Do you enjoy being out in the garden? Many of us do. We spend time tending our vegetable patches, flower beds, lawns, and/or indoor plants or going to a park in the city to walk amongst the trees there. Gardening really is the ‘oldest profession’, going back almost right to the beginning of the world when God put Adam in the paradise of Eden to work it and keep it1. The Hebrew word translated ‘keep’ means to watch over in order to preserve something or somebody. The garden which the Lord God had planted in Eden was naturally productive and resilient, but did require ongoing work to maintain it in a sustainable ecological equilibrium. After the Fall, when the ground became cursed as a result of mankind’s rebellion against God, the perfection of Eden was lost and the work of growing food became arduous in a natural world which had become hostile to mankind2. Any gardeners reading this article will know about the challenges of weeds, pests and diseases as they seek to work and keep their garden environment.
The cultural mandate
The focus of this article is much broader than gardening. The aim here is to consider whether or not Christians have ignored their ‘cultural mandate’ to be stewards of the whole earth.
God gave an environmental task to Adam and Eve, as representatives of the whole human race, when He said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”3. This far-reaching assignment is sometimes referred to as the ‘creation mandate’, the ‘dominion mandate’ or the ‘cultural mandate’.
The term ‘cultural mandate’ is sometimes used in connection with the Great Commission4to include striving to affect world culture by proclaiming the gospel and also by influencing public debate and discussion with a Christian worldview. A further, and much more controversial, extension of the term includes seeking to establish civil governments who will enact explicitly Christian laws in order to subdue society. Variants of this approach include ‘Kingdom Now Theology’, ‘Dominion Theology’ and ‘Christian reconstructionism’. This article will not consider the Biblical validity of extending the ‘creation mandate’ to include aspects of human culture, but will focus entirely on the right relationship between mankind and the natural environment.
It is possible that you may be wondering whether articles on caring for the environment really have a rightful place here in an official publication of our churches. I firmly believe that they do for the following reasons:
a) The Scriptures do reveal God’s will for us as human stewards of His physical world.
b) There is significant misunderstanding amongst many Christians about this topic. The idea of being a ‘Christian environmentalist’ is an oxymoron in the minds of some who equate a serious concern for the natural environment with New Age Pantheism. Many are unaware of the work of A Rocha (arocha.org), a Christian nature conservation organisation.
c) There is a tendency, in some Christian communities, for traditions, personal biases and prejudices to close the mind to the possibility of having been wrong. The process of rethinking our presuppositions is generally a painful, humiliating, and taxing one, but it is necessary if we are to discern God’s will5.
d) The ongoing degradation of the natural environment is a pressing issue in the world today. People in many nations suffer from the effects of pollution, loss of soil fertility, species extinction, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, lack of clean water, hunger, starvation and destructive weather events. These are topics which the church must speak out about. Silence can imply that we do not care about the ‘groaning creation’ of which we, together with the whole of humanity, are a part. The practical credibility of the Christian worldview depends on its ability to relate to the issues of daily life in a meaningful way.
e) Christianity has been blamed by some people6 for being the root cause of environmental degradation. This is a serious charge and one which we would be foolish not to carefully consider. If we have ignored or misunderstood the creation mandate then we need to humble ourselves, repent and then seek to live in a way that is faithful to the Lord’s commandment. To do otherwise is surely sin.
The environmental charges against Christianity
Consider these six charges which seek to place, in the words of Lynn White, ‘a great burden of guilt’7 on the Christian church.
1) The command to ‘subdue’ the earth has been understood by Christians as a licence to exploit and mistreat the natural environment.
2) The command to ‘fill the earth’ has contributed to overpopulation which has then necessitated greater urbanization, intensification of farming techniques and pressure on natural habitats.
3) The command to have ‘dominion’ over all other creatures has resulted in an anthropocentric (man-centered) view of creation which cares little for plants and animals beyond their value as resources which exist merely to satisfy the needs of people.
4) The spiritual focus of the Bible has resulted in a lack of care for the physical world.
5) Christianity’s belief that the world was designed by God has encouraged modern scientific study of the natural world which together with the command to subdue the earth has led to the unrestrained conquest of nature. As a result, mankind has manipulated natural processes for the short term benefit of the human race but to the detriment of the environment.
6) The belief that this world is passing away with the second coming of Christ removes the need to care for the present world.
A Biblical response
What would you say in response? Are we guilty as charged or innocent of any environmental crime? Let us carefully consider the six charges against us.
1) The root meaning of the Hebrew word (kabash) translated ‘subdue’ is to tread down as when an enemy is conquered8. The word translated ‘dominion’ (radah) usually means to rule over a nation or a group of people9 and can also refer to divine rule over the earth10. Humanity is to exercise control over the created realm (kabash) in governance over all living creatures (radah). The creation mandate was given by God before the Fall and has helpfully been described as ‘sinless dominion’11. In fallen mankind the abuse of such far reaching responsibility has resulted in the original intent of the creation mandate being corrupted through the sinful tendencies of greed, materialism and unchecked self-interest. Whilst by no means solely responsible for abuse of the natural world, Christians are not without some guilt in this.
