Environmentalism > Christian Commentary
1. Genesis 1 & 2
Genesis 1 and 2 give a biblical account of the origins of the created order. It is a highly ordered and deeply theological story, completely devoid of the randomness and chaos which is so characteristic of other ancient near-east creation epics. The cosmos does not arise out of chaos or a conflict between warring deities. It is not a mistake or a perversion. It is the intentional act of a good and omnipotent God.
It is also important to note the horizontal relationships between the elements of creation. They are designed for mutual interdependence. Everything has a place and a purpose. No species stands alone, and to the extent that human beings stand above the rest of the created order, it is an accountable steward. Creation does not exist to serve human purposes, but rather all creation exists to serve divine purposes. Some of those divine purposes require a human contribution to be realized. So, for example, God does not plant a garden until there is a man to tend it.
2. Genesis 3 & 6
The fall does not destroy creation but rather defaces it. The basic structures of creation continue to exist: human beings still are called to multiply and fill, it is just done with pain. Human beings still garden, but now it is done with thorns and thistles. The stars in the heavens still mark the seasons, the birds still fly, the fish still swim, the creatures still walk the earth. However, the interrelationship between human being and the created order—or perhaps one should say the embeddedness of human beings in the created order—is clearly demonstrated by the terrestrial consequences of human sin.
The continuation and amplification of sin leads to further punishment in Genesis 6. At this point, it is almost as if the created order breaks out of its bounds to punish the rebellious human beings. If it were not for God’s special preservation of a righteous remnant, the flood would have destroyed all of humanity.
3. Land and Covenant
The relationship between human beings and the land is further developed in the development of the covenant between God and Abraham. This covenant includes a promise of human beings living in a land. That land will bless their righteousness and curse their evil. If they pursue righteousness, they can expect a long and prosperous life in harmonious relationship with the land of the covenant. If they sin, they can expect the land to rise up against them and vomit them out.
When God speaks in the book of Job, constituting the climax of this incredible narrative, he speaks largely of creation. He reminds Job not only that He had the power to call creation into existence, but that he gave it order at the outset, and continues to keep it order and give it commands to this present day. All of this should serve as a reminder to Job of his place in creation—he is not God! He should live within his limits and accept and enjoy the creation he has been place in.
5. Creation Psalms and Wisdom Literature
There is a tremendous theological resource regarding the created order found in the many creation-focused Psalms (Ps. 8, 19, 29, 33, 65, 104, 148). These Psalms maintain biblical themes such as the divine origin of creation, his providence over the on-going activities of the created order, his sustenance of creation, and the obedience of creation to his commands. The Psalms especially evoke images of creation as both a direct and indirect source of praise to God. Indirectly, creation inspires praise in human beings when they behold the beauty and majesty which is so richly spread through the created order. Directly, creation itself praises God in its actions and activities.
Wisdom literature often personifies wisdom as being God’s agent of creation (see especially Proverbs 8). It also admires the order of creation and reminds human beings that the course of wisdom is finding one’s place in the creation and thereby living in shalom.
6. New Creation and Eschatological Vision for Created Order
A final set of creation passages are eschatological visions of a new heaven and a new earth. It should be remembered that creation in Genesis 1 is a narrative about the origins of “the heavens and the earth”. Therefore biblical language describing new heavens and new earth is not only eschatological, but it is also creation language. It describes the fulfillment of something already begun. It is the language of redemption and consummation—the long-delayed arrival at the always intended telos.
1. Uniqueness of Biblical Creation Theology
Uniqueness of biblical God in relationship to creation: Israel did not borrow its creation theology from its ancient near east neighbors. There are elements of a common genre, but the content is entirely different. Some specific uniquenesses in the biblical material are noted by Bruce Waltke:
- Ancient near east creation accounts never distinguish God from matter. Both are made of the same stuff. Moses is unique in suggesting an absolute distinction between the nature of God and the nature of the material creation.
- Genesis 1 is unique in its monotheistic perspective. It is not pantheism—where all the world is god, nor it is pagan—where there are gods for all entities in the world. In Gen 1 we have a single creator over everything, but still in direct relation to it.
- Genesis 1 is built around a single sovereign will as opposed to many supernatural wills in conflict.
- Gods in other ancient near east creation stories were never self-sustaining—they had to be fed and served. Mankind is created to be slave to gods and give gods their leisure. In the biblical account, on the other hand, God is making food and giving food to everything else.
- Time in the biblical creation narrative is linear. It is once for all and history is progressive. In contrast to this, ancient near east creation stories were built on a cyclical view of time—meaning each year is a repeat, a re-creation. There is a continual need for retelling the myth so the cycle keeps turning. Creation is not once for all, but rather an eternally cycling wheel.
- The biblical creator God is holy and morally pure. This is a striking contrast to ancient near eat gods who are portrayed as immoral, deceptive, violent, incentuous, rapacious and capricious.
2. The Goodness of Creation
Six times over in Genesis 1 the creation is declared to be good. This is also in contrast to the ancient near east creation epics. This repeated proclamation means that we live in the physical expression of the goodness of God. We can call it an “environment” if we want, but it is really viewed much more as a work of art. An environment can be analyzed; a work of art should be praised. And we live in a good work of art—the product of a master craftsman, and it should evoke our praise even as it sustains our very lives. Furthermore, creation is intrinsically good—it is not just good because humans deem it so. It is not just good to the extent is serves our human purposes.It is good because God deems it so and made it as an expression of his good character.
3. The Glory of God and the Material Creation
The connection between the created order and the glory of its creator is easy to misunderstand. There was a tendency in 19th century and earlier 20th century thought to view Hebrew thought as “desacralizing” nature—it was not spiritual/animated, it was not to be worshiped. This observation is true enough, but it became twisted into the notion that creation was nothing more than raw material for human ingenuity. Tolkein epitomizes this attidude well in his characterization of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings— “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things.” Saruman and his “foul folk” are destroying the forest. “Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot.” He effectively denies the trees any purpose of their own, they are only to be used as he wills. Instead of a steward of the earth, he is a dictator and exploiter.
The glory of God is manifested when things are fulfilling their God-given purposes. In the case of creation, it has more than one purpose. It is clearly intended to meet human needs and inspire human praise, but the Bible makes it clear that creation has its own telos. It praises God directly in passages such as Ps 19 and 148. Creation has its own share in the telos of declaring the glory of God. It would seem to be an enormous offense for us to cut off that God-designed and God-ordained source of praise.
4. Redemption and Creation
It would seem that redemption is a comprehensive in scope as creation itself. Indeed, just as the fall tainted all of the created order, so the crucifixion and resurrection bring a redemptive restoration and transformation to all of the created order. Through Jesus’ blood on the cross, God is reconciling all things to himself—whether in heaven or on earth. The whole of creation waits with eager longing to share in the “glory of the freedom of the children of God.” The final vision of Revelation is not of immaterial souls in an immaterial heaven, but rather of resurrected bodies in a new heaven and a new earth.
5. Mankind and the Created Order
a) Ontological connections: Human beings are part of creation. We are embedded in the creation narrative, made on the sixth day along with the other animals. We do not float above the narrative as, for example, the angels seem to do. Since we are a legitimate part of creation, we have no need to apologize for our existence—human beings aren’t some sort of pollution which would be ideally eradicated. The human connection to creation is augmented by other theological truths. The incarnation and resurrection firmly and finally place Christ within the created order. He not only came in human flesh at one point in history, but because of the resurrection, we will find him embodied in the eternal state. Our final state also confirms our place in physical creation, we will share in Christ’s resurrection and ultimately live in a new heavens and a new earth in a resurrection body.
b) Stewardship connection: We are stewards of creation, not owners. We are appointed and gifted for a task: to multiply and fill the created order even as we rule and subdue it. As is usually the case when God does this, his gifts come with a mandate, but not an instruction manual. Part of our worship and means of honoring Christ is applying our full set of human gifts to fulfilling the creation mandate. Our minds must discern what ruling over creation entails, our heart needs to love the lovable aspects of creation, protect the weak, preserve the valuable, restrain the evil. This will involve a scripturally informed mind and heart, but we must also make observations of the world itself using our God-given senses and reason. If we conclude we are warming the globe and melting the icecaps, we are responsible to respond as stewards who will give an account to our Creator God of these events.
c) Doxological connection: We are not the telos of creation, the glory of God is. God is glorified by human beings, but also the created order itself. Furthermore, there is a synergy between mankind and creation which evokes its own unique form divine praise (Ps 19, 104). Therefore, every question regarding the environment cannot be answer simply by looking at human interests. We are accountable for all of creation, and all of creation has a God-given purpose. We place ourselves at the center of the universe when all good is reduced to human good.
d) Apologetic connection: Psalm 19 and Rom 1:18-22 make it clear that creation is crafted so as to invoke an acknowledgement of God in the human mind. This is true of everyone who bears the image of God, not just people of a particular religious background. Religion does not have to be trained into a person, it has to be trained out. The content of this religious revelation is substantively theological, including what Paul identifies as eternal power and divine nature, or what might be called an eternal Creator Spirit. Upon encountering these truths through reflection on the created order, our response is not necessarily to accept these truths but rather to suppress them.
e) Redemptive connection: In both judgment (Gen 3) and salvation (Rom 8), there seems to be a profound connection between human beings and the created order. Our fall cursed creation and left it groaning; our redemption will bless creation, not merely restoring it but rather ushering a eternal state that far transcends the original creation.