Here's how God clothes (“vests”) human beings as prophets, priests, and kings to fulfill their high—and profoundly other-centered—calling.
The reason we’re together in this interview is because of a book that Douglas and Jonathan who are both distinguished theologians and professors, but also happened to be father and son, a book they wrote that we’ve found quite helpful, even meaningfully influential in our own thinking about the intersection of creation care, care for the natural environment and the world of business and investing, which probably towards the end of this interview, we will touch on. But if I could ask both of you, if you could introduce your background a little bit Douglas, and then Jonathan, if you would, as well, that would be terrific.
I’ve been teaching new Testament studies now as a focal point of my ministry for almost 50 years. My interest in this particular issue of the natural world really comes from Jonathan here and his love for the natural world as he was growing up. I think it infected me and led me to write when I first came to Wheaton, what they require a faith and learning paper that is a paper that integrates one’s faith with so other area ethical or whatever. And so I chose to write on environmental ethics, the influence of new Testament theology on the environment and our understanding of environmental issues. And so that paper got me into this particular issue. And then the chance came along for Jonathan and I to cooperate in this book, which is a wonderful opportunity, not only to write a book with my son, but to try to address the topic that I think both of us feel the church has sadly paid insufficient attention to.
As an undergraduate, I studied literature and biology. And ended up doing a masters in wildlife biology and saw my future there. But as I was doing that, I kept wrestling with the questions we tried to address in this book. What difference does it mean for us as Christians to look at the natural world and think about how we care for it and especially the biologist regularly and encountering the challenges that our earth faces perhaps in unprecedented ways in our time, through a long process. And for lots of reasons, I ended up shifting from biology back into theology, and so went to seminary and to Cambridge to study early Judaism and the New Testament and got to work there after my PhD with an Institute for Science & Religion, The Faraday Institute.
And had the chance to really focus on this issue that’s been a central theme that I’m passionate about on how Christian faith and ecological issues go together. Now I teach at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and it’s this wonderful place where I get to be professor both of new Testament and teach traditional classes in Greek and scripture, but also in environmental studies and environmental ethics. So getting to combine my interests and also find lots of excuses to take students up into the mountains and be outside.
Well, let me start maybe by asking one or both of you to comment on what I know is a very intentional choice on your part for both of the two words and the title of your book creation care. In fact, you talk about that in the book itself in the early part of the book about how you chose that title. So if you would just tell us about what was the significance of those two words that you’ve picked for your title.
You know, there are a lot of different things we can talk about John and I both referred to the natural world, which is a fine language to use from the perspective of Christian faith. However, this is something created by God. And so the word creation is deliberately obviously intended there to remind us that we are talking not just about some object that came about by pure chance. No, we’re talking about something that God himself has made and it is creation. And then, I think there’s a play on the word care.
One of the things that Jonathan and I are trying to communicate to the church at large is that we should care about creation in the sense that we should realize creation matters. And at the same time, as we realize creation matters, that should lead us to appropriate care, keeping the earth as it should be. So yeah, creation care combines our sense that there are many implications for the reality that this is God’s created world, we’re dealing with around us. And one of those biggest implications is the obligation that falls upon us humans as God’s image bearers to care for that creation that he has entrusted to us. So I mean, that’s the heart of it.
It’s been a while since we wrote the book and got to have lots of fights back and forth about putting this in the book. So maybe we’ll get some of that today. And part of it for me is that recognition of that God cares about creation, that it belongs to God, that it testifies to God’s glory and goodness. Is also an invitation in the first instance to widen our understanding of the Christian faith. I think we perhaps have sometimes inherited a vision of our faith that is all about just us and God. And we don’t see the way in which we are bound to other people and to the whole of creation to the whole of the earth that God loves and cares about.
So part of it for me was actually recapturing for myself and hopefully for readers, this wonder at God’s world and delight and love for it because God delights in it and loves this creation. And it’s really out of that love that that obligation and that responsibility to care well for the earth comes. So I think it’s all wrapped up just in how we name things that it’s not just nature of how we use that term plenty often, but it is indeed God’s creation.
Plenty of our viewers will not be familiar with your book and maybe relatively unfamiliar with even the idea that God cares a great deal about the non-human part of his creation. I think that there are some meaningful portion of the Christian community who tends to think that God is preoccupied with humanity and everything else is an afterthought. Tell us how well or poorly that idea fits with your understanding from scripture.
