Christians' Ecological Responsibility:A Theological Introduction and Challenge


Associate Professor of Marital & Family Therapy
Azusa Pacific University
Azusa, CA 91702-7000


Professor of Family Therapy
Director of Graduate Studies
School of Social & Behavioral Sciences
Seattle Pacific University
Seattle, WA 98119

The concept of ecology has gained attention in contemporary society but is frequently neglected by Christians. Some Christians view ecology as a fringe issue, while others have concerns about parallels with New Age ideology, especially the pantheism of secular ecology. This paper assesses the need for an ecological theology and presents an introduction to three elements of such a theology: the immanence of God in creation, the relationship of humans to the remainder of creation, and the role of the church in ecology. The term "stewardship" is shown to relate etymologically to ecology, and a challenge is issued to Christians to fulfill their role as steward-ecologists.

The concept of ecology has gained attention in contemporary society. From nuclear disarmament marches to "Save the Whale" campaigns to the ecological epistemology which is influencing the social sciences, ecology is an increasing concern in our world.

Far too often ecology is considered a fringe issue by Christians. Ecologists are conceived of as scraggly-haired, bearded extremists wearing blue jeans and corduroy jackets, or media moguls spouting New Age ideology. Ecology is seldom preached from evangelical pulpits or discussed in Sunday School classes. Is this legitimate?

In this article we will provide an introduction to an ecological theology, including the need for such a theology and its basic theses, and a challenge to Christians to consider their ecological responsibility.

An Introduction to Ecology

The formal study of ecology is a relatively recent development in the sciences. The term was first used in 1869 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, although writings and research which we would now label "ecological" extend back to the classical Greek period (Odum, 1971, p. 3).

Etymologically, the term derives from the Greek oikos (house) and may be defined as "the study of 'households' of living organisms together with their interrelationships, and the interrelationship with the environment" (Arny & Reaske, 1972, p. 59).

The ecosystem is the standard descriptive set of analysis. It is an inclusive term, used to describe all the life-support "households" of the earth (Lugo & Snedaker, 1971). At the macro-level, the ecosystem would comprise the totality of interaction and relationship between the living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) arenas, including all their component sub-systems.

It is a basic ecological thesis that all things are related. In this, ecology adopts a General Systems Theory epistemology. Schneider (1976) has a chapter in his book The Genesis Strategy entitled "Everything is Connected to Everything Else" in which he illustrates this ecological principle with an account of the effect of human actions on the atmosphere. He details how the increased burning of fossil fuel has contributed to a substantial increase of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. This, in turn, has the effect of allowing the surface temperature of our planet to increase. While the increase seems minimal (0.5 C over the last century), he includes dramatic pictures of a glacier near the French Alps town of Argentiere which shows how the mean hemispheric temperature increase (termed the "greenhouse effect") has almost totally melted the glacier. Ecology tells us that we may never look for simple, single cause-effect relationships. Rather, we must understand the complex, interactive relationships which exist within our environment.

The concern of ecologists today is that humans have so distorted the natural ecological process of succession that the system itself may die. They call for a world view which will provide negative feedback to the recent excesses of humanity. As concerned Christians we need to heed this call and seek to establish the theological basis for ecological action.

The Need for an Ecological Theology

The relationship of theology to the modern ecological crisis became an intense issue of debate in 1967, following the publication of the article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, " by Lynn White, Jr., Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles.

After detailing aspects of the ecological crisis, White proceeds to fault Christianity for propagating an anti-ecological understanding of the relationship between humanity and the environment. His criticism is two-fold:

"Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen...[it] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. (p. 335)

It should be noted that White acceded that his criticism applies to Western Christianity in the post-Scientific Revolution era. In this regard, it may be more accurate to indicate that White is not necessarily criticizing Christian theology per se, but Christian thought which improperly imbibed the Cartesian/Newtonian world view. Indeed, White concludes his article with a challenge to theologians to present an alternative Christian view which is ecological: "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious..." (p. 338).

In 1973, theologian Jack Rogers published an article in which he surveyed the published studies of approximately twelve theologians which had appeared since White's article. They reflect the search for "an appropriate theological model" which adequately assesses the biblical data regarding the relationship of God, humans, and nature.

