To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Toward a Biblical Environmentalism

These are some preliminary thoughts on biblical environmentalism. They come from a book outline I developed a couple of years ago and are still in skeletal form, without a great deal of elaboration or supporting documentation. I offer them here to stimulate discussion.

Life Context

Present rates of human impact on the environment are unsustainable. That simply means we are using resources—fresh water, tillable land, fish, rainforests—faster than they can be replenished. Pollution, global warming, destruction of habitats, extinctions, desertification—God's creation is being degraded and destroyed at an alarming rate, threatening not only the environment itself, but the future of humanity. At bottom, this unsustainable consumption of natural resources is fueled by greed: a relentless demand for products and services. For the most part those who consume the most natural resources give little thought to the impact their appetites have on the planet, either short- or long-term. In the words of Wendell Berry,

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.

Americans, most of whom claim to be Christians, are some of the greatest offenders in this non-sustainable environmental selfishness.

Biblical Context

Evangelical Christians have so far done little to speak out for protecting God's creation, leaving environmentalism in the hands of less biblically grounded Christians, or those actively antagonistic to the Christian faith. On the one hand, Christians have a much higher calling than protecting the planet. Our primary purpose is a heavenly one—preparing ourselves and others for a right relationship with God here and through eternity. The Bible tells us that "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).
On the other hand, we do have obligations to be good stewards of the earth. God created the world and takes pleasure in it (Psalm 104). He has left it up to humanity to rule over and care for all creation (Gen. 1:28). The Psalms tell us that creation is not only given for our use, but that all creation—animals, plants, hills and sky—is intended to praise and glorify the Lord (Psalm 148). When humanity, through greed and short-sightedness, weakens and damages the earth, we are guilty of wasting not only a precious resource, but of defacing a beautiful work of God.

God could have created the whole world instantly. But he took six full days, savoring each new element of his creation. At the end of each day, he looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. On the sixth day he created the first man and woman and put all creation under their control (Gen. 1:28).

Principles of Biblical Environmentalism

The Bible has little to say directly on the topic of environmental stewardship. Taking the Scriptures as a whole, however, we can find a great deal in the Word of God to illuminate the issue of environmental stewardship. Here, briefly, are thirteen relevant truths.
  • God created the world as something good (Gen. 1:31-2:1).
  • God gave humanity dominion over the planet (Gen 1:28).
  • Creation was subject to frustration at the fall of man and has been groaning ever since (Rom. 8:18-21).
  • Even after the fall, everything God created is good (I Tim 4:4).
  • God takes pleasure in His creation and actively sustains it (Psalm 104).
  • We are not to worship the sun, moon, stars, or any other part of God's creation (Deut. 4:19).
  • Rather all creation, including the celestial bodies, should actively praise God (Psalm 148).
  • God cares and provides for all living creatures (Gen. 1:30; 9:17; Mt. 10:29).
  • But man is more important than other created beings (Matt. 10:31).
  • Greed or covetousness, however, is a grave sin and a form of idolatry (Rom. 1:29; 7:8; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5 ).
  • Stewardship of God’s creation is for our own good, and God commanded it (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:7; Deut. 22:6-7).
  • One day, however, God will create a new earth, as well as a new heaven (2 Pe 3:13, Rev. 21:1).
  • The new heaven and earth will be eternal (Isaiah 66:22). When they finally do come, the old creation will be forgotten (Isaiah 65:17).

What do these principles point to? First, that human beings have dominion over the earth and are the most important species on the planet—a point typically neglected by non-Christian environmentalists. We should not feel shame in a reasonable exploiting of creation; we are, in fact, more entitled to the planet’s resources than the other animals. Dominion, however, is not a license from God for rapaciousness. Environmental depletion is a symptom of self-centeredness, greed, and covetousness (in other words, it is a consequence of the fall). On a collective scale, this greed manifests itself in the many symptoms of environmental degradation.

Addressing these symptoms will do little or nothing to correct the root problem: sin. The only means of overcoming that root problem is the grace of God through Jesus Christ. As Christians are transformed from worldly thinkers to Kingdom citizens, our hearts will be changed and our individual appetites become less covetous. In that respect, growth of the Kingdom will result in some lessening of environmental degradation. Jesus has told us, however, that the percentage of human beings living a life of true discipleship will always be relatively low (Mt. 7:13-14). We should not, then, expect a lessening of rapacious attitudes among Christians to have a significant effect on the environment. In fact, Jesus tells us that the calamities of a fallen world will continue to include such events as pestilence and famine (Lk 21:9-11).

That leaves Christians with the question: how should we approach environmental stewardship? Focusing too much attention on the symptoms of human depravity (environmental degradation) draws our minds away from the true source of the problem (sin) and the only hope of salvation (Jesus). Yet to focus strictly on individual salvation is to neglect the world-wide influence of both sin and the Kingdom of God. We must, I think, begin to look at the Kingdom of God as just that—not a collection of redeemed souls, but as a reign that ultimately will redeem not only human souls, but all creation.

Working out the details of a Kingdom view---well, that's the hard part. Any ideas?

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


Blogger John Schroeder said...

I was hoping for better things. See this post

11:39 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

See my comments at Transforming Sermons.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Hi Milton,
This was an interesting post. As a child I was greatly impacted by a commerical. I don't know if it was shown nationwide or if it was only in Oklahoma, which of course, has a large Native American population. Anyway, the commercial showed a chief with a single tear trailing down his right cheek as litter was thrown at his feet from a passing car. I remember thinking that as a Christian we should be concerned with taking care of God's world and I grieved along with the chief. (Perhaps some of the blood I got from great-grandmothers who were Native Americans also boiled at the commercial, I don't know--just know it really impacted me.)

Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog. Your book sounds really interesting. I don't know if you're interested, but I have a website (linked to my blog) that reviews books. Recently, I've had a few people contact me for reviews. They send me copies of their work in return for my review. If I feel like I can give a good review for a book, I'm happy to post at Amazon and on my site. I simply can't afford all the books I want to review right now and choose most of my books from what I can get at the library . . . so if you're interested let me know. My email is on my profile as well as the link to my website, soulscents.


7:43 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I remember the public service spot with the Indian, too, and it made an impression on me. I'll go to your blog, and if you're interested, I'll send you a copy of my book to review. Thanks for the interest.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Milton, thanks for a thoughtful post. To my mind, Christian environmentalism is best formed as a set of personal ethics rather than a political platform. Easier to deal with the plank in my eye than the mote in my nation's eye, so to speak. This begins with awareness, the sense--which should be second nature to the Christian--that what we do always is about more than just ourselves. If even our thoughts have an impact on our relationship with God and each other, then certainly so does how we treat God's creation.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Kevin. I agree with your sentiments. Please forgive me, too, for taking so long to respond. I think you left your comment before I had this blog set to send me e-mail notices of comments, and it's taken me all these months to reply. Peace.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Peter said...


I've been recently asked to give a short talk on the environmental ethics of our Christian faith, and I found your post very inspiring. I can't say that I agree with it all, but you have set out, to my naive and heavily-environmentally biased (which I'm proud of, and will defend, by the way- because the thought of justifying anything else makes me a bit puke-y) was a balanced, and text-based set of thoughts. Thanks for that.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

You're welcome, Peter, and thanks for your kind words. I'm eager to hear your take on the issue.

10:24 AM  

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