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Is Ecology part of the Gospel?

posted by Scot McKnight

GreenEarth.jpgHere’s a question I have for you, and it is one that lurks in the shadows of many conversations and it comes up more directly in others: 


Do you think ecology and the environment are part of the concerns of the gospel? Or, do they belong somewhere else? Does preaching the gospel involve eco-care?
IVP just came out with a new book, a collection of pieces around this theme, and I want to urge you to consider reading it. It is by Noah Toly and Daniel Block, Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective
.
It has to do with an evangelical response to environmental issues. Authors include Doug Moo, who has an excellent and balanced essay on the principle passages in the NT (Romans 8, Colossians 1, etc), M. Daniel Carroll R., Fred Van Dyke, Michael Guebert, David Gushee, Sir John Houghton, David Toshio Tsumura, Chris Wright and Douglas Green.
The themes are important ones: Cities, diversity of life, water, and climate change.
Doug Moo: “Let me say at the outset that I have no intention of suggesting that the redemption of human beings is not at the heart of God’s plan or that the church should not make evangelism its primary goal. But I do want to suggest that the attitude of an ‘either-or’ when it comes to evangelism and environmental concern is a false alternative, echoing the false alternative of evangelism versus social concern … ” (25).
And Douglas Green sees Adam and Eve created to be vice regent gardeners on behalf of God!


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Andy Holt

posted June 30, 2010 at 12:48 am


“Do you think ecology and the environment are part of the concerns of the gospel?”
If we take the gospel (or at least the shorthand version) as N.T. Wright says it, “Jesus is King” then yes, because his being King implies that he is the King of humanity and the entire creation. But it has to be held in balance with, and at best secondary to, the forgiveness of sins. I think it’s more likely that caring for the earth is becoming an idol in some circles than a redemptive element of preaching the gospel.
The question I have in this whole debate is: Can you be an environmentalist and disbelieve in manmade global warming?



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Tim Gombis

posted June 30, 2010 at 6:53 am


If salvation is a restoration of humanity to the creation condition, then this has a variety of components–personal, social/relational, communal, political, and very definitely with regard to our basic commission to make the earth fruitful. At the very least, the gospel involves a repentance from treating the earth ruinously and a return to caring for it and making it fruitful. A return to something more like a reciprocal relationship of drawing out its fruitfulness and returning to it blessing and goodness. It is, after all, GOD’S world over which we are stewards–the world God loves and longs to see fructified (a verb we’d do well to recover!).



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Jason Lee

posted June 30, 2010 at 7:56 am


Creation stewardship and calling out the excesses of powerful business interests (that often disfigure creation) should be something Christians are about. But I don’t understand resistance to this. Are American Evangelicals more Republican than Christian. Has Christianity become that thoroughly politicized as Hunter suggests in “To Change the World.” But ecology impacts public health, sometimes in enormous ways. If nothing else surely conservative Christians should be all about ecology because of its dramatic effect on the children and the poor, let alone everyone else. It’s pretty hard to get around the Bible’s emphasis on that.



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Robin

posted June 30, 2010 at 8:03 am


This seems to me to just be a friendly repackaging of dominion theology. The theonomic postmillenial believers that I know would say that absolutely we are created to be God’s vice regents on earth and we have a dominion mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. This means that we have a stewardship responsibility for the environment, but it also means that we have a mandate to usher in a Christian legal system, Christian arts and sciences, Christian natural philosophy, etc. When you make dominion mandates part of the gospel you let a whole lot of other stuff slip in the back door. After all if ‘Jesus is King’ then his law should guide our laws, his beauty should guide our art, etc.



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Kenny Johnson

posted June 30, 2010 at 10:27 am


I’m not theologian, but it seems to me that if the environment can have an effect on people and we are called to minister to people — then yes, environmental concerns are part of the Gospel. If pollution and other environmental concerns cause people to be sick, unable to work, etc then yes the ecology and environment are part of the Gospel.