Using traditional theological categories, the survey establishes a biblical basis for an ecological theology:

A. God  - God is immanent in His creation. He can involve himself without destroying his own integrity or the freedom and integrity of man and nature. God cares for all the creatures of the earth (Matt. 6:26, Psalm 104: 21-31).

B. Nature - The biblical view is congruent with the view of modern science that the world is an integrated ecosystem. Nature is not ruled by "natural law" but is animated, ruled and sustained by the "breath of God"(Rom. 1:20).

C. Humanity - Any form of radical dualism between humanity and nature must be rejected; humans are co-creatures with nature. However, humans do seem to have some unique relationship with God. Rogers suggests that humans are to be caretakers within nature.

D. Covenant - This biblical concept clearly expresses relationship between God-humans-nature. The Noahic covenant is an example of a covenant which involves God-nature-humans (Gen. 9:8-17).

E. Sin - Nature was subjected to the curse because of the fall of humanity. Human sin continues to wound nature (Gen. 3:17, Rom. 8:20).

F. Jesus Christ - Christ created and holds together all things (Jn. 1:3-4, Col. 1:17). The incarnation evidences the goodness of creation.

G. Redemption - Christianity is not only "other-worldly," for scripture indicates the entire creation awaits redemption (Rom. 8:19-23). See also John 8:16 world=Cosmos and Col. 1:20 (Christ died to reconcile all things).

H.  Eschatology - The end will inaugurate a time when all things will be renewed; biblical descriptions of the eternal state seem to suggest a reconciliation between humanity, animal life, and plant life (Isa. 11:6-9, Ezek. 34:25-27).

The brief overview in Rogers' 1973 article indicates that an ecological theology is possible. Three elements seem to stand out, requiring address: a thorough understanding of the immanence of God in creation, the nature of humans in relation to the remainder of creation, and the role of the church in ecology.

God In Creation

It is interesting that Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who coined the term "ecology," should have also addressed the relation of God and creation. In advocating a "monistic philosophy" in 1899 he wrote, "Pantheism teaches that God and the world are one. The idea of God is identical with that of nature or substance...Pantheism is the world-system of the modern scientist" (Quoted in Moltmann, 1985, p. 194).

In contrast to this scientific religion of pantheism, Christianity in the last centuries has stressed the transcendence of God. In a standard text like Berkhof's Systematic Theology, (1949/1977) a balanced presentation of the transcendence and immanence of God is given, but transcendence is described first, in forceful language:

"God is not simply the life, or soul, or inner law of the world, but enjoys His own eternally complete life above the world, in absolute independence of it. He is the transcendent God, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders (p. 134, emphasis added)."

  Jrgen Moltmann in his work, God in Creation (1985), has developed the first full-orbed ecological theology. One of his "guiding ideas" for an ecological doctrine is God's immanence in the world. He indicates that new, ecological thinking about God must no longer center on the distinction between God and the world but on the recognition of the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God.

Moltmann traces the emphasis on transcendence in the Old Testament to the pantheistic, animist environment in which Judaism developed. It was necessary and appropriate to distinguish belief in Yahweh from the idolatrous fertility and field gods of Canaanite culture. Cartesian methodology, however, took these distinctions into an entirely different context and used them to legitimate an anti-ecological, mechanistic world view.

Moltmann argues that an appropriate understanding of the biblical doctrine of immanence is founded on a trinitarian process of creation. Traditionally, theology stressed the role of the Father in creation in a way which resulted in a heightened sense of transcendence. Moltmann proposes that the full trinitarian nature of creation be developed, especially the neglected role of the Spirit. He does this by focusing on the understanding of every created thing in terms of the energy infused continually by the Spirit. God is immanent in His creation by virtue of the presence of His Spirit; "God's Spirit acts into and penetrates the world, effecting and fashioning the world's coherence without Himself becoming merged in it"(p. 12).

"There is tension in this understanding of God and creation, but it proceeds from an immanent tension in God himself: God created the world, and at the same time entered into it. He calls it into existence, and at the same time manifests himself through it...The God who is transcendent in relation to the world, and the God who is immanent in that world are one and the same God. So in God's creation of the world we can perceive a self-differentiation and a self-identification on God's part." (Moltmann, 1985, p. 15)

This is a profoundly ecological theology. God's relationship to creation is not one of simple cause and effect; He relates in complex fashion with all the intricate lines of integration which are characteristic of God as Trinity. Creation has always been, and continues to be, a genuinely contingent order.

