Caring for Creation
A Biblical View on Christian Environmental Concern
President's Lecture Series
Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary
17 March 1998
Lytton John Musselman
University of Jordan Permanent address:
Department of Biological Sciences
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0266 USA
It is a pleasure and an honor to have been invited to present a lecture on the relationship between biblical faith and care for the environment. Let me early on establish the environment of this lecture. I am not an ethicist, theologian and not even, in the very strictest sense, an environmentalist. My expertise in Christian topics verges on ignorance and my understanding of (but not by appreciation for) other religions is even less! I am just a simple botanist who exults in the creation and rejoices in knowing the
God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ as the Creator God. Put another way, as an evangelical Christian I view my calling as a scientist privileged to study the incredible, awesome, diversity of the plant world as a distinct gift from God. So, I say to the sponsors of this lecture--you are indeed men of faith to turn me lose! I trust this will not be the last of the President's Lecture Series!
I have had little opportunity to study environmental concerns of other religions. This is a fascinating endeavor and several books treat the subject. In Jordan we are fortunate to have the Muslim-Christian Consultation on "Religion and the Use of the Earth's
Resources" published by the Al albait Foundation which I commend as a good introduction to the topic.
That we are facing an environmental crisis unparalleled in human history is evident from the barrage of everyday news articles about the disappearance of species, ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, and pollution around the globe. This is not a new problem. Consider, as just one example, environmental destruction of forests and agro ecosystem that led to silting of harbors in ancient Greece and the resultant economic problems. So, other civilizations have wreaked environmental havoc as well. Shards of pottery cover virtually every archeological site in this kingdom. These represent the plastic bags, cans, disposable diapers and bottles of our age. Trashing the environment is not a modern phenomenon. What is different in the modern scene is the pervasive nature of environmental abuse from ocean depths to the stratosphere. What is also different is that in most of the societies that perpetrate environmental destruction, God is considered an endangered species.
An insightful writer on religion of our day, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, has put it this way in a volume entitled "Religion and the Order of Nature". This is a profound book that discusses environmental ethics of the world's major religions. I have been greatly helped by it and commend it to you. Nasr says:
The Earth is bleeding from wounds inflicted upon it by a humanity no longer in harmony with Heaven and therefore in constant strife with the terrestrial environment. The world of nature is being desecrated and destroyed in an unprecedented manner globally by both those who have secularized the world about them and developed a science and technology capable of destroying nature on an unimaginable scale and by those who still live with a religious universe, even if the mode of destruction of the order of nature by the two groups is both quantitatively and qualitatively different. Strangely enough, although the destruction of the sacred quality of nature by modern man dominated by a secularist perspective is directly responsible for this castasrophe [sic], the vast majority of the human species, whether participating directly or indirectly in the havoc wreaked upon the natural environment, still lives with a worldview dominated by religion. The role of religion in the solution of the existing crisis between man and nature is therefore crucial."
In short, Nasr contends that the majority of people live in a world where religion is part of everyday life. Those who are propagating the greatest environmental destruction are those who profess secular humanism, in other words, the Western World. The "role of religion" is a vast and daunting topic for a botanist speaking at a seminary but with God's help I would like to explore some aspects of it. I would argue with Nasr and others that unless the environment is viewed through the lenses of creation, little hope remains for its integrity.
Because Nasr has rightly incriminated Western Society and by extension Christendom as the main culprit, we need to ask how we, that is the scientific establishment of the West now emulated by scientific institutions globally, came to the situation we are now in.
How Did the "Christian West" Get in This Mess?
As an over simplification, the current uncoupling of Christian faith from environmental concern has come about through an imbibing of Enlightenment thought in contrast to biblical faith. Development of a mechanistic approach to the study of nature eventually led to a negation of the Supernatural even though some proponents were Bible believing Christians, most notably Newton.
... the traditional Christian understanding of nature was overturned with the Scientific Revolution; consequently, Christian thinkers either turned away from serious concern with a metaphysics and theology of nature or simply adopted whatever happened to be the prevalent scientific view and then tried to theolgize about it and interpret it in a Christian manner.
The ultimate end of removing faith from a Christian understanding of nature is what we popularly call secular humanism. This sprang from Darwin and the social science spawned by Darwinism. Again, Nasr.
They [Spencer and Huxley] made it clear that Darwinism was based upon the seventeenth-century mechanistic view that saw all nature as matter in motion according to mathematically determined laws. Both Spencer and Huxley stated explicitly that all biological activities are based on matter and motion and nothing else, and they saw Darwinism as the natural outcome of the views of Descartes and Galileo.
