Ecological Interpretation of the Bible

The Environment
The Bible
World of Diversity
Questioning Church
Image of treetops
Author
David Horrell

David G. Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies at the University of Exeter. From 2006-2009 he led an AHRC-funded project on ‘Uses of the Bible in Environmental Ethics’ which led to various publications, including his book The Bible and the Environment (2010) and a co-written book Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in an Age of Ecological Crisis (2010). He has also published widely on the New Testament epistles, and more recently on issues concerning ethnicity, race, and religion in biblical texts and biblical scholarship.

Over the last sixty years or so, we have become increasingly conscious of the impact of human activity upon the earth and the wide range of environmental problems we have caused. Significant moments in this history include the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 (focused on the impact of pesticides like DDT), the founding of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in 1971, and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Since those early landmarks, we have become ever more aware of the various manifestations of ecological crisis. Climate change is the most obvious and pressing issue of global concern, but there are many more, from soil degradation to loss of wildlife. Indeed, the global pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for the illness named Covid-19) has drawn attention to the growing risks associated with the loss of natural habitats, increased human population and human-animal contact, and our globalised system of hyperconnectivity.

All these challenges – as with other challenges humans face – lead Christians to ask how the Bible might inform a Christian response to these issues. Put simply, this is often expressed in the form of a straightforward question: What does the Bible say about…? However, as in other cases too, that question proves an overly simplistic way to engage the Bible in relation to such contemporary challenges.

There are some publications, such as the Green Bible, published by HarperCollins in 2008, that present the Bible as a ‘green’ book, whose clear message of care for creation has been missed until recently. According to the Green Bible’s Preface:

Our role in creation’s care may be a new question unique to our place in history, but the Bible turns out to be amazingly relevant. In fact, it is almost as if it were waiting for this moment to speak to us. With over a thousand references to the earth and caring for creation in the Bible, the message is clear: all in God’s creation – nature, animals, humanity – are inextricably linked to one another. As God cares for all of creation, so we cannot love one dimension without caring for the others. We are called to care for all God has made (p. I-15)

When it comes to the notoriously difficult text in Genesis 1.26-28 – which talks of humanity’s divinely-given vocation to ‘subdue’ the earth and to ‘have dominion’ over all creatures – this is seen as a call to ‘responsible stewardship’ (p. I-26, Calvin B. DeWitt). Indeed, reinterpreting humanity’s vocation as one of stewardship has become a major focus for Christian environmentalism.

However, there are also Christians for whom ‘environmentalism’ is a neo-pagan movement, dangerously liberal in its commitments and goals, and for whom the Bible teaches different priorities. Calvin Beisner, for example, one of the leading figures behind the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, accepts the need for humans to exercise stewardship over creation, but disputes much of the evidence for environmental crisis, suggesting that the environment ‘is improving, not deteriorating’. Economic development is the best way to help the poor, and environmental policies are more likely to damage their welfare. For Beisner, ‘continued population growth will result not in the depletion but in the increased abundance of natural resources, and not in the increased pollution of the earth but in its increased cleansing and transformation from wilderness to garden’. 1.

The implications of biblical visions of the future are also interpreted differently with regard to questions about the environment. For those Christians who see the Bible as supporting care for creation and environmentalist goals, these future visions are to be seen as visions of transformation. Humans are then argued to have a responsibility to act in a way that aligns with this transformed future. Just as prophetic texts that envisage a day when swords will be turned into ploughshares (Isa 2.4; Micah 4.3) have motivated efforts to end war and violence, so visions of a peaceful, reconciled creation can inspire environmental action (e.g., Isa 11.6-9). However, it is difficult to get around the fact that some biblical texts seem to envisage a more destructive future scenario, in which the earth is destroyed and replaced (e.g., 2 Pet 3.10-13). Other texts that depict an imminent return of Christ (e.g., 1 Thess 4.13-18) sustain contemporary belief among some that the end may come soon, or that faithful believers will be ‘raptured’ from the earth. Forms of environmental catastrophe – ‘earthquakes…  famines’ (Mark 13.8) – may be seen as signs of the imminent end.

If we ask, then, what the Bible says about the environment, or what it teaches Christians about their environmental responsibilities, the answers can be varied, and in some ways problematic. We can illustrate this issue regarding the Bible by looking back to a more historic example: What does the Bible teach about slavery? In the nineteenth-century debates about this in America, there were plenty of careful exegetes who came to the conclusion that the Bible supported slavery. They pointed to various texts: slavery was established as part of the so-called curse of Ham (Gen 9.25); the patriarchs such as Abraham possessed large numbers of slaves – indeed, having many slaves is reported as an aspect of God’s blessing of Abraham (Gen 24.35); the moral law sanctioned and regulated slavery (Lev 25.44-46); Jesus never spoke any critical word against slavery, despite encountering it; and Paul and the other apostles likewise accepted the institution of slavery, instructing slaves to submit to their masters and to serve them willingly and well (e.g., Col 3.22-24; Eph 6.5-8; 1 Tim 6.1-2; 1 Pet 2.18-25). Of course there were others who took a different view, often by appealing to broader biblical principles such as love of neighbour, or God’s rescue of slaves in the Israelites’ exodus from captivity in Egypt. But even on a point where we would now find clear moral agreement – that slavery is an abhorrent form of exploitation – the Bible’s witness was less than clear.

