What We Believe
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In these days of COVID-19 there remain concerns, that are near and dear to the Christian heart, that have been put on the back burner of the issues stove. One example of this is the concern associated with the present state of the earth’s environment and ecology. Many people, perhaps most, in common usage, treat these terms as synonymous. Those who work professionally in the field see them as related but truly distinct. Ecology is a raw scientific discipline that seeks to understand the interaction of biotic influences (plant, animals, fungi, microbes) and abiotic influences (soil minerals, water, climate, sunshine) that unfold in our natural world. It is conceivable that one can have extensive understanding of those biotic and abiotic interactions, on either the local or global scale, and have no real commitment to ethical human use of and responsibility for the natural world.

The terms environment and environmentalism are typically associated with concerns for ecological health and the ethics associated with proper management and sustainability of the natural world. However, those who work closely with the biological world and the abiotic factors often have a heightened sense of responsibility and paternity for the environment and ecology. Under the present situation many have noticed that things are not all right in this domain. However, Christians and the broader secular community, though interfacing with each other, often have different assessments of the situation. It is apparent that neither subculture has a perfect handle on the truth. Also, in each subpopulation there is a spectrum of sensitivities and understandings that make it impossible to paint each with simple brush strokes. Since all truth is God’s truth, regardless of where it comes from, we can learn from each other. That said, syncretism remains an ever-present possibility for Christians in any cultural setting. We are not immune to such a tendency today. On the environmental issues front it is easy to syncretize unbiblical thinking with Christian and biblical understanding. Or, we can make the other mistake of not embracing the truth that we can learn from the secular mainstream.

Although we can receive knowledge and wisdom from unbelievers, Christians need to assess such information within the context of clear biblical definitions. Our approach to ecology and the environment is no exception. Our spiritual and physical health and the health of the God’s ecological creation depend on it. As Christians we are often so focused on the human implications of the biblical history of redemption that we may overlook the fact that definitions regarding the created order are clearly articulated for us from the context of an unfallen paradise of moral innocence. And those definitions hold sway in the post-fallen economy. In Genesis 1 we are told that God created the heavens and the earth, and that there is nothing that came into being that he, Christ the Word, did not make (John 1:3). This includes things visible, invisible, rulers, and authorities. All things being created for him and by him (Col. 1:16). Into this, as a crowning act of creation, humans were created as male and female, in God’s image, to be fruitful, to multiply, to have dominion, and to subdue the earth as cultivators and keepers (Gen. 1 and 2). After the fall and the flood, this charge is reiterated to Noah when he left the ark (Gen. 9:1). Human status as rulers over the works of God’s hands is reaffirmed in Psalm 8:6. Yet, Psalms 24:1 and 50:10 remind us that these works remain in God’s possession. The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. Even the human-owned cattle on a thousand hills are his. Although God rests from his creation until now (Heb. 4:3), he continues to create through his providential care and oversight as outlined in Psalms 104 and 147. He sends forth his Spirit and things are created (Ps. 104:30). He brings forth wine to gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15) and satisfies us with the finest wheat (Ps. 147:14). Hence, we are not deists, believing that God is distant from his creation. We recognize God’s continual care for and valuing of his creation, even when the products are through human effort.

As we think through these definitions there are some implications. First, it is evident from Genesis 2 and 3 that pre-fallen humans were enlisted into God’s service to subdue the earth, filling it with offspring and tending it, while Satan was perpetrating his rebellion against God. Given this context, what was to be the role of humans? It is evident that Satan was already working against God when Adam and Eve were in the Garden (Gen 3). It makes sense that if humans had not fallen they would have engaged Satanic forces as they expanded out of the Garden. This engagement would likely have preempted Satanic expansion. Or, possibly, humans were to redeem those gains Satan had already achieved, wrestling them from him. In any event, Satan succeeded in derailing the Creator’s assignment for humanity through the First Adam. But, by God’s grace, the derailment was not complete. However, humanity is divided in its allegiance between God and Satan. This division separates human populations for the Creator or against him (Matt. 12:30). It even cuts to the core of the individual. Even those who are redeemed remain in conflict with indwelling sin (Rom. 7:24–25). And, according to God’s common grace, even the reprobate can do some things well.