Darwinism is different from evolution. Evolution is change over time. Darwinism reduces all of the natural world--and by extension the social mores of organisms produced by that process--to a mechanistic view. Dawkins, the author of "The Blind Watchmaker" is the most recent and fervent proponent of a totally mechanistic absolutely anti-God universe. Much, much more could be said. Volumes have been written on the topic. But I think this will help us understand how we got to where we are.
What we need to do now is to go to the Bible and see what the Scriptures explicitly say about caring for the creation. First, however, yet another poignant quote from Nasr, a Muslim looking at Christian thinking on science.
Christianity, which is of special concern to our study precisely because of its special relationship with that worldview which came to negate all religious significance of the order of nature. Without paying attention to the latter factor, we shall never understand why Christianity, which believes in the incarnation of the Divine Word as flesh and in nature to a totally nonreligious perspective without many of its leading thinkers ever being concerned with the violation of the original Christian theology that such a surrender of the cosmos implied. (emphasis mine)
Nasr's allegation is helpful and honest. Christians, who profess faith in a God who became Incarnate Man, have failed to consider the incongruity of such faith when considering the environment. This has led to a surrender of the cosmos Nasr mentions.
What Does the Bible Say?
Following on from this indictment from Nasr, I want to emphasize the relationship of the creation to the Creator Who became the Incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. I will do this by examining several features of God's relationship to His creation, on the one hand, and the biblical injunctions that I suggest are the responses to those features, on the other. Because of the centrality of the incarnation, I will highlight Scriptures that relate The Incarnate Word to the creation.
First, God is the Creator. Second, He is the sustainer. Third, He is the beneficiary of the creation. By beneficiary, I mean that the ultimate value of creation is in the eyes of the creator, or, simply, for the joy of the Creator.
These characteristics can be found in Romans 11 and Colossians 1 as the full display of God's glory in the first creation. Fourth, God is the Redeemer of creation. It will be the same in the new creation which will also be by Him, through Him and for Him. So His Redeemership falls into a different category, the transition from a fallen world to a new creation. It brings all of creation to renewal, but is not in itself something that functions in the first as in the new creation. Creator, Sustainer, Beneficiary, and Redeemer. We shall very briefly trace each of these in the Lord Jesus and, finally, we will see what the Scriptures say about what our responses as Christians should be.
God the Creator
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". God is the source of all. This is where we must begin any discussion on creation.
We never read of Jesus referring to Himself as the Creator. Yet several scriptures make it perfectly clear that it was the Son Who was the Active Agent in creation. Four well known verses are John 1:3 "Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made"; Colossians 1:16-17 along with Romans 11: 33-36 (which I shall refer to later); and Revelation 4:11 "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being". Clearly, then, Jesus is the Agent of creation. What should our response to this truth be? I believe it is worship. Revelation 4 explicitly links an appreciation of Jesus as creator with worship. Many verses in the Old Testament, especially the so called "Creation Psalms", also give testimony to the response of the human heart to God as creator. Perhaps the best known is in Psalm 8, "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your Fingers.." God Himself speaks in transcendent language as the Creator in Job 38-41. In all of these Scriptures, the response is the same: a realization of human nothingness in contradistinction to the awesome creation power of God! One feels a loss in contemplating any response to creation other than worship!
God the Sustainer
Order in creation is evident from the account in Genesis with such phrases as "after their kind", "and there was morning and evening". God not only created, He set in order the natural laws of nature that govern our world. This is part of His being the Sustainer of His creation.
"...the Creator blesses living beings with semi-autonomy, the capacity to 'pro-create' (v.22). Creatureliness, individuality, diversity and change are all pronounced 'good' by the Creator. He takes delight in what he brings into being. The sovereign Lord of creation speaks, and the creation responds (e.g. v.24)." "In other words, the creation is equipped by the Creator to bring forth novelty in obedience to the Creator's call." (Vinoth Ramachandra)
Part of what Ramachandra is saying here is that God is the Sustainer and that His creation in its functioning reflects not only the wisdom of a Creator, but the care of the Sustainer.
Illustrating this are the many miracles that Jesus performed, miracles that are supernatural: attaching ears, raising the dead, making the blind to see. As the Sustainer (and of course at the same time the Creator), He can intervene in His creation.
If Jesus is the Sustainer, then it is incumbent upon Jesus' followers to also be sustainers of His creation. This brings into account the whole matter of stewardship. Adam was told to have dominion, not domination, over God's creation. Dominion conveys the idea of responsible rule not reckless authority.