This theology is also distinct from the pantheism of contemporary ecological thought. Osborn (1990) notes that there is a tendency among Christian Greens (ecologically-oriented believers) to over emphasize divine immanence at the expense of transcendence. What is necessary is "a doctrine of divine transcendence so radical that it necessitates belief in divine immanence" (Osborn, 1990, p. 59, note 48). Moltmann refers to this as "parantheism."

Humanity and Nature

Frederick Elder in Crisis in Eden (1970) stated that one's view of the relation of humanity to nature was a crucial theological foundation. He noted two basic views, which he labeled the Inclusioniststhose who see humans as part of nature; and the Exclusioniststhose who sharply separate humans from nature and are confident that humans have the right and ability to manipulate nature through science and technology.

It is clear that the latter position, facilitated by the Cartesian concept of a mechanistic universe, has in common practice resulted in ecological turmoil. Humanity has shifted from participation in a complex system of equilibrium with a natural cybernetics to a growth-oriented society focused on the acquisition of power and utilizing artificial rather that natural mechanisms to achieve some kind of control of the environment.

This shift led scientist W. I. Vernadsky (1945) to suggest that we think of the "noosphere," a world dominated by the mind of man, as gradually replacing the biosphere, the naturally evolving world. Ecologist Eugene Odum (1971) considers this a "dangerous philosophy" because humanity has not shown itself wise enough to deal with the complex, interactive nature of actions and reactions. Odum suggests that ecological understanding and moral responsibility must keep pace with humanity's power to effect changes so that we may achieve "unlimited ingenuity in perpetuating a cyclic abundance of resources" (p. 36). This can only occur as humans perceive themselves as part of the ecosystem and act responsibly toward the whole of creation.An ecological theology supports such a view. It is unfortunate that most "Inclusionists" have been scientists, while most theologians have been "Exclusionists." Theology must reaffirm the human position within creation. Bonifazi (1970) states it well, "We are of the world, and the ontology of man depends upon a general ontology which includes matter" (p. 196). Moltmann (1985) argues in much the same way, "It is important for the way the human being understands himself that he should not see himself initially as subject over against nature, and theologically as the image of God; but that he should first of all view himself as the product of nature and - theologically too - as imago mundi" (p. 51). That humans are ontologically one with nature is a primary reality; the relationship between humans and the remainder of creation must proceed from that fact.

Some confusionand a number of ecologists' condemnation of the Judeo-Christian traditionhas resulted from the perception that the Bible advocates human domination of nature. The exhortation to "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature..." (Gen. 1:28) has been seen as the theological justification for human exploitation of nature and abuse of the environment. A 1970 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology detailed the extent of such "ecological demand" by illustrating in several spheres of life how much humanity demands today from the environment. (The 1990 world population was 5.3 billion.) Moltmann notes that The Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980 forecast that the world population will increase to 6.35 billion by the year 2000 and will total 10 billion in 2030 (p. 323, footnote).

Hall (1986) finds it telling that many have adopted the language of the "conquest of nature" (p. 163). Even the most charitable interpretation includes the element of control and is susceptible to the manipulation and abuse which have been evidenced in our society. Wilkinson (1980) indicates that "all too often throughout history, well-functioning ecosystems have been converted into deserts, dirt bowls, and cesspools"(p. 15). Humans have attempted to replace natural ecosystems with synthetic ones (e.g. farmland "agro-ecosystems" and urban complexes). If care is not given to the principles of natural ecosystem survival, the system itself is threatened by the depletion of resources.

Did God intend such unrestrained human domination of nature? In what sense has God "given the earth to humanity"? (Psalm 115:16).

Moltmann (1985) compares the command "to rule" to the way in which God relates to His creation.

The specific biblical concept of "subduing the earth" has nothing to do with the charge to rule over the world which theological tradition taught for centuries as the dominium terrae. The biblical charge is a dietary commandment: human beings and animals alike are to live from the fruits which the earth brings forth in the forms of plants and trees. A seizure of power over nature is not intended. A charge "to rule" can be found only in Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.'" But here "having dominion" is linked with the correspondence between human beings and God the Creator and Preserver of the worldCthe correspondence which is meant when the human being is described as being the image of God. Because human beings and animals are to live from the fruits of the earth, the rule of human beings over the animals can only be a rule of peace...The role which human beings are meant to play is the role of a "justice of the peace." (p. 30-31).

