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How Genesis 1-3 is pro-environment

Rule by all animals, for all animals: No, it's not a post-modern interpretation of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. Lynn White, in his famous speech about the contributions of Christianity towards our current ecological crisis, implies that we follow Saint Francis of Assisi's example and depose man's monarchy over nature. In it's place, we  should install a democracy where all creatures rule together as equals.

I don't know how that works. 

He explains that Western civilization is anti-environmental because of Christianity. Since he's a historian, he traces the thought patterns of Christian leaders throughout the ages. He makes excellent points that we as Christians should learn from. But his understanding of the bible is off.

The bible is not anti-environment. Far from it.

And what the bible says is important especially where the environment is concerned.  One common verse used to justify Western Christianity's abuse of the environment is Genesis 1:26 - God's command for man to rule over the earth. The best way to understand Genesis 1:26 is in the context of the creation account, specifically chapter 1-3. 

My intent is to build a biblical ecology based solely on the text of Genesis 1-3. I want to make observations of the text and offer a couple interpretations and implications. With the exception of my last point, I will stay within these three chapters.

I. God creates the earth and calls it good: God speaks with his mouth and his hand fulfills. Over the six days of creation, God fashions the habitat of the universe. He calls light good (1:4); He calls land and seas good (1:10); as well as vegetation (1;12), day and night (1:18), sea creatures and winged animals (1:21), and wild animals (1:25). The message is clear: everything and everyone God makes is good.

II. God cultivates man from the earth, fashions him in his image, and describes his work as "very good": In the middle of the sixth day, God makes mankind (1:26). He is created in God's image. Men and women together reflect the diversity that is God. Man is the pinnacle of the creation story - at the end of the sixth day, God says "God saw all that he had made and it was very good" (1:31 italics mine).

The progressive nature of the six-day sequence highlights the value of humanity. Mankind is the crescendo of creation. However, the text does not indicate specifically that man is very good but everything made in the first six days, including man, is very good. The entirety of creation brings out the splendor of God's creativity.

In the detailed account of man's creation, we discover man is formed from the earth (2:7). So not only does the earth sustain humanity through seed-bearing plants (1:29 - this verse also makes a good argument for vegetarianism), it is also the basis for man's origin. 

III. God entrusts mankind as caretaker of the earth: In 1:26, God appoints mankind as ruler over the earth and its inhabitants, including fish, birds, and livestock. Some translations say "dominion". Without a picture of what this looks like, we are left to ponder what "rule" entails. But the next chapter gives us the picture.  God plants a lush garden fed by four rivers and populated with delicious fruit trees (2:8-14). God places man in the garden to "work and take care of it" (2:15). 

To summarize so far, the earth is subordinate to mankind's rule, the earth is created to benefit mankind, and mankind is appointed as caretaker of God's creation. One important note - subordination does not equal inferiority. Nowhere does the text indicate mankind is superior to creation. Difference in function is not difference in value. The earth sustains mankind and mankind protects the earth as a ruling benefactor. We can certainly argue about how good of a job man has done in caring for the earth but what we cannot argue is whether caring for the earth is man's responsibility.

IV. Adam introduces tension between mankind and the earth: Adam and Eve violate the one restriction God places on their work in the garden (3:6). The consequence of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a series of relational curses. First and foremost is the severing of mankind's relationship with God when Adam and Eve are banished from Eden (3:23) .  Second, women's relationship with her husband and children is corrupted. 

Third, mankind's relationship with nature becomes adversarial and painful (3:15, 17-19). The curse on the snake is a sign of the conflict introduced between mankind and the created order. Further, mankind's livelihood will continue to depend on the earth but this relationships will now be strained rather than enjoyable.

The curse of the fall is the best evidence of how man's relationship with the earth became tainted. Before the fall, man's relationship with earth was a celebration and a delight. Because of the fall, there is tension and discord. It is rife to be exploited.

V. The second Adam initiates restoration between mankind and the earth: John 1 and Colossians 1:16-17 explain Jesus' role as the moving force in creation. God the Father speaks, Jesus acts according to the word. Jesus made everything good and everything points back to the beauty of Jesus. That means our both created world and the mankind reflect the beauty of Jesus.

Jesus' death and resurrection is where restoration ends, where the enmity dies, and where work is made rest. Jesus, the second Adam, heals the effects of the curse. Mankind's relationship with God is bridged, women can experience joy in relationship, and lastly, the harmony between earth and mankind is restored.

Rebuttal to Lynn White: Here are some White comments (italicized) with my responses:

     Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not        
     only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for 
     his proper ends.

When we allow the rest of Genesis 1-3 to interpret the meaning of "rule" or "have dominion" in 1:26, you quickly rule out exploitation as the nature of the relationship between earth and mankind. And yet, it is possible to explain but not justify the exploitation of nature as a consequence of the fall.

     We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim

Again, this follows as a result of the curse but it was never God's intention for man to abuse creation. 

     Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has 
     no reason for existence save to serve man.

I'm fine if we reject this Christian axiom because it is not biblical. Nature exists, as all things exist, to glorify God and reflect his majesty. This argument is the same as arguing (as Christians likely have) that women exist to serve men.

     The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an 
     alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all     
     creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation.

This is where it gets tough for me. I don't know what it means for all creatures to be equal. I don't think mosquitoes are equal with us. Maybe it's because of my Christian anthropocentrism but I would never elevate any animal's importance over a person's. 

Even if you make animals equal with humans, it is impossible to live this out. We have a hard enough time treating women and minorities as equals - and these groups speak the same language we do. You can only have an honest ecology if you acknowledge that we are radically different from all other animals because we have the ability to alter the environment like no other creature can. 

So is mankind superior to animals? I would answer it this way. In closing his example of Saint Francis, he explains:

      [Saint Francis'] view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and 
     inaminate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic 
     humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold

I believe Jesus died to restore ALL of creation back to God. But he came to earth as a man. He died as a man. And he died first and foremost for humanity. So that we may live in Christ and restore ALL things back to God. So as mankind experiences new life in Christ, so too the rest of creation.


  1. definitely good food for thought especially in the world of today where environmentalism, conservationism, etc. are hot topics

    i'd also say that the other extreme in which people want to "save" the world through environmentalism is also not healthy/unbiblical though :)


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