Christianity and the Environment
There is an introductory video clip here: http://youtu.be/EZAQCOwrAig
I. Some Questions to think about …
There are a number of interesting theological questions that underlie a Christian study of earth and atmospheric sciences. As we work through this course, we are studying God’s creation. Here are some questions you may wish to reflect upon:
- Does God reveal Himself in creation?
- If so … How does He reveal Himself?
- How much of God can we learn from creation?
- How ought we to treat creation, if creation is God’s handiwork … and if creation (undisturbed by humanity) reveals God?
- What are the implications of human degradation of creation?
- If God does not reveal Himself in creation … is it really His creation? Would we not expect to see something of the designer in the design?
- Can people who do not know God through the Bible or a church know anything about Him through observing creation? If so, what?
- Are people who never hear “the gospel” in a formal sense, still accountable to God?
Note … I deliberately choose to use the word “creation” not “nature.” This is biblically appropriate (see Genesis 1-2, Colossians 1). And it emphasizes that when we speak of the natural world, we are speaking of something God intentionally spoke into being. It is not “just there.” It is a deliberate, intentional, planned part of God’s creative activity. Therefore, it is God’s. God is the one who says, “all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. Every bird of the mountains and all the animals of the field belong to me …all the world is mine and everything in it.” (Psalm 50:10-12).
Take a few moments to read these passages:
- Psalm 19:1-6
- Romans 1:18-32, 2:14-16
- Acts 14:15-17
- Acts 17:22-31
What do these portions of Scripture suggest in response to these questions:
- Does “creation” provide a common ground, or point of contact, between believers and non-believers?
- Can God be known in nature, apart from the Bible? How much can people know about him in that way?
- What do these passages suggest about the salvation/responsibility to respond to God of people who haven’t heard “the gospel” in a formal way?
- From these passages, are all people inherently religious?
II. God in Creation
Questions about whether God is revealed in His creation, how much of God is revealed in His creation, and what kind of response people ought to make to this have been debated in the Christian circles for centuries.
Christians recognise that God reveals Himself in two main ways:
- General revelation – made by God to all people everywhere includes the ideas that God reveals aspects of His character through creation, through history, and through moral experience. This is what we are thinking about in this discussion.
- Special revelation – through the miracle of incarnation (God becoming a human being in Jesus), and the inspired words of the Bible, God has revealed Himself more fully and much more clearly. Alas, not everyone has had an opportunity to be exposed to and respond to this special revelation. That’s why we are called to be God’s ambassadors and witnesses (2 Corinthians 5, Acts 1).
The issue, then, is, how much value is there to general revelation (especially in creation)?
Within the Christian tradition at least two main “theologies” have been proposed. The most useful approach may be somewhere in between …
One theological approach suggests that God reveals himself through creation, history and human personality (conscience, etc.) to the extent that it is actually possible to gain some true knowledge of God from them – i.e. you can get to know God without the Bible.
It is, therefore, possible — by reason alone — to come to a genuine knowledge of God apart from the church or Scripture. Natural theology suggests that we can get to know a lot about God by using our own human reason. We can prove His existence rationally. We can learn about His attributes and nature rationally.
Natural theology has roots in Greek thought (particularly Aristotle, but also Plato and Cicero).
- First, because scholars were looking to the church “Fathers” (earlier Christian writers) for resolving issues and found the Fathers didn’t agree! So, Thomas argued that God’s truth was evident and discernible by reason – with or without reference to the Fathers!
- Second, Thomas proposed natural theology because the church was encountering non-Christian ideas and groups. He found that the traditional Christian response, simply saying, for example, “The Bible says this or that, therefore you ought to believe …” was of little value! The response came back, “The Koran says …” (Islam) or “Moses says (or the Rabbis say) …” (Judaism). Appealing to the Bible as your authority only works if everyone agrees that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and thus authoritative. (This is a good reminder for us in a multi-faith world, today)
Thomas argued that if any real impact were to be made on persons from other religious backgrounds (or no religious backgrounds) it would be necessary to enter a neutral arena where no special authority need be appealed to, and to settle the matter of truth in a logical, reasoned way. Thomas tried to do just that. He believed he could prove the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul, and the supernatural origin of the church without reference to the Bible. His goal was mission! He was one of the first great apologists.
Among Thomas Aquinas’ five arguments were:
- A cosmological proof for the existence of God. He argued that since everything we know of is ultimately caused by something, there must be an “ultimate cause” of everything! This ultimate cause, Aquinas suggested, had to be God.