What this means is that we cannot pretend to discern our environmental responsibilities simply by asking what the Bible says on this subject. A response to the challenge of the ecological crisis will require a more constructive, creative, and even critical response. Indeed, this has always been the case in responsible Christian engagement with the Bible. At the end of the fourth century, Augustine (bishop of Hippo in North Africa) insisted that scripture could only be properly understood by those who had discerned that love of God and love of neighbour were its central concerns (On Christian Doctrine 1.35-40). The great Reformer Martin Luther also insisted that discernment was needed to distinguish the words of Christ from the words of Satan, and that the latter could even masquerade as the words of Christ:

The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not… What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does teach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod does it. 2.

Some ecological interpreters, notably those associated with the Earth Bible Project that began in Australia in 1996, have deployed a set of ‘ecojustice principles’ to interpret the Bible; and these principles sometimes lead to critique of the biblical text, sometimes to positive appreciation of its ecological potential.3.  What this approach also emphasises is that other sources of insight and knowledge – contemporary science, ecology, ethics, and so on – must be brought alongside a reading of scripture in order to discern moral priorities. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (scripture alone) or the idea of the ‘sufficiency’ of Scripture, cannot function adequately to inform a Christian response to a challenge like the climate crisis. What is clear, given the (understandable) human-focus of so much of the Christian tradition throughout its history, is the need for what James Nash has called an ‘ecological reformation’ of Christianity:4. a reconfiguration, reimagination, and reconstruction of all aspects of the tradition in the face of our contemporary ecological understanding and crisis. The use of liturgical seasons such as the Season of Creation mark positive moves in this direction. 5.

Let me illustrate some of these issues of interpretation, and the way in which an ecological engagement with the Bible might proceed, by turning to a specific example, Colossians 1.15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (NRSV)

The first point to note is that I have selected a passage that has long been recognised as having positive potential for ecological theology. Again, Christian theology and biblical interpretation has always involved centering some texts and marginalising others, and our present crisis perhaps calls for similar reshaping of our emphases. Instead of placing so much weight on the idea of humanity uniquely made in God’s image and given dominion (a rather rare set of images in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament) , we might instead emphasise, say, the de-centring of humanity that features in God’s speeches in the closing chapters of Job. There are plenty of neglected biblical texts and images that might resource an ecological theology – including the idea of the whole creation joining in praise of God, as found in several of the Psalms (e.g., Ps 148).

In Colossians 1.15-20 we find what has often been identified as an ‘hymn’ about Christ. The hymn declares that all things have been both created through Christ and reconciled to God through him. The phrase all things is repeated emphatically throughout the text. On the one hand it would be anachronistic to see this author as expressing ecological concern: his focus in talking about reconciliation is on ‘thrones, dominions, rulers and powers’ – reflecting ancient cosmology more than modern ecology. Nonetheless, we can see in the emphasis on all things the insistence that the scope of God’s reconciling work in Christ extends beyond the church, beyond human beings, and includes literally everything. If the church’s responsibility and calling is to embody and enact this kind of reconciliation (Col 3.12-17) then the hymn might imply a certain kind of ecological ethics: the idea that the ‘community’ to which we owe moral consideration and generous regard extends to all things. Of course, it is not exactly obvious what ‘reconciliation’ might mean in the realm of ecology: ecosystems function through predation, which necessarily involve suffering and death, as well as flourishing and beauty. Perhaps that notion of flourishing is a more ecologically cogent way to conceive of an earthy reconciliation and to derive a moral orientation in terms of ecological action. But it should immediately be clear that in order to decide what kinds of action are best suited to fostering ecological flourishing we need scientific insight as well as ethical discernment. The Bible will play a vital role in resourcing a new Christian ecological theology and ethics, but it cannot do so alone, nor without creative and constructive interpretation.

For further reading:

David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical, Ecological, Biblical Theology (London & New York: Routledge, 2014)

 

1. E. Calvin Beisner (1997), Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty/Eerdmans, 1997), quotations from pp. 110 and 107. See also https://cornwallalliance.org/.

2. Quoted from John Dillenberger (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), p.36.

3. See Norman C. Habel, ‘The Earth Bible Project’, at: https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=291.

4. James A.Nash, 'Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity', Interpretation 50 (1996), 5-15.

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