Special Report: Creation Care at the 2012 Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Part 1 of 3)

 

PART I: SETTING THE SCENE

 

Creation Care. It appears on the surface to be an uncontroversial and noble cause, a potential rallying point of unity for peoples of many faiths. We can see the devastating effects of oilrig disasters with our naked eyes. Our intuitions tell us that there is something intrinsically wrong with billowing smoke stacks. Science is telling us about mass extinction of species and melting ice caps. We should all of us be alarmed. But not everyone thinks so. In fact, some see behind it all a conspiracy and a ploy for power. They disagree firmly with those who suggest that we should abide with the environmental policies of the global community. We are at a spiritual war with powers that seek to control global policy and want to force depopulation. Science has been co-opted, and Christians of all stripes should push back. Of course there are a range of Christian responses to the matter, but organizers of the recent annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society found four voices that represented some of the more opposing views, and at points, sparks flew.

 

This report narrates some of the action at ETS 2012. From it, I want to discern the points of contention that arose there, which seem to divide Evangelicals in America today. These points of conflict are not the easiest to name, since most everybody thinks that we should care for the earth, in one way or another. And when Evangelicals pull out the flagship biblical verses, as in the case of Genesis 1.27-28 at this year’s ETS conference, everybody basically agrees that humans have been made to love and steward God’s creation. But as the conversation went on, it became clear that not all contributors meant the same thing by Creation Care, even though they were using very similar language. What was different? It was the larger worldview behind their language where differences emerged, and it will do us all some good to tease out some elements of these worldviews.

 

What is “the biblical worldview” and how does it challenge us to face the contemporary environmental crisis? This seems to be the starting question, and different Evangelicals answer differently based on their understanding of the question, though the answer to the to it is not as easy as many might think.

 

Four plenary speakers were invited to address this main question: E. Calvin Beisner, Richard Bauckham, Russell D. Moore, and Douglas Moo. Each has earned their PhD, and they come from a variety of backgrounds associated with Evangelicalism. The most telling conflicts came between Bauckham and Beisner, who were ironically seated next to one another during the panel discussion, so I will mainly highlight their conversation here. Both had given a plenary address and said some similar things about Genesis 1.28,

“God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Beisner approached the verse with a basic concern for the intense poverty that we find in developing nations of the world. He suggested that there is growing today a pagan, anti-Christian worldview that gave birth to and organizes the contemporary environmental movement. This worldview inspires powerful people who are pushing policies that have little impact on the earth and big impact on people. He suggested that stewardship in Genesis means that we should use our God-given role to bring sustainable energy and advanced technologies to solve the plight of those trapped in the worst positions of poverty in the world today. Beisner presented a tidal wave of scientific information that pointed to one conclusion: the earth isn’t really in that bad of a position. Studies on rapid extinction of species are corrupted because they have intentionally sought for the conclusion they wanted to find. Climate change is happening, but then again it has always happened; the world is warming because of the ways that growing carbon emissions bounce off the clouds rather than burning our ozone. More on Beisner’s worldview below.

 

Bauckham took a different reading. He thought that Beisner’s worldview, though clearly he was rightly concerned about world poverty, was corrupted by a modernistic interpretation of the true biblical worldview. Bauckham pointed out that the ideas of Francis Bacon from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which led to a utilitarian view of creation, continue to influence our world today and press us to unlock the potential of creation itself. Bauckham suggested that Beisner’s worldview was a variation of Bacon’s and countered that stewardship in Genesis 1.28 was never meant to sanction an unlimited exploitation of creation for human benefits alone. Rather stewardship in Genesis was a call to grow in god-like love and delight for the created world. We are to become people who care about whole creation’s need for sustenance. Bauckham and Moo suggested that theologians must not dabble in science or approach it with overly suspicious eyes. There are enough reputable Christians scientists who believe that human-created climate change is upon us, and we should listen to their warnings. Beisner firmly disagreed.

 

So the central question then is this: who has the right biblical worldview, which perhaps makes a few errors in judgment, and who has a foundationally corrupted understanding of the biblical worldview and yet holds to some correct biblical ideas? In this case, does Bauckham have a worldview corrupted by pagan anti-Christian views of reality? Or does Beisner have a worldview corrupted by modern views of the universe? The answer to this question is not at all easy to make; it is probably yes and no to both. Though if we can tease out some very divergent ways of seeing the world between Bauckham and Beisner, we might find a key that helps us discover a robustly Christian position towards our environment today. I think we can do so by looking at three questions: 1. Where is our bottom line; should we care ultimately for the welfare of humans or animals? 2. What is the gospel? 3. What does the Bible say about the nature of freedom and sufficiency? How we answer each question will reveal a lot about our basic worldview.

 


Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth”s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.