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The Church: Does it Matter? 1 (MV)

posted by Scot McKnight

This series is by my colleague in theology, Dr. Mary Veeneman, and she’s guiding us through a brand new book by Brad Harper and Paul Metzger. The book is called: Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction
. The question we need to ask, especially of evangelicals, is this: Does the church matter? And if so, how does it matter? Now over to Mary…

While taking my doctoral exams in graduate school, I had to answer a
method question which asked me to grapple with the question, “Earth: 
Does it matter for theology?”  During the previous school year, my
department had offered a course in ecological theology, which everyone
facing that exam question wisely took.  A friend of mine in the
program, a Catholic priest, joked to the professor offering the course
that he did not need to take it, as he already recycled.  In all
seriousness, though, I think everyone in the class agreed at the end
that course had given us valuable content.

At one point in the course, we discussed the work of Lynn White and his
argument that environmental degradation was largely attributable to
ideas coming out of Christianity
.  Inevitably, someone mentioned
evangelical Christians and the way in which an evangelical
understanding of dispensational premillennialism (though that term
wasn’t used) led to a lack of care for the environment
.  As Tom Sine
argues, “It doesn’t make much sense to be overly concerned for the
environment is going to burn anyway” (Harper and Metzger, 79).

Do you think the gospel has anything to do with creation? Is creation care redemptive in a meaningful sense?


 I don’t remember exactly how I responded, though I somehow pointed out that not all evangelicals are premillennialists, that there are actually a number of evangelicals interested in environmental protection and moreover, that environmental protection was consistent with evangelical values.  It is this topic that Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger seek to address in the chapter, “Eschatology, the Church, and Ecology in this book we are discussing here at Jesus Creed blog.

Perhaps one of the most interesting claims made by Harper and Metzger is one that is similar to that made by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.  They write,  “The biblical vision of future salvation clearly contains a number of otherworldly images.  But the kingdom of God is neither the hope for a future spiritual existence, nor the hope of an escape from this world to an entirely heavenly creation.  Rather, it is the hope for a redeemed bodily existence in the present cosmos and on the present earth, renewed by having been released from its bondage to sin and the curse that corrupted it” (Harper and Metzger, 80).

Do you agree with Harper and Metzger?

Because Christianity has traditionally stressed an anthropocentric (human-centered) rendering of the fall, an anthropocentric rendering of salvation and re-creation has resulted.  While the larger implications of the fall have not been wholly ignored by theologians, the emphasis has largely been on the relationships between human beings and God rather than the relationships between human beings and the environment.  

Ultimately, Harper and Metzger argue, “the kingdom of God is about the redemption of not only the church, but also of the whole creation” (Harper and Metzger, 80).  After giving some biblical examples to support their contention, they spell out the implications of their claim for the church. 

If the redemption of all of creation is part of the ethos of the kingdom, and the church is the instrument of the kingdom, then the church must care about the environment.  As believers do the work of healing the earth, creation can again do the work of praising God that it was originally meant to do.  They write, “Human praise is completed when it is joined by the voice of the cosmos in exhaltation of the One who, as the hymn writer proclaims, is the ‘joy of the whole earth.’  Here the earth, once perfect, now broken, and one day to be glorious again, is brought together with the church in its own eschatological anticipation” (Harper and Metzger, 84).

The kingdom of God demands, they claim, that we not simply look at Genesis to understand the significance of nonhuman creation, but that we also look to the eschaton.  It is only when we have the eschaton in view that we can fully understand the purpose of the nonhuman creation, and our own responsibilities to care for it.  

What do you think?  Do Harper and Metzger’s claims convince you? 

They leave their readers with a closing question, which I think is an intriguing one to pose here.  Martin Luther once said, “If I knew the world were to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.”  What are we to make of this statement and how might it inform our conversation on this topic?



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:02 am


Although there is no doubt that some within the evangelical fold have used their eschatology to downplay the necessity for “creation care” the idea that environmental degradation was largely attributable to ideas coming out of Christianity is just silly. One only need look at land use and pollution problems around the world to realize that “end of the world” beliefs play no significant role in the existent problems.



