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Stewardship and the Environment

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Recently I received a sample copy of the quarterly magazine Creation Care, published by a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network. Funded in part by Ron Sider’s Evangelicals for Social Action, the EEN is one of a growing number of environmental organizations aimed at church attendees. Along with publications, conferences, internships, service projects, lobbying, and the other usual trappings of advocacy groups, these organizations offer sermon kits for preaching on the environment, Bible study aids, and even environmentally-oriented Christian rock festivals. Common among all these groups is an emphasis on environmental stewardship.

Many Christians are suspicious of the affinity groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network have with mainstream statist (or outright pagan) environmentalism, but they have not been trained in an appropriate response. Thus, after being browbeaten with the stewardship lingo, they leave the field of battle to the theological liberals and political statists. A veneer of scripturality, combined with some statistics and logical fallacies, has won over a large number of believers to the new evangelical environmentalism. Adam was to tend and keep the Garden of Eden, and therefore we are to oppose (or at least constrain within “reasonable” limits) any human activity that detracts from a pristine environment. Pollution, extinction, “urban sprawl,” global warming, and other alleged abuses of the environment are blamed on a lack of love for creation, or perhaps the free market. Politically conservative Christians might offer a little grumbling and half-hearted jesting about “tree-huggers” in response, but this is a poor substitute for confronting error.

Admittedly, with these groups it is sometimes difficult to latch on to something to confront. Drawing from theological liberalism and modern distinction-hating evangelicalism, these environmentalists glory in spongy platitudes about creation and “earthkeeping.” Critiquing their thought is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. An article on the Au Sable Institute web site, for example, defines Christian environmental stewardship as “our loving care and keeping of Creation that mirrors God’s love.”1 The EEN’s “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation,” signed by such notables as J.I. Packer, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and John Stott, is an exercise in vagueness. “Men, women, and children, created in God’s image, also have a unique responsibility for creation,” the document reads (in part). “Our actions should both sustain creation’s fruitfulness and preserve creation’s powerful testimony to its Creator.” The declaration has socialist overtones, but they are too indistinct to be sure of the intent: “The earthly result of human sin has been a perverted stewardship, a patchwork of garden and wasteland in which the waste is increasing. …Thus, one consequence of our misuse of the earth is an unjust denial of God’s created bounty to other human beings, both now and in the future.”

When they are willing to be more specific, these environmentalists are apparently also willing to twist the Bible into a tortured support of their position. For example, Calvin DeWitt wrote:

As God provides for the creatures, so should we people who were created to reflect God whose image we bear. Imaging God, we too should provide for the creatures. And, as Noah spared no time, expense, or reputation when God’s creatures were threatened with extinction, neither should we. Deluges — in Noah’s time of water, and in our time of floods of people — sprawl over the land, displacing God’s creatures, limiting their potential to obey God’s command, “be fruitful and increase in number.” To those who would allow a human flood across the land at the expense of all other creatures, the prophet Isaiah warns: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isaiah 5:8).2

Where does one begin? First, perhaps DeWitt’s claim that Noah “spared no time, expense, or reputation” should be viewed as poetic hyperbole. Yet it is dangerously close to the actual goals of modern environmentalism. Written into environmental regulations are clauses that dictate literally no consideration of the costs of the requirement. Noah certainly did have to make economic choices — God’s assignment left Noah with considerable room to make choices, e.g., about the framework, internal partitioning, and provisioning of the ark. Furthermore, Noah had to choose the appropriate tools, technology, and labor for the work. The nature of his task required him to make tradeoffs, perhaps reducing hull strength in exchange for more expensive provisions that were less likely to spoil. The prices of labor, wood, food, and everything else Noah used must have been an indispensable part of his decision process. “Expense-sparing” was a requirement for Noah, and is a requirement for us, because we live in a world of scarcity.

Second, it should be clear that the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” was directed to Adam and Eve, and not to the animals. In the same verse, the recipients of God’s command are required to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Manhandling the text as DeWitt does minimizes mankind’s special place among the creatures, and completely loses sight of the original command to take dominion over the earth and subdue it. In Genesis 2:15 Adam is to dress, or till, the garden of Eden. The earth needed subduing, even before the Curse. The creation did not yet reflect man’s rebellion, as it would later (e.g., Genesis 3:18), but it was in need of direction.

Taking dominion, in the untainted creation, would have meant ordering and directing creation toward a purpose — the glorification of God. Perhaps the plant growth would be managed in a way that reflected God’s attributes — such as His orderliness and beauty. The plant life might be rearranged to display to Adam and Eve the variety and magnificence of creation, and exercise their own creative abilities. To do this work, certain animals would need to be tamed and trained to assist with tasks like tilling the soil. Adam would have to fashion the first tools, such as a plow or pruning hook. Perhaps, then, Adam would have become a miner as well. Perhaps Adam would also bring out of the ground gold or ornamental stones, like those mentioned in Genesis 2:12. As Adam and Eve obeyed the command to multiply, they would need food and more tools for their children. From Calvin DeWitt’s comments above, we might infer that the central aspect of “imaging God” is provision for the creatures. Yet God’s explicit command was to multiply and take dominion — provision for the creatures is secondary to increasing the population.

Isaiah 5:8 is often quoted by Christian environmentalists to support restrictions on land use or development. In the comments above, DeWitt’s concern appears to be habitat destruction from an expanding human population, and elsewhere DeWitt has used this same verse to condemn the conversion of farmland to urban uses. Will humanity expand until other species are driven out and we are left “alone in the land”? Yet, as Cal Beisner has pointed out, this is not the problem addressed by the Scripture here. It is human beings that are the focus. The Jubilee law of Leviticus 25 prohibited the permanent sale of land to another family line, but the law was being ignored by those who would “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them.” (Micah 2:2) In the proper context, Dr. Beisner contends,

Isaiah is saying, “no space (for brother Israelites, particularly the poor who have been dispossessed of their landed inheritance,) is left,” because the oppressors have taken all the land from them. Hence, the oppressors “live alone in the land,” because they have driven the poor from their lands. Sparse population, not dense population, is the consequence.3

One approach in dealing with the new “stewardship” advocates is to inquire about the criteria for good stewardship. How do we know when we have been good stewards? How do we know when the tradeoffs between garden-tending and “being fruitful and multiplying” have been made appropriately? Is it better to use a 40-acre plot of land for wildlife habitat, for a farm, for a pharmaceutical plant, or for housing? The evangelical environmentalist material I have read so far would not rule out any of these possibilities. How can that decision be made, without resorting to the crucial information provided by that hated system of free market prices? The answers should be revealing.



2. Calvin B. DeWitt,

3. E. Calvin Beisner, Where Garden Meets Wilderness, p. 45.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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