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A compelling theology for environmental responsibility

Christians can bring about sustainable, radical creation care, so what's stopping us?

In The Heat Is On, Jonathan Tame, of the UK's Jubilee Centre, links Jesus' discourse in Matthew 24-25 with the challenge of climate change. He ends with: "Jesus said we should learn to interpret the signs of the times. Could climate change be a sign that challenges the quality of our discipleship in a globalised world?" The recent Extinction Rebellion highlights the challenge.

This question had been growing in my heart for some decades, and is becoming increasingly urgent. But where does my concern for climate change and environmental responsibility (‘creation care’) sit theologically? How far should it change my life? Other evangelical Christians are no doubt asking these questions, too. 

Possibly because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, it must be all or nothing. If creation care is merely a nice-to-have add-on to theology, then I should not waste my God-given time and gifts on it. I long struggled with the central theological question: Is creation care just a sideshow to the gospel, or are nature and the planet really centrally important to God? And, in what ways? Five questions seemed to need answering. I briefly outline some answers I have discovered. 

The work of the Trinity 

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If nature and planet are centrally important to God, should not the whole Trinity be involved? 

As recounted elsewhere, I was praying over this: Father, I know that nature belongs to you. Jesus, I know that You bring resurrection to the creation (Romans 8:21; Revelation 20). But, Holy Spirit, how are you involved?” Immediately into my mind came together: (a) The Holy Spirit grows love, joy, peace, patience … self-control (Galatians 5:22 – 23). (b) As with agape love, all these apply regardless of their recipient. © So, they apply to nature. (d) Such an attitude can be grown only by the Spirit of God, not by human education, law, etc. (e) Therefore, full environmental responsibility requires the work of the Holy Spirit. I had my answer. 

The role of humankind 

Hasn’t God given humans dominion’ over the rest of Creation (Genesis 1:26 – 28)? 

Yes. But, as described elsewhere, examining the meaning of the root Hebrew words used reveals what kind of dominion’ (‘rule’, NIV) God intended for humans. Ezekiel 34, for instance, suggests that the dominion’ that God intended is that of a good shepherd, who cares for the sheep, leading them to where they flourish, rather than exploiting them for the shepherds’ comfort or convenience. Do not good shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep (John 10:11)?

When humans shepherd’ the rest of creation rather than exploit it (or even merely steward it), it rejoices in the way it does when it experience the presence of Yahweh (Isaiah 55:12). In this way humans are fulfilling their imaging of the God who has revealed Himself as agape Love (I John 4:8;16). I realised this resonates with the attitude the Holy Spirit wants to grow in Christ’s people? 

Sadly, nature and the planet experience terror and destruction at the hands of humans, rather than rejoicing. More sadly, it seems to me that some evangelical’ commentators excuse this. Their idea of imaging God is to emphasise our superiority over animals – rather like strutting princes, jealous of their own supposed superiority over others. Is that not the kind of like God’ that the serpent offered Eve in Genesis 3

What’s the solution? Education? Politics? Suddenly Romans 8 made a lot of sense, showing three-dimensional salvation’. 

Salvation has three dimensions 

If nature and planet are important to God, how does salvation apply to them? 

Put another way, when I bring people to Christ, in what ways is my environmental concern relevant? Answer: salvation has three dimensions, not just one, and each dimension has been rediscovered at different times in history. They happen to be all found together in Romans 8.

  • Dimension one: Justification through faith in Christ’s atonement – rediscovered during the Reformation. Romans 8:1 – 3: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
  • Dimension two: Salvation here-and-now: the Holy Spirit working in us to grow mature fruit and giving direct experiences of God – rediscovered during the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Romans 8:14 – 16: Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God … you received the Spirit of sonship. By him we cry Abba, Father’.” 
  • Dimension three: Christ’s people, mature sons of God”, bring healing and blessing that creation longs for, being rediscovered especially today. Romans 8:18,19: “…the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed.” 

The Greek word for sons’ of God, huios, signifies mature sons who image their father, so would act in any situation as their father would. The maturity comes from the Holy Spirit growing His fruit (as mentioned above) until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). This implies an attitude of self-giving love to the rest of creation. It’s no wonder the creation eagerly anticipates such human beings! 

Creation care, or environmental responsibility, thus seems to be an essential meaning, and intended outcome, of the gospel. I find that exciting. But have we just picked out a few scriptures to support this? 

