Global ecology is a notable action item on the agenda of Reformed Christianity, the form of Protestant Christianity traditionally most committed t o a world-affirming faith. To understand this Reformed conception of global ecology, however, we must situate it in the context of the Christian worldview, best summarized for our present purposes as the creation-sin-redemption paradigm.
If, as Reformed Christians believe, the Bible is a divine revelation to humanity, we can be confident that a benevolent, just, sovereign God created the universe for His own gracious purposes, no matter how we resolve arguments about how precisely He created it or how long the creative process took. Galaxies, stars, planets, all of Earth’s plants and animals as well as its inanimate features—each is the effect of God’s creation ex nihilo. The narrative in the Book of Genesis from the Christian Bible insists that this creation was “good,” precisely what God intended it to be: benevolent, harmonious, orderly—and revelatory of its Creator. The inherent goodness of creation is essential to the Christian worldview and therefore dictates how Christians understand ecology.
The creation of humanity was God’s crowning achievement, male and female fashioned in His image. Humans, animals, plants, and microorganisms share a single status as God’s animate created order (the Creator/creature distinction); however, humans are distinguished from animals and plants in that we were created imago dei, in the image of God that we ineluctably bear (the human/nonhuman distinction). Man and woman were uniquely fashioned for love and communion, not only with one another but also with God. The animals, despite possessing, in some cases, high degrees of sensation and intelligence, were not designed for this unique, everlasting communion with God.
Moreover, God charged humanity with stewardship (caretaking) of the remaining creation. Genesis conveys that humanity’s charge is to govern creation (as God governs humanity). Men and women of all times and races, nations and creeds are called to be God’s benevolent vicegerents and caretakers of creation. This obligatory privilege is called the “cultural mandate.” Humanity’s divinely prescribed relationship to creation is one of active and perpetual interest, care, and cultivation.
The idea of stewardship is vitally significant to this discussion. While humanity is charged with managing creation, the creation is not our own to treat as we wish; it is God’s property: “[E]very beast of the forest is mine [says Jehovah], and the cattle upon a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). Nonetheless, humanity, as God’s crowning creation, enjoys priority in the creational hierarchy. Humans, the paramecium, the jackal, and the rhododendron are all splendorous examples of God’s creation, but humans alone bear the divine imprint and the divine charge to steward the surrounding created order. For this reason, God gave the first man and woman vegetation for food. For the same reason, God fashioned humanity’s first clothing from animal skins. The nonhuman creation exists for humanity’s benefit but not for our exploitation. Humanity is the caretaker; God is the owner.
The environment is our home and, therefore, subsists preeminently for our sustenance and delight under God’s ever-watchful care. This original ecological arrangement, enveloped in love and harmony and order, was to continue as long as humanity pleased God.
But humanity did not please God. Man and woman violated God’s plan—and broke God’s heart. Christians call this violation “sin.” Judgment for this sin spoiled the creation in the form of decay, destruction, and death. This is God’s curse on creation itself. Creation, originally designed to serve humanity harmoniously, would thereafter pose hardships to us—taxing labor in soil cultivation, hostile animals, and an uneven climate, etc. Moreover, sin introduced disharmony, strife, and even chaos into creation.
Humanity thereafter arrayed itself not only against God, against fellow humans, and against the individual self (in internal conflict) but also against nature. Woman and man would be tempted to abuse the wider creation just as they had abused God, their fellow humans, and their own selves. However, humanity did not forfeit the task as vicegerent; it forfeited only the fully harmonious environment in which it was to exercise that task.
Nor did sin and the resultant curse alter God’s decree to protect creation. In fact, God imposed on humanity additional requirements to protect and preserve His inherently good creation from the predatory depravities of a sinful human race. For example, God warned ancient Israel, His covenant people, not to harm the trees when they besieged a city—the tragedy of warfare is compounded when humans irreparably damage plants and animals. In addition, one justification for the Jews’ weekly Sabbath rest was to grant their hard-working oxen and donkeys—not merely humanity—a chance to recuperate from their labors. The biblical wisdom literature, too, declares that the slothful hunter neglects to roast his game—we can only imagine God’s grief over the rotting buffalo carcasses on the plains in nineteenth-century America. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, assures His followers that God cares for every sparrow that falls from the sky—and humans, also, must care for the nonhuman creatures that inhabit God’s good earth.
God permits our use of the land and trees for eating fruit and erecting shelter and our use of animals for food and clothing. Humanity enjoys the priority in creation. Yet too often we are predatory, proud, and self-centered. Called to steward the Earth, we instead exploit it for selfish gain without considering God’s purposes. We grind our fellow humans, including society’s most vulnerable—the elderly, disabled, and preborn—under our heel. We torment and abuse animals and treat the air, plants, and soil as if there were no tomorrow.
Our sin is bad news, not just for humanity but also for all of creation.
The good news is that the bad news is not the final news. Paul the apostle, the most prominent Christian of the New Testament, argues that Jesus, in His death, bore the penalty for humanity’s sin and in His bodily resurrection broke the power of that sin. This is God’s loving, gracious, momentous, redeeming work for humanity. That victory over sin includes the reversal of God’s original judgment and an incremental, God-given power to turn away from our sin. Man and woman appropriate this redemption by faith in Jesus Christ.
But humanity is not the only object of this redemption in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul observes that even the environment “groans and travails in pain” waiting for its redemption from the curse that God imposed on account of humanity’s sin (Romans 8:22–23). The creational curse is an abnormality, and God means to roll back that curse on all of creation, no less than the curse on humanity itself. The process of redemption includes the redemption of creation. In the words of Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til, “The sweep of redemption is as comprehensive as the sweep of sin.” Jesus Christ’s incremental redemptive work, therefore, has global (and, in fact, cosmic) implications. Jesus really is the Savior of the world.