2) This earth was designed by God to be able to support abundant life and for all living creatures to be fruitful and multiply12, including mankind13. Whilst the environmental resources which God has given to sustain life on this planet are substantial, they are not infinite. Logically, limits to growth are an essential aspect of a finite creation. The creation mandate should therefore not be understood to mean ‘fill the earth beyond its capacity to sustain life’, but rather fill the earth to its limit. As a result of mankind’s abuse of the natural environment and the greed and injustice of hugely inequitable distributions of wealth, land, food and other resources, the ‘carrying capacity’ of many regions of the earth has been substantially reduced14. Christians share, to some degree, in the guilt of this, but we are by no means solely responsible.
3) The dominion of mankind over God’s creation is ultimately not anthropocentric but theocentric (God-centered). He created all the flora and fauna in this world for His perfect purposes, designing every last detail of every one of them. He cares for all the creatures that He has made. Being created in God’s image, mankind is called to subdue and rule the earth as God Himself would do so, acting as it were on His behalf. A king in submission to God will not exercise dominion for personal gain15. A good shepherd does not rule harshly16. A faithful steward does not waste the owner’s possessions17 but uses them wisely in productive endeavours18. When we, and others, live in an environmentally irresponsible way we do not reflect God’s image, but are like wicked kings, bad shepherds and unfaithful stewards.
4) The Bible most certainly has a spiritual focus. The central message of the Scripture is the glorious gospel of reconciliation between God and His people. However, God’s Word by no means excludes the physical realm. We are soul and body. The restoration of this broken creation is not only revealed in election, regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification in Christ but also in the recreation of a new earth with an eternally sustainable environment for the flourishing of life19.
5) The ordered patterns of nature do rightfully encourage scientific enquiry and the development of technologies. These have the potential to be used either destructively or constructively. The fault lies not in mankind’s exploration of the natural environment, but in our own hearts which too often care more about our own self-interest than about the fact that what we do with the natural environment may have an effect on others20. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes the responsibility not to damage the environment in such a way that they, and others, suffer adverse effects.
6) There is an eschatological (end-time) focus in Scripture. In faith we do desire a better country, that is a heavenly one21. We know that this first earth will pass away when Christ returns22. However, the Lord has not given us this knowledge in order to give us an excuse to ignore the creation mandate. Sanctification has purpose in this life even though we know this does not save us and that it will not be completed until we are glorified on the New Earth. Likewise, God calls us to faithful environmental stewardship now, even though we know that this earth will not last. Just as our progress in sanctification glorifies God and is His purpose for us in this life, so our progress in understanding and obeying the creation mandate also glorifies our Lord and is part of His will for us in this life.
An earth with finite resilience
I believe that some of the environmental degradations which we are increasingly seeing globally23are indications that we are close to, or even beyond, some of the limits which God has set within His highly resilient, but also finite creation. Just as it was possible for Old Testament Israel to ‘sin beyond the point of no return’ under wicked king Manasseh’s dominion, so it seems highly likely that there are environmental ‘tipping points’. When the finite limits of the earth’s God given environmental resilience are exceeded, then a point can be reached from which full environmental recovery may no longer be possible, at least not within one human lifespan. However, God has promised that ‘while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease’24.
A call to repentance and faith
There is a need for us, as Christians, to examine ourselves, our lifestyles and our faithfulness or our lack of obedience to the creation mandate. Are there areas where you need to repent because you have ignored this mandate or misunderstood its meaning? In Christ we have a Saviour in whom there is forgiveness full and free. As we live out our faith we are called to put off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator25.To do this requires courageous change. This new self is a faithful ruler, shepherd and steward over God’s creation, seeking always to glorify and honour Him by wisely caring for what He has made.
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron 7:14).
1 Gen 2:15
2 Gen 3.18-19
3 Gen 1:28
4 Matt 28:18-20
5 Rom 12:1-2
6 e.g. Arnold Tonybee, Joseph Campbell, Matthew Fox, Ralph Metzner, Wendell Berry
7 White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, whole no. 3767 (March 10, 1967), 1203-12.
8 e.g. Num 32:22,29
9 e.g. Eze 29.15
10 e.g. Ps 72:8; 110:2
11 Calvin DeWitt “Ecological Issues and Our Spiritual Roots”, 1988,5
12 Gen 1:22
13 Gen 1:28
14 Intensive agricultural practices have enabled greater food production per hectare, although with resulting soil leaching, pollution of ground water, large scale destruction of biodiversity and the vulnerability of mono-culture crops, this increase in output may not be sustainable.
15 e.g. Deut 17:16-17
16 Eze 34:4
17 Luke 16:1
18 Matt 25:16
19 Rev 22:2
20 Lev 19:18
21 Heb 11:16
22 Rev 21:1
23 e.g. Loss of natural habitats, rapidly reducing biodiversity including extinction of species, pollution of land, oceans and atmosphere.
24 Gen 8:22
25 Col 3:9-10
Mr David Waldron is the minister of the Reformed Church in Christchurch (Cornwall Street).
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Elizabeth Lies on Unsplash