As we know from Romans 8:19–22, the creation eagerly awaits in anxious longing for the revealing of the sons of God. In some respect this can be seen as the frustration that the creation experiences as a result of the unrealized potential that it suffers under the derailment of the assignment given to the first Adam. However, consider the pre-fallen mission. Unfallen humans would have extended the Garden’s realized ecological values of diversity, productivity, peace, and fecundity to the whole globe. God’s good creation of expansive primal wilderness would have been improved, made better under the efforts of unfallen humanity and its expansion of subduing and taking dominion. This is often called the Creational or Cultural Mandate.

It is impossible to know the extent to which God’s good creation had been influenced by Satanic expansion before humanity’s fall in the Garden. Yet, the notion of taking dominion and subduing the earth suggests that a struggle of some sort was in view for pre-fallen humanity. This struggle between good and evil would have involved human effort. Human expansion would have confronted Satanic Expansion. The first Adam would have been on the front lines of the conflict in service of the King of the Universe. Instead, the conflict is extended to human identity itself. Satan seems to scuttle the divine project by convincing Adam that the created order, as outlined in the Creational Mandate, was not in the best interests of humanity’s future. Adam and Eve gave in to the temptation to break free of the assignment as defined by God himself. Except for the grace of God their moral collapse would have been complete and the divine assignment utterly abandoned.

The created order is assaulted but it remains. Fallen humans retain the image of God. Consequently, they retain the ability to subdue and to have dominion. However, the values of the Garden, under fallen human dominion, are imperfectly expanded to the entire globe. At times, due to human greed and selfishness, there is even environmental destruction. Yet, we see glimmers of the original created order and its ideals. Well managed farms are places where productivity, diversity, fecundity, and peace can be seen even if it is to an imperfect extent. The lives of livestock and pets are stamped with Garden values. Human dominion brings a measure of peace and flourishing not found in the wild. In the wild those creatures would be vicious competitors of food items. The wilderness groans in a way that these well-managed places do not.

Fallen humans have been known to have moments of epiphany when they catch glimpses of the original created order. They may not recognize it as such. An article from the October 2009 National Geographic on redwood forest management is an example, in a publication not known for its sympathy for Christian thinking. The author testifies that,

along the (redwood) forest transect I met foresters who talked as if they’ve discovered the holy grail of redwood management. What they’re learning and how they’re applying the knowledge can serve as a blueprint for the entire redwood range. Their ability to supply large amounts of lumber for humanity and improve ecological function is an approach that should be adopted around the world (emphasis added).[1]

This is an amazing comment on the ideal of human dominion, stewardship, and management in an age when humans are often seen as the main blight on the earth. Proper human management supplies goods and products for humanity and improves ecological function.

We can take note of another unexpected example of people coming to appreciate the created order. However, I doubt that they realize it. The example is found in a 2018 article in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious science publications. The article is not Christian in the least. However, the authors do propose that humans can control the earth’s systems, those envisioned in J. E. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The claim is that humans can enhance the inherent self-regulating systems of earth to new levels of long-term sustainability, even to the point of intentionally influencing global climate. They call it Gaia 2.0.[2] 

The implication of these examples is that even fallen human management, when properly done, can make God’s good creation better. When humans are a blessing, Satan frowns. His project is eroded. When humans fail to realize the ideal, the creation groans in anticipation of the redemption of the sons of God that would bring restoration to the created order, releasing it from futility and slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20–23). The ultimate restoration will come in the form of the new heavens and new earth. But humans, acting as salt and light, can bring something of that to pass in this age.

Over the past fifty years or more, there has been a heightened concern among Christians for the degradation that the environment has suffered in the wake of fallen human dominion. Humans have often subdued the earth with practices that have yielded the cost of unsustainability. In other words, the good creation, though fallen, is left in worse shape than it was found. Farming, mining, forestry, manufacturing, and waste disposal industries can all point to manmade environmental disasters precipitated by mismanagement or greed. Subsequent generations too often have found an environment worse off instead of improved. In the 1960’s, works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[3] and Lynn White’s famous essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” heightened society’s awareness of widespread ecological trauma. Specifically, White’s essay railed against the Christian concept of human dominion, blaming Christians for much of the environmental degradation in the west.[4] Soon after, Francis Schaeffer wrote Pollution and the Death of Man, calling Christians to take a more responsible and loving biblical approach to beauty and environmental concerns. He gave the 1960s counter-culture high marks for pointing out the problem. Schaeffer maintained that the church should have been beating the drum of warning, calling for environmental action because of nature’s inherent value as God’s creation.[5]

