What We Believe
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Going Beyond Stewardship—Where is Dominion? A Review Article

Jan F. Dudt

Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, by David P. Warners and Matthew K. Heun eds. Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press, 2019, xiv + 236 pages, $17.99, paper.

Since 1967 and Lynn White’s essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,”[1]  Christians have often been on the defensive regarding their approach to the environment. Over the years there have been several attempts by Christians to address the concerns leveled against the Christian contribution to our modern environmental crises. Admittedly, Christians, including Evangelicals, have often lagged behind other voices in the culture which raised red flags over the extent of environmental degradation that our modern industrial society had spawned, even as economic progress and general human health increased. There were a number of notable attempts to correct and encourage Christian thinking on environmental matters. Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man[2] was a clarion call in the wake of the first Earth Day. He challenged Christians to take the lead in creation care as a result of the biblical mandate to have dominion and care for the earth, as God had assigned to humans in Genesis 1 and 2. He noted that proper understanding of the implications of biblical thinking on the matter should compel Christians to be in the forefront of environmental care. As environmental awareness rose in Christian circles through the 1970s, the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship sponsored research and several books, culminating in the development of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. Other evangelical efforts through the 1990s included the Evangelical Declaration of the Care of Creation,[3] whose many signatories included well-known Christians like the environmental leader Calvin DeWitt and others like Ron Sider, Rick Warren, and J.I. Packer. The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship[4] came soon after, as a result of perceived inadequacies of the earlier declaration, and was signed by a host of evangelical luminaries such as Charles Colson, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, R. C. Sproul, as well as some prominent Jewish and Catholics leaders like Rabbi Jacob Neusner and Richard John Neuhaus.

Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, the latest effort from the Calvin Center, attempts to take a matured environmental approach that reflects the development of thinking over the last few decades. The book draws from historical Christian perspectives on care of the creation as well as ideas from contemporary mainstream environmental thinking. This attempted synthesis highlights a tension for Christians. We desire to glean the best from mainstream environmentalism while bringing true Christian salt and light to bear on the situation. In attempting to do so, Beyond Stewardship challenges the reader with insights that result from the authors’ thinking on the topic but at times departs significantly from sound Christian doctrine.

The book is made up of fourteen chapters sandwiched between a forward, preface, and introduction, and an afterward, postlude, and appendices. Chapters 1 and 2 comprise  “Part One, Rethinking: Expanding Awareness.” Chapters 3 through 7 comprise “Part Two, Reimagining: How Things Could Be.” Chapters 8 through 14 are “Part Three, Reorienting: Hopeful Ways Forward.” Of the 22 contributors, 19 of them are associated with Calvin College as graduates, professors, or students. The book could be considered a cutting-edge product of thinking within the twenty-first century North American Christian and Dutch Reformed world. However, the ideas presented in Beyond Stewardship are also a reflection of and a challenge to a much broader audience.

The authors respond to perceptions of inadequate environmentalism developed by Christian thinkers over the last several decades. They acknowledge the contribution of earlier attempts while challenging the reader with the need for a more mature and sustainable environmental ethic and approach. In the preface they echo Schaeffer from decades ago with the questions, “Why isn’t the broader Christian church leading the way?” (2) and “Why haven’t Christians been more engaged in creation care activities?” (4). The introduction’s author responds with an outline of the book and a critique of the traditional environmental term “stewardship.” The term is seen as an unhelpful invention of earlier twentieth century, never found in Scripture, and too anthropocentric and consumption-oriented to develop a proper creation care approach (15, 74).

The authors accurately note that human sinfulness is an extreme encumbrance to realizing the divinely assigned creation mandate to care for the Garden, to be fruitful and multiply, to have dominion, and to subdue the earth. However, the biblical term dominion is seldom mentioned due to perceptions that abuses of human dominion have rendered the term unhelpful (8, 9). The stated objective is that humans as stewards should be replaced with humans in kinship with the rest of creation (16). Dominion and the idea of improving creation (subduing the earth) are seen as hopelessly limited by human sin and finitude (96). Here they run off the biblical rails. Our finitude was part of human identity at the time of the charge and is not to be considered an encumbrance, but rather part of the created order. Sin, with its debilitating and blinding effect, is the problem. Iterations of finite environmental strategies would likely have been part of a pre-fallen human effort. The cover of the book features an expansive heartland scene of wind turbines overshadowing productive agricultural fields, an apparent improvement over the cover of an earlier book showing coal generators’ cooling towers over a similar landscape (18). Certainly, the multitude of expensive, noisy, raptor swatting, eye sores cannot be the final solution to humanity’s energy needs. However, the need to replace earlier technologies need not be the sole result of sin. Improvements and iteration would conceivably have been part of expanding human dominion even if the fall had not occurred.

The call for us to lament the human negative impacts that irreparably harm God’s good creation is appropriate. However, the call to embrace kinship with the rest of creation apart from a biblical understanding of human dominion, flourishing, and development as a delight to God is overlooked. For example, the claim in chapter 3 “that Scripture does not call us to use and manage creation, rather it calls us to intimate kinship with it,” (45) is biblically weak. Scripture clearly puts humanity in a different category than the rest of creation. While the author’s claim is born out of an understanding of the importance of incarnation, he overlooks the call for humans to extend the values of the Garden to the rest of the globe, since we are charged to fill or even swarm the earth (Gen. 2 and 9).

