In the creation narrative in Genesis, we see God declare the product his work – the universe – to be good.
After he was done creating everything that exists by the power of his word, he saw that everything was very good (Genesis 1:31).
There is value in the created order. Humans are part of that created order, but a special part. God gave a special responsibility to humans to be fruitful and to have dominion over the earth as his image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28).
The nature of this dominion is more clearly revealed in Genesis 2:15, where God puts Adam into the Garden of Eden with instructions to cultivate and keep the garden.
Through all of this, humanity remains both connected to the entire web of creation and distinct from it. Only humans have both the ability and the responsibility to influence the created order in a way that changes it. This is part of dominion.
We see in Genesis an unpopulated garden. But in Revelation, which is the final destination God intends for the world, we see a garden city (Revelation 21:9–22:4). God’s plan from the beginning was for there to be development, growth, and change.
The environment, therefore, was not intended to remain an unpopulated wilderness.
Human existence on earth is not an accident.
We are not an alien species.
We actually have a God-given place in the created order to steward it, tend it, and bring it to its full potential. This is the cultural mandate.
This is where difficulty arises: we don’t tend to fulfill the cultural mandate in the way it was meant to be fulfilled.
Concern for Creation Is Not a Binary Option
When Adam sinned, the created order was distorted (Genesis 3:17–18). Creation actively resists our attempts to bring it under cultivation.
At the same time, human nature was also lastingly distorted by the effects of sin. We inherit a sin nature (Ephesians 2:1–3). This has devastating impact on our ability to rightly cultivate and keep the creation.
Sin, however, does not diminish our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth.
In fact, after the Noachic flood, God reiterated much of the cultural mandate to Noah and his family. They were commanded to be fruitful and multiple on the earth and to fill it (Genesis 9:1–7). The wording is somewhat different, but there is a resonance with the original mandate given to Adam and Eve.
Understanding the human responsibility within the created order to live as good stewards of the earth is important. Concern for the environment is not a binary option.
We cannot choose to be for environmental causes without considering their content. At the same time we cannot choose to be against environmentalism without considering its intent. Our calling is more complex than that.
Restoration and Whole-Life Stewardship
As we evaluate policies related to the environment, we must keep in mind our calling to rightly steward the earth. This means that we need to direct creation toward the purpose for which it was designed: to declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1–6).
This purpose has been frustrated. Paul speaks of creation as eagerly longing for being set free from the bondage caused as a consequence of human sin (Romans 8:19–21). Humans should be working toward that restoration now.
Christians should support efforts to improve the environment. We should advocate for clean water, better air quality, and pollution reduction. At the same time, we must avoid promoting policies that have a good intent but otherwise violate our responsibility to practice whole-life stewardship.
Therefore, efforts to control population unnaturally or restrict economic freedoms to stop development should be resisted because they may unintentionally and significantly harm some of the poorest humans on earth. While those that promote these policies mean well, often they have lost sight of our unique role as humans on the earth.
The challenge for Christians, then, is to live out a complex faith in a world that demands binary alliances.
Being faithful stewards of life requires us to be careful thinkers, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). As the religious conversation about environmental stewardship continues to grow in light of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudito Sii, we must keep in mind the bigger picture of whole-life stewardship.
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