Here lies the challenge for Christians in any age, the Augustinian Charter for believers: take truth from the pagans, worthy ideas of God’s truth, and incorporate them in a mature biblical context, while leaving behind what Augustine termed their “miserable” ones.[6] Such a process has been long recognized as one that can enrich Christian thinking, enabling it to become mature and nuanced in ways that Christianity may miss without the external stimulation. Yet, the dangers of over borrowing without proper biblically informed discernment, insight, and perception are ever present. Since the closing of the American frontier in the late nineteenth century there have been voices in American society that have called us to care for the inherent beauty and value of the environment. The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 was not specifically a movement initiated by people in the church. The great environmental debate of the early 1900s between John Muir’s preservationists (influencing the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, and the Sierra Club) and Gifford Pinchot’s conservationists (influencing the United States Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture) certainly had Christians in each camp. Neither the preservationist nor conservationist movements are recognized as having their origins among distinctly Christian thinkers. John Muir exhorted us to see humanity as one small part of the great unit of creation. Conversely, Pinchot seemed to see value in nature in light of its enduring use by humans.[7]

Both views are biblically inadequate as seen by the biblical definitions above. Yet, it is likely that we know Christians who would fall in either camp. Either case would be on the cusp of dangerous error. If one overreacts to the abuses of overwrought human dominion, one may move toward devaluing humanity, seeing it as an insensitive blight on creation. In so doing, the corrective of defining dominion as a biblical concept would be missed. On the other hand, if we see God’s creation only in terms of its usefulness to humanity, we are likely to lose sight of its inherent value as something beautiful and valued by God.

So, what is our relationship to the environment and the other life forms? Are we simply one of them, gifted with a bit more intelligence and hence some responsibility? Or, are we, as humans, a little lower than the angels, endued with rank and privilege to have freedom to do with creation as we will? It is clear from the biblical definitions that the bear and the whale are not our brothers. But as God’s possessions, they are our charge. Proper dominion and care will keep them from eating us while preventing their extinction.

Christians have tried to balance these tensions. The Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation[8] attempted to reemphasize stewardship in the face of long-term sinful dominion excesses. It called for repentance for environmental abuse and reorientation to a biblical faith and expression. The long list of original signatories included several Christian college presidents and such notables as Timothy George, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Ron Sider, and J. I. Packer. However, in response to perceived inadequacies of this declaration, another statement was drafted under the leadership of E. Calvin Beisner, The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship.[9] This statement has a stronger positive emphasis on human dominion and population while acknowledging the need for biblical stewardship. The signatories are a more ecumenical group that includes some notable Roman Catholic and Jewish signers as well as Protestants such as Charles Colson, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Marvin Olasky, and R. C. Sproul.

There certainly is no unanimity among Christians on how to approach the responsibility of addressing human needs and caring for creation. However, biblical definitions should guide us with basic principles. The relational definitions are clear. God loves his creation and the creation proclaims his glory. Humans are to love God and to love and respect his works. The creation yields to humanity and provides for its needs. The spiritual struggle, which is going on behind the environmental scene, is both Satanic in origin and the result of human failure. Yet, humans are not merely consumers like deer or crayfish. We are also creators, able to extend the values of the Garden to the rest of creation, even to the point of making God’s good primal wilderness better. However, as fallen image bearers, we have the power to degrade and destroy like no other creature on earth.

How do we move ahead? Prudence would dictate that we realize our power to create or to destroy. We must consider that humanity can be either a blessing or a blight, living in accordance with the created order and its definitions or in ignorance and opposition to them. One is life-giving. One is life-destroying. Also, God can and will bless us when we make the appropriate choices. The choices the modern voices are asking us to make are confusing. For example, population control as proposed by much of mainstream environmentalism, including some Christians, is without biblical warrant. The reproductive culture of the globe’s most environmentally conscious societies must account for their self-destructive extinction trajectories. Birth rates of all the countries of the West and East Asia are significantly below replacement levels.[10] Yet many of these same societies are places where humans have never lived better. The water is cleaner, the air is better, and general health is at a historic high. Christians in these places can, and should, participate in efforts to maintain healthy environments. However, arresting development, industry, and population growth denies the created order and the human assignment. The outcome will not be a positive one.

Yet wise development, industry, and population growth require that we know the natural operations of the ecological systems we impact so that we can preserve their health and enhance their function. In so doing everything benefits, including humans, and God is glorified. Technologically sophisticated and environmentally safe waste management, recycling, and energy production are necessary to provide for the needs of humanity and to increase ecological function. Humans can accomplish this. We often do it unknowingly. For example, Thomas Malthus’s famous 1790s essay on human population had worldwide population capped at about three billion, given the conditions of the early Industrial Revolution.[11] Under present economies and technologies earth’s carrying capacity is probably closer to triple that. As more new technologies and economic strategies are realized and applied, that number will most likely be revised upward. Humans are creators.

