Biblical Principles for Environmental Stewardship: The Command of Fruitful Stewardship
Environmental issues have become centerpieces in recent elections, policy-making, and public discourse. A 2018 Angus Reid poll found that 66% of Canadians believe that climate change is primarily driven by human causes, compared to 19% of Canadians who believe that natural changes primarily drive climate change. Nine percent of Canadians think that climate change is a theory that has not yet been proven.[i] Canadians are vehemently divided on whether new oil pipelines should be built. Environmentalist crusader and Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, was named Time’s 2019 person of the year and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Climate strikes and blockades have become increasingly popular in Canada, with even elected politicians like Elizabeth May willing to be arrested for participating.[ii] Given this prominent place in Canadian political discussions and the daily realities of life, environmental issues and related policy proposals are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
Christians must promote a biblical understanding of what the environment is, what humanity’s relationship with the environment is, and what God’s plan for the environment is. The mandate to care for the planet – including the animals, plants, land, water, and air – is a theme present throughout God’s word. Christians have a responsibility to articulate these biblical principles and to shape environmental public policy in a way that is consistent with Scripture.
This article series builds upon ARPA Canada’s core principle of Stewardship over Creation, which reads: God’s first commandment to humanity was “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Humanity has authority to develop natural resources for our benefit. But we do so as stewards, not owners. Our authority is balanced with numerous commands to care for both plants (Deut. 20:19-20) and animals (Prov. 12:10). We also have a responsibility for future generations.
In the coming weeks, we will outline seven biblical and foundational principles of environmental stewardship and how humanity should interact with the non-human creation. These principles form building blocks for a Reformed Christian perspective on public policy concerning environmental care and expose flaws in other environmental perspectives. The principles articulated here strive to be the most faithful explanation of a biblical worldview. They provide a rationale for concrete environmental policies while leaving room to debate specific scientific claims.
Principle 1: God, the Creator of all things, has commanded mankind to exercise fruitful stewardship over His creation.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[iii] Those opening words of Scripture form the foundation of environmental stewardship. Because He created the earth and everything in it, God is the sole proprietor of all creation. All of creation belongs to Him.[iv] No human can lay ultimate claim over any aspect of creation – land, natural resources, or animals.
Nevertheless, God delegated authority over creation to humanity at the very beginning of history. In Genesis 1:28, often called the cultural mandate, God commands mankind to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”[v] In Genesis 2:16, He also placed the man “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Caring for the earth is one of God’s purposes for humanity.
The first command in the cultural mandate – be fruitful – can be understood through the Parable of the Talents.[vi] In this parable, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God, which encompasses all of creation, to a master who entrusts his property to his three servants. The servants understand that the property under their care is not ultimately theirs but belongs to their master. This master will eventually demand an account of how his servants managed his property. The two servants who fruitfully invested their master’s money were rewarded. The third servant, who neglected to fruitfully invest it, was condemned for his unproductivity. If the servant who allowed his master’s property to remain stagnant was condemned, how much worse would it be for a servant who deliberately wastes or ruins his master’s resources?
This framework of fruitful stewardship over financial resources can also be applied to mankind’s treatment of the rest of creation. God entrusts the non-human creation to humanity, not necessarily so that humanity can simply preserve it in its natural state, but so that humanity might be fruitful with it.[vii] This requires mankind to develop and transform the earth’s natural resources, while also preserving ecosystems that provide valuable goods and services to mankind and that declare the glory of God (see Principle 2).
Progress and development are implicit commands of God.[viii] “The divine mandate involves harnessing creation’s resources and making the most of its potential while being careful to use the resources wisely… It is telling that although the world began with a garden it will end with a great and beautiful city.”[ix] At the end of our lives or at the end of the world, God will reward those who fruitfully managed the creation that He has given to humanity, but will punish those who have not repented from their neglect or active destruction of it. Fruitful stewardship is mandatory.
[i] Angus Reid Institute, “Dueling Realities? Age, Political Ideology Divide Canadians over Cause & Threat of Climate Change,” November 30, 2018, http://angusreid.org/climate-change-beliefs/.
[ii] Graham Slaughter and Adam Frisk, “‘We Are the Change’: Greta Thunberg Tells Canadians to Demand Action,” CTV News, September 27, 2019, https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/we-are-the-change-greta-thunberg-tells-canadians-to-demand-action-1.4613185; CBC, “Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May Arrested at Anti-Pipeline Protest,” CBC, March 23, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/anti-pipeline-protest-elizabeth-may-kennedy-stewart-1.4587631.
[iii] Genesis 1:1
[iv] Psalm 24:1
[v] See also Genesis 1:29 and Psalm 115:16
[vi] Matthew 25:14-30
[vii] Timothy Bloedow, Environmentalism and the Death of Science (Ontario: Freedom Press Canada Inc., 2008), 41–42.
[viii] J. Michael Beers et al., “The Catholic Church and Stewardship of Creation,” in Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2007), 44–45; Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random house, 2006).
[ix] Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 178; see also Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 322. and Timothy Bloedow, Environmentalism and the Death of Science, 43