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tscott

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:44 am


We can relate to nature as a possessor, or guardian, or in
partnership, or in participation. Faith communities have a
place in ecological science and surprisingly, it comes into
the partnership area( the eastern religions get more ink).
Science is not “putting down” Christianity.
But each of us have polyphonic selves when it comes to nature
and how we relate.



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Travis Greene

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:54 am


RJS,
You’ll have to have a stronger argument than “that’s just silly”. I think as with any historical situation, there are lots and lots of factors at play. But surely faith is one of those factors when we’re talking about any civilization-wide problem. And even if not a cause (which is doubtful to me), “end of the world” beliefs have certainly caused lots and lots of people to drag their feet and put their head in the sand.
This is very related to the evolution/created debate. Same head-in-the-sand attitude and hostility to science.



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:07 pm


Travis,
I think that it is silly because the global influence of the “its going to burn anyway” part of Christian culture is small. This is a big world and the “creation care” problems are manifest everywhere – in China, Russia, … in many places worse than in the US.
One could argue that the idea that creation is “for our use” is the key factor leading to environmental degradation – in which case there is a better justification to blame Christianity and western culture in general. (After all – all other cultures are “at peace with nature” right?)



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Tim

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:17 pm


I would definitely disagree with the claim that environmental degradation is a result of beliefs attributable to Christianity. Environmental degradation is, in large part, attributable to greed. In our modern situation, the significant environmental impact of our greed began with the Industrial Revolution, when we discovered that we could commodify almost anything, at incredible rates of production, with no regard for the long-term impact. While the Industrial Revolution may owe a little to the Protestant ‘work ethic,’ it is much more attributable to an overall human greed, which we are all complicit in.
If you read Revelation 6, 8 and 9, you discover that much of the environmental turmoil that exists is the result of the kingdom of God (the reign of Christ) clashing with the kingdom of Babylon (the kingdom that lives for itself alone, see Revelation 18). It’s the earth’s protest against the failure of humanity to steward the earth as God’s dominion. Unfortunately the church has sometimes (often) gone along with Babylon’s greed instead of speaking prophetically against it with the truth of God’s reign. Sometimes that is rooted in an eschatological ‘head in the sand’ mentality (a bit naive, considering we still buy the groceries, iPods, running shoes, and coffee of ‘civilized’ Babylon). More honestly, however, it’s rooted in our own preference for Babylon instead of for God’s kingdom.



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GKC

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:57 pm


White was simply wrong, though the myth he launched is still repeated ad nauseum in college classrooms. His thesis is a good example of refusing to read a text in its context. (His other famous article claiming that invention of the stirrups or heavy plow or other technical discoveries in the Middle Ages were the key to demographic and commercial flowering has been rejected by nearly all medieval historians but keeps getting taught in survey courses as gospel truth.)
Prima facie, White’s thesis should never have gotten traction. It just makes no sense. It got traction because of deeply embedded prejudice against Christianity in the Academy. It’s frustrating to see Christians employing it as gospel truth.
In a premodern Jewish or Christian context, “dominion” over the earth could only mean that one was accountable to the Creator of the earth for how one took care of it. The same was true of the dominion granted to kings, parents, bishops. No one could morally “do as he pleased” with things or people over which he had been given stewardship, that is, authority. Ancient and medieval people knew that. But we keep reading “dominion” through the lens of unrestricted absolute monarchy (1500-1800) or, increasingly, unaccountable bureaucratic rule (19th-21st century).
Of course, men, women, kings, bishops and others abused their authority and refused to be accountable to God. But by their own standards,they were then acting immorally. And that’s NOT what White was arguing. White was arguing that Judaism and Christianity gave MORAL approval to misuse of nature. That’s a calumny against the “creation religions.”
The idea that one may legitmately do as one pleases with Nature has a specific birth point, in the early modern era. People foolishly began to believe that they could master and do as they pleased with Nature because of great leaps in technical prowess. Of course, over time, unintended ecological consequences showed just how little mastery they had.
Many of the more vocal environmentalists today make the same mistake: they recognize unintended consequences of past technology but fail to consider that their own solutions are new forms of technology that most probably will introduce even more unintended consequences. We need to get the religious chiliasm and messianism out of the environmental movement. (And one of the ways the chiliasm works is by demonizing those who take issue with “my” solutions–instead of recognizing that opponents on environmental issues might care as much as I do about doing things right but disagree about the “how” of doing things right, I denounce my opponents as uncaring. The same thing happens in politics about “care for the poor.”)
A return to the ancient and medieval humble idea that we are in charge only in a very limited way and that God, not we ourselves, put us in charge, might be salutary.