- A teleological argument. Thomas argued that the orderliness and design of creation suggests an intelligent creator: God. A contemporary reemergence of this line of thinking is the Intelligent Design literature.
A more detailed summary of these proofs is found here.
Therefore Thomas argued that any intelligent, rational person could come to faith in God, apart from a knowledge of the Bible. By carefully observing creation, Thomas argued, a person could come to believe in God as holy and good (from the anthropological argument), as intelligent and orderly (from the teleological argument) and as creator and sustainer (from the cosmological argument).
Many early scientists saw that the more they learned about nature, the more they learned about the glory and beauty of God. Science for most Christians in science (Newton, Linnaeus, etc) saw that the more they studied and understood natural processes, the more majestic and amazing God became for them.
A helpful blog summary of natural theology is here: Searching for Goodness
An excellent (quite academic) book is Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (London: Blackwell, 2008). Also check out the 100 years of Gifford Lectures online.
B. Scripture and Creation
Karl Barth and others have suggested that while creation and other forms of general revelation may be able to reveal a little about God, they are insufficient to help a person understand enough about God’s love. Barth argues that simply observing God’s handiwork does not lead to a knowledge of salvation and thus is, ultimately, of no value. To really know God, you must know Jesus Christ. After all, God’s salvation is by grace and grace alone – we do not work for it – God comes to us. That is what the incarnation, cross, and resurrection are all about.
In contrast, natural theology seems to suggest that if we work hard enough and search diligently enough in nature, we can get to know God. We are not saved by grace, but by our diligence and hard work.
Barth argues that people do NOT discover God in nature first. They know about God first from Scripture, and only then are people able to recognise God’s presence in creation.
However many people – including C.S. Lewis … and myself – have discovered God, initially at least, through observation of the natural world. Many of the great scientists of history (Newton, Boyle, Pasteur, Pascal, Francis Bacon) saw God as the “why,” the purpose behind the “how” of their studies. They saw their study of God’s orderly creation as an act of worship and devotion.
C. God Reveals Himself in both the Book of His Word and the Book of His Works
This “middle ground” position – includes the insights of both Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth – asserts that God has given us an objective, rational, valid revelation of Himself in creation, in history, and in human personality AND clear revelation of Himself in Scripture. Whether or not anyone observes it, understands it and believes it, it is inherent within God’s creation. And whether or not anyone actually reads it, God clearly reveals Himself in Scripture.
While God has revealed Himself in His creation, sin has taken its toll, obscuring this revelation.
- Sin has marred the witness of creation. While the natural world is still God’s creation and continues to witness to him it is not quite what it was when it came from God’s hand; the testimony to the Creator is blurred. Human sinfulness has tainted all of creation (see Genesis 3:16-19, Romans 8:18-25).
- Sin has blurred our ability to perceive God and His handiwork. Our perceptions are skewed by our sinful natures as well. So as we consider creation we cannot perceive God clearly enough to come to a saving knowledge of God. We can learn much about God from creation. But ultimately we cannot learn enough from creation to be saved.
What is necessary is what John Calvin calls, “the spectacles of faith.” Calvin says a sinner is like a person with a sight problem. Everything is blurry, indistinct. But when he puts on spectacles he can see clearly. So, when the Holy Spirit works within a person, or someone is exposed to the Scriptures and responds by faith, his mind is cleared through regeneration and he is able to see and recognise in nature what he has learned about God.
God is the creator. It is reasonable to expect that, despite the effects of sin, God’s nature and character are revealed in creation. The Holy Spirit can help persons be introduced to God through His world. And, through faith, a person can discover much about God — His glory, His beauty, and His ways — through His creation.
It is very possible (contrary to Barth) to get inklings of God by exploring creation. It is very possible to get inklings of God from observing human conscience. But we do need special revelation to fully comprehend salvation.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has this wonderful quote: “To conclude, therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works … but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.”
These are interesting theological issues to think through!
III. Implications of God as Creator
There are some practical implications of this discussion! These can change the way you relate to people … and to the creation:
- Creation does provide a common ground or a point of contact between Christians and people of other (or no) faiths. As Christians we believe in God as creator. By studying creation (as we do in this course), we can engage in a knowledgeable and healthy discussion with others who are interested in the environment. We can direct them to the source of the all we see. Some non-Christians suggest that Christians do not care about the environment! We ought to care! Frankly, we’d better care! This is God’s world! We are His trusted stewards of it (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). To not care for God’s creation is to not care for God! As we care for our environment, we can develop relationships with non-Christians. My experience, having spent far too many years in public universities (about 12 years!), discussing the “intelligent design” evident in creation, questioning ultimate origins, and exploring human conscience can lead to exciting opportunities to share Christian faith with others. Having a high view of creation as God’s handiwork builds evangelistic, missional bridges to people in our world! Not caring about creation is a stumbling block to people coming to faith: there is logical contradiction when we claim to love a God, the Creator, but we do not care about His creation.