Of course, it’s important as biblical Christians to affirm the distinctiveness of human beings, created in God’s image. The distinctive way we relate to God, the responsibility we have for creation and that God entrust us indeed with this unique role within the universe to care for other creatures. In my environmental ethics class right now, students are wrestling with why should human beings actually be any different than other creatures? And of course, Christian faith actually gives us a reason to see that. But unfortunately I think we’ve sometimes taken that right note of our significance in scripture being uniquely created in God’s image and the distinctive value therefore of human life and thought that therefore means that we stand at the top of some pyramid and that everything else below us is there to serve us. Whereas from the very beginning of scripture, God seems to delight in the whole of the creation, such that even in Genesis one, before human beings appear on the scene as God creates all the parts of the cosmos, God sees that it is good.
God actually gives us a reason, a reason that’s often absent in secular discussions of environmental ethics for saying that there is an intrinsic or inherent value in all of life and non-human life as well. It’s not intrinsic because it just belongs to itself. But because it stands in relationship with the God who created it and who sees its goodness and affirms its goodness and who entrusts us much responsibility for its care. And that doesn’t go away after the Fall narrative of Genesis 3. We see this theme repeated regularly and the Psalms are my favorite place to go for that Psalm 104 would be a place for your listeners to maybe go first, just read the way the Psalm celebrates the whole of God’s creation and God’s delight in it and wisdom, God made it all. And it includes even those things that are terrifying to human beings that threaten our civilization in all the ways of being, lions that roar for their prey, seeking their food from God, Leviathan that God formed to frolic in the sea, this emblem of wildness.
And of course, Job is confronted with these same scenes. In the book of Job when God addresses him out of the whirlwind. So and that theme doesn’t go away in the new Testament either. And I’m sure we’ll get on to thinking about how the new Testament envisions the nature of the new creation that has broken in in Christ. And the significance of Christ redemption for the reconciliation of all things, of the whole the cosmos. God’s love and delight and care for the creation is there from the beginning to the end. And so I would rather our reading a scripture not be anthropocentric putting us at the top or biocentric, or ecocentric seeing everything just as equal as a massive undifferentiated creatures.
But namely we are distinctive as God’s image bearers but rather theocentric from beginning to end scripture is focused on God and indeed our relationship to other creatures and to each other is rooted first in our relationship to God. And all else, rather than seeing ourselves at the top of some pyramid. It’s just that one final thing that always strikes me is how often you will find Christians say the earth and all that it has is there to serve human beings. And that is saying something that’s kind of true in that we are given the gift of the creatures or the earth’s resources to fulfill God’s purposes for the flourishing of life, of all of life. But they don’t belong to us, they belong to God and actually are meant to be used and to be served for God’s glory and for God’s purposes, not for our own.
I think one of the things that both Jonathan and I would like to avoid is just picking four or five texts and then suggesting those are the only ones. It’s a pervasive theme. So that’s a danger in just trying to pick a few. But as John was focusing on the beginning a little bit, maybe I could look at the end. When you come to the new Testament scripture, obviously it’s very focused on humans. No question about that. The created world does not appear all that often outside the gospels and revelation, but it does appear there.
And there are key statements about the future and continuing significance of the created world throughout. So I focus for instance, on the language of new creation that Paul uses in both Galatians and 2nd Corinthians. And I think it’s clear that when he uses that phrase, he’s not referring to individual humans who are new creatures. That’s true and a good point to be made, but I think he’s referring broadly to the way God is intending to make all things new as John puts it in the revelation. And that the ultimate goal then of the created world is not simply destruction.
I realize that a passage like 2nd Peter 3 can be read that way. But I think when you stick 2nd Peter 3 in the context of other texts that talk about a new heaven, and a new earth, and a new creation, the overall image we get is God is intending to renovate this created world. It’s not just going to be tossed away to be totally replaced with something else. And that that is the purpose God has for the created world. And I think following from that ethically then is the responsibility of Christians to care for that world that God cares for. So I think if you look at the beginning of the story, the end of the story, and at any point in between, I agree with Jonathan. We keep seeing this theme of the created world cropping up in ways that sometimes have not been appreciated in the Christian tradition.
Even though your book traces a pretty thorough narrative arc across scripture about the significance and basis for creation care. It seems to me, it is fundamentally rooted in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Genesis 1 has this really important dominion idea and then Genesis two has the work and keep or work and take care of the creation.