This view is consistent with a humanity which is part of creation. Humanity is not the subject and the world the object; humans act within creation to protect it. In this sense it remains God's creation, it "cannot be claimed by men and women. It can only be accepted as a loan and administered as a trust" (Moltmann, 1985, p. 31).

The Church and Ecology

The New Testament has a word for the human administration of creation: "stewardship." Although some find it inadequate, their objections can be passed over when one accepts the systemic nature of the term and its etymology.

In his introduction to ecology, Odum (1971) notes incorrectly, we believe, that the Greeks had no word for ecology. The Greek word, oikos (house), which is the root word in ecology, is used frequently in the New Testament. As Goetzmann (1976) has noted, it often takes a metaphorical sense, denoting the family, the property and other things connected with the house itself. The term, oikos, is capable of expanded spheres of reference, from the nuclear household (I Tim. 3:5) to the extended family (e.g., house of David, Luke 1:27) or relational group (the church as the "household of God," I Tim. 3:15) or the world (oikomone). Consequently, it seems legitimate to equate it with our modern designation for an ecological household, the ecosystem, at whichever level of analysis we choose (micro to macro).

Closely related to the use of oikos in the New Testament are the cognate words "steward" (oikonomos) and "stewardship" (oikonomia). They refer to the person and the task of managing the household. Goetzmann (1976) notes that the terms were used in secular Greek to denote the arrangement of components of a household, such as the stewards responsible for the property, the food, the finances and other specific spheres. These stewards were usually recruited from among the slaves.

In the New Testament, the term is also used to refer to the care for household food (Luke 12:42) and finances (Luke 16:2). In connection with the household of God, Paul refers to himself as a "steward of the mysteries of God" (I Cor. 4:1). This implies a spiritual responsibility for the Gospel.

We believe that an ecological theology includes the understanding that God the Creator has entrusted his creation to the stewardship of humanity. Christians, as the recipients of God's grace, have a special calling to manage well what he has given (I Pet. 4:10). Based on the etymology of the terms and the statements of scripture, it is possible to state our role in this manner: Christian = Steward = Ecologist.

An understanding of the ecological implications of the metaphor of stewardship has been in ascendancy in recent years (Wilkinson, 1980; Hall, 1986, 1990; Santmire, 1985). Hall (1990) finds "the steward" a commendable self-designation for Christians. It avoids the most objectionable aspects of some terms by which we designate ourselves (for example, "the elect" or "the saved," which smack of superiority or false security) and communicates a non-authoritarian character which is compatible with the theology of the cross. This is precisely the terminology needed to convey the genuine concern of Christianity for all of God's creation. In fact, the scientific community is already co-opting the term into eco-philosophy (Hall, 1990) and the church must face the challenge of preserving it and presenting it within the context of an ecological theology.

We do not believe that we may take a reductionistic approach to this stewardship, however, such as the common tendency to consider tithing as fulfillment of Christian stewardship. Biblical stewardship is more complex and complete; it involves the responsible care for all God's creation.

Each Christian must consider the implication of an ecological theology for their life. Application of ecological concepts is possible in diverse fields of employment and personal interest. In the social sciences a vast amount of theoretical and practical literature is being written to enable a thorough ecological approach to human issues (Auerswald, 1968, 1986; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Hartman & Laird, 1983; and Wicker, 1984).

In Jesus' parable of the "Shrewd Steward," he made it clear that the steward is accountable to the Master for his stewardship: "Give me an account of your management..." (Luke 16:2). The consistent teaching of the stewardship passages is that faithfulness is the essential requirement (Luke 12:42, 16:10; 1 Cor 4:2).

Stanley Hauerwas (1981) has pointed out that nature "seldom tells what we ought to do, but often tells what we are doing is inappropriate" (p. 232). An ecological perspective, in which Christians see themselves as steward-ecologists, challenges us to accurately assess our lives, ministries, and relationships in the social and physical environment in order to see if what we are doing is inappropriate. We must ask ourselves, "Have we been faithful stewards of God's creation?"


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From PSCF 45 (March 1993): 2-7.