- There is a possibility of some (albeit limited) knowledge of God from nature, apart from Scripture. Non-Christian people may have a sense of “the divine” as they interact with the world. However they will not have a saving faith. While the environment may be a point of contact, we need to help them discover the saving grace of God, revealed through Jesus Christ. We do need the Bible and its truths to help people discover salvation. We may find, however, that non-Christians already have a deep sense of God’s presence in creation … without knowing God! This is exciting! The Holy Spirit has prepared folks to hear the gospel by observing their world! People are excited when they see our faith in God translate into concrete care for His creation!
- God is just in holding all people accountable for the revelation of God they have received. While we are not going to get into the debate of who exactly is saved or not saved (save that for Systematic Theology!), we can suggest that God has provided some revelation of Himself to everyone – and everyone is responsible for at least that knowledge of God which they have received. This ought to be a motivation for us to be about the business of helping people discover a personal, saving relationship with Christ and a Christian community where they can grow in their faith. We do need to have passion to help people who have a sense of the divine discover God!
- All people are inherently religious. Everyone has some knowledge of God – whether or not they acknowledge it. This suggests that all people may be open to hearing the gospel. No one is really “secular.” We are all religious. We all have beliefs about life, the universe, and everything. Even atheists have beliefs about God, their own personal purpose, and eternity. Not believing in God is just as much a religious, faith conviction as believing in God! As you talk with people, seek to find those areas where you already agree … then lead them to Jesus.
- There will be complete harmony between what God reveals of Himself in Scripture and what God reveals of Himself in creation. Since the created world around us is God’s handiwork, we can expect it to be in harmony with God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Historically, Christian scientists have seen their task of exploring the world as inherently spiritual – they were investigating God’s creation and thus getting to know God more fully. This is an exciting and faith-affirming way to approach natural science! We can see a course such as this as a course in theology – getting to know God! This also suggests that any accurate scientific findings will not contradict what we read in the Bible. Nor will an accurate reading of the Bible contradict solid scientific evidence. Apparent conflicts between God’s creation and God’s revelation must be the result of either incomplete scientific investigation or an inadequate understanding of the Bible (more about that in the other course).
- The natural sciences are NOT a threat to Christian faith! Rather, natural sciences will affirm faith in a creator God. We need not fear science as a threat to our faith. Rather we can trust that any new truth natural science uncovers will point even more clearly to our creator God. Natural science, when done well, helps us know God better! As we study God’s creation we get deeper insights into the creative Genius who is the Creator!
- We will live differently! These truths also influence how we, as God’s people, live in His creation.
- Two recent statements expand on these more fully:
a. Pope Francis presented a wonderful encyclical letter on the Care of Creation (2015): Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. There is some wonderful biblical theology (and good science) in his writing.
- Read the whole text here
- There is a good summary and overview here
- Pope Francis’ comments follow on a long line of Catholic statements on the care of creation
b. The Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation (1994) presents similar thoughts:
On the Care of Creation: An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation
The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof – Psalm 24:1
As followers of Jesus Christ, committed to the full authority of the Scriptures, and aware of the ways we have degraded creation, we believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems.
Because we worship and honor the Creator, we seek to cherish and care for the creation.
Because we have sinned, we have failed in our stewardship of creation. Therefore we repent of the way we have polluted, distorted, or destroyed so much of the Creator’s work.
Because in Christ God has healed our alienation from God and extended to us the first fruits of the reconciliation of all things, we commit ourselves to working in the power of the Holy Spirit to share the Good News of Christ in word and deed, to work for the reconciliation of all people in Christ, and to extend Christ’s healing to suffering creation.
Because we await the time when even the groaning creation will be restored to wholeness, we commit ourselves to work vigorously to protect and heal that creation for the honor and glory of the Creator—whom we know dimly through creation, but meet fully through Scripture and in Christ. We and our children face a growing crisis in the health of the creation in which we are embedded, and through which, by God’s grace, we are sustained. Yet we continue to degrade that creation.
These degradations of creation can be summed up as 1) land degradation; 2) deforestation; 3) species extinction; 4) water degradation; 5) global toxification; 6) the alteration of atmosphere; 7) human and cultural degradation.
