by Roger Timm
There are those who would find the combination of terms in this title, "ecological," "theology," and "the Bible," to be hopelessly contradictory or incompatible. There are those who believe that the Bible and theology based on it are anything but ecologically sound, or even ecologically-minded. They would share the position described by Lynn White, Jr., in his classic article, "The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis" (White, 1967), that Biblical creation theology has served instead to undermine ecological concerns and to support exploitation and abuse of the earth and its resources. The Biblical command from Genesis 1 that humans are to subdue the earth and have dominion over it has been used to justify a whole host of ways of depleting the earth’s resources, of polluting air and water, and of endangering the continued existence of various parts of creation.
In fairness it should be noted that the previous position does not reflect White’s position accurately. He does not argue that the Bible in actuality does affirm such an exploitative approach to the earth; rather he argues that the Bible has in fact been interpreted to support such an approach. Furthermore, White argues that an interpretation of the command to exercise dominion in Genesis 1 that allows for exploitation of the earth and its resources has developed primarily from Latin Christianity, beginning already in the Middle Ages. White suggests that the way out of our ecological crisis is to undergo a spiritual conversation and recommends St. Francis of Assisi as a model of harmonious and respectful living with nature for this conversion.
While White’s article has been subjected to some well-deserved criticism (see, for example, Derr, 1975, and Berry, 1979), his main point is surely beyond reproach: Western Christians have used the creation account in Genesis 1 to support their abuse of the environment. Has this use of Genesis, however, been a legitimate one? Basically, the answer to this question is "No."
To support this claim it is important to examine the main theological points of the Biblical creation accounts. I refer to the "Biblical creation accounts" purposely, for there is more than one creation account in the
Bible. Most Biblical scholars agree that there are two separate creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, and there is increasing recognition that the Bible’s creation theology is expressed in passages other than those of Genesis 1 and 2. Bernhard Anderson, for example, has argued that in the Hebrew Scriptures there are four strata of creation theology: the pre-monarchic level where creation is seen in the Exodus event as the creation of the human community of the people of Israel; the monarchic level where creation is seen as the creation of social order, which is represented in the Davidic monarchy — reflected in Genesis 2; the level of Wisdom literature where creation is seen as the expression of God’s majesty and wisdom, apart from historical events; and the priestly level where creation is seen as the inauguration of a series of covenants — reflected in Genesis 1 (Anderson, 1984).
In the first stratum of Biblical creation theology little distinction is made between God the Creator and God the Liberator of the people of Israel; in fact God is seen as displaying the power of the Creator in creating the community of Israel in the Exodus. In the "Song of Moses" in Exodus 15 God’s power over the waters of the Sea of Reeds is described in language reminiscent of the view of God’s power over the waters of the primordial deep in Israel’s creation accounts. In "The Song of Moses" in Deuteronomy 32 God is praised for the Exodus with words that depict God as Creator — interestingly enough with imagery describing God as both father and mother. Psalm 77, 16-20, explicitly connects an ancient hymn of creation with a reference to God leading God’s people "like a flock" by the hands of Moses and Aaron. Similarly, if somewhat anachronistically, Second Isaiah uses language of creation to depict how God will re-do the Exodus once again by returning the people of Israel to their homeland from their exile in Babylon.
Given the scheme of different levels of creation theology described above, the narrative in Genesis 2 represents a level that precedes that in Genesis 1. While the story undergirds the hierarchical social structure of the Davidic monarchy (God over Adam and Eve who were over the garden just as God was over the king who was over the people of Israel), the narrative does suggest a relationship with the environment that is less exploitative than the view in Genesis 1. Adam clearly is given power over the animals by being assigned the task of naming them, but the responsibility Adam and Eve have to tend the garden suggests a caring and nurturing relationship with the earth. They were to till the garden so that it would thrive and flourish; abusing the earth would jeopardize the well-being of the garden and contradict their God-given charge to keep the garden.
The third stratum is the level of Wisdom literature. The most representative passages of this level are probably Job 38-41 and Psalm 104. The creation event is viewed here as an universal, cosmological event, not one tied in with some particular historical event in the life of one certain people, Israel. Moreover, creation is seen as the expression of God’s wisdom; creation demonstrates the transcendent power and majesty of God and no mere mortal ought have the audacity to challenge God. It is in this level of the Biblical creation accounts that we see most clearly the remnants of the mythological view of creation as the result of a primordial cosmic battle between God and the forces of chaos, usually manifested in the form of monsters like Leviathan or Behemoth. In the Bible, however, these monsters have been created by God. They are not mythic rivals of God for the control of the universe, but they have been tamed by God, created to function almost like pets for God.
On the final level is the priestly narrative in Genesis 1 that continues the cosmological scope of the Wisdom level but that sees the creation account as the first in a series of covenants. This creation account contains those passages that have been interpreted in ways that have supported exploitation of the environment, but upon careful analysis it appears that this narrative does not support such an interpretation. Consider, first of all, the statement that humans are created in the "image of God." This phrase has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but most frequently it has been taken to mean that humans share some characteristic of God that no other creatures have, such as rationality. This interpretation has supported the view that humans are qualitatively distinct from and superior to other creatures. Such a dichotomy between humans and other creatures can serve to legitimate the use or abuse of animals for human purposes with little regard for how the animals are affected. It turns out, however, that the "image of God" probably does not imply that humans possess some divine characteristic, but rather that they have been assigned a special function by God. That is, just as kings in Biblical times would place their statue ("image") in distant parts of their realm to remind their subjects of who was king, so humans are to represent God in all parts of the earth. (See, for example, Westermann, 1974, pp. 55-60.) The phrase "image of God," then, implies that humans have the responsibility to represent God on earth and to treat and care for the earth in ways that are consistent with the Creator’s will for the earth.