First of all it is clear that the language in Genesis one is fairly strong language. I mean, it does talk about humans ruling over the natural world, being given responsibility in that way. I think the critical question asked there however, is what is the nature of rule that God has destined for us? What did Jesus model in terms of his way of ruling the kingdom? And there we quickly run into the idea of a sacrificial rulership, of a rulership that is not exercise for one’s own, benefit or status or the rulership that genuinely cares about what is being ruled and has the best interests of what is being ruled at heart.
So yes, I think yeah, the Genesis 1 account does single out humans to have this special role. Just echo what Jonathan said earlier, that I think we Christians have in some ways, a uniquely balanced perspective to bring here in which we can say on the one hand, yes. Humans are these special creatures, Genesis one among other texts makes that clear enough. And yet we are creatures within a creation. We are given a role within that created world. And that role of leadership again, has to be exercised with the kingdom value of love, kingdom value of the concern for the other is another way I think I’d to put that emphasis.
And as long as our focus is there that I think it’s going to help us avoid some misconceptions. As a father raising five children I guess you could say in a sense I ruled over them. I had a certain dominion over them, although at many points along the way that wasn’t very clear in practice. But again, whatever authority I had and not certainly perfectly or all the time, but I tried to exercise for the benefit of the growth of the children for their sake. Not just because I wanted to throw my weight around or something of the sort. So again, to me that gives us a useful way of thinking about what the dominion of Genesis 1 is all.
Yeah. And I would even just add to that, even in Hebrew Bible understanding of kingship, that’s defined for us in Deuteronomy. The Hebrew King is meant to be one who rules on behalf of those over whom he ruled. It’s not for himself. In fact, not allowed to benefit from it, to take things for himself. We have plenty of bad examples of how Kings and an Israel turned dominion into domination and of course we have lots of examples of how we’ve done that collectively in our rule over other creatures as well. And so Jesus of course, is that place that Christians always need to go. And we talk about what does it mean to bear God’s image? What does it mean to rule Hebrews 2 actually rifts on Psalm 8, which is, sorry, Psalm 8 which is already riffing on Genesis 1, talking about what are human beings that God cares about us and Psalm 8 talks about our rule over other creatures.
Hebrews asks a question. We don’t see things like that. It doesn’t look like we’re ruling appropriately in creation, but we do see Jesus. So Jesus becomes the lens through which we are to understand our own role as image bearers and rulers. And I think Genesis 2 then in a way, shows us a picture of what that looks like. Now in a place, in a rooted place, on the ground, in the Garden of Eden, we have the אדם (adam) given this commission, and it’s really a priestly commission. It’s the same language that’s used for priests in the temple and their service there to work and to keep the place where he is put to work and to keep the ground. That’s our human vocation, all of business, all of our work is ultimately about that working and keeping the earth and it contributes to the flourishing of life in some way.
And I’ve been struck recently. I don’t know how familiar your listeners will be with some of the recent attention to indigenous ways of understanding human beings relationship to the earth. And there’s a very popular book right now by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. And she, I think misunderstands the Christian tradition, maybe because we haven’t done a good job of representing it. But suggests that an indigenous way of understanding the world, is that we actually add to the goodness of the earth. That there is reciprocity between human beings and other creatures in the earth itself. Such that our role is not just as a parasite on the earth. Whereas this expected that everything that we do is going to go wrong and badly. But rather that there’s the potential for human ingenuity, for human stewardship, and care, and love of God and neighbor, to result in genuine newness and goodness to the thriving of the created world.
And I wish we as Christians were, I guess we’re better at embodying that and showing that that is deeply ingrained in our tradition. If you ask a class of students about environmental problems, they’ll all raise their hands and have a dozen things to say, but if you ask what good do human beings contribute to the earth, they often don’t have an answer. And I guess I want us as Christians to be able to suggest an answer because scripture suggests that was God’s purpose and linking creations fate to ours.
Could I just ask Jonathan you to add a tad more specifically around how you think we should understand the work, the land work, the creation. I’ve seen that often refer or two as essentially an assignment to develop the potentialities of creation and the keep, or take care of, or steward creation and in particular, do those have a tension in them or if not, how should we see those so that we understand them without that tension?