Approach to analysing scripture 

If nature and planet are important to God, should it not recur throughout scripture? 

First, it resonates with individual pieces throughout scripture, throwing fresh light on them that I’d never seen before. For example, John 3:16: God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

God loved, not just humankind, but the world. How does world’ make sense of eternal life experienced by whoever believes? Eternal speaks not of duration but of quality of life, filled with fruit of the Holy Spirit, which our Lord uses to bless His world via His people (as mentioned in the first and third arguments above). It begins now as a seed’ that will blossom in the new creation (Paul’s metaphor in I Corinthians 15:36 – 7). 

Second, it should harmonise with scripture’s big story’, where neither Old nor New Testament are overshadowed by the other. For example, the theme of representing God pervades all scripture from beginning to end, taking several forms, including: humans representing God to creation, Israel representing God to the nations, prophets representing God to the people, Christ as God representing Himself in the world, Christ’s people representing Christ among the people and world. (Read New View – Overview of its Theology and Representing God – Bearing God’s Image and Name for deeper reflections on representing God.) 

Last, it should fulfil the sense of the words in the original Hebrew and Greek. For example, as mentioned above, Hebrew radah (root rd), does not mean dominate nor tread down (as even some lexicons mistakenly believe), but godly rule with love and justice. And this is backed up by three other words used in Genesis 1 and 2 (See analyses of the Hebrew words in Detailed Analysis of Radah and On the Interpretation of Four Hebrew Words:
Radah, Kabash, Abad, Shamar
).

That creation care accords with scripture in these three ways, turns what is exciting into something compelling. I have had to seriously consider its implications for my discipleship, especially my lifestyle. There are, of course, many other issues, for which we have no space here. For example, the eschaton, world powers, the Jews, etc. These are dealt with elsewhere, for example in the growing discussion in A New View: Theology & Practice.

Implications for discipleship 

Each of the above concur that nature and planet are centrally important to God. So, shouldn’t Christ’s people take the lead in environmental responsibility (creation care)? I believe there are three ways in which we should take a lead:

  1. Changing how we live, and our lifestyles. For example, not just easy’ things that are widely recognised like recycling and nature conservation, but also more challenging, seldom discussed, things like choosing to drive and fly less, to consume less by being content (Hebrews 13:5, I Timothy 6:8).
  2. Changing our worldviews – our expectations, aspirations, attitudes, heart-treasures (Romans 12:2; Matthew 6:21 and 32; Luke 12:34). God looks on the heart, even though man looks on the outward”. Do we run after what the pagans run after”? For instance, when we get annoyed with hindrances to driving or flying, does not that reveal our heart’s treasures?
  3. Changing the structures of society. Structures channel both the things above. Structures include the legal system, policy, the media, the economy, the system of beliefs, etc. Much of the Jewish Torah seems designed to build good societal structures, so that God’s people would tend to live aright. Was it not adventurous Evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury whom God used 200 years ago to change the structures of society? Why not today? 

Do Christ’s stark words about seeking first the kingdom of God” and losing his life” (Matthew 6:33; Luke 9:24) apply here? If, in the recent Extinction Rebellion, people were willing to go to prison for the sake of God’s creation, should not Christ’s people be even more willing? 

Conclusion

It is Christ’s people who are best equipped, by reason of the indwelling of God’s Spirit, to bring about sustainable, radical creation care. Humanistic ways, though achieving a little, will ultimately fail, but Christ’s people can get the rest of the world operating better, for the rejoicing of the whole creation. 

That is why it deeply saddens me that some American evangelical’ Christians resist environmental responsibility and that some in the UK, while not resisting, largely ignore it, or water it down to suit their present lifestyles. Does not judgement begin with the family of God (I Peter 4:17)?

If affluent Christians in the West refuse to lead on these changes, I pray that Christ’s people in the Global South or China will take up this challenge more seriously. 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Jonathan Tame, Paul Wintle and Andrew Hartley for comments that were crucial to strengthening the argument and orientating them appropriately.

The September-October edition of idea magazine (entitled God is just’) showcases how Christian individuals, organisations and churches around the UK are demonstrating God’s heart for justice by taking care of the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed, as well as the wider natural world, so do check it out.

About the author

Andrew Basden, active in the environmental movement since the 1970s as an evangelical Christian, is working out 'A New View in Theology and Practice' (http://abxn.org/nv/). He is professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at the University of Salford.

See more from Andrew Basden

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