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Travis Greene

posted June 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm


RJS,
Fair enough. I was thinking more of the “for our use” part of Christianity than dispensationalism particularly. We have, in far too many times and places, mistaken dominion for exploitation. If we’re going to claim that Christianity laid the groundwork for science (which I think is true), I don’t see how we can avoid acknowledging it also laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution.
I think owning up to our complicity and correcting bad theology with good theology is the key here, not the knee-jerk defensive reaction many Christians indulge in when it comes to this, or the Crusades, or slavery or whatever (Not saying that’s what you’re doing, I just see a lot of it).
About other cultures…without romanticizing non-Western societies or perpetuating noble savage myth, though, it is true that other religious traditions and cultures have had more respect for nature than ours has. Native American religions, or Taoism for instance. Just as we shouldn’t assume that other cultures are somehow pristine and Western civilization is always bad/evil, we also shouldn’t assume that all cultures share our particular sins.



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AHH

posted June 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm


While I agree with RJS that the role of “it’s all gonna burn” theology is often exaggerated, we also have to admit that Evangelical Christians, at least in the U.S., have often not been good stewards or positive influences in this area.
Rather than dispensationalism, I would identify two factors as more important in this (some hyperbole follows):
1) The baptism of corporate consumer capitalism as God’s economic system. If there is a choice between creation stewardship and corporate profits, or between creation stewardship and my buying more stuff like a good American should, guess who wins. This is tied up with the “culture wars” where one is supposed to choose the whole “conservative” package, and caring for God’s creation (not to mentioning questioning consumer culture) is seen as part of the evil “liberal” package.
2) Our individual and privatized faith. If it is just about me and Jesus, and about getting more people into heaven, the needs of those around me (including the rest of creation around me) don’t matter.
2a) As Travis Greene mentions, the idea that the rest of creation is “for our use” — that it only has value as it serves human individuals whose pleasant journey to heaven is the only real value.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 17, 2009 at 2:51 pm


Let me give an illustration by way of question:
Wasn’t Richard Cizik essentially sacked from his major leadership role in the National Association for Evangelicals for his commitment to creation care? Wasn’t there some serious disgruntledness for his concern with the wrong things? Weren’t the issues that built the discontent that moved over the boundary when he said he could support same-sex civil unions?
Here’s something about him at Wikipedia that presents the story as I have known it:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Cizik



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dopderbeck

posted June 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm


In my experience, present hostility towards “creation care” (side note: I can’t stand that goofy-sounding phrase) among some evangelicals stems more from a hyper-calvinistic theology than from dispensationalism. An acquaintance of mine who is vehemently opposed to evangelical environmentalism said to me something like this: “I believe God is sovereign over his creation, and that he will not allow his creation to collapse as the global warming extremists suggest.” I believe this is essentially the theology offered by Calvin Beisner, one of the most outspoken and prolific evangelical skeptics of global warming.
In fairness to this view, there is a significant amount of apocalyptic rhetoric among some environmentalists about GW. At times, when listening to strong environmentalists sound the alarm, I feel like I’m back at my old dispy-pretrib church hearing a sermon about the immanence of the Tribulation!
But, this view is “hyper”-Calvinist because it doesn’t seem to recognize that the Church is supposed to be God’s redemptive instrument, which should mean acting as wise stewards of the natural environment, not to mention caring for the poor who will be most adversely affected by GW.



