Peter Harris was a friend of Jon’s at Cambridge many years ago. He is President and Founder of A Rocha, an international environmental organization with a Christian ethos. This article, and two following, are from a paper prepared for The Lausanne Movement’s Theology Working Party in Beirut, Lebanon in February 2010, under the chairmanship of Dr Christopher J H Wright. It also appeared in the July 2010 Evangelical Review of Theology (Vol 34 No 3), but is posted on The Hump as an introduction to yet another important aspect of the Christian doctrine of Creation.
Abstract: Evangelical theology has already made great progress in re-discovering the doctrine of creation. A similar effort is urgently needed in order to mainstream the care of creation within our missiology, but this must be rapidly followed by concerted global action. Nothing less can do justice to the biblical proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and so address the human and biodiversity crises we face.
Over recent years far more attention has been given to the creation within an understanding of the redeeming purposes of God. It is fair to say that an effective consensus has been reached among evangelical theologians that God’s redemption in Christ extends beyond the person, and beyond the human community, to the creation itself. Given the force of passages such as Romans 8: 19 – 21, the only surprise is that we should have taken so long to escape the unbiblical constraints that enlightenment humanism has imposed on a more authentically rounded gospel.
19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Colossians 1: 19, 20 makes it equally plain
19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
A number of interesting accounts of the long-lived success of an anthropocentric rather than Christocentric perspective on salvation have been advanced. We could mention Mary Grey’s analysis[i]: she quotes Thomas Berry[ii] who suggests that “a turn away from the earth” occurred during the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century. Between 1347 – 1349 around 33% of the population of Europe died at a time in pre-scientific Europe when no-one knew of bacteria or germs. So, Berry claims
They could only conclude that humans had become so depraved that God was punishing the world. The best thing to do was intensify devotion and seek redemption out of the world.
In reaction to this other-worldly devotion Grey argues that the way was then paved for more strictly horizontal and human explanations of life. Richard Lovelace, the Princeton church historian, sees other causes at work:
The formula that insists that the gospel should deal with “spiritual matters” and not meddle with political or social affairs, the familiar Fundamentalist argument for passive support of the status quo, emerged before the Civil War as a conservative evangelical defence of resistance toward or postponement of abolition. The seriousness of the break in evangelical ranks on this issue can hardly be overestimated. The results have included the necessity of fighting one of the bloodiest wars in history in order to accomplish what English churchmen did with prayer and argument, a persistent failure to deal with racism since the Civil War, and a retreat from all social applications of the gospel except a few relating to personal morality such as “temperance.”[iii]
I wonder how many of those who argue that the whole of the mission agenda is fulfilled by personal evangelism know that, according to one godly historian at least, the idea emerged to defend slavery!
Another common analysis goes along the lines proposed by Jonathan Wilson:
As science proved more and more capable of analyzing and controlling parts of the material world and as this analysis and control promised to increase, theology began to lose its control over the plausibility structures of Western society—those ways of thinking and living that are the source of meaning in a particular culture. As science gained plausibility and credibility, theology retreated from the material world and from the doctrine of creation.”[iv]
Whatever the causes of the humanist diversion, there has been a widespread recovery of creation thinking in evangelical theology and biblical studies. Writers such as Colin Gunton, James Houston, Vinoth Ramachandra, Chris Wright, Loren Wilkinson and and NT Wright are only a few of those who have contributed to this re-working of perspectives in the last two decades and the pace of study is quickening[v]. For example, In Christ and Creation[vi] Gunton looked at Mark’s presentation of Jesus Christ at the beginning of his gospel and noted the systematic declaration of his lordship through one episode after another. Disease and politics, religion and the personal life, all are drawn into the realm of Christ’s dominion. The series is completed by Mark’s account of the stilling of the storm, where the disciples question “Who is this that the wind and the waves obey him?” is answered implicitly by an understanding that Jesus is the Lord of creation. More traditionally we have been interested only in the fate of the disciples in the boat, and not in Jesus relationship to weather. In the same way we have read the first covenant in Genesis 9 along the lines of the NIV’s inserted title “God’s covenant with Noah” despite the text telling us seven times that this also is a covenant between God and “every living creature…the earth…all life on the earth.”
Now we come to the essential next challenge. If we have begun to do better justice to both the scriptures, and to the world we live in, by realising that indeed God does care eternally for his own creation, we have only recently started to translate that theological realisation into a working missiology[vii], and there are very few signs that the evangelical church world-wide has begun to put that missiology into practice with any confidence or professionalism. Perhaps this is simply a casualty of the noted disconnect between theology and missiology per se.[viii ]? Are we having difficulty throwing off our habitual anthropocentrism, or more charitably perhaps, is there simply more theoretical work to be done before we are sure that our limited mission resources should be applied to the care of the non-human creation? Either way, it is my fervent hope that this consultation can be part of an urgent answer to the question. It is always urgent that our lives and work confirm to the true character of Jesus Christ our Lord, but there is a particular urgency to this issue because all over the world the groaning of creation is truly acute, and the poorest human communities are those which are most impacted by the rapid degradation of the biosphere. If we really believe in a creator God who cares for all he has made[ix], why do our mission priorities indicate that we care so little?
