Tearing a Page Out of the Bible…

Interestingly, on the same day it was reported that the Catholic Church felt compelled to update the seven deadly sins (including damaging the environment), Southern Baptists experienced a watershed day. Finally, someone has determined what are the “major issues” for Southern Baptists. The “Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative” was made public. Kudos to Jonathan Merritt et al for having the courage to make a public statement on such a controversial and heated issue. The political right has long avoided endorsing the notion of global warming, but now that the political door has opened (The US hosted the G8 Summit in 2007), along comes the SBC in tow, or at least folks affiliated with the SBC but who cannot truly represent her. Even though this initiative cannot represent the SBC, the concern for ecological issues by so many of the young leadership in the SBC is promising. But granted, the SBECI is not intended to be political (one hopes), one is wondering whether such a statement could have been made before it was politically acceptable for conservatives to embrace such a stand on global warming. Still, I’m sure many political conservatives are writhing in pain over the declaration at this very moment. Nonetheless, however laudatory the declaration, there are some points at which I take issue.

In a recent article on the Baptist Press, Jonathan Merritt is quoted as saying “In the lecture,” he said, “my professor made the statement that when we destroy creation, which is God’s revelation, it is no different than tearing a page out of the Bible” (emphasis added). I suppose this is an overstatement, but it is dangerous theologically, and naive at best. This is a faulty equation of the authority of special revelation, viz. the Bible, with that of general revelation. It puts them on equal terms. I am not advocating, on the other hand, ecological liscentiousness, rather, theological precision.  My questions would be: Are there aspects of the imago Deiin creation? What about God are we damaging if we destroy creation (I might argue that man’s perception of God is clouded; Ps 19; Rom 1, but even then there is the God-given conscience; Rom 2)? Even if there is such a mandate to care for creation in Genesis 2 (as the SBECI implies), how does the curse of creation in Genesis 3 (not removed until Rev 22) factor into the equation? Even so, what does it mean to “destroy” creation? What of God destroying the earth in Gen 6-9? What of the perception that God will destroy the heavens and the earth prior to the New Creation (Heb 1–Ps 102; 2 Pet 3)? I think that this initiative may be overly reactionary to current cultural trends. One could even argue that it is reactionary to current ecclesiological/missiological trends as well. See Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, or Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God, to start with.

Given my questions of the theological underpinnings of this Initiative, let us look at the four main points:

  1. Humans Must Care for Creation and Take Responsibility for Our Contribution to Environmental Degradation
  2. It is Prudent to Address Global Climate Change
  3. Christian Moral Conviction and Our Southern Baptist Doctrines Demand our Environmental Stewardship
  4. It is Time for Individuals, Churches, Communities and Governments to Act

Note, first of all, that nowhere in the entire declaration (not just the abovementioned propositions) are the words “global warming.” Perhaps these words are too politically charged, but the initiative chose the same terms as the Bush Administration “Global Climate Change.” Interesting…but probably a good choice.

Regarding point number one, let’s give Merritt the benefit of the doubt, this is a new beginning of sorts for SBCers. But I can’t help but ask the following questions: How do Southern Baptists “take responsibility”for our contribution to environmental degradation? What is “environmental degradation”? Regarding the first question, does this mean having a neutral or positive carbon footprint (if this is even possible)? Okay, I’ll stop littering (unless I’m in India, because, hey, there are folks dependent on me throwing garbage in the street); I won’t pour motor oil in the sewer, or dump my chicken grease in my sink. For my next car (if I can ever afford one), I will buy a Pruis, or Insight, or walk or ride a bike even. My whole family will ride horses 198 miles to our grandparents house. I guess I could take a bus, it would be cheaper and we would spread out the ecological damage over several families. Even then I must ask: How does my church “take responsibility”? We can put political pressure on the government, we can put political pressure on our bosses; if we are the boss, I guess we could make some changes. We could all agree to stop eating chicken or pigs (because pig and poultry farms are harmful to the environment) or fish (because of the abuse of overfishing). What does it mean? Of course, if we are directly involved in environmentally specious activities, we should reconsider our priorities. But are the majority of Southern Baptists involved in the abusive and oppressive dealings that need to be investigated? I’m sure we can all think of the myriads of ways that the government can take responsibility, but to insure that the government does so responsibly, this means people will have to get more involved in politics. This Initiative commits its signees to action; otherwise it is just rhetoric.

Ultimately, I must ask: what constitutes “enviromental degradation”? Vague, vague, vague…makes the statement look more political than indicating a desire to change. I’m not trying to slam Brother Merritt or any of the other signees, a number of whom I know and respect, I’m sure they all have pure motives, but if this is going to be anything other than the news as it was on March 10, 2008, much more work has to be done.

For point two, I would agree that it is prudent to address global climate change. It is an opportunity to Christians to show they care for the concerns of their non-Christian peers, but I must ask if we are somehow conceding that Christians are to blame for the mess. I don’t know, maybe. Will a bunch of Christians signing up for an “Adopt-A-Highway” section put forth a good ecological witness? This is an assumption that churches aren’t concerned for their respective communities. How do we know that Southern Baptists aren’t already concerned for the environment? Just because its not preached? Lay people read the Bible and understand it and they have the ability to obey without the pulpit intervening (at the same time, too many Southern Baptists are biblically illiterate). In Kazakhstan, for example, it was the Protestant Germans who were credited for keeping the villages clean. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when Germans returned to Germany, the villages were left in disrepair. There was something in the ethos of the Christians that made them care for their environs. This could easily be extrapolated into an argument that Christianity supports environmental concerns, but I wonder if Christians are at fault? My Dad instilled into me as a boy to always leave something better than you found it. Where did that come from? In other words, what type of change do we expect to see from this initiative? I don’t want to say there will be none, but the History of Christianity witnesses the efforts of Christianity, whenever it enters a new context, trying to improve the surrounding conditions. Its not a statement or a purpose that will change Southern Baptists, but Baptists living out the gospel in their context (I guess you could argue that the SBECI is a way to do just that).

Its not until point three that Merritt affirms the theological priority of Scripture in his statements (he does in the preamble, don’t get me wrong here). But lets look at his other points.

First, the world is God’s world, therefore “we share God’s concern for the abuse of His creation.” Again, please define. I think I should become a Jain and abstain from any activity that may result in the death of another being…such as a bug, or a paramecium. What is abuse? If abuse is above me sociopolitically or geopolitically, how do I “take responsibility”?

Second, he states “Within these Scriptures we are reminded that when God made mankind, He commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures (Gen 1:26-28). Therefore, our motivation for facing failures to exercise proper stewardship is not primarily political, social, or economic–it is primary biblical.” I can hear the good ole boys hootin’ and a hollerin’ in the background, but is this true? When I read scripture, the first thing I think of is not “how do I stem Global Climate Change?”. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to.  I rather think it should be primarily social and we should not be ashamed at saying that (see Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, or Bosch, Transforming Mission, “Chapter 12). The Biblical worldview allows it, and given our context, it is “prudent.” Ultimately, this subpoint is either an uncareful statement or an attempt to appease the “fundamentalist” strain in Southern Baptist life.

My one major critique of the proposal lies subpoint three under the third statement: “The consequences of these problems will most likely hit the poor the hardest, in part because those areas likely to be significantly affected are the world’s poorest regions.” Yes and No. Yes, because the majority of the problem is generated in those regions themselves. Even if every American in every North American company in every North American Country completely offsets their carbon footprint, the causes (if they are indeed proven to be) of Global Climate Change will continue to affect the globe (keep in mind  almost every nation in the world has signed the Kyoto Protocol and yet the problem persists). As such, how does the SBC change the environmental policies of the world? Even if we grant that this is the job of the international community, you still have the very real problem of ecological and economic colonialism–the West is calling the shots. The major problem with this theological-ish initiative is that it is oversimplifying an otherwise very complex issue. Great, some Southern Baptists agree that we need some sort of change, but what next? Do we pressure the US government to enforce ecological policies on the rest of the world? How many more wars would that cause? How many more of the poor would be affected then? Slippery slope, maybe, I’ll admit that. But I think our concern for the needy, the orphan and the widow should be way much more than ecological–how bout food, money, shelter, hospitality, family, etc.

Finally, Statement 4 is a call to action, for individuals, churches, communities and individuals. In this call, though, Merritt humbly admits that “simply affirming our God-given responsibility to care for the earth will likely produce no tangible or effective results. Therefore, we pledge to find ways to curb ecological degradation through promoting biblical stewardship habits and increasing awareness in our homes, businesses where we find influence, relationship with others and in our local churches. Many of our churches do not actively preach, promote or practice biblical creation care. We urge churches to begin doing so.” This is well said. It has to be much, much more than a signed statement.

Less you think I am unfairly bashing this initiative, I am not. There are certainly things therein with which I could agree. However, much more thinking needs to be done before I can sign this. So much is left undefined that my signature could be attributed to some policy that embarrasses me. I don’t have anything in mind, but let us first define what it means to “take responsibility” or what is exactly “environmental degradation”, etc. Let us think more about the complex relations between other nations, cultures, peoples and the West. What if the US government, for instance, at the call of the SBC, enforces economic sanctions on offending nations? Is this not more dangerous for the poor than the ecological problems themselves? Let us think.

Jonathan Merritt, if you ever read this, you are the man. Few would be so bold to write what you have and then have it signed and released to public scrutiny. Do not be offended by my critiques, but let them be a call to further study and action. I am not asking you to stop, but to keep going. Work hard and this has the potential of being very persuasive.