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted June 30, 2010 at 10:30 am


When we read the story of sin in the Garden of Eden, we see that man’s relationship with God, others, self and creation were all negatively altered. Therefore, it stands to reason that His work of redemption and restoration must include all of those elements as well. However, we need to be careful not to equate modern environmentalism as synonymous with this inclusion. While much of it is good and helpful, our relationship with and responsibility to creation is not adequately expressed in environmentalism anymore than our required reconciliation with sisters & brothers of others races is summed up in the civil rights movement. Important, but inadequate on its own.
Robin (#4) makes an important note as well, as that risk is very real. However, I think part of the solution is a re-articulation of “dominion”, but that is a whole other topic.



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Jeff

posted June 30, 2010 at 10:36 am


Well, is it a part of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom? Is it a part of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel? Not so much. Because, really, it’s a 20th/21st century issue, isn’t it? I mean, how can ecology/earth care be a core element to the gospel when the IDEA of it seems to be ‘born yesterday’ as it were.
Is it a concern that the gospel can address and influence? Most certainly. But is it a part of the gospel itself? I would argue no – at least if by “gospel” we mean anything like what was proclaimed/announced/embodied by Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians.
But, maybe that’s not what’s meant by “gospel” here?



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AHH

posted June 30, 2010 at 10:42 am


If the gospel is about reconciliation of all things in Christ (and our joining in that mission), then reconciliation of the harm humans have done and continue to do to the rest of God’s creation must be a part of that. So “ecology” is a part of the Gospel in the same sense as social justice, healing of human relationships, and all the other things that need to be reconciled because of our sin.
To Andy Holt #1 who asks:
Can you be an environmentalist and disbelieve in manmade global warming?
I would say sure it is possible, just as it is possible to care about people’s health and disbelieve in smoking-caused cancer.



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Ben Wheaton

posted June 30, 2010 at 11:59 am


I think that this is the best way to look at it:
The gospel is, first and foremost, about man’s being reconciled with God. Everything else flows from this, including issues of sanctification such as how we treat the environment. The basis of the gospel is that we have rebelled against God, and as such need to be reconciled with HIM through his death and resurrection and repent of our rebellion. Without this proclamation of our need for repentance from our rebellion against God, all proclamations about issues such as the environment are fruitless. This is the critical element. So if we only agitate for stricter rules for oil drilling, and call that “proclaiming the gospel,” we are lying, for without the key element of calling men and women back to their rightful allegiance to the Lord of Creation, we are doing something that is ultimately useless.
The Southern Baptist Convention has done more in its history to aid the healing of the wounds of the earth than all the mainline churches combined, because it has preached the gospel–the core, critical gospel–to all nations more than they.
And I love what Russell Moore is saying.



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kevin s.

posted June 30, 2010 at 1:28 pm


@AHH
“I would say sure it is possible, just as it is possible to care about people’s health and disbelieve in smoking-caused cancer.”
The science behind man-made global warming is not nearly so conclusive, especially as it relates to the degree of causation.
I think both Robin and Jason speak tangentially to my problem with Christian eco-advocacy. It is too often tethered to a governmental regulation that will solve the problem, which is part and parcel of an ideological assumption I reject.
I believe we are called as Christians to care for the environment. That is a personal action and a demonstration of our belief that God created the Earth. That, indeed, is part of our reconciliation with God.
We cannot ask a non-Christian government to reconcile us with God. The theological argument for political action, then, is begging the question.
So yes, ecology is part of the gospel. No, this does not relive environmentalist Christians of the responsibility to defend their beliefs from an ideological perspective.



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Kenny Johnson

posted June 30, 2010 at 1:46 pm


@Kevin,
I don’t want to get into a political debate, but do you really believe the government shouldn’t have laws to protect the environment? Or do you just believe that Christians shouldn’t vote or want the government to have laws to protect the environment?
Is this a political position? Or is this a Biblical position? Meaning, do you believe the government shouldn’t regulate pollution because you’re a political conservative? Or do you believe that Christians should not be involved in political affairs (eg not voting or participating in politics, etc)?
I have no problem with using the government to help promote justice and discourage injustice. Both environmentally and in other areas.