Many of these degradations are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God has set for creation. With continued population growth, these degradations will become more severe. Our responsibility is not only to bear and nurture children, but to nurture their home on earth. We respect the institution of marriage as the way God has given to insure thoughtful procreation of children and their nurture to the glory of God.
We recognize that human poverty is both a cause and a consequence of environmental degradation.
Many concerned people, convinced that environmental problems are more spiritual than technological, are exploring the world’s ideologies and religions in search of non-Christian spiritual resources for the healing of the earth. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that the Bible calls us to respond in four ways:
First, God calls us to confess and repent of attitudes which devalue creation, and which twist or ignore biblical revelation to support our misuse of it. Forgetting that “the earth is the Lord’s,” we have often simply used creation and forgotten our responsibility to care for it.
Second, our actions and attitudes toward the earth need to proceed from the center of our faith, and be rooted in the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ and the Scriptures. We resist both ideologies which would presume the Gospel has nothing to do with the care of non-human creation and also ideologies which would reduce the Gospel to nothing more than the care of that creation.
Third, we seek carefully to learn all that the Bible tells us about the Creator, creation, and the human task. In our life and words we declare that full good news for all creation which is still waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” (Rom. 8:19).
Fourth, we seek to understand what creation reveals about God’s divinity, sustaining presence, and everlasting power, and what creation teaches us of its God-given order and the principles by which it works.
Thus we call on all those who are committed to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to affirm the following principles of biblical faith, and to seek ways of living out these principles in our personal lives, our churches, and society.
The cosmos, in all its beauty, wildness, and life-giving bounty, is the work of our personal and loving Creator.
Our creating God is prior to and other than creation, yet intimately involved with it, upholding each thing in its freedom, and all things in relationships of intricate complexity. God is transcendent, while lovingly sustaining each creature; and immanent, while wholly other than creation and not to be confused with it.
God the Creator is relational in very nature, revealed as three persons in One. Likewise, the creation which God intended is a symphony of individual creatures in harmonious relationship.
The Creator’s concern is for all creatures. God declares all creation “good” (Gen. 1:31); promises care in a covenant with all creatures (Gen. 9:9-17); delights in creatures which have no human apparent usefulness (Job 39-41); and wills, in Christ, “to reconcile all things to himself” (Col.1:20).
Men, women, and children, have a unique responsibility to the Creator; at the same time we are creatures, shaped by the same processes and embedded in the same systems of physical, chemical, and biological interconnections which sustain other creatures.
Men, women, and children, created in God’s image, also have a unique responsibility for creation. Our actions should both sustain creation’s fruitfulness and preserve creation’s powerful testimony to its Creator.
Our God-given, stewardly talents have often been warped from their intended purpose: that we know, name, keep and delight in God’s creatures; that we nourish civilization in love, creativity and obedience to God; and that we offer creation and civilization back in praise to the Creator. We have ignored our creaturely limits and have used the earth with greed, rather than care.
The earthly result of human sin has been a perverted stewardship, a patchwork of garden and wasteland in which the waste is increasing. “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land…Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away” (Hosea 4:1,3). Thus, one consequence of our misuse of the earth is an unjust denial of God’s created bounty to other human beings, both now and in the future.
God’s purpose in Christ is to heal and bring to wholeness not only persons but the entire created order. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Col. 1:19-20).
In Jesus Christ, believers are forgiven, transformed and brought into God’s kingdom. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17). The presence of the kingdom of God is marked not only by renewed fellowship with God, but also by renewed harmony and justice between people, and by renewed harmony and justice between people and the rest of the created world. “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12).
We believe that in Christ there is hope, not only for men, women and children, but also for the rest of creation which is suffering from the consequences of human sin.
Therefore we call upon all Christians to reaffirm that all creation is God’s; that God created it good; and that God is renewing it in Christ.
We encourage deeper reflection on the substantial biblical and theological teaching which speaks of God’s work of redemption in terms of the renewal and completion of God’s purpose in creation.
We seek a deeper reflection on the wonders of God’s creation and the principles by which creation works. We also urge a careful consideration of how our corporate and individual actions respect and comply with God’s ordinances for creation.
We encourage Christians to incorporate the extravagant creativity of God into their lives by increasing the nurturing role of beauty and the arts in their personal, ecclesiastical, and social patterns.
We urge individual Christians and churches to be centers of creation’s care and renewal, both delighting in creation as God’s gift, and enjoying it as God’s provision, in ways which sustain and heal the damaged fabric of the creation which God has entrusted to us.
We recall Jesus’ words that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, and therefore we urge followers of Jesus to resist the allure of wastefulness and overconsumption by making personal lifestyle choices that express humility, forbearance, self restraint and frugality.
