Public Square & Theology 101

Navigating the Complex Relationship between Creation, Dominion, and Whole-Life Stewardship

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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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  • Susan Kuhn

    This is a very balanced and thoughtful account of a complex issue. Which makes the one over-simplified part jump out for me. The post asserts (without evidence, I might add) that “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.” The problem is, the opposite is also true: unfettered population growth can cause poverty. So can unfettered economic freedom that is not balanced with other human needs.

    Religious economic advocates have a special part, I believe, in defining a new, more complex concept of stewardship. It’s no longer enough for us to stand serenely for principles that, in practice, do not guide our actions well. It is ironic that many business leaders are abandoning the idea of unfettered capitalism when religious writers continue to advocate it.

    Growth is axiomatic in life and business, but how that growth happens is where we need a keener, more nuanced view. A complex faith-based response means getting your hands dirty. Hewing to abstract principles just continues the binary view that pits faith and business against each other and stands in the way of good stewardship.

    • Spence Spencer

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Susan.

      I think the key thing I will note in response is that pragmatism only works in the long run if it is shaped by a common vision. In other words, what “works” depends on what the purpose is. Thus I believe to abandon a notion of absolute truth in pursuit of an undefinable goal is unhelpful.

      For example, I disagree that people are what causes poverty. Instead, I believe people are made in the image of God and thus worthy of life under all circumstances. In contrast, poverty is the result of ineffective distribution of resources of various types. Therefore, I advocate for just economic systems and the rule of law, which enables people to rise from poverty. At the root of the disagreement is a different understanding of the purpose of the human and the economic relationship.

      I appreciate your willingness to join in the conversation. I’m sure if you stop by in the future you’ll find more posts that expand on these themes and help provide the nuance you desire.

  • Conanjay Wallace

    Wow! I almost forgot that the Pope was involved and was talking about the climate issue with the planet. This is something that I don’t think very much of. However, being a good steward with our environment is definitely something that would fulfill part of God’s calling in our lives. I recently printed some papers for my homework and after I was done printing an idea came to my mind to…next time print on both sides so that it will use less paper. I truly believe that this is very balanced thinking and will yield greater fruit in our lives and more importantly for those around us. Thank you so much for blog posting. Keep it up! You are a good writer!

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