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kevin s.

posted June 30, 2010 at 2:57 pm


“I don’t want to get into a political debate, but do you really believe the government shouldn’t have laws to protect the environment?”
This is the problem. Many people will read my comment above, and assume this is what I am suggesting. That isn’t the case.
We need to extricate biblical ecology from political environmentalism before we can seriously examine what the bible has to say.
“Or do you just believe that Christians shouldn’t vote or want the government to have laws to protect the environment?”
No. Christians should advocate GOOD laws to protect the environment. But that is a political question, which is not resolved by citing scripture. You cannot simply say that, because God commands us to take care of the environment, cap and trade is good policy. That’s turning scripture into a banal talking point.
“Meaning, do you believe the government shouldn’t regulate pollution because you’re a political conservative?”
I don’t think any conservative argues that we shouldn’t regulate pollution at all.
“Or do you believe that Christians should not be involved in political affairs (eg not voting or participating in politics, etc)?”
They absolutely should be.
“I have no problem with using the government to help promote justice and discourage injustice. Both environmentally and in other areas.”
Neither do I. I do have a theological problem with utilizing a non-Christian government to reconcile us to God. That doesn’t make sense.



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RJS

posted June 30, 2010 at 3:10 pm


kevin s.
Pollution control is generally thought to be a good thing, by both political and economic conservatives and liberals.
How about sustainability? This seems somewhat more contentious. Is there a Christian calling to pursue sustainability or is the emphasis on consumption?



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Kenny Johnson

posted June 30, 2010 at 4:09 pm


@Kevin
Thanks for the clarification. Sorry I misunderstood.



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kevin s.

posted June 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm


“How about sustainability? This seems somewhat more contentious. Is there a Christian calling to pursue sustainability or is the emphasis on consumption?”
Sustainability and consumption are interrelated.
Right now, sustainability is most often discussed with respect to luxuries (food, kitchen remodels etc…)
To that extent, it is something of a chimera. Pursuit of luxury, be it grass fed meats or new kitchen counters, inherently consumes. The most sustainable thing to do is to eat as little as possible and forget about remodeling your kitchen.
Suffices to say, I have greater success in the latter than the former. So I try to make decisions that make the most sense for my geographical context. I try to reward restaurants that do the right thing with their food. We bought our house close to downtown Minneapolis because that’s the most likely venue of employment.
But stuff happens. Sometimes we have to settle for cheap (and not at all sustainable) Vietnamese food. My wife has been transferred to an office 15 miles away from us.
Many environmentalists want to penalize us for these facts. If that’s what they think will work, so be it, but does the bible really call for this? I think not.
It’s fine for the folks at Sojourners to opine about how we all need to sacrifice for the environment (as they fly across the country to promote their terrible books), but in reality, we are all consumers. We have to be. Else, we wouldn’t have anything. Christ was a consumer, and he could will things to appear.
When I consume less, and make sustainable (to the best of my knowledge) decisions, I am doing so because I worship God. I actually think many Christians do this instinctively. Purchasing $2,000 used Toyotas is a sustainable decision, relatively speaking.
That’s how I obey. That’s how I sustain the environment. To ask government to make those decisions for me seems beside the point.



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danderson

posted June 30, 2010 at 8:04 pm


In some respects ecology or environmental preservation can be seen as at odds with development. The more we buy, the more waste we will have. What happens to all those outdated cell phones, computers and other technological gadgets? Can economic development co-exist with environmental preservation?



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Scot McKnight

posted June 30, 2010 at 8:31 pm


danderson, the biblical principle of “subdue” the earth does not mean destroy.
Captcha gets it: “cosmic diplomatic”



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AHH

posted June 30, 2010 at 9:47 pm


Scot, not sure why you dismissed danderson’s good point.
At some level, especially for long-term sustainability, environmental stewardship entails less consumption (and less population growth). I’m no economist, but I gather much of the world’s economy is based on perpetually increasing consumption. So there is at least some fundamental tension between the economic growth that we depend on in many ways and creation stewardship.
I’m not saying that economic collapse or environmental collapse (which would then lead to economic collapse) are the only long-term possibilities, but there’s a tension worth pondering.



