Environmental Problems: A Creationist
Perspective on Our Biblical Heritage
Ralph E. Ancil
THE BIBLICAL ETHIC ACCUSED
Since 1967 when Lynn White. Jr.1 first proposed that the Biblical heritage was the "root" of our ecological crisis, it has been fashionable to blame this heritage as the philosophical or attitudinal basis of environmental problems. One aspect of this charge which has been especially popular is the Biblical command for man to be fruitful and multiply, to have dominion over the earth and subdue it. This, it is believed, encourages the view that man can dispose of nature as he pleases. However, a number of other writers have shown the inadequacy of this view. They demonstrate that the words dominion and subdue do not require exploitative interpretations. They have shown that other pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures have been environmentally destructive. In summarizing one well-known environmentalist's suspicion of Lynn White's claim, Christman2 writes:
"Dubos feels that the pillaging of nature has been a continuous human tendency due to a relative ignorance of consequences and valuation of immediate advantage over long-range goals. In his views, modern problems seem worse simply because there are more of us with more powerful tools at our disposal."
Others have shown that even so-called "primitive" cultures which are supposed to have a reverence for nature inducing sound ecological practices may not have had such wholesome attitudes, The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, for example, were increasingly "wasteful" of natural goods in times of abundance. They would engage in a practice called the "potlatch," which involved the deliberate destruction of vast amounts of wealth to impress guests. The Great Plains Indians, too, had unsound environmental practices. Upon acquiring the gun and the horse, they frequently killed the buffalo just for the tongue and the two Strips of back strap3.
However, in spite of the serious refutations of the White thesis, many writers continue to lay the blame for environmentally destructive attitudes at the feet of the Judeo-Christian world view. For example, one author4 in considering land planning and zoning, argues that the ethic has much to do with the effectiveness of such planning. He therefore cites different "ethics" and one of them is
"The Judeo-Christian ethic (nature exists to serve man)."
This is as recent as November, 1980. Again, in a recent look on ecology, Barbour5 et al, (1980) write:
"Natural settings have generated negative feelings in western (Judeo-Christian) societies,
Since the distortion of the Christian position still persists, it may be well for us to briefly review some Scriptural passages to see just what the Bible writers have to say.
AN EXAMINATION OF SCRIPTURE
In Genesis chapters one and two it is recorded how God commanded man to have dominion over the entire earth. The word "dominion" means to rule. Therefore, man was installed as the ruler of the earth. But does this mean he is free to do as he pleases? Certainly not, for it is equally clear from Scripture that the final authority and ruler is God Himself to whom man is accountable.
Man's dominion over the earth is limited by God's dominion over man. Furthermore, in the Biblical view man is judged by the quality of his actions, not by the extent of his dominion. Dominion, then, never serves as an excuse for becoming obsessed with or driven to, the "conquest," control or' callous manipulation of nature.
The word "subdue" usually means to conquer or subjugate and often carries a warlike connotation. However, such a definition is inadequate for the perfect Edenic conditions under which this command was given. That is, there was nothing to conquer or "beat" in any battle since all was perfect and good. Initially, there weren't even any other people on earth. So the command to subdue could not be meant in this way. Another legitimate definition of the word "subdue," however, simply means to cultivate or till the ground. When taken in the rest of the context of the first two chapters of Genesis, this becomes even clearer. For example, Gen. 2:5 says:
"And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground." (KJV)
The implication here is clearly that when the first man did appear it was intended for him to "till the ground." Indeed, as soon as Adam had been formed "God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it." (Gen. 2:15, KJV). Other translations read that he was to "cultivate it" (NT) or "to work it and take care of it" (NIV). There is a close connection between the commands to subdue and fiIlthe earth. By populating the earth it would be subdued because as people spread over the earth, they would naturally cultivate it. Hence, the word subdue may well have the dual connotation of cultivate/populate. It was clearly in this context of "cultivation" and "care" that man was given his divine commission to have "dominion" and "subdue." Man thus received the authprity of a steward to rule in his Master's house.
ATTITUDE TOWARD PLANTS AND ANIMALS
In addition to this general commission, God gave His people many specific environmentally sound laws. For example, Leviticus 25:2-5 gives the command for the Sabbath where the land was to "rest" every seventh year, to lie fallow and restore its nutrients. Again in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, God commands the Israelites not to damage trees bearing fruit when engaging in warfare: this prevents deforestation and conserves soil. In Deuteronomy 22:6, they were commanded not to take the dam (female) of the bird nest, but only the young, This prevents the population from being seriously diminished while still providing man with food.