Thankfully, a great deal of attention during the past ten years has been paid to practical aspects of the Christian's care of creation. These concerns center around the biblical principles of 1) the sabbath; 2) provision for creatures; and 3) preserving fruitfulness. We don't have time to consider each of these tonight but I want to remind us that the Bible speaks in many places of God's concern for His creation. Accordingly, God calls upon His followers to care for His creation. God is Sustainer, man is the stewart acting on God's behalf. Take the example of endangered species.
Can we say that Jesus cares about endangered species? An unqualified YES! Christians, even Bible believing Christians, have bought into the Darwinian/secular humanism idea that organisms are bits of protoplasm, molecules moving through time. Some Christians think that we don't need to care about our surroundings because Jesus is coming. Contrariwise, God enjoys species! Does God make trash? Of course not. If God made it, we should be concerned about it.
Let's listen again to Nasr:
For modern man it is easy to understand why if all the paintings of Rembrandt were to be destroyed it would mean an irreparable loss to the artistic heritage of the West even if there were still Raphaels and El-Grecos in various museums. The reason for such an attitude is that a finality is accorded to these great works. Now on an unimaginably higher level of reality, each species is like a perfect work of art, complete and perfect as it issues from the Hand of the Great Artisan. And despite mental acquiescence to evolutionism, even modern man still has an almost "instinct" appreciation of each species as a form of art with its own perfection, and beyond ecological considerations human beings are saddened by the disappearance of a species. But if evolutionism is taken seriously any species is simply an element in the flowing river of process with no ultimate value whatsoever. It is difficult in fact to defend the rights of creatures to life, if one accepts the prevailing evolutionist view, save by appealing to sentimentality or biological expediency, neither of which are theological pertinent.
Nasr's analogy of the loss of great works of art to the loss of endangered species is a powerful allusion. Ultimately, the value of species can only be understood when coming from the hand of a creator.
God is the Ultimate Beneficiary of Creation
I love to think of God enjoying His creation. Recently, I was walking near Pella. The hillsides were filled with a dazzling array of wildflowers. What a sight! Does God enjoy this! Absolutely!
Consider how God describes the leviathan and the behemoth in Job. No "practical" use is given for them. It is almost as if God is describing these marvelous creatures in the same way an artist might talk about one of his/her creations or an engineer about his/her accomplishments. Can it be put any simpler--God loves and delights in His creation.
Reflect on the Lord Jesus as the Teacher. He used the fields as His classroom. One time, in a setting very much like I experienced at Pella and no doubt only a few kilometers away, he said "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field..." Luke 12: 27-28a. Note carefully that the Lord compares these wildflowers not only to Solomon, the greatest monarch that the nation the Lord was addressing ever had, but Solomon in ALL his splendour! Then, almost in passing, Jesus says "that is how God clothes the...field" Wow! Jesus loves wildflowers!
It is difficult to find anyone who does not have some appreciation of the natural world. Romans 1 states that it is even possible to ascertain features of the Godhead from the natural world. This is a reflection of what God has put into every human heart--a feeling of being part of a created system of things.
Following on from this, it is not difficult to understand how those who know the Creator have a special appreciation of His creation. Like Jesus, we can revel in wildflowers, a majestic mountain, a glorious sunset or the intricacies of a living cell.
God is the Redeemer of Creation
God is the Creator, Sustainer, and premier Beneficiary of his creation. But that wonderful creation, perfect from the hand of the Creator, is marred by sin. Sin has done so much damage to the creation, including the souls of men, that a Divine provision was the only way to meet the needs of the lost and at the same time maintain God's glory. That work could be done exclusively by Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Creator, the Sustainer, the Beneficiary of Creation, and the Redeemer of a fallen creation.
Just because sin has entered the world and death by sin does not mean that the creation is not beautiful, intriguing, and a worthy topic of study. It does mean that it needs to be redeemed from the curse of sin and restored to a condition desired by God. This truth is developed in Romans 8:20-21: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."
The Bible teaches that people will be brought physically into the redeemed creation. People are part of the first creation and they will be part of the redeemed creation. If we had time, we could look at Romans 8 and Ephesians 4 (among others). The redeemed will be inheriting this world, together with Christ. A prominent teaching of the book of Ephesians is that we now have an appreciation of that new creation even before its ultimate development.