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13 Comments

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  1. Dude you da man. Today I am embarrassed to be a part of the SBC. In fact us trying to curb global warming is bad for the poor. Just ask the people in Mexico who are paying record prices for corn cause we want to feel good about ourselves. It proves again theologians should stick to theology & leave the rest to me.

  2. How can we leave the rest to JDOG. He still uses Dude!

  3. I also use jdog in the name column.

  4. It’s distressing to me that professing Christians would so blatantly adopt tenets of a false religion. Worse, it’s offensive that they would encourage other Christians to such idolatry as well.

    Waitaminnit!! Stewardship of Creation is a given. There need be no debate around such an obviously Biblical command.

    However, “Global Warming” is as much an affront to science as insistence on a flat earth, a moon made of green cheese, or biological evolution. It is an appeal made to Naturalists who worship the material in order to reject the spiritual (and thus the Truth). It is an appeal made by the fascists d’jour who seek to use it as an excuse to oppress and subjegate or merely to satisfy arrogant “I am God” delusions of knowing better than everyone else what is best for everyone else.

    “Carbon Offsets” are the indulgences of this false Naturalist religion and are expensive, thus only available to the wealthy.

    The Body of Christ must be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” But, the SBC is very influential and power corrupts.

    Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.

  5. Mark,

    There are some who would argue that this creation is fallen and soon to be destroyed, so that to care for it is the same as to be rearranging the chairs on the deck of the titanic. I don’t hold to that particular theology.

    I am wondering what exactly it means to be a steward of creation? Also, where are we “commanded” to do so?

    Gen 1, Mankind is commanded to fill the earth, subdue it (refering to conquering one’s enemy) and rule over it (as God rules over the nations). Stewardship in scripture refers to the position of a steward (an accountant of money and possessions) or more commonly in the New Testament to stewardship of the gospel.

    One may argue, as our pastor often does from this passage for a husband towards his wife, from Genesis 2 that we are to “serve” and “protect” the earth. But I would argue that this is a narrative passage that must be taken as a whole, meaning that Gen 3 altars the relationship of man to the earth. It was man’s purpose (not that he was commanded) in the Garden of Eden to serve it and tend it, cultivate it. He failed that purpose in eating from the tree. Thus, in Genesis 3, the land is cursed because of Adam. Adam is no longer to tend the land, but he will have to toil to enjoy its fruits. I don’t think this curse is removed until the New Creation in Revelation 22.

    Otherwise, I am in total agreement with how you characterized the “green” religion. You said it much better than I!

  6. Well.. it may not be as obvious as I thought, but you are not nearly as dense as you pretend to be. Are we not stewards of all God has given us?

    “Gen 1, Mankind is commanded to fill the earth, subdue it (refering to conquering one’s enemy) and rule over it (as God rules over the nations).”

    This is demonstrably false. There were no human enemies! There were no nations! God himself refutes your assertion.
    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

    God blessed them and said to them, “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 that moves on the ground.”

    It is also logically flawed. If the command is to Mankind, then Mankind should always be at war. If this were true, then as you seek to obediently conquer your enemies, your enemies are equally obedient in striving for the same primacy.

    “Stewardship in scripture refers to the position of a steward (an accountant of money and possessions)” It, therefore, makes perfect sense to think of human beings, having been assigned to rule over the earth, as God’s stewards for the earth, which is his possession.

    And the LORD said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’

    Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

    “It was man’s purpose (not that he was commanded) in the Garden of Eden to serve it and tend it, cultivate it.” I’m not sure what you think that means, but for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground
    and
    The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

    Perhaps this will also help.

    “Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat of it
    all the days of your life.

    I take it back. It is obvious.

  7. Mark,

    I think we are talking past one another. I am just questioning the idea that we are “commanded” to be stewards of creation. We can make a theological argument, but it would be based on statements of purpose, or narrative descriptions, not on technical commands to all readers.

    For instance, it is a statement of purpose that God said he put man in Eden to work it. The Bible does not say, “Work the ground” in an imperative. I’m not trying to split hairs as much as challenge the idea that we are being commanded to do something in Genesis 2. We can make a theological argument, as you have demonstrated, that Genesis 2 has implications for our life. Thus, though it may be wise to be stewards of creation, one may argue that we were never commanded to do so.

    My arguement over subdue and rule is based on how the Hebrew words are used throughout the rest of scripture. You only subdue enemies, and you rule over nations. In other words, creation is obviously subjugated to mankind. We can learn from Scripture how to be a good ruler, as God is a good ruler. But the verse itself is not a de facto support for Creation Care. I argue that we have to take in account the Curse of “painful” toil in Genesis 3. Things now are not how they were in Genesis 1-2. Creation is more like an enemy than a faithful subject. If that is the case, and some may argue otherwise, how does that effect our views of stewardship of creation? That is my question. And it is a question that is largely ignored by those “green” conscious or those not.