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dopderbeck

posted June 17, 2009 at 4:27 pm


Scot McK (#10) — yes, that is my understanding of the Czik situation as well. I think a significant issue for Czik was that he directly confronted Focus on the Family over GW and civil unions. I’m not sure this had as much to do with theology as with money and power. FTF is still an 800-lb gorilla in American Evangelicalism.



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Elizabeth

posted June 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm


I’m a Canadian who grew up in the developing world and am currently living in Europe. As a non-American Christian, I have to say that it is rather surprising to see so many evangelical Americans still debating their role in creation care. I honestly don’t mean to sound condescending but my impression is that many Christians in the rest of the world are way past debating whether care of the natural world is part of our calling as God’s people. It is a non-issue. The view is OF COURSE it matters! OF COURSE we recycle! OF COURSE climate change is real! OF COURSE the church should be setting an example by being as green as possible and calling for more stringent laws to (for example) limit greenhouse gases.



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Your Name

posted June 17, 2009 at 5:27 pm


I think the idea that dispensational or hypercalvinism “caused” the problem may go too far, but those theological camps (more dispensational than calvinist, in my experience) do tend to give resistance to the suggestion that the church should take an affirmative stance toward caring for the creation for exactly the eschatological reasons the authors describe. I’ve heard the “it’s gonna burn” rationale on this issue as recently as this year; I believe from John MacArthur, though I could be mistaken.
Here’s another place where this same issue comes up: should the church pursue physical healing? I’ve heard the exact same arguments, generally from a dispensational perspective, applied to the physical body as to the creation generally: “Why bother with healing the body or raising the dead if that body (in it’s current form) is going to die anyway?” But the Luther quote from the authors goes hand in hand with Jesus’ healing: God heals and takes care of creation because he loves this creation even in its fallen form, and won’t wait for it to be out of that form to show his love, even if the body he heals today dies soon enough. It’s just in God’s nature to give and sustain life, to heal broken bodies. It’s at the core of the agenda of his government that has no end.



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T

posted June 17, 2009 at 5:28 pm


Sorry, 14 was me.



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Brian Rice

posted June 17, 2009 at 7:20 pm


I’m an evangelical with a “theoretical” commitment to care for God’s creation. I do some things for the environment, although to be honest, I am more intellectually on the side of the environment, but my lifestyle is not radically showing this commitment.
I have to say that I am just a bit baffled why Christians would not be pro-environment. I have some pretty intelligent friends who just seem a little bit too “Rush Limbaughesque” on this issue.
I once tried the line of reasoning that if God the Creator lovingly designed all the diverse species of life (plant, animal, avian, insect, and so on), what a tragedy when through our negligence and abuse, species go extinct!
My friend was not even slightly moved by this argument. In fact, from his vantage point, God has wiped out species in His own creation in the flood, God has destroyed the dinosaurs, and so it is no big deal !!! And then he said, “and the earth is going to be destroyed with fire anyway… so bye-bye animals.”
So both his theology of creation and eschatology lead him to diss the environment!
-bkr-
by the way, i no longer talk theology with that individual.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 17, 2009 at 7:25 pm


Brian,
The sad thing is that far too many are affected by this set of connections:
Liberal is bad
Green is liberal
Green is bad
Liberal is not Christian
Liberal is Green
Green is not Christian.
It all comes in a lump and thinking independently about Green hasn’t found a place for too many.



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 8:28 pm


Scot,
The Cizik affair and quotes by McArthur and so on certainly indicate a poor attitude in part of the conservative evangelical church.
But that wasn’t the question – the question was about cause of environmental degradation. Except in the sense that industrialization which began in Europe and then North America is responsible for much of what we see – I don’t think that it makes sense to assign cause to Christianity.



