by Matthew Nelson
My folks love to remind me of a second-grade assignment depicting what I wanted to be when I grew up. Beneath a misshapen crayon drawing of a man in a big cowboy hat standing among large trees, I had written, “I want to be something in the woods.”
No one ever suggested to me that my love of nature was incompatible with my Christian faith until my freshman year in college in forestry. We were assigned an article by Dr. Lynn White Jr. titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Much to my surprise, White’s main thesis was that Christianity is largely to blame for environmental problems.
In the 30 years since, many voices have been added to this chorus of accusation.
During that time, I worked for a state agency enforcing environmental laws and regulations, for an international conservation group protecting threatened habitat, as a hunter for the New Zealand Park Service charged with culling non-native wild deer and pigs, as a horse packer and wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, and as a consulting forester.
I have heard some Christians advocate for a wanton, careless use of nature, because they viewed the non-human creation as base and unimportant. I also have witnessed “environmentalists” elevate nature to the status of a god.
Centered in Christ
But nothing in my experience has led me to a different conclusion from my childhood perspective: There is nothing incompatible with my love and concern for nature and my orthodox Lutheran Christian faith. Just as our lives as believers are necessarily Christocentric, or Christ-centered, so too then is our interaction with the non-human creation.
In the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, we declare: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” This fundamental Christian doctrine describes God as creative. It demands that we see ourselves, along with the rest of creation, as “contingent beings” completely dependent on God for our existence, for our sustenance, and for our future. There certainly is no room in the First Article for self-aggrandizing or anointing ourselves as the gods of this earth. Rather, God established a relationship with mankind that makes us both beneficiaries and caretakers of what He created.
But some have misappropriated the Genesis admonitions from God to our first parents to “rule and subdue” the earth to mean a heavy-handed, despotic rule. The simplest argument against this misinterpretation is that sin had not entered the world when God gave this instruction that placed mankind at the head of creation. So it could not have had connotations of sinfulness or harsh rule. Indeed, the Christian view of right rule is inextricably linked to the ultimate example of love, care, and self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus that was done for the benefit of others.
Yet, it is clear from the third chapter of Genesis that, with the Fall, this beautiful, benevolent relationship between mankind and the rest of creation was profoundly affected. The sin of mankind affected not only our relationship with God but also the creation itself. “Cursed is the ground because of you” describes both the fallen condition of the creation and the new, adversarial relationship that set creation against man because of sin. Where once there was perfect harmony and right rule based on man’s submission to God, now there is conflict between mankind and the very ground on which we stand: “Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:18). What was broken by man could not be fixed by us. Only the Gospel promise of God in Christ could lead to restoration.
That promise fulfilled is what Lutherans call the central article of our Christian faith: the declaration of righteousness for Christ’s sake—justification. Simply put, we are saved by God’s grace and we receive that gift of life through faith in Jesus Christ. It needs to be said that apart from a proper understanding of justification, the issue of Christian ethics (or any other issue) doesn’t matter very much.
Martin Luther noted: “What is it to me that God created heaven and earth if I do not believe in the forgiveness of sins? … It’s because of this article [of justification] that all other articles touch us.”
It is not surprising then that a Christian environmental ethic necessarily must proceed from an understanding of our place as those created by God and redeemed by Him.
Mankind’s relationship to the earth and its non-human inhabitants is an important issue to many people. While some may deny that there is anything to be concerned about, most of us recognize that our collective pressure on creation has stressed it to varying degrees in various geographic locations. Add to this a volatile mix of science, personal values, and economics, and the issues relating to the environment are sure to explode again and again.
Ecocentric versus anthropocentric
One of the clearest indicators of the importance that environmental concerns play is the proliferation of laws and regulations intended to protect and conserve water, air, soil, and animals. Environmental legislation has reflected a bifurcated “environmental ethic.” In most cases this ethic was anthropocentric—concerned with and focused upon humans, usually human health. At the same time, other laws, most notably the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act, recognized an intrinsic value in wildlife and wild land. This is sometimes dubbed an “ecocentric” ethic. These two ethics reflect the views of people today that exist along a continuum from a radical ecocentricity, where humans are viewed as a cancer on an otherwise healthy planet, to a radical anthropocentricity that would deny any value other than that defined by man.
At about the same time that these environmental protection laws were being developed, a body of academic literature began to suggest that Christianity was the principal force behind a radical anthropocentric view and hence the source for at least some of our environmental problems. White’s article that I read as a freshman in college turned out to be the opening salvo of what would become a familiar refrain: “Christianity is only concerned about people getting to heaven. Christians don’t care about the earth because it’s temporary, unimportant, and disconnected to their teaching about salvation.”
Christocentric environmental ethic
However, by the 1980s, a diverse group of Christian authors began to respond to the criticism. Organized groups of evangelical Christians were publishing books, supporting legislation, and organizing themselves politically. Many of those books and articles encouraged, exhorted, and sometimes threatened Christians to “live their faith” by protecting God’s creation. Major denominations promoted environmental stewardship, and ecumenical Christian environmental alliances were formed to back legislation, lobby, and pray (often in that order).