Well, that’s good. I think they… The words function together, even if they describe two sides, what it actually is to work and to keep the earth. Yes, there is an action involved there, that there is real work. And its original context, it’s referring in many ways to just agricultural working of the ground. This is what human beings do, is they work the ground. The whole tenor of the passage is towards the flourishing of life. Not just the flourishing of human life, but the flourishing of all of life. That’s what our work is ought to accomplish. And as we do that, as we in… Although I’m always nervous sometimes about the misappropriation of such ways of talking there is development. There is developing the potentiality that is there in this beautiful living world that we see in human creativity as sub creators.
The reason there’s the abuse of these terms is that we sometimes see ourselves as God, rather than recognizing that our working and keeping of the earth is under service to God. And that we are not gods and that we get things wrong so often. But there is this genuine hope for that working to have, to lead to productivity, to lead, to civilization, to lead to technology and goodness and beauty and all of those things. But that is meant to be done in the way that promotes the flourishing of all of life. And that’s perhaps where that second term and why they have to function together that working and keeping suggests that protecting that ensuring that there is space for other creatures to thrive. That there is an earth that is healthy and that represents God’s Shalom, God’s purpose for the flourishing of all of life. So I think you’re right to say that they perhaps describe different things, but are not in opposition to each other and function together to suggest our role.
You certainly talk about the criticism that some parties have leveled against Christianity rather broadly saying that the kind of anthropomorphic focus that at least they see in Christianity has much to do with the environmental degradation that they’re often quite concerned about. You do a good job I think of articulating a defense against that, but maybe you could just talk about the degree to which that may be true in some sense and as well, what you think is kind of the rebuttal to that view as well.
Sure. Yeah. And that thesis was made popular by a historian called Lynn White, who wrote this little short article. Laying the blame for the ecologic crisis at the foot of Judeo-Christianity. And I have my students read that essay and I have them read a number of rebuttals to that essay. Most of the rebuttals, including things that I have written and my dad have written try to take us back to scripture itself and to Christian history more deeply, not just the last a hundred years or so. To make the case that actually Christianity gives us this compelling vision of what it is to be caretakers of the earth not just spoilers of it. But I will be honest with you and say, my students are sometimes not convinced because they look around. And many of these students are… Because they’re taking environmental ethics class, of course they’re already interested in these things. And they feel that Christians are indeed the problem.
They see us spending a lot of time talking about the world is God’s creation. Perhaps in opposition to other ways of seeing the world, but not actually living like it. Not actually caring about its goodness and beauty and its flourishing. So there’s a certain, unfortunately there’s certain way in which that critique of Christianity does land in our contemporary context, maybe particularly in the Western world. But it’s also of course, I think if we actually lift our eyes above our immediate context, we see that a broken relationship with the earth is something that we see in most if not all cultures and religions and it suggests to me that it’s a human problem, perhaps. And so Christians have a very distinctive and I think compelling way of articulating, why that is the case and why that ought not to be the case and lead what God has done about it in the person of Jesus Christ.
But I think it’s actually important perhaps in our contemporary moment, for those of us who are seeking to be faithful followers of Christ to acknowledge our complicity in the challenges that the earth faces right now, both individually and collectively, and in our connectedness to our sisters and brothers who often have been for a variety of reasons we can get into I suppose, oblivious of the impact that we’re having another creatures in the earth. Or even in many cases excusing it because of perhaps dualistic theology or just the short term interest that it’s, we don’t want to confront the fact that we maybe need to imagine other ways of living and being. So I think the acknowledgement is perhaps important and even a lament in the context of the church is appropriate.
Douglas, let me ask you to follow up on that in this way. It seems that the best way to understand what Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection is that he initiated the beginnings of a restored kingdom of God on earth. But as you talk about in your book, we live in this already and not yet interim period for the kingdom. Eventually Jesus will return and will bring the full restoration of that kingdom. But how do you see what Christians are meant to be up to as it relates to the creation and its potential restoration during this interim period?
Yeah. There again is this popular slogan. “Well, it’s all going to burn, so why should we bother with the created world?” My response is, “Are you going to die? Ever?” People say, “Yes”. So that means you don’t need to bother taking care of your body, Right? Get sick, don’t go to a doctor, eat anything you want, don’t worry about health warnings, smoke as much as you want, drink as much as you want. No, people say, “No, I go to the gym, I work out, I try to keep my body in shape.”
Well, why if it’s going to be destroyed one day as it were, if you’re going to die one day? And people okay, realizing, “Yeah. Okay, maybe there is a point to taking care of things.” Even if God is going to transform them in the end. I think the bottom ethical point for me and maybe I’m not sure if Jonathan completely agrees with this or not though is that. What we are to be doing here as Christians in this interim period is working to get as close as we can to what God himself is going to do when he brings the final phase of the kingdom into existence. We are to be outposts of that kingdom to come.