In Deuteronomy 25: 4 the Israelites were instructed not to muzzle the bull when it threshes grain. Clearly, this was an act of kindness, a consideration for the well-being of the beast. Again in a more general note Proverbs 12:10 reads:
"A righteous man cares for the needs of his animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel." (NIV)
ATTITUDE TOWARD NON-LIVING RESOURCES
The Judeo-Christian perspective includes the view that the material resources of individuals or nations are blessings from God. Thus in Deuteronomy 8:13-16, the writer indicates:
and when your herd and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increases and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth ..."(NIV)
A similar view is given in Isaiah 60:16-17:
then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron. Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones." (NIV)
While God is the ultimate owner and giver of all material resources, man is not encouraged to pursue their acquisition. Rather he is to esteem wisdom and understanding above gold or silver or material possession:
"How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver" Proverbs 16:16 (NIV)
GOD'S PROVIDENTIAL CARE
The Judeo-Christian heritage also emphasizes God's providential care and concern over His creation. Psalm 65: 9 states:
"You care for the land and water it: you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it." (NIV)
God's care for the earth is a blessing of abundance for His people. Again in Psalm 36:6, the psalmist declares:
"0 Lord, you preserve both man and beast." (NIV)
And Psalms 145:9, 15-16, reads:
"The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. The eyes of all look to you' and you give them their food at the proper
time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing." (NIV)
In Matthew 6:26 and 10:29 (and Luke 12:6-7) we are told how God cares even for the birds, how not one of them dies without His knowledge, And the writer of Hebrews 1:3 tells us that the whole universe is sustained by the word of His power.
Finally, Paul tells us that God's care extends to the point of redeeming all His
"The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." (Rom. 8:19-21, NIV)
SPIRITUALITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
We note also a connection between the moral behavior of the people and the quality of their environment. For example, Isaiah 24:5 reads:
"The earth also is defiled (polluted) under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant." (KJV)
And again in Leviticus 18:25, 28:
"Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants, , And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited Out the nations that were before you." (N IV)
Numbers 35:33, 34 reads:
"Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LOAD dwell among the Israelites." (NIV)
Hosea 4:1, 3 states:
There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land.. . . Because of this the land mourns (or dries up), and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying." (NIV)
Finally, Jeremiah writes (16:18):
"I will repay them double for their wickedness and their sin, because they have defiled my land with the lifeless forms of their vile images and have filled my inheritance with their detestable idols." (NIV)
Thus, the Biblical writers indicate a strong linkage between the quality of the land and the morality and spiritual condition of those who dwell in it. Spiritual pollution resulted in environmental pollution. If there is obedience, there is environmental quality; Leviticus 26:3-5, 10 reads:
"If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. . . You wilt be eating last year's harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new." (NIV)
In the case of disobedience, the environment would be detrimentally affected as indicated in Leviticus 26:16, 19-20:
1 will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. . . I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground
beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit," (NIV)
The charge that the Judeo-Christian heritage is the root of our environmental problems has been seriously challenged by a number of writers. In spite of these refutations, the notion still persists. Yet a brief review of Scriptural passages reveals several points. It shows that 1 the concept of dominion is man's authority to rule but that his authority is contingent upon and limited by God's sovereignty (man must answer to God); 2) that God encouraged consideration of both plants and animals by His people; 3) that the non-living resources were blessings from the Almighty who actively sustains His world; 4) that God himself cares very much for His creation and creatures; 5) that from the Biblical perspective there is a strong link between spiritual and environmental pollution.
It is clear that environmentally destructive attitudes are not fostered by any Scriptural belief. Indeed, the Bible offers a firm basis for a Creationist philosophy of ecology and a Christian environmental ethic. The Christian sees in creation the attributes of God Himself:
"For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead. (Rom. 1:20, KJV)
The notion that Jews and Christians were inspired by Scripture to adopt environmentally destructive attitudes must be recognized for what it is: a myth of the secular, liberal mind.
1 White, Lynn, Jr.; 1967; "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science, Vol. 155, pp. 1203-1207.
2 Christman, A.; 1980: "Environmental Theology"; Environmental Science and Technology; Vol.14, No.11, November; p.1271.
3 Baden, John; Stroup, Richard; and Thurman, Walter; 1979; "Indians, Property, and Conservation"; Literature of Liberty; Vol. 11, No. 4, p. 54.
4 Kaufman, Jerome L.; 1980; "Land Planning In an Ethical Perspective"; Journal of Soil and Water Conservation; Vol. 35, No. 6, November-December, pp. 255-256.
5 Barbour, Michael G., et al.; 1980; Terrestrial Plant Ecology; Benjamin-Cummings; Menlo Park, Ca., p. V.