  8. “talking past one another”??? About stewardship???
    Who cares?!?!

    Why don’t you respond to this?:

    “Gen 1, Mankind is commanded to fill the earth, subdue it (refering to conquering one’s enemy) and rule over it (as God rules over the nations).”

    This is demonstrably false. There were no human enemies! There were no nations! God himself refutes your assertion.
    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

    God blessed them and said to them, “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 that moves on the ground.”

    It is also logically flawed. If the command is to Mankind, then Mankind should always be at war. If this were true, then as you seek to obediently conquer your enemies, your enemies are equally obedient in striving for the same primacy.

  9. I kept thinking about this, and I’m not content with my previous comment.

    If we were “talking past one another”, of course I would care. But I’m more concerned about your assertion that “You only subdue enemies, and you rule over nations.” while scripture says “Rule over the fish”. Unless fish are enemies, your assertion is incorrect.

    You also said “Adam is no longer to tend the land, but he will have to toil to enjoy its fruits.” contrary to scripture which makes clear work or ‘toil’ is not part of the curse because Adam worked before the curse and contrary to the reality that land is tended to this day.

    What do you think tend or ‘take care of’ means? Don’t you think he watered the plants in Eden? It must have consisted of something. But, Adam was never a mere florist. He had to “work the ground” in Eden. He was a farmer, which involves more than painfully (after the fall) laborious plowing and harvesting. Farming also involves watering and removing weeds and bugs. These are ‘tending’ and, as you well know, are still done today. The only change I see evident in scripture is that toil became painful after the fall.

    But, if disgust for idolatry drives you, then take courage in this. I believe I have reasonably demonstrated that we can have a perspective that allows us to be obedient and God-honoring stewards of nature without becoming idolatrous Naturalists.

  10. While it is fun to parse sentences and word structure, would we agree that they difficulty lies in the fact that the Bible does not say “how” to care for the earth, and you can find an “expert” that will say anything. “The earth is warming”, “cooling”, “too much CO2”, “to many aresols” etc.. Basically, if you have any kind of memory every thing we have been told by the experts has been either proven wrong or insignificat. anyone remember global cooling or the fact that sweeten Low causes cancer. So Who is going to be our “expert”.

  11. Mark,

    Thank you for the second response. I think you are actually getting closer to what I was trying to say. The “green” interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 does not take into account Genesis 3. There is a definite negative impact on mankind’s relationship to the creation because of the fall that is not reversed until the New Creation in Rev 20-22.

    I was trying to highlight this, and probably unsuccessfully, in my response to your first comment (I was actually trying to agree with everything you said and draw out the implications of the faulty understanding being espoused by the “creation care” argument).

    I do think we can make a scriptural argument for being stewards of creation as long as we take into account Genesis 3 and the fact that no matter our efforts we cannot inaugarate the New Creation which is solely the work of God.

    My challenge to you was on the emphasis that we are commanded to be stewards. I would still contend that we are not commanded, only that it is wise to do so. My points about ruling and subduing flowed out of my understanding of how those two words in the Hebrew Bible are used elsewhere. I don’t think we can rule and subdue in the same way that Adam and Eve had the opportunity because of the Fall. Rather, we learn how God rules over the nations and how he subdues his enemies as our wise example in ruling over and subduing the earth. We cannot know how prefallen humanity actually followed through with this command. We have to follow our best example–God himself.

    All that to say, I agree with you “we can have a perspective that allows us to be obedient and God-honoring stewards of nature without becoming idolatrous Naturalists.”

    I only think our naive acceptance of a worldly viewpoint on this is dangerous, as you have demonstrated and as Jdog is trying to argue as well.

  12. Jason,

    I agree that the issue to so complex that science struggles to understand it and I believe that our proposed initiative also underestimates the complexity of the problem.

  13. Mark,

    I’m glad we were able to talk last night. So you already know what I’m going to say.

    Though I believe that there is continuity between working, or tending, the ground in the garden by Adam with what mankind is able to do now, I maintain that there is also discontinuity between working and toiling. In Hebrew, toiling implies pain, grief, rebellion, sorrow. This is in contrast to serving and protecting the earth, or working and tending. In the latter, the earth is pliable and submissive–there is positive relationship between the man and the earth. In the former, the earth is hard, it produces thistles and weeds, injury and harm to the man–there is a definite negative relationship between man and the earth.

    All this to say, I think we can be stewards of the creation, but in a fundamentally different way that God intended. Now it is hard, and it will ultimately be unsuccessful until there is a New Creation.

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