first what this might mean. Luckily, the document is more explicit elsewhere when it speaks to a growing crisis in the "health of the creation" resulting from various forms of environmental degradation. The Declaration sums up this state of affairs with the odd formulation, "because we have sinned, we have failed in our stewardship of creation." As it turns out, the material world is suffering for man's spiritual deficiencies.
Make no mistake about it, this way of talking subordinates religious belief to a materialist view of the world. Oddly, it is in fact scientific talk unhinged from its religious origins. It only takes a single paragraph of the Declaration to prove this point:
Many of these degradations are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God has set for creation. With continued population growth, these degradations will become more severe. Our responsibility is not only to bear and nurture children, but to nurture their home on Earth. We respect the institution of marriage as the way God has given to insure thoughtful procreation of children and their nurture to the glory of God.
Throughout the Declaration all of the appeals to scriptural authority are a ruse. All of the pious inflections are a sham. The only concern here is for how the genius of human science will overcome the finite limits of God's creation. Interestingly, one of the chief expressions of that genius are the contraceptive methods necessary to "insure thoughtful procreation."
The reference to extending Christ's healing is particularly telling. In the same way Christ redeemed man, now man has to redeem the Earth. Needless to say, in all of man's saving activity, God is made redundant. Ashamed of his sinfulness, man wants to restore to wholeness the world that he has polluted - in the meantime, however, God is apparently powerless to help him out.
This last observation is key. In so many works of Christian environmentalism, God is celebrated as the creator of a pristine world now deteriorating under the pall of man's industrial activity. God, however, is always surprisingly absent from the world as it is today. Regardless of all the allusions to God's saving grace, it will take man's activity to return the world to its primeval beauty.
Pollute the Bible and Save the Earth
It doesn't take much to see that something here has gone awry. Earth is not the proper object of man's religious longings. But when a man is taught to care for the Earth with a zeal reserved for the love of God, a few things are sure to be misplaced: God and man, for starters.
Calvin B. DeWitt, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, recalls the story of Noah, "Deluges - in Noah's time of water, and in our time of floods of people - sprawl over the land, displacing God's creatures, limiting their potential to obey God's command, 'be fruitful and increase in number.'" (iii)
According to Dr. DeWitt, people are a plague. It doesn't matter that in the Bible all creation was made for man, man is now obviously in creation's way. Like all the other creatures, man too was told to be fruitful and multiply. But in addition, man was told to fill the Earth and subdue it. DeWitt would rather that man die. It doesn't matter that DeWitt would exempt himself from such population control measures, one only needs to know that he cites God's command in order to undermine God's purpose. (iv) Stan LeQuire, one of DeWitt's colleagues, is also fond of the Noah story:
God wants us to save all creatures, every slug and salamander. And so we say, let God decide which creatures shall survive. It is ours to help; it is not ours to decide. If creatures become extinct on our account, because of our greed or neglect, we're playing God, and that is blasphemy. That is sin.
LeQuire is playing God more than he knows. He wants to salvage salamanders, but for him people are pollution. If here is blasphemy to be found, it is in his own contempt for the human race made in God's image.
But since they mention it, let's remember the point of Noah's story. Noah does not enter upon the stage uninvited or without precedent. Rather, he comes into a world ever increasingly more violent since the temptation and fall of man. Woman now gives birth in labor; man toils in the field for his sustenance. Cain slays his only brother and is banished to wander the Earth forever. For generations man's wickedness grows until finally God is determined to destroy all that he had made.
Except for Noah, nothing and no one is spared God's damnation before the flood. In addition to man, God set out to destroy all the beasts, and the creeping things, and the birds of the air, because he was sorry that he had made them. The story of the flood in other words is not a story about the beauty of the created order salvaged by God in the face of man's moral wickedness. No, it is a story about the chosen people, about baptism, about rebirth, and about man's salvation that only comes about through a covenant with God.
Reading the Bible outside of Christian tradition, DeWitt and LeQuire extract whatever doctrines they wish to find. Neither of them has any interest in discerning the four fold sense of Noah's ark floating on the waters of destruction. Although the Church teaches that everything in Scripture carries a literal, an allegorical, a moral, and an anagogical sense, DeWitt and LeQuire are only looking for a rhetorical billyclub with which to beat their opponents into pious submission.
As it was said in the beginning, Christian environmentalists have turned the world on its head. In using language reserved for God to show their concern for the Earth, they have only bred contempt for man and made a mockery of real religion. What they have not done is to make the Earth a proper object of worship. It can't be. But more to the point, theirs is not a genuine religious concern. They have simply invoked religious rhetoric to give new urgency to their worldly agenda. Sadly, for those who don't discern this agenda, this manner of speaking will make an idol of the Earth.
The world is God's creation and as such it cannot be "cared for" or praised in a manner that is reserved for God alone. That God is in all things, does not make all things into God. This simple error, however, makes paganism possible. That man is called to protect the planet, does not make the protection of the planet the singular calling of man. Yet, it is precisely this move that tempts environmentalists to invoke certain forms of religious language. When these words miss their mark, it is the world they hope to save that will pay the greatest price. Bad environmental science fueled by fake religion can only hope to hurt everyone and everything involved.
When the Lord God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, he commanded all of Israel to have no false gods before him. In their fidelity to the Lord God, the people Israel kept the Lord's words in their hearts, on their wrists, before their eyes, and upon their door posts. When later they crossed the Jordan to take possession of the land that the Lord God had given them, they were careful to observe all the statutes and decrees that he had set before them.
Should they ever follow false gods, they would lose the land that the Lord God had given to them for their benefit.
Samuel Casey Carter is the executive editor of Crisis, a magazine of religion, culture, and public policy published in Washington, D.C. A former student of biblical languages at St. Benet's Hall, Oxford, he is now completing his doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of mathematics for the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
(i) Robert Whelan, "Greens and God," The Cross and the Rainbow, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 18
(ii) Evangelical Environmental Network, An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation
(iii) Calvin B. DeWitt, Christian Environmental Stewardship: Preparing the Way for Action
(iv) Jeffrey Smith, "Evangelical Christians Preach a Green Gospel," High Country News, April 28, 1997 (Vol. 29, No. 8)
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