A brief review of how “environmental issues” or more properly “creation care” have been placed within the spectrum of Christian views is necessary in order to illuminate a way forward. The following is by no means an exhaustive list but it does show some of the principal approaches that have been advanced in a variety of traditions. For those wishing for a more sociological reading of the current situation, and fewer options, Wardeker et al[x] have identified only three particular streams in their analysis of US Christian attitudes towards climate change. Each would claim to be authentically evangelical but they vary widely and resist synthesis.
The wider range of historic attitudes, together with a semi-serious label for each, looks something like this:
1) Fundamentalist eschatology: We shouldn’t care for creation at all. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote about D.L Moody, ”He thinks it is no use to attempt to work for this world. In his opinion it is blasted – a wreck bound to sink – and the only thing that is worth doing is to get as many of the crew off as you can, and let her go.”
2) Instrumentalist: Because society cares about the environment, and it is important to be relevant, Christians should care. John Stott himself pointed out that many people reject the gospel because they believe it is irrelevant, rather than that they think it isn’t true. The analysis is entirely fair but should not be used as a justification for a false attempt to make the gospel relevant just so people will believe it. Nevertheless, Christian environmental concern, and even more shockingly “works of mercy” are frequently defended in those terms alone.
3) Pragmatic: Because we can’t evangelise without creating stable prior social conditions, and establishing those depends upon a stable environment, so we need to do a minimum of environmental reparation. Put baldly, social unrest is uncongenial for evangelism, hungry people can’t hear the gospel, so we had better do something.
4) Compassionate: We should care because of the poor. This is the approach now being advocated by most of the evangelical relief and development organisations as they now come to terms with the impact of climate change as a major driver of poverty, displacement, and acute social stress.
5) Enlightened self interest: We need to think about environmental sustainability because our own well-being depends upon it. This is the approach of many Christians in the wealthy world, and it is often accompanied by the conviction that their healthy economies will be the solution to relieving poverty world wide. So it can been seen as going further than a mere concern to protect a privileged lifestyle.
6) Liberal: To care for the earth is an integral part of the calling to be human in God’s image, and the emergence of this new humanity will bring hope for creation. The onus is on ethics and human effort, and typically very little of God’s perspective, or the possibility of his presence, is invoked. [xi]
7) The Cultural Mandate: Because God told Adam to care for the garden, and that command has never been revoked, so we have received this duty as an ethical imperative. Put bluntly, we should care for creation because God has told us to.
8) Reformed: Because Christ is the Lord of Creation so all of life is to be transformed by our relationship with him, including our relationship to the environment.
9) Orthodox: Because our fundamental calling is to worship with all creation, so we cannot be indifferent to its well-being.xii
We might have sympathies with some of the elements of several of these approaches. However I would argue that the entirely adequate justifications for considering creation care as a normal element of an authentically biblical mission agenda can be found in either of two well-known missiological frameworks. The first is that which stresses the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and the second sees mission as the church’s proclamation of the Lordship of Christ. Either of these current evangelical missiologies quite naturally provides a foundation for the urgently needed integration of the care of creation into our thinking, and more importantly gives us a solid basis for action. I take it as a given that both understandings of “proclamation” see it as necessarily achieved through word and deed. Although that is a moot point for some, the credibility gap that the Christian church in many parts of the world has suffered in consequence of a disparity between its words and its life should give us all pause for thought. Neither can we deny the biblical record of how the church witnessed to its Lord, and it should persuade us that words alone will always fail to do justice to a true presentation of either the Kingdom of God, or of Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the world.
i Mary Grey Earth-keeping: Pastoral Theology in Climate of Globalisation – University of Wales 2001
ii Thomas Berry The Great Work, New York Bell Tower 1999
iii Richard Lovelace “Dynamics of Spiritual Life” IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois 1979 p 376
iv Jonathan Wilson, Unpublished lecture, Vancouver School of Theology.
v As I go to press Hilary Marlow’s important new book Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics Oxford University Press, 2009 has just come into my hands.
vi Colin E Gunton, Christ and Creation, Paternoster 2005
vii Chris Wright, The Mission of God, (IVP 2006) gives six reasons for the inclusion of environmental work in mission and Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra also argue eloquently in The Message of Mission (IVP 2003)
viii Paul Hiebert Missiological Education for a Global Era (cited in Brian M Howell, Globalization, Ethnicity and Cultural Authenticity in Christian Scholars Review XXXV:3 Spring 2006) says theological education has created “a theology divorced from human realities and a missiology that lacks theological foundations.” I would suggest “creation realities” would be a more accurate and important term although the point is important.
ix Psalm 145:9
x Wardekker, J.A., et al., Ethics and public perception of climate change: Exploring the Christian voices in
the US public debate. Global Environ. Change (2009), doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2009.07.008
xi See for example the most, and only, “religious” word in the WCC Ecumenical Water Network newsletter October 2007 – “inspiring”.
xii “O thou who coverest thy high places with the waters,
Who settest the sand as a bound to the sea
And dost uphold all things:
The sun sings your praises,
The moon gives you glory,
Every creature offers a hymn to thee,
His author and creator, for ever.” From the Lenten Triodon quoted in The Orthodox Way – Bishop Kallistos Ware, A.R. Mowbray, Oxford 1979