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dopderbeck

posted June 17, 2009 at 8:43 pm


RJS (#17) — I think it’s hard to deny that, until recently, with notable minor exceptions (e.g. St. Francis), Christian theology has emphasized “dominion” in ways that have been destructive to the natural environment. And this has gone hand-in-hand with Christian theological perspectives, particularly following the Reformation, that promoted individualistic Capitalism, which led in turn to the environmental crimes of the industrial revolution.
Yet, I think you’re right in this: this is not unique to Christianity. All human cultures, for all of human history, with the exception of some isolated aboriginal groups, have consumed natural resources without much regard for conservation — starting with the extinction of the megafauna after the last ice age, likely in large part due to human hunting. The romantic myth of early pantheists who lived in harmony with nature is mostly just a romantic myth. People are greedy, and not surprisingly, they often use religion, including Christianity, to justify their greed.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 17, 2009 at 8:49 pm


RJS,
Very good point, but the attitude toward “this world” by evangelicals has not always been affirming and redemptive. But, I’m trying to figure out where the word “cause” got into this. Mary’s post connected evangelicals to lack of care, but she spoke of ideas attributable to Christians was correlated with environmental degradation. To be sure, when we don’t care about environment we pore poisons into our rivers… etc…, but many Christians simply did not speak up — and one reason they did not is because they were focused on the world beyond and not the world here now.
Well, sorry, my meanderings.



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 8:53 pm


I never got past the first line of Mary’s second paragraph – mired in quicksand I guess. (I read it all – that is just where I “stuck.”)



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T

posted June 17, 2009 at 8:54 pm


Scot,
I agree. Environmentally consciousness is suspicious by association for many evangelicals. That, mixed with the influence of gnosticism and dispensational eschatology makes evangelicals into tough group for green concerns.



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RJS

posted June 17, 2009 at 9:13 pm


“largely attributable to ideas coming out of Christianity” = caused by Christianity as I read it.
These types of claims hit me in a sore spot – because it is the Dawkins-Hitchens et al. tactic.
The spot is especially sensitive no doubt because of the attitude of many evangelicals.



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Don

posted June 18, 2009 at 8:46 am


In my experience, more folks believe Christians believe in dominionism than Christians who actually do.



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Don

posted June 18, 2009 at 8:51 am


21 – Evangelicals are less concerned about these anymore as much as government using the planet as an excuse to intrude into every aspect of our lives.



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Randy

posted June 18, 2009 at 11:18 am


I have not had time to read the previous comments, so I will offer just a few here.
1. If we pay attention to scripture, particularly Deuteronomy, Chronicles and Psalms, it becomes clear that the OT is not so anthrpocentric as we first thought. The land suffers and the people suffer because the land suffers because of the people’s abuse of it. I love Ps. 19 and 104 among many others precisely because in different ways they marginalize the importance of humans in God’s creation. Eg. the ships just happen to sail in the playground of Leviathan.
2. Increasinlgy I find it counter-productive to separate humans from “the evironment,” as some of us have done in the past (See Steven Bouma Prediger in “For the Beauty of the Earth”), because one can make a much stronger case by arguing for justice for those who suffer when creation suffers. Eg. the folks in Appalachia who suffer poisoned water because of mountain-top removal mining which feeds our power plants.
Peace,
Randy Gabrielse



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Mary Veeneman

posted June 19, 2009 at 12:53 am


I think there are two separate, but related issues going on:
1. Lynn White claims that Christianity is in some way culpable for environmental degradation. That claim has been debunked. Harper and Metzger point out that White doesn’t have a good grasp on historic Christianity.
2. Evangelical Christians until recently have been seen as a group as generally uninterested in ecological issues due in part to either a wrong understanding of the creation-cultural mandate in Genesis 1 or a dispensational theological outlook (or both).
I think where the two become connected is not that White’s claim is somehow actually substantiated by #2, but rather that those who are not well acquainted with evangelicalism will see evidence of #2 and think that it gives credence or support to #1.
While it is not true that evangelical attitudes have somehow caused the ecological crisis, the stereotype (that I think has been recently changing) that evangelicals do not care about ecology is coming from somewhere.



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