What will this be like? Scripture gives some suggestions like the lamb and the lion laying down together, agricultural productivity, and other pictures. One thing is certain, the Lord Jesus Himself, the "Lord of Life to death made subject" will be the center of attraction. His creation will be with Him, reflecting His glory. I wonder if we get a small picture of this in Mark 1: 13 where the Lord Jesus is with the wild animals. Ramachandra writes: "In Jesus the messianic reign has dawned, and this reign includes the healing of enmity between humankind and the wild animals. Human dominion, which was perverted into domination and mutual alienation by human sin, will be restored; and in Jesus' peaceful companionship with the wild animals we are given a foretaste of that eschatological restoration. Baukham observes that Jesus neither terrorizes nor domesticates the wild animals. He is simply with them. And in that pregnant phrase 'with the wild animals' Mark gives us a powerful reminder of the value of the non-human creation in the eyes of God. Human dominion, restored in Jesus (the new Adam), enables the wild animals to find their place in the wilderness as creatures who share God's world with us." This is very helpful observation and the only time we read of Jesus in such a setting. What Ramachandra calls the healing of enmity is the redemption of the groaning creation.
Because God has revealed to us what He plans to do with the original creation, we have a pattern of how we should relate to the present creation. God not only creates, He redeems. I believe this accentuates the spirit of worship!
A Personal Testimony and Apologetic
As I noted earlier, I consider it a great--even thrilling--privilege to study plants. I am in good company! Arguably, the first man was a botanist responsible for tending the garden. There other notable examples in the Scriptures. The prophet Daniel spoke, like other prophets, of trees reflecting the character of persons. The Psalmist exults in Psalm 111:2 "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them." However, the most eminent biologist in the Old Testament is Solomon. In Kings 4 we read that Solomon lectured on plants (as well as groups of animals).
It is a tragic consequence of Western science that the enjoyment of nature is immeasurably lessened by denial of a creator. For myself, I am ceaselessly amazed at the way plants are constructed, their intricate functioning, and their relationships to one another and other organisms.
What Can We Do As A Religious Community?
To summarize: The Old Testament is filled with expressions of God as Creator, Sustainer, Beneficiary, and Redeemer of the natural world. It also includes individuals who were acquainted with the natural world and used its imagery in their ministry. In the New Testament, we see clearly that it is Jesus Christ who is active in these aspects of creation. If we believe that the church is the Body of Christ and responsive to Him as Head, we have to ask what some of the responses of the church might be to environmental issues.
One effort to establish a biblical based appreciation of nature is the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. On the shores of a lake in the northern part of lower Michigan, the institute trains students from a diversity of colleges in ecological principles, environmental stewardship, and understanding of plants and animals all in a Christian context. In class, students study Bible texts along with the structure of trees or migration patterns of birds. On a different level, some churches and denominations are becoming involved in environmental legislation. According to Calvin de Witt, head of Au Sable Institute: "Confinement of environmental ethics to the academy and to philosophy in particular has done very little practical good. We have found that the academy is not the source or repository of practical environmental ethics. However, religious institutions are such, although the modern scientist and citizen may have failed to acknowledge this." Another writer, M. Oelschlaeger, has put it this way: The church may be, in fact, our last, best chance. My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative.
What can local churches do? Numerous publications address this issue. One helpful volume is that by Van Dyke et al. This and other books examine both the doctrinal and practical aspects of the church's response.
Solid Bible teaching should be balanced to include Jesus as Lord of Creation as well as Lord of the individual Christian's life. This is more difficult in the Evangelical churches in the United States where the emphasis is often on the "therapeutic church", that is, meeting the needs of so many broken lives that hopefully flood into our churches. In our teaching, we need to regain an appreciation of what David Wells calls the transcendence of God. By doing this, we will be brought face to face with the clear
Biblical teaching that Jesus is Lord of Creation.
Oh, the depth of the riches of
the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments,
and His paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been His counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?
For from Him and through Him and to
Him are all things.
To Him be the glory for ever! Amen
Anonymous. 1996. The Muslim-Christian Consultation on; "Religion and the Use of the Earth's Resources. Amman: Al Albait Foundation.
De Witt, C. D. 1995. Ecology and ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical tradition. Biodiversity and Conservation 4: 838-848.
Nasr, S. H. 1996. Religion and the Order of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press.
Oelschlaeger, M. 1994. Caring for Creation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ramachandra, V. 1997. Gods That Fail. Modern Idolatry & Christian Mission. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Van Dyke, F., D. C. Mahan, J. K. Sheldon, R. H. Brand. 1996. Redeeming Creation. The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press.
I am grateful for the challenge of trying to articulate my own view on the relationship between my faith and the environment. Several have helped me in this endeavor with their ideas, corrections, suggestions and especially through their encouragement.
These include C. Dawson, D. Eenigenburg, D. Mahan, H. Medema, and T. Harris.