But we are also sinners. Consequently, would it surprise us to think that humans could impact global climate? It would make sense that if we were technologically capable enough and numerous enough, such an impact would be possible. Many are alarmed by this and are certain of the disastrous consequences. After all, the atmospheric concentration of CO2, a known greenhouse gas, has increased from 380 ppm to 410 ppm in the last few decades. This is higher than at any known time through the last four ice age cycles.[12] So, have humans contributed anything to the global warming cycle of the last three decades? Perhaps, for God has put all things under our feet (Ps. 8). If we can influence climate, at least in part, would it not be wise to figure out how to do it to increase global fertility, productivity, fecundity, and peace. If we can control climate, these should be governing values.

As we move ahead, it is good to remember that many doomsday scenarios predicted by certain demographers and environmentalists have simply failed to materialize. Classic among these is Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 overpopulation prediction of starvation and plague by the 1980s.[13] Yet, to ignore trends of degradation would be irresponsible. By God’s grace, humans can expect to have a profound positive influence on God’s good creation. Information about how to do that can come from many voices. The issue will always be whether we can discern which voices affirm the created order and which ones do not. The success of the project depends on whether Christians can think biblically, even when innovation is called for, and thus avoid the pernicious influences that may accompany wisdom. There are times when Christians are indebted to unbelieving members of society for pointing out issues that need to be addressed. However, the solutions they propose often reflect a lack of understanding of or an outright denial of the created order. Such solutions are counterproductive. The salt and light Christians offer include redirecting proposals to align with Scripture. 

Selected Bibliography

Beisner, Calvin E. Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 1997.

This work is a very balanced, biblically informed approach that emphasizes biblical definitions of the created order and the role that humans, as imago Dei, play in it. The emphasis of ethical human dominion and responsibility is well developed.

DeWitt, Calvin B. Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues, 2nd ed. Burlington, Ontario, CA: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2007.

Calvin Dewitt is one of the primary shapers of the Christian Environmental Movement. His strong notion of biblical stewardship and human responsibility is well developed in this work.

McGrath, Alister. The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Environmental Crisis. Danvers, MA: Crown, 2002.

McGrath makes the case that the Enlightenment created a devaluing of nature, its intrinsic value lost in the face of the machine. This led to human dominion being interpreted as a license for domination and excessive exploitation. He calls Christians back to appreciating the beauty of and inherent value of nature.

Schaeffer, Francis. Pollution and the Death of Man. Wheaton: Crossway, 1970.

A seminal Christian work on environmental concerns from one of the twentieth century’s most critical thinking Christians. He responds to the sensitivities of the counter-culture of the late 1960s, giving credit where credit is due while steering the matter to a scriptural understanding.

Endnotes

[1] J. Michael Fay, “The Redwoods Point the Way,” National Geographic (October, 2009): 60–63.

[2] Timothy M. Lenton and Bruno Latour, “Gaia 2.0: Could humans add some level of self-awareness to Earth’s self-regulation?” Science 361 (2018): 1066–1068.

[3] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

[4] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203–1207.

[5] Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man (Wheaton: Crossway, 1970).

[6] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine. https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/ddc.html.

[7] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[8] “On the Care of Creation: Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation” (New Freedom, PA: Evangelical Environmental Network, 1994), https://creationcare.org/what-we-do/an-evangelical-declaration-on-the-care-of-creation.html.

[9] “Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship” (Ringgold, GA: Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2000), https://cornwallalliance.org/landmark-documents/the-cornwall-declaration-on-environmental-stewardship/.

[10] “Fertility rate, total births (per woman),” The World Bank (2019), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN.

[11] Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, (London: St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1798), Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project (1998), http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.

[12] “Carbon dioxide: Latest measurement,” August 2020. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/.

[13] Paul Ehlrich and Ann Ehlrich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968).

Jan Frederic Dudt is a professor of biology at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2020.

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Ordained Servant: November 2020

Creation Stewardship

Also in this issue

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 5–6

Going Beyond Stewardship—Where is Dominion? A Review Article

Smorgasbord Religion: The New American Spirituality: A Review Article

The Reading Life: A Review Article

The Preacher’s Catechism by Lewis Allen

Weary in Well-Doing

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