Not surprisingly, much of what has been written and said about the non-human creation by Christians reveals a spectrum of thought from the helpful, to the heterodox, to the downright heretical.
Grounded in doctrine
What many Christians seem to have missed is that a true “environmental ethic” is grounded in the same things in which all Christian ethics are grounded: Christian doctrine.
Holy Scripture provides an ample basis for a Christian environmental ethic grounded in the doctrines of creation, sin, justification, sanctification, and the greatest commandment, the “Law of Love” for the neighbor.
This approach establishes the centrality of the fundamental tenets of our Christian faith as the basis for a proper Christian environmental ethic, and it therefore neither denies the value of the non-human creation nor views it in a way that violates the First Commandment.
As conservative Lutherans, most of us have allowed the discussions on environmental ethics to pass us by, perhaps because we consider it beneath us, or “too liberal,” or not an important issue. Yet, giving voice to a solid, biblical framework for considering our relationship to and treatment of the non-human creation is something we are well positioned to do. For instance, just using the word “creation” or “created order” establishes a powerful environmental ethic, and all the more so when we also speak of the universal ramifications of Christ’s atoning work and the Christian life of love.
As Christians, we are brought to see ourselves as the beneficiaries of God’s grace first through experiencing His creation, and then, more thoroughly, through the revealed Word. This attitude of awe and gratitude leads us to approach His creation as people who are blessed with a life-giving material gift intended for our support and for that of our neighbor—the neighbor who lives in this generation and the ones who are yet to come.
Our Lutheran doctrine declares that we are not moved to any good work by the threats of the Law, nor is it appropriate to attempt to motivate others in this way. The proper motivation for the work of caring for the creation is a response to the Gospel—a response to the love we were first shown in Christ. We have been transformed by the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work and moved by the comfort of the Gospel to do the “good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). And for each of us, that good work involves the stewardship of a marvelous creation for the benefit of the neighbor and to the glory of its Creator.
A Christian Environmental Ethic
Christian environmental ethic is complex in practice, but it’s based on precisely the same principles as any other Christian ethic: our orthodox Christian doctrine of God’s infinite love for His creation, mankind’s disobedience, Christ’s atoning work, and the Christian life of love. The Christian environmental ethic acknowledges, relies on, and acts on these basic premises; no other basis exists for “right action” of any sort.
- All that exists is a product of creation by God who unilaterally chooses to act and to interact.
- Every living thing is a creature with a place in the created order that was designed by God and is contingent on Him.
- The created order places mankind as the overseer and steward of the rest of the creation.
- As part of embracing the order of creation, Christians reject teachings that despise the material creation.
- God continues to preserve His creation as an expression of His love and favor.
- God is active in His creation as He sustains, nurtures, and provides for it and graciously makes provision for all, human and non-human.
- God’s providence is exhibited in the basic processes of life, but God is not to be understood as intrinsically present in or a part of the creation.
- When sin came into the world through the disobedience of humans, all creation fell from a state of harmony with God and among itself.
- Man’s sin had two immediate consequences for the rest of creation:
– The non-human creation was cursed and set in opposition to mankind, and
– man’s right rule was disrupted and replaced by a tainted, despotic rule and disobedience to God.
- The schism between God and man, between God and His non-human creation, and among the creation itself is complete and cannot be reconciled by man.
- God has provided a means of reconciling Himself to His fallen creation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- He draws us to Himself by granting us faith in Christ as the means to salvation and declares us to be righteous for Christ’s sake. The means of God’s grace are His Word and Sacraments.
- Creation attests to God as creator and provider but not to Christ or His work of redemption.
- We are “new creatures” (1 Cor. 5:17) in Christ, who, because we are reconciled to God by God, are enabled and called to be reconciled to our neighbors and to creation.
- A part of God’s justification is the restoration of the entire creation to a right relationship with Him and within itself at the end of time.
Sanctification and New Obedience
- We are enabled by the Holy Spirit to love the neighbor. This necessarily includes the preservation and conservation of God’s gifts of creation that support them.
- We are called to recognize God’s sovereignty and ownership of all things created.
- Our relationship to the creation is not appropriately expressed at one extreme—as a direct contact with God, nor at the other extreme—merely as an economic commodity.
- Because God places value on all of His creation, we recognize it as valuable; both His creation and His Word establish this value.
- We conduct ourselves in our daily calling (vocation) in service of God and neighbor. It is in the context of our daily life and work that we may most effectively exercise our Christian environmental ethic.
The Greatest Commandment—the Law of Love
- As new creatures in Christ, we are created to do the good works of love of God and neighbor. It is this that guides and directs our actions and decisions.
- As this pertains to care of the creation, we are guided by our love for God and our desire to worship, honor, and praise Him by receiving and managing with the utmost care all the gifts of God’s creation.
- We endeavor to put our own interests alongside those of our neighbor and in all things seek the betterment of others. The good of others on this earth, while they are on this earth, is dependent on the material blessings of God through His creation.