The author of chapter 3, Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, indicates when considering the sacraments, “we can give thanks to the sources” of the elements “for their participation in the holy moment” (51). This idea, unhinged from human exceptionalism as imago Dei, strikes frightfully close to animism or pantheism, neither of which have especially good records of environmental stewardship. The author is correct in pointing out that radical protection and preservation is part of human calling, but he fails to acknowledge that human creative development that expands the qualities of the Garden, to make God’s good creation better, is part of that.

Chapter 4’s author, Clarence W. Joldersma, notes that earth’s supportiveness is not automatic, and that life has become more precarious because recent human activities have disrupted trustworthy planetary conditions (63). However, this overlooks the idea that human dominion has made human life much less precarious than in former times. Even the animals and plants under our charge often find life much less precarious than without it. Sin abounds, to be sure. However, a farm, as an expression of human dominion, demonstrates that cows, cats, dogs, and chickens can live in peace.

The authors of chapters 5 and 6 (Aminah Al-Attas Bradford and Steven Bouma-Prediger) do a fine job of reminding us of humanity’s profound and inescapable connectivity to and dependence on the rest of creation down to the microbes that beneficially inhabit our bodies. Truly, it is easy to overemphasize human importance and underemphasize the inherent value of the creation around us. The authors clearly emphasize the incarnation of Christ, who as they claim, undoubtedly housed microorganisms as humans always have (76). They argue that overemphasis on human importance has led many to a view of stewardship that is too anthropocentric (74). However, the call to retire the term “stewardship” in favor of “earth-keeping,” may miss the point. Abuses of a good term may require revisiting true biblical definitions. Mere switching without such definitional care would be useless. Claiming that other creatures are our brothers and sisters is unhelpful and unbiblical (53). It would be better to emphasize their inherent value as part of the creation while acknowledging that they are our charges, not our brothers.

The authors of chapters 8 (Debra Rienstra) and 9 (Matthew C. Halteman and Megan Halteman Zwart) challenge us to consider our kinship with other animals as exemplified by Adam’s naming of the creatures. Rienstra suggests that God is more concerned for the workload of caring for the Garden than for the fact of Adam being alone (109). While one can appreciate the desire to see animals as created beings, the emphasis is hard to insist on, considering the biblical rejoinder, “there were none suitable for him” (Gen. 2:20).

Chapter 9 examines the transformation of a city girl who finds herself on a relative’s farm. She is struck by the farm family’s utilitarian approach to the well cared for livestock, but in the end she desires to see them not as resources for humans but as joint members of the created order. In response, she becomes vegan (127). The implication that eating less meat is the higher moral ground is not as informed by biblical perspective as it is by the modern sentimental environmental zeitgeist.

The remaining chapters make a better case for a biblical perspective as modern society attempts to address modern environmental concerns. The author of chapter 10 (Becky Roselius Haney) shows how some societies overestimate their ability to manage ecosystems, causing Dust Bowl-like destruction, while others have been able to take a more restorative or sustainable approach. The author appreciates John Wesley Powell’s desire to understand the interdependent relationship between humans and nonhuman systems that requires patience, humility, and the acceptance of limits (140). This attitude is much preferable to the hubris of a “we know best” approach to stewardship.

Chapter 11 (Gail Gunst Heffner) deals with “environmental racism” (150), perhaps better stated as economic elitism, which does not take the needs of less advantaged communities into proper consideration. Hence, intercity communities near industrial sites, or poor rural communities, often suffer degradation and health concerns that would not be tolerated in more privileged communities.

In chapter 13 (Mark D. Bjelland) the concept of stewardship is somewhat rehabilitated over what was suggested in earlier chapters. Here it is stressed that humans are not a weed species that the world could do without, but rather humans are a part of the created order. Human enhancement of the created order would be furthered by developing a sense of human place in a Wendell Berry sense of the term (174). It is acknowledged in this chapter that humans can restore and improve God’s creation. However, developing a mindset of commitment to place is difficult in our transient mobile society. Perhaps this mindset could be developed with a heightened sense of understanding our world as a gift, laden with inherent value as David Paul Warners describes it in chapter 14.

Beyond Stewardship has many challenging ideas that can address the modern environmental crisis. However, there is a mix of true Christian thinking and modern environmentalism that smacks of sentimentalism, idealism, and unhealthy preservationism. This runs the risk of denying the importance of humans as image bearers assigned by God to take dominion and subdue the earth. Ideas of human abundance can be lost in favor of a human-denying environmentalism if Christians are not careful. Ideas of filling the earth with humans (Gen. 2) to the point of swarming (Gen 9), or filling Judea with returned diaspora until there is no room for them (Zech. 10:10) is lost on those who either do not understand what it means to be imago Dei or those who choose to deemphasize it. Christians must always fight the temptation to be syncretistic with their greater culture. This is as true for us today as in times past. Imagine modern environmentalism informed by biblical principles stressing the concept of human value, creativity, and ability to improve the good creation that God has made. Conversely, imagine Christians adopting secular concerns untethered from Scripture. When we read Beyond Stewardship, we must ask who is influencing whom?

Endnotes

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

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

[3] “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.

[4] “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/.

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

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