Biblical Principles for Environmental Stewardship: The Value of Creation
Last week we examined the first principle in biblical environmental stewardship: that God, the Creator of all things, has commanded mankind to exercise fruitful stewardship over His creation. Today we look at the second principle.
Principle 2: All creation is valuable, but humanity, as the image-bearers of God, is the most valuable created being.
Scripture demonstrates that the whole of creation has intrinsic worth in the sight of God.[i] After each day of creation, God declared his creation to be good – day and night, land and sea and air, plants, sea creatures, birds, and all animals.[ii] He commands the living creatures to “be fruitful and multiply”[iii] and to “abound on the earth.”[iv] After the great flood, God covenants with Noah and “every living creature” that He will never again destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:8-17); in this passage, God mentions “every living creature” six times.[v] God also covenants with the earth (Genesis 9:13) and the day and the night (Jeremiah 33:19-25). The book of Job and the Psalms abound with descriptions of how God delights in His creation. Matthew 6:25-33 also illustrates God’s care for His creation; He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field with glorious lilies. The various parts of creation, in turn, also declare the glory of their Creator.[vi]
The environment also has utilitarian value to mankind.[vii] The resources of creation – food, water, air, stone, wood, metals – nourish us and allow us to improve our standard of living. Unlike our Creator who can create out of nothing, humanity can only create and produce with the existing resources found in the environment. Over time, more of these resources become economically traded commodities, with market values determined by scarcity and demand.
Other parts of creation are also valuable to mankind in ways that are not easily subject to ownership, trade, or market valuation, but which are essential to human flourishing.[viii] For example, plants use photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide into the oxygen required for human respiration. Bees pollinate crops that humans consume; without bees and other pollinators, humans would have to expend time and resources pollinating crops directly. Ozone in the atmosphere absorbs cancer-causing radiation, thereby protecting human health. Although the monetary value of these environmental goods and services may be challenging to evaluate, their value to humanity is undeniable.[ix]
Because creation is valuable both in the sight of God and humanity, God decreed how Israel was to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment in the Old Testament. Humanity was to allow animals to rest on the Sabbath[x] and to treat animals well.[xi] Productive fruit trees were not to be cut down during the siege of a city, so that the productive capacity of the land would not be diminished.[xii] Even the land itself was supposed to rest fallow every seven years.[xiii] Although these specific commands were directed towards the specific context of Old Testament Israel and are no longer binding, the underlying principle to be responsible stewards over creation still applies.
While God values all of His creation, He uniquely values mankind that He made in His image.[xiv] Although after every day of creation God pronounced His creation to be good, God declared that creation was very good only after His creation of man. Thus, humanity is not merely equal to the animals or some other part of creation. He set humanity to rule over the rest of creation and gave plants[xv] and later animals[xvi] to humanity as food. God established His original covenant with humanity and made humanity the object of this covenant. And, in Matthew 6:25-33, Jesus says that if God devotes such care for birds and grass, how much more will He care for humanity?
Nevertheless, humanity must acknowledge its relation to the rest of creation. God created man from “the dust of the ground” on the same day as the animals, and named the first man (Adam) after the ground (adama).[xvii] Thus, a hierarchy exists in the created order.[xviii] God, the sovereign and providential Creator, presides over both humanity and the other parts of creation. Humanity, the image-bearers of God, is below God but above the rest of creation.[xix] The non-human creation, although inherently valuable in the sight of God and man, rests at the bottom of this hierarchy. Humanity therefore should not adopt a “biocentric” philosophy that aims to preserve all life, nor an “ecocentric” philosophy that aims to preserve the environment in its natural state, nor an “anthropocentric” view in which nature’s only purpose is to serve humanity. Instead, humanity should adopt a “theocentric” view of both caring for and subduing the rest of creation in a manner prescribed by God.[xx]
Humanity should also reject the deification of creation – a modern form of pantheism – that some secular environmentalists either explicitly or implicitly practice.[xxi] For example, humanity must reject the proposition promoted by secular environmental groups – such as Earth First, the Earth Liberation Front, and the Animal Liberation Front – that other members of the biological community have or should have equal rights to humanity.[xxii] These living creatures are indeed valuable and should not be subjected to wanton destruction or cruelty, but they do not have the same status as humans made in the image of God. Humanity also should avoid the deification of itself – humanism. Both of these perspectives “exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.”[xxiii] Instead, humanity must order its activities according to God’s will by exercising fruitful stewardship over the environment.
[i] Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 120.
[ii] J. Michael Beers et al., “The Catholic Church and Stewardship of Creation,” 35.
[iii] Genesis 1:22
[iv] Genesis 8:17
[v] Genesis 9:9-10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17; see also Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 92.
[vi] J. Michael Beers et al., “The Catholic Church and Stewardship of Creation,” 36. See also Job 38-41; Psalm 19; Psalm 104; Psalm 148; and Psalm 150
[vii] E. Calvin Beisner, Creation Stewardship: Evaluating Competing Views (The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2020), 10.
[viii] Sandra Diaz et al, “Assessing Nature’s Contribution to People,” Science Magazine 359, no. 6376 (2018): 270–72; W. M. Adams, “The Value of Valuing Nature,” Science Magazine 346, no. 6206 (2014): 549–51; Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 157.
[ix] Clarence W. Joldersma, “The Responsibility of Earthlings for the Earth: Graciousness, Lament, and the Call for Justice,” in Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creational Care, ed. David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College Press, 2019), 62–63.
[x] Exodus 20:10; 23:12; 34:21
[xi] Deuteronomy 25:4; Proverbs 12:10
[xii] Deuteronomy 20:19-20
[xiii] Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25
[xiv] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 325; see also Matthew 12:12, 10:31
[xv] Genesis 1:29
[xvi] Genesis 9:2-3
[xvii] Genesis 2:7; see also Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 63–64.
[xviii] Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 173.
[xix] See Psalm 8
[xx] Calvin Beisner et al., “A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship,” in Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, n.d., 70; Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 78, 96–98, 112.
[xxi] Timothy Bloedow, Environmentalism and the Death of Science, 12; Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 181.
[xxii] Horacio R. Trujillo, “The Radical Environmentalist Movement,” in Aptitude for Destruction: Case Studies of Organizational Learning in Five Terrorist Groups, vol. 2 (RAND Corporation, n.d.), http://www.jstor.com/stable/10.7249/mg332nij.13.
[xxiii] Romans 1:25