Special Report: Creation Care at the 2012 Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Part 2 of 3)

(Read Part 1 of 3)


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 human freedom and sufficiency?

As you can imagine, libraries of books have been written on these three questions. I lack the expertise to address them in detail in such a short report. I simply want to report on these three points from ETS for our further reflection.

What is our Bottom Line: Should We Care Ultimately for the Welfare of Humans or Animals?

Of course, the answer is both. But the realities of our day often times seem to force us one way or the other. Beisner seems clear in his approach. The bottom line is humanity. The pagan worldview of the environmental movement and its contraceptive (against further population) stance, attacks the basic worth of human dignity. Attempts to control the world’s population stand on the faulty assumption that the earth can handle no more of us. The solution to our current problem of widespread poverty is to use our ingenuity to bring sustainable energy and clean water, for example, to the world’s population. Human technology has enhanced the state of living in the “developed” world. Before the modern era, everyone except the wildly wealthy lived in “abject poverty.” Half of the babies survived birth, people did not live as long, and we had no way of purifying water. Nature was not subdued. We should continue our advancements for the good of humanity everywhere, and if this comes at the cost the extinction of habitats and their species, then the cost is worth the risk, though extinction has always been around, and it is bad science anyway that convinces us that more species are dying today than ever before.

The other way of answering this question is simply: no. We should not make advancements in technology if it means the extinction of species. If we had to choose between developing a plot of land that contained the only substance that would keep a million people alive, and we knew at the same time that we might wipe out a species of frog in the process, the answer is clear. We’ll find another way. And in response to Beisner, others wondered this: was the pre-modern world as bad as you make it out to be? Have we really evolved? Yes technologies have improved the quantity of life, but has it improved the quality? Yes we didn’t have ways to purify water, but did the water need purifying then? And shouldn’t the people in the most abject levels of poverty today have a say in what kind of technologies should be developed at the cost of their way of life? Are we, the scientific moderns, the heroes destined to rid the world of evil?

You can see that the answer to this question is not easy. It basically comes down to how we answer this question: What is wrong with the world, and what is the solution?

  • Biblical Worldview Questions: The realties of our world force us sometimes to choose between human life and animal life. How does the gospel redefine reality? How could the cross-shaped life of God’s people teach us to approach our environmental problems today? What does the Bible say is wrong with the world? And what is its solution?

What is the Gospel?

Can you feel the weight of this question? For centuries, Protestants have answered it along with the great reformers: the gospel is justification by grace through faith. Beisner held this definition of the gospel, and you can see how he might take issue with groups that “implicitly change the gospel.” This was his charge directly against Blessed Earth, the only time that the Sleeths were mentioned in the sessions that I attended. Beisner lumped “Serve God, Save the Planet” and “The Gospel According to the Earth” and their suggestions about the practicalities of the gospel among that group of “law based” religions. He quoted Colossians 2.20-23, “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world; why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules.” As a participant in the Blessed Earth community, I was not completely offended. His point actually clarified the point where a major difference exists. Of course Blessed Earth holds to the saving work of Jesus as a central focus. But Beisner may be defining gospel in a more narrow way than Blessed Earth, where for them the gospel is more about the announcement that Jesus is king over all the earth and has come to save, justify, and redeem all of creation for God’s full intentions. Is this larger perspective of the gospel more or less faithful to the biblical witness? This is obviously a much bigger discussion than we have time here to address.

This point is this, though: part of the Evangelical division about the meaning of creation care falls down upon theological party lines, especially where definitions of the gospel itself are contested.

  • Biblical Worldview Question: What is “the gospel” according to the biblical writers, and how is creation care a part of it?

What Does the Bible Say about Freedom and Excess?

Bauckham made an emphatic point that we must be very careful to know what the bible says about freedom and excess. He made a challenge against what he called the “Modern American” understanding of liberty, that mostly opposes regulations of any sort. One of Beisner’s main oppositions to the worldwide environmental movement is its inherent desire for global governance and policies that will attempt to rule us, electrical grids that would decide when we could use our appliances, for example. But “what is the biblical understanding of freedom,” asked Bauckham. Americans tend to think that our way of life is sacrosanct, he said. We tend to think that the real problems of our world, the problems of poverty and malnutrition are epidemics of the “third world”. But what about petroleum spills? What about mountain top removal? The real problem, he suggested, is that we are addicted to consumption. “We’ve lost the notion of sufficiency”, Bauckham claimed, “that’s why we are devastating the earth.” We are not demigods with limitless freedom to do to the earth whatever we imagine for the sake of our own flourishing. We are part of a community of creation with a very specific role. And as of right now, our addiction to unneeded material things feeds the machine that is exploiting the earth and its people. What way is worse? This question hung in the air at ETS, a worldview that errs on the side of paganism, or one that is primarily governed by a modernistic and materialist craving?

  • Biblical Worldview Question: What does the bible say about the nature of human freedom and excess? Can we chart a biblical response that challenges materialism and avoids the diminishing of human need and worth?

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.