Similarly, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated "have dominion over" does not mean that humans can exercise arbitrary power over the earth and do whatever they please with creation. This word is usually employed to describe the kind of rule that responsible and caring monarchs exercise over their people. "To have dominion over the earth," then, does not imply that humans may abuse the environment but suggests that humans are to exercise responsible and caring stewardship of the earth and its resources. (See Llmburg, 1971.)
Unfortunately, for the sake of my line of argument, I cannot make a similar case for the other word in the text of Genesis 1 at issue here, "subdue the earth." The word translated "subdue" is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the conquest of nations or soldiers, the enslaving of people, or even to assaulting a woman. The word clearly supports the image of the conquest, or even rape, of the earth. The best I can do is to appeal to the historical context and suggest that for people in those earlier ages nature could indeed be threatening and need to be tamed or conquered for the sake of human survival — a sense that we have largely lost except perhaps in the face of natural disasters or when attempting to survive in wilderness or desert areas.
The strata of creation theology continue into the Christian Scriptures. Here I want to focus on only one passage — from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Ignoring the environment, if not abusing it, has been a corollary of a Christian theology that has emphasized the entrance of Jesus Christ into human history to save or liberate all people — at the expense of any focus on creation theology. A passage in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, 19-23, suggests that it may be erroneous to separate God’s creative and liberating activities. There Paul writes that all creation "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." It seems clear that in this passage Paul envisions all of creation as participating in God’s final salvation. How much of this is metaphorical we can not be sure, but Paul seems to be countering two tendencies among Christians that were prevalent then and that remain today: a tendency that emphasizes the spiritual at the expense of the physical and another that so stresses hope for the end of time that present, earthly reality is ignored. Paul argues instead that God’s salvation includes the physical, not just the spiritual, and that we are bound up with all of creation in God’s liberating process right here and now. Paul’s argument envisions human reality as interconnected with the rest of creation even in matters of salvation (Bindemann, 1983).
In summary, Biblical creation theology — in different ways in each of the strata — supports the following affirmations:
1) There is one God with transcendent power over all of creation. This affirmation may seem less relevant today than during the polytheistic age in which the Bible was first written, but we may need to be reminded of this message as we worship at the shrines of success, money, upward mobility, consumerism, and human convenience.
2) God is essentially a good and caring God. This affirmation, too, may not seem to be relevant today, but it needs to be said to those who see God primarily as a judgmental and vindictive force.
3) God’s creation in its origin was essentially good. Surely the reality of evil in the world, as described already in Genesis 3, needs to be taken into account, but the Bible contradicts all those, including people within the Biblical tradition, who reject some aspect of the created order as evil or shameful. Whether it be human sexuality or the arts, the tiniest plant or the largest animal, the creation is to be valued and affirmed for its own sake, not rejected.
4) Humans have been given the responsibility of carefully and respectfully tending the earth and seeing that it thrives and flourishes. The creation accounts in the Bible do not permit the exploitation of the earth for any and all human purposes; rather they indicate that humans are to treasure the earth’s resources that have been entrusted to them. Whether humans deplete natural resources or pollute the environment, we are violating this divine trust.
5) Humans have been created in continuity with the rest of the created order, even as we have been given responsibility for it. Humans are bound up in solidarity with all of creation and are not separate and distinct from other creatures. Ironically, the continuity of all life forms that is a basic corollary of the theory of evolution is affirmed by this implication of Biblical creation theology. This affirmation has implications for, among other things, the issue of animal rights. The Bible supports the notion that animals as well as humans have the right to ethical treatment. Whether dealing with animal rights or other issues of environmental ethics, the Bible supports a position that makes ethical decisions not simply on the basis of the instrumental value of creatures for human purposes, but on the basis of the intrinsic value all the products of God’s creative activity possess.
6) The variety of Biblical creation accounts suggests that the message of the Bible’s creation theology may legitimately be applied in different ways in distinctive situations. The task of those who accept the Bible’s authority is to determine what specific actions are implied for today by the general principles of biblical creation theology. Whatever "having dominion and subduing the earth" may have meant in other eras, today it surely means protecting the earth from overpopulation, toxic wastes, and nuclear holocaust. While the need to limit our use of the earth’s resources may not have been obvious in previous ages, it surely is clear now that responsible caring for the earth requires some such limitation.
Based on this discussion of Biblical creation theology, I believe that I have shown that theology can indeed be ecological and environmentally-minded — that is, in fact, can be a valuable tool for supporting and encouraging appropriate care of the environment.
Anderson, Bernard W. "Mytho-Poeic and Theological Dimensions of Biblical Creation Faith," Creation in the Old Testament ed. Bernard W. Anderson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. pp. 1-24.
Berry, Wendell. "The Gift of Good Land," Sierra 64 (November-December 1979), 2026.
Bindemann, Walther. Die Hoffnung der Schoepfung. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1983.
Derr, Thomas Sieger. "Religion’s Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis: An Argument Run Amok," Woridview, 18 (January 1975), 39-45.
Frye, Roland Mushat, ed. Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983.
Limburg, James. "What Does it Mean to ‘Have Dominion Over the Earth’?" Dialog 10 (1971), 221-223.
Westermann, Claus. Creation trans. John J. Scullion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.
White, Lynn, Jr. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155 (March 10, 1967), 1203-1207.
Roger Timm, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa.