Theology in 3D

Toward a Biblical Theology of the Environment

Layton Talbert | April 19, 2018
New Testament, Old Testament

April 22 marks the international celebration of Earth Day, observed (according to Wikipedia) by more than a billion people in 192 countries and billed as “the largest secular holiday in the world.” Wikipedia further informs me that “environmental groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action to change human behavior and provoke policy changes.”

Well, I’m all for changing human behavior, not to mention a policy or two. So, in keeping with that goal, I offer a biblical perspective on the environment which, if taken seriously, would have a profound and positive impact on our treatment of and behavior in the world we live in and share. The Bible contains a surprising wealth of material regarding the environment and our relationship to it. Any genuinely biblical perspective on environmental issues must take into account at least these ten basic scriptural principles.

  1. Divine Creation and Ownership: God created and therefore owns the earth and all things on it (Gen 1-2; Neh 9:6Ps 8:3-5Ps 102:25Isa 42:5Isa 45:18Jn 1:1-3Acts 14:15Col 1:16-182 Pet 3:5Rev 4:11). “The earth is the Lord’s, and all things in it” (Psalm 24:1; see also Ps 50:10-12Deut 10:141 Cor 10:26). God explicitly created all things for himself (Prov 16:4Col 1:16). Our view of the environment must be grounded in the truth of divine creation and its implica­tions of divine ownership.
  2. Human Dominion and Stewardship: God has appointed humans to have dominion over creation and designated them as his stewards of creation (Gen 1:26-28Gen 9:1-7Ps 8:6-9Ps 115:16). A steward does not ultimately possess that over which exercises steward­ship, even if he bears responsibility for it. A steward responsi­bly manages that which belongs to the owner. The twin realities of divine owner­ship and human dominion-steward­ship are designed to keep each other in check. God’s charge to Adam in the garden involved both cultivation and keeping (Gen 2:15). Despite the Fall, the dominion role was never rescinded, and dominion will be reaffirmed in the coming millennial kingdom and sinlessly realized in the new earth. In the meantime, we are responsible to exercise dominion in a way that reflects God’s ownership.
  3. Creation’s Purpose and Function: God designed the diversity of the earth and its environment to magnify his glory. The chief end of creation is to glorify the Creator by witnessing to His “eternal power and Godhead” (Rom 1:20). The celestial creation universally displays–in fact, declares–God’s glory (Ps 19:1-6); the terrestrial creation demonstrates His wisdom and power (Ps 104:24Neh 9:6Jer 10:12Jer 32:17). In other words, the heavens and the earth are divinely designed to lead us to worship the Creator, not the creation.
  4. Divine Hierarchical Priorities: God has a structured hierarchy of priorities which values humanity more highly than animals or plants. Plants and animals are part of man’s stewardship responsibility (Gen 1:26-28Gen 9:1-7; Ps 8). The entire OT sacrificial system is struc­tured on the premise of the substitution­ary death of “innocent” animals for the spiritual welfare of man–to underscore the life-and-death seriousness of human sin and to illustrate the vital principle of substitutionary atonement that God himself would one day fulfill (Lev 17). Because God’s primary concern throughout Scripture is invariably for people over beasts and plants, we must reflect that priority in our value system (Ps 34:10Mt 6:26Mt 8:28-32Mt 21:18-19). To do otherwise is pagan (Rom 1:21-25).
  5. Divine Regard for Creation: God cares for his creation with intimate delight and concern. Scripture graphically portrays God’s care for and great pleasure in his own creation (Job 38:26-27Ps 104:10-14,25-28Jon 4:11Mt 6:2630Mt 10:29; cf. Gen. 9:10,12,15,16,17). As stewards, we must reflect not only God’s priorities but also his care for his creation (Prov 12:10).
  6. Divine Disapproval of Despoliation: God takes exploitation and despoliation of the environment very seriously. (Isa 14:7-8Isa 14:20Isa 24:1-6Jer 51:25Hab 2:17Rev 11:18). Intentional exploita­tion and thoughtless despoliation of the environment and its creatures is not legitimate dominion but sinful vandalism that merits divine displeasure and judgment.
  7. Divine Principles of Wise Use and Management: God expects humans to be prudent and non-wasteful in our use of environ­mental resources. Permission passages like Gen 9:2-3 must be balanced with regulation passages like Prov 12:27. Resource management principles include passages like Deut 20:19-20 and Deut 22:6-7). Stewardship involves management that balances respect (for the property of the owner), cultivation, proper use, and conservation, both for the benefit of man and the glory of God.
  8. Human Impotence: God will not allow humans to destroy the earth. “You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity” (Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park). That’s a great line, even if it was spoken from an evolutionary perspective. Our view of history and our estimation of our own power are so arrogant and short-sighted. Dire predictions of the cessation of the seasons are flatly contradicted by Gen. 8:22. Contrary to recent notions that the earth’s destiny hangs precariously in the balances of human decisions and actions, the world is not fragile at all. God made it to be self-cleansing (Lev 18:2528Lev 20:22), self-rejuvinative (Ps 104:30), and stable (Ps. 96:10Ps 104:5).
  9. Divine Prerogative: God alone reserves and exercises the right to destroy the envi­ronment he has created. One of the most astonishing aspects of the book of Revelation, from an environmental perspective, is that despite all the devastating trumpet and bowl judg­ments described in its apocalyptic pages, the earth survives! In fact, the planet goes on to blossom globally into unparal­leled fruitful abundance for another millenni­um. We will not destroy the earth; as Creator, God reserves that right for himself (Ps 102:25-272 Pet 3:10Rev 21:1).
  10. Divine Purpose: God alone has the power to save the earth. According to Rom 8:19-23, God will one day liberate the creation from its subjection to futility and its bondage to death and decay so that it can, along with redeemed humanity, finally and fully perform its divinely designed purpose of glorifying God. Our bodily resurrection is the anticipation not only of believers but of all creation, the event that will initiate the liberation of the creation from the effects of human sin.

The ubiquity of environmental issues requires the formulation of a comprehensive, consistent, biblical perspective on our relationship to the world God created. In the absence of sound, scripturally informed views on the environment, Christians will be led either to ignore their legitimate stewardship obligations or to fall prey to anti-biblical ways of thinking and behaving.

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