In 1843, Ludwig Feuerbach proclaimed, “Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.” Feuerbach wasn’t the only one to claim such a thing. In the 1967 issue of Science, Lynne White Jr. released his now-infamous paper, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” In it, he labels Western Christianity “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.”
Setting aside questions about the biblical validity of such claims for a moment, one can identify where Feuerbach and White might form such opinions. The Christian notions of “dominion” and “earth stewardship,” unless effectively understood and taught by the church, easily can become human-centered perversions of God’s intent for creation.
“The biblical claim that humans have dominion over creation has shaped the typically western ‘instrumentalist’ view of nature: that the natural world exists solely to meet human needs,” writes Douglas J. Moo in the September 2006 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
One might think the church would improve in light of recent environmental problems. Today, more than a billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water; entire species are being driven to oblivion at rates more than one hundred times faster than natural extinction; air pollution has produced record high childhood asthma rates in many U.S. cities; toxic levels of mercury appear in the fetal cord blood of one out of six newborns; and the treatment of animals in factory farms continues to challenge our civilized sensibilities.
Surely, the church is speaking about the Bible’s stance on caring for creation in the midst of these circumstances, right?
Many pastors in the Christian church in America continue to avoid addressing these topics at all costs. According to LifeWay Research, about half of all Protestant pastors in the United States say they speak to their church about creation care “rarely” or “never.” That percentage rises to 77 percenet for evangelical church pastors only.
Unfortunately, this avoidance has been felt by our congregants, many of whom now possess little, none or skewed understandings of what the Bible says about caring for creation.
A growing number of Protestant pastors and leaders from various traditions have opened their eyes to the many biblical texts that explain God’s plan for our planet. Pastors such as Rick Warren, Rob Bell, John Stott, Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller and Bill Hybels already have preached on these texts. Thinkers such as Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright and Francis Schaeffer have written extensively on them. Their eyes were opened, and their mouths could no longer remain shut.
Unfortunately, these men are the exception rather than the rule. As a result, many Christians remain unequipped to defend the idea of biblical stewardship. A recent Barna poll shows that Christians are one of the least likely groups to recycle. One modern historian adds, “Indifference toward the environment, or at least toward claims of environmental crisis, abounds in fundamentalist Protestant writings.”
I think it is time for many church leaders to step back and study the Bible’s many passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. Perhaps pastors need to begin rediscovering God’s Word on this subject.
Connecting the Dots
I became an environmentalist at a Southern Baptist Seminary.
Several years ago, I was in a systematic theology class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary when the discussion shifted to the revelation of God. My professor began sharing with us about the two primary forms in which God reveals Himself to human beings: general revelation and special revelation.
As Christians, we know these two forms of revelation are different in form and function. General revelation is found in nature and reveals God’s attributes (
As John Stott has written, “The creation is a visible disclosure of the invisible God, an intelligible disclosure of the otherwise unknown God. Just as artists reveal themselves in what they draw, paint and sculpt, so the Divine Artist has revealed Himself in His creation.”
Recognizing the revelatory nature of God’s revelation should cause Christians to respect the media themselves. That’s why the Scripture instructs us to hold the Word in such high regard. It is not to be treated like other books, for the Bible is the very revelation of God. Similarly, we should respect the natural world as the container of divine revelation.
Sitting in that theology lecture, I began to connect the dots. Curiosity began to swell inside of me. Why don’t some Christians similarly hold the natural world in high regard? Does Scripture actually outline a plan for our planet and assign a role for human beings to play?
These questions drove me back to the Scripture like a journalist on assignment, and I began to comb through, watching for God’s instructions about the world around us. What I discovered shocked me.
A green thread runs through the Bible; the book is replete with teachings on the earth and stewardship. In
In the story of Noah, we find God making a covenant between Himself and “the whole earth.” Through the Old Testament laws, we find God intervening to protect the soil and give the land proper rest.
The Psalms and wisdom literature are a repository of writings about creation the depths of which are difficult to plumb.
Jesus does a good job of connecting our role as stewards of earth to the people who depend on it. He asked us to love our neighbors, which includes those global neighbors who suffer at the hands of human mismanagement and waste. Christ instructed us to care for the least of these, which shifts our focus to the poor who are most effected by stewardship failures.
In fact, Jesus has a vested interest in the well-being of creation.
God has made this place as a throne room and sanctuary for the glory of God to be proclaimed. We are to respond with worshipful lives of careful stewardship in obedience to God’s explicit commands in scripture. For this reason, Christianity Today brushed aside Feuerbach and White to declare, “The Bible is not the enemy of the environmental cause, but its greatest asset.”
Green vs. Gospel?
D.A. Carson in his essay on “Challenges for the Twenty-First Century Pulpit” discusses what Paul meant when he says in
“[Paul] taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively.”
Carson reminds us of an important truth: faithful ministers of the gospel preach the whole Bible, answering culture’s difficult questions with the comprehensive truth of God’s Word. If Scripture addresses a particular issue, a preacher cannot afford to ignore God’s voice even if preaching it makes him uncomfortable. Indeed, one of the challenges for the 21st century pulpit is to apply the salve of God’s truth to the wounds of contemporary problems.
Pastors must not grow weak-kneed at the thought of wandering into the stewardship discussion because the Scripture clearly speaks about our responsibility and the culture is practically begging us to join the conversation. Churches that claim to preach “the whole counsel of God” should not sheepishly avoid or brush over those passages that reveal God’s intentions for planet Earth.
Often, I get e-mails from pastors telling me that they want to begin addressing these issues from their pulpit because the Bible instructs us on them, but they also want to remain gospel-centered. This caution must be heeded. “Christianity is a comprehensive truth claim that encompasses every aspect of revealed doctrine, but is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” writes Albert Mohler. “As the apostolic preaching makes clear, the gospel is the priority.”
The gospel, not the green movement, must remain our first concern.
Fortunately, creation care complements the gospel, rather than competes with it. For many, it is a starting point for sharing the gospel. For others — especially in Western countries such as ours where there is a growing sensitivity to environmental problems — it strengthens the credibility of our witness.
Most of all, caring for creation is one way that we live out the gospel. The apostle Paul writes that God sent Christ “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (
The gospel is not green, but it does compel us to live radically sacrificial lives. In the Great Commission, Jesus did not only instruct us to “make disciples of all nations.” He also asked us to begin “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We need to begin faithfully declaring the whole counsel of God, including the creation care mandates throughout Scripture. Proclaiming the gospel must remain our goal, but creation care must become part of our game plan.
Sidebar: Good Resources for Green Sermons
• Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
• The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology by Alister McGrath (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008)
• Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet by Jonathan Merritt (FaithWords, 2010)
• Pollution and the Death of Man by Francis Schaeffer and Udo Middleman (Crossway Books, 1992)
• Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott (Zondervan, 2006)
• The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J.H. Wright (Intervarsity Press, 2006)
• Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)