We call on all Christians to work for godly, just, and sustainable economies which reflect God’s sovereign economy and enable men, women and children to flourish along with all the diversity of creation. We recognize that poverty forces people to degrade creation in order to survive; therefore we support the development of just, free economies which empower the poor and create abundance without diminishing creation’s bounty.
We commit ourselves to work for responsible public policies which embody the principles of biblical stewardship of creation.
We invite Christians–individuals, congregations and organizations–to join with us in this evangelical declaration on the environment, becoming a covenant people in an ever-widening circle of biblical care for creation.
We call upon Christians to listen to and work with all those who are concerned about the healing of creation, with an eagerness both to learn from them and also to share with them our conviction that the God whom all people sense in creation (Acts 17:27) is known fully only in the Word made flesh in Christ the living God who made and sustains all things.
We make this declaration knowing that until Christ returns to reconcile all things, we are called to be faithful stewards of God’s good garden, our earthly home.
c. A Rocha is an international Christian conservation NGO working to show God’s love for all creation. This video features theologians (John Stott, Alister McGrath, James Jones) and scientists (Ghillean Prance, Simon Stuart) who talk about the biblical basis for creation care: A Rocha: Why should Christians care for creation? (15:28 minutes) – Melissa Ong & Daniel Tay – YouTube
d. There are also great articles, videos, and other resources on the Christians in Science (UK) website: Environment – Christians in Science including:
- CiS’s response to the Pope’s Encyclical, Laudato si, by Prof Euan Nisbet, CiS Trustee
- “Thinking About…Creation Care” by Ghillean Prance
- A Burning Issue: Christian Care for the Environment (pdf; Dec. 2006)
Prof Bob White
- Why should Christians care for the planet? (pdf)
Prof Bob White.
- Is Religion Bad for the Environment? (pdf)
- What is Genetic Engineering? (pdf, from 2001)
Prof Derek Burke
- Why is there such a fuss about the genetic engineering of crops? (pdf, from 2001)
Prof Derek Burke
- Will genetic engineering help feed the world or not? (pdf, from 2001)
Prof Derek Burke
- ‘Gardening’ with God [pdf, 398K] Sir John Houghton, CBE, FRS. Physicist.
- The Dying Planet?[pdf, 480K] Professor Sir Ghillean Prance FRS. Biologist.
- ASA environment articles
- Climate Change Controversies: A simple guide from the Royal Society
- ‘Be joyful though you have considered all the facts’: the Bible and creation care
A lecture given by Dr Jonathan Moo at the 2012 CiS Residential Conference
- Christians and bio-diversity: why theology matters to tree frogs
A lecture given by Rev Peter Harris at the 2012 CiS Residential Conference
- Are natural disasters acts of God?
A lecture given by Professor Bob White at the 2012 CiS Residential Conference
- The non-political truth about climate change and a Christian response
A lecture given by Professor Katharine Hayhoe at the 2012 CiS Residential Conference
Audio (mp3 7.2MB)
CiS – Faraday lectures:
- Preserving Biodiversity: Is there a Biblical Reason?
Sir Ghillean Prance
- Global Warming: The Science, the Impacts & the Politics
Sir John Houghton
f. Other Useful Links:
- Evangelical Environmental Network www.creationcare.org
- Young Evangelicals for Climate Action Y.E.C.A. — Young Evangelicals for Climate Action
- A Rocha Canada http://www.arocha.ca
- Articles from John Ray Initiative (JRI)
- A Rocha Resources (UK)
- Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies Provides university level courses
- 12 Modules for Churches from Eco-Congregation Scotland
- 12 Modules from Eco-Congregation
- Green Jesus: responses by Christians in different professions to the question how they follow Jesus today in the light of climate change.
- Living Lightly, a simpler, greener lifestyle commitment from A Rocha, UK.
- John Ray Initiative is an educational charity that develops and communicates a Christian understanding of the environment.
- Evangelical Environmental Network.
- Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland (SRTP) Looking at the ethics of technology for a New Millennium.
- Promise Consulting: environmental and waste management consultancy, with comprehensive list of environmental/Christian links.
- Climate Stewards.
- Tear Fund: Climate change pages.
- European Christian Environment Network, Brussels, Belgium.
Feel free to discuss these issues on the course discussion site …
This page is the intellectual property of the author, Bruce Martin, and is copyrighted © 2019 by Bruce Martin. This page may be copied or printed only for educational purposes by students registered in courses taught by Dr. Martin. Any other use constitutes a criminal offence.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved