Biblical Principles for Environmental Stewardship: Dominion and Care
Last week we examined the second principle in biblical environmental stewardship: that all creation is valuable, but humanity, as the image-bearers of God, is the most valuable created being. Today we look at the third principle.
Principle 3: God commands that humanity both exercise dominion and care over all of creation.[i]
In the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28, God commands humanity to have dominion over the earth and to subdue it. Theologians point out that the original Hebrew word for subdue (kavash) is a “fairly strong term” that “means to overpower, to conquer, to bring under control.”[ii] This subduing of the environment includes extracting the natural resources of creation to increase human standards of living (both before and after sin infected the world). For example, God created hills out of which humanity “can dig copper”[iii] and trees that men could “cut down” for wood.[iv] Jesus both curses an unfruitful fig tree and suggests that it should be cut down, for “why should it use up the ground?”[v] Fruitful stewardship also includes controlling viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals that harm human flourishing (only after sin infected the world).[vi] For example, the Mosaic Law prescribed a number of practices to prevent the spread of disease. This command to have dominion and to subdue the earth is not optional.
Unfortunately, our ability to properly exercise dominion over God’s creation is limited by humanity’s finitude and is marred by sin.[vii] Humanity has the capacity to overconsume, pollute, and destroy as we endeavour to exercise dominion over the non-human creation.[viii] Focusing only on Genesis 1:28 may lead us to think we have the “right to do anything we want to the earth”[ix] – that the sole purpose of the environment is to serve as raw materials to fuel human needs and desires.[x] We might ignore the health of other living creatures or long-term sustainability.
In case humanity is tempted to simply exploit nature, God balances this command to subdue the earth by revealing His purpose for humanity: to keep (ESV), to take care of (NIV), to tend (NKJV), or even to serve (YLT) the garden.[xi] Exclusive attention to this command in Genesis 2:15 may also lead to an incomplete understanding of environmental stewardship. Under a care-only philosophy, humanity is to preserve the environment the way it is, to never harm or kill animals, or to make conservation the highest calling of humanity.
Combining the commands of both of these verses (subdue and serve) may seem contradictory, but a proper Christian understanding of these terms makes them perfectly compatible. Authority and service go hand in hand within families, within government institutions, and within environmental stewardship.[xii]
Christians acknowledge that human beings have an imperfect capacity to exercise responsible stewardship over the rest of creation. This requires humanity to continuously refine and re-evaluate its exercise of dominion and stewardship over the environment. We should study how our activities may threaten animal species, interfere with a nutrient cycle, or pollute a water source. The solution to imperfect stewardship is not to abandon the responsibility of stewardship altogether, but to develop our stewardship techniques.
[i] J. Michael Beers et al., “The Catholic Church and Stewardship of Creation,” 39.
[ii] Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 176.
[iii] Deuteronomy 8:9
[iv] Deuteronomy 19:5 and 2 Kings 6:4
[v] Matthew 21:18-22 and Luke 13:6-9
[vi] Cornelis Van Dam, 176–77.
[vii] James R. Skillen, “Stewardship and the Kingdom of God,” in Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, ed. David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College Press, 2019), 102.
[viii] Calvin Beisner et al., “A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship,” 84.
[ix] David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun, Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creational Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College Press, 2019), 9, 12–13.
[x] David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun, 12–13.
[xi] Genesis 2:15; for a fuller explanation of how humanity is to “serve” the garden, see Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 64.
[xii] Steven Bouma-Prediger, “From Stewardship to Earthkeeping: Why We Should Move beyond Stewardship,” in Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, ed. David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College Press, 219AD), 81–91.