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danderson

posted June 30, 2010 at 9:51 pm


Scot,
Where did I say anything about “subdue” and “destroy”? I am friends with a Christian ecologist at our U here, and he believes that humans’ calling in Genesis should be rendered as being “earthkeepers.” I wholeheartedly agree with him.
You put words in my post that I simply did not say.



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Hanno Langenhoven

posted July 1, 2010 at 5:02 am


IMHO, the answer is a resounding yes; the environment (thus the Creation as a whole) has much to do with the gospel. The contribution of the Bible (and theology, especially Western theology) are unfortunately umbiguous. Our reading of the Bible is influeced by our theology (presuppositions). Paul Santmire identifies two theologies which has a great influence on how we approach this question. He calls it the theology of ascent and the theology of decent; inspired by the construct “scala naturae” or The Great Chain of Being.
He shows how we are primarily influenced by a theology of ascent which focusses on the transcendence of the human soul in the quest to become united with God. This theology further have the characteristics of being individualistic, creating a spiritual-material dualism and negating the material world to the extent that it is viewed as evil.
He argues that it would do us well to follow Luther and reclaim the theology of decent, which instead focusses on the incarnation of God in Jesus and the fecundity of life as the over-flowing grace of God.
(Much more on this and in a much more eloquent way in Ritualizing Nature (2008) and The travail of Nature (1985) by Paul Santmire).
I would continue to argue that the theology of ascent at the core tries to transcend the space of Creation to be with God somewhere up above; living as a spiritual Being. The material world can thus be used (and abused) in order to achieve this goal of spiritual enlightenment and unity with God. This in my mind is problematic indeed.
I understand Creation as the “Created Space” in which God can manifest himself, and ultimately did so in the form of Jesus the Christ. This “Created Space” is therefore critical as part of the revelation of God, influenced through sin and in need of redemption itself. The redemption work of Christ therefore applies to Creation as a whole (the coming of a New Earth) including people. As believers we are called up to care for the Creation as we are called to care for each other, for Creation indeed is the space in which and through which we celebrate and worship the One that is with us. With the destruction of Creation, the space in which revelation and redemption is worked is destroyed and thus revelation and redemption becomes impossible. The same holds for worship.
Another perspective can be found in the use of the sacraments during the Liturgy. The Word (John 1) is present in the sacraments (understood as the “visible Word”). The Word must be understood as the Cosmic Christ in whom is all things (Col 1). The movement towards Christ is therefore not a vertical one (theology of ascent) but a horizontal one, because God in Christ already descended to us (theology of descent or theology of fecundity)(See Santmire 2008)
Such an approach, preaching from this perspective, ultimately will ask tough questions from us. How much are we consuming, not in relation to other people in our context, but in context of what the Biosphere can handle and by extention what is just consumption in a global context. In what ways do my consumption contribute to the degradation of eco-systems and what is the contribution of my lifestyle to the eco-hardships of the Other across the globe (extinction of species, human hardhsips in the Sahel or in the Pacific ocean etc) and what is the legacy that my lifestyle will leave for future generations (David Attenborough; E O Wilson)?
The science is pretty clear, we are dropping the ball. World consumption is now approximately 30% more than the biosphere produces each year; due to a massive over population of humans and over consumption (by mainly the west). I am part of this consumption culture (consumerism) so these are hard questions to answer. However, it might be slightly easier for me to answer these (living in an African context where consumption is much less than other parts in the world) than it will be to answer it from an American perspective. It might also be that the questions are more pressing in Africa because of the real impact of climate change and the associated social imjustice that is experienced.
Concluding. Thank you for the heads-up on the book (and the other interesting blog articles)! This is my passion and my field of study, in which I am still wearing infant shoes, and I am looking forward to reading it. I will appreciate any comments and if someone want to engage with me in this, you are welcome. You can find me on twitter (@hannol) of my blog at langenhoven.wordpress.com.
I am writing from Johannesburg, South Africa



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Matt O'Reilly

posted July 16, 2010 at 12:40 pm


Here’s an extended response to the questions raised. I thought it too long to post as a comment.
http://www.mattoreilly.net/2010/07/ecology-and-gospel-whats-relationship.html



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