This redemption of creation is perhaps the leading instance of how God’s common grace springs from His redemptive grace. “Common grace” denot
es God’s goodness toward humans in general, irrespective of their faith in Jesus. God showers His kindness on humanity qua humanity, not merely on redeemed humanity. This common grace forges a unity within the human race, a common task of which remains stewardship of the globe. Christian and non-Christian, believer and agnostic, people of all different faiths, all labor together to preserve the Earth despite sometimes radically different reasons for such ecological impetus.
For the Reformed, redemption in Christ has ushered in a new era, an era of global healing, the reversal of the curse. We happily join all men and women committed to preserving and cultivating God’s good earth as our common residence. We Reformed Christians grant allegiance to Jesus Christ and to the Bible as furnishing our underlying ecological principles. While the Bible is a thoroughly prescientific book that does not prefigure the spectacular advances of modernity, its basic truth of the prescriptive relations between God and humans, between humans themselves, and between humans and nature—each a root issue of ecology—is of abiding validity.
A Distinctively Reformed Perspective on Ecological Issues
What, then, is the Reformed viewpoint on pressing ecological issues? First, we relish the earth as God’s creation—inherently good and worthy of our respect, though cursed on account of humanity’s sin. We perceive nature, like humanity itself, as desperately in need of redemption.
We support sensible, responsible (though not politically coerced) recycling of natural resources like metal, glass, and paper products, as well as solid waste, in addition to reforestation and highly efficient farming methods.
We advocate energy use that is comparatively inexpensive to humans, comparatively innocuous to nature, and fulfills both human and environmental needs—electricity and nuclear energy, as well as fossil fuels, for instance.
With respect to the human contribution to global climate change, we support neither a politically correct stampede toward coercive (government) deprivation of human liberty, nor a head-in-the-sand obscurantism. Rather, we ponder the empirical data and support responsive policies (if warranted) that would delicately balance concern for humanity with that of the wider creation.
Arguably, the most ecologically vulnerable, polluted parts of the planet are “common pool resources” for which specific ownership is not obvious—and, therefore, for which specific responsibility is not assigned. We resist a coercive collectivism that contributes to such ecological irresponsibility, though we do not resist basic government protection of intrinsically communal dimensions of creation (like air, the seas, and Earth’s outer atmosphere), the misuse of which impairs humans’ life, liberty, and property.
Because we believe that Earth is creation’s intergenerational playground under the watchful care of the Creator, we labor to deliver to our posterity a world more viable for humanity, animals, and plants than when we entered it. We enjoy the Earth and embrace the wonder of creation and relish it as a natural consequence of our stewardship. Most significant perhaps is the fact that human creativity (when serving humanity rather than exploiting it and nature) is the greatest proximate factor in enhancing global ecology. We deny that every imbalance in natural ecosystems created by human activity is harmful. Creatively devised ecosystems are often more beneficial to plants and animals than “natural” ones. “Sustainability”—the small-minded preservation of the ecological status quo—is a poor substitute for vigorous production that will alleviate human poverty, a pervasive contribution to ecological injury. More efficient use of greater quantities of natural resources, as well as the discovery of new resources or the invention of artificial resources, is beneficial to the entire globe. We advocate, for example, the reduction of the scope of farmland through more prudent land use coupled with the increase of that farmland’s productivity.
Energetic, responsible human engagement with the creation is the solution to, not the culprit of, ecological damage.
Like so many basic life issues, one’s approach to global ecology will be driven by one’s presuppositions. If, for example, one supposes that the universe is self-contained, the product of preexistent matter, chance, and time, and that God is a myth or, if there is a God, that He cannot be known or that He plays no role in the universe, that person, if epistemologically self-conscious, will be led to certain basic conclusions about global ecology. Those conclusions will not always be compatible with conclusions from other secularists. For example, one might suggest that though humanity is the highest extant evolutionary stage of life on Earth, it is not qualitatively unique. Certain forms of hardy, virile, intelligent, nonhuman life (apes, whales) deserve cultivation and legal protection, while certain forms of disabled, mentally retarded, or aged human life do not. The same assumption about man’s evolutionary priority, however, may lead to a nearly opposite conclusion: the dignity of humanity as an advanced form of life necessitates the compassionate treatment of all human life and the caretaking cultivation of the rest of nature for man’s benefit. Arguably the leading secular state of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, was criticized widely and from multiple political vantage points for its rapacious, destructive environmental policies springing from its radical economic experimentation (which included little concern for nonhuman life). Secular presuppositions, therefore, can lead—and have led—to both an intense concern for as well as diffident neglect of global ecology.
Conversely, the person who exercises faith in the God disclosed in the Bible, the God who created a good universe, the God who redeems sinful humanity, and the God who benevolently presides over His creation, will likely (if she or he grasps the momentous implications of this worldview) arrive at the ecological conclusions of this article. Not all Christians, however, share these conclusions. Some Christians believe that the world, ripe for God’s judgment because of its depravity, is destined to end in great conflagration, including environmental decimation. In short, the world, including ecology, is irredeemable. Obviously, these apocalyptic Christians will have little motivation for the sort of ecological stewardship of Reformed Christianity that this article advocates; and they, as did the secular Soviets, may even pose a hazard to global ecology. Christians, like secularists, simply are not of a single mind on the issue of global ecology.
Nonetheless, Christians and secularists, equally God’s vicegerents, will often share specific ecological concerns, goals, and policies. In such cases, Christians will rejoice to labor with non-Christians, who are also created in God’s image and who, therefore, share in the cultural and ecological mandate.
And Reformed Christians long for the day when, due to God’s redemptive grace showered on the world by Jesus Christ, all creation once again will live together in love, benevolence, and harmony.