NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The rest of world seeks to out-green each other in recognition of what is known as Earth Day. This day should cause those of us who place ourselves under the authority of scriptural truth on such matters to reflect on the Bible’s teaching about God’s creation.
What is a truly biblical view of creation and the environment and humanity’s relation to, and responsibility, for it?
A Christian view of creation joyously affirms that God created all things. The basic, foundational proposition of biblical environmentalism is that God reveals Himself as the Creator (Genesis 1:1).
The New Testament, as well as Genesis, maintains that God created all things (Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16-17; cf. Romans 11:36). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit brought the created world into existence. God the Father is the source, planner and originator of this world (Genesis 1:1; 1 Corinthians 8:6). God the Son is the agent, the One doing the action or work of creation (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2). God the Holy Spirit is the One lovingly and paternally hovering over the earth, giving it shape and form and beauty.
Thus, a biblical approach to environmental issues affirms without equivocation that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). God, and God alone, is creation’s owner. However, the Bible also tells us that God gave human beings dominion (Hebrew “radah,” meaning “to rule”) over the creation and a directive to subdue it (Hebrew “kabash,” meaning “to bring into bondage”) (Genesis 1:26-28). These are strong, dominant words in the biblical text that leave no room for doubt that God placed human beings first in the created order.
The primacy of humanity in God’s creation is further underscored by the fact that God created Adam prior to God having prepared his habitation — the garden. Genesis 2:8 is quite clear that having created Adam (Genesis 2:7), God “planted a garden in Eden” and there God “put the man whom he had formed.” Then in Genesis 2:15, God placed man in the habitation He had prepared for him, with instructions to “dress it and to keep it.” The verb “dress” (avadh) means “to work, to till” and keep (shamar) means “to keep, guard, protect.”
Thus, man had primacy in God’s creation, and as His stewards and vice-regents, men were to “dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15), which means to cause it to bring forth its fruit and to be developed in renewable ways for human benefit and betterment.
This divinely decreed and designed human preeminence and responsibility in the created order survived the calamity of man’s Fall (Genesis 3:1-19). After the flood, God told Noah, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3 NIV). The Psalmist declared that God has given man “dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:6-8 ESV).
God’s watchcare of His creation survived the Fall, and in Genesis 9:8-17 God told Noah He has established a covenant “with you and with every living creature” (NIV). Then He spoke of a “covenant between me and the earth.” And the sign of that covenant was the rainbow.
God’s design for creation, even after the Fall, included divinely imposed limits on what man may do to God’s creation and those other creatures with whom God has entered into covenant. Throughout the Pentateuch we find divinely mandated limitations concerning what man may do with, and to, the rest of God’s creation:
— Fields are not to be reaped to the border (Leviticus 19:9).
— The grower may harvest only from trees five years old (Leviticus 19:25).
— The land is to be idle regularly (Leviticus 25:1-12).
— Fruit trees may not be used for siege works (Deuteronomy 20:19).
— A mother bird is not to be taken with her young (Deuteronomy 22:6).
— An ox is not to be muzzled when treading corn (Deuteronomy 25:4).
The creation belongs to God. As stewards of His property, human beings are responsible to Him for developing and protecting His creation.
Furthermore, while God clearly grants preeminence to human beings in His creation and human life demands reverence as created in His image (Genesis 1:26), all life deserves respect. We have the right to use animals and plants for human good. We do not have the right to disregard living things or to treat them as inanimate objects. We have the right to domesticate and raise cattle and other livestock for human sustenance. We do not have the right to act in a callous, cruel or cavalier manner toward any living creature.
We have the right to use, as painlessly as possible, animals in research to better human health. We do not have the right to abuse animals or to cause them discomfort merely to develop new cosmetics or other products of convenience.
These biblical passages further reveal that as stewards of God’s property we are responsible to develop, but not to desecrate or dissipate, God’s creation. We are required to develop God’s creation and to bring forth its fruit and increase for human benefit. The Lord’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) underscores the Genesis admonition to “dress” the garden. There, the servant who buried his talent was seriously castigated for his poor stewardship and lack of productivity with the talent (resources) entrusted to his care (Matthew 25:24-29).
As Christ-followers we must repent of past insensitivity and neglect of our stewardship responsibilities to God’s created order. There is a distinctively Christian response to environmental concerns, even if it has not been clearly articulated often enough in the recent past.
My faith does not allow me to condone Western Civilization’s often callous and flagrant disregard of nature and the environment.
There are instances in which I will share the concerns and solutions offered by secular environmentalists. Often I will disagree, however, because I have a different perspective, mandated by Scripture, which leads to different priorities and will often require different conclusions and different actions.
What we believe about who we are as human beings and what our relationship is to our Heavenly Creator and His creation will be ultimately determinative in how we deal with environmental issues.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.