And we have to admit that we’re not going to get there. Scripture is clear, God’s going to have to do it ultimately through his intervention. And this is where we have to be careful about building our own human utopias. Nevertheless, as Christians again it seems we are obligated again to live for and enact as best as we can the values of the kingdom and to get as close as we can to what God ultimately intends.
So I see that as just a kind of fundamental imperative for us which when we add to that, and maybe I’m getting off the subject or jumping ahead here too far. When we add to that, the fundamental Christian need to care for others and recognize that caring for the environment does not mean not caring for people. Quite the contrary, caring for the environment often means precisely the way we care for people. That the choices I make about consumption as a fairly rich person here in the U.S. has consequences for the very lives of brothers and sisters in Bangladesh and elsewhere who face catastrophic flooding because of climate change that I contribute to by my consumerism. The problem is we are so short sighted on what we want for the immediate future for ourselves. And again, to me a fundamental kingdom value is God by his spirit enabling us to break out of that narrow focus on self for the short term.
You say in your book that J.B. Phillips, once challenged believers with the line, “Your God is too small.” Then you say, we might paraphrase Phillips by challenging believers in our day. Your redemption is too small. What did you mean by that?
It’s coming back to the fact that our vision of what Christ accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection, was all about just the salvation of our souls, rather than this vision that Christ’s death and resurrection has consequences for the whole of the earth, for the whole of the cosmos, that it makes all things new. All things are reconciled to God in Christ through the blood of Christ. And therefore, that new creation that has broken in, in Christ means fundamentally our restoration and reconciliation with God before whom we otherwise could not stand. Our sin would separate us from God. And because of that redemption we have in Christ with God, we are also therefore meant to be reconciled to each other. And so Christ redemption entails that. And this is actually a helpful analogy for creation care. I hope none of us would say that, “Well, when Christ returns our relationships with each other will be made right.”
And so I don’t need to do anything about it right now. If my dad and I get in an argument about something or you’re not talking well, who cares, God will take care of that again. Oh, we rightly recognize that God by God’s spirit works in us right now through the power of Christ to seek reconciliation with each other. And the argument of our book and I think the argument of scripture is that that reconciliation encompasses all things. And so in an important way, we anticipate indeed the new creation and also seeking to live out our God given role to work and to keep the ground, to rule over other creatures, to seek the flourishing of life, to care well for the whole of creation. It’s why all of… Paul says in Romans 8, all of creation is groaning longing for God’s children to be revealed.
And Paul is pointing us there towards the resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, the return of Christ, but our identity is God’s children. Paul has just told us in that same chapter, “Actually it begins right now.” It begins in Christ and we are led by God’s Spirit. And so I think as Christians we ought to expect that creation should anticipate its liberation from ruin as we live, lives reconciled to God and to each other and to the earth. But the point I’ll say is, this ought to be a delightful thing. Paul talks about the good works that God has created in advance for us to do. That it’s actually a gift of God’s grace, that God includes us in God’s work. It’s not that we bring in the kingdom ourselves or we instantiate the kingdom, but God desires us to participate in the life of the kingdom that has begun now. And to me, that is included in how we relate and care for the earth.
I’m very aware that a considerable amount of the environmental degradation that works at cross purposes to the creation care that you’re advocating, is directly the result of business activities. Now, not all business activities for sure. I don’t want to be accused of using a broad brush like that but certainly there are plenty of business activities that have caused a great deal of environmental harm and degradation. What council might you offer to Christian business people and to Christian investors in terms of how creation care really ought to be reflected in the worlds of business and investing?
I remember some years ago, a very successful business person telling me at a conference how whenever he asked pastors or Christian leaders, what it meant to be a Christian business person, the only answer he ever got was “Well, give more money to missions and to the church.” Which is a good answer. It’s a good thing to do of course. But there is no vision of actually how his life and work as a business person could actually be a part of living out his vocation as a child of God, as a servant of Christ. And so the ways which you’re helping people think through the implications of that, I think are so important and so necessary. Because recently my dad was saying about this, all of life is included in how we’re to live out our faith.
So I think for businesses, the willingness to challenge and to question assumptions about what business is for. I optimistically say, most businesses serve a good function. A function that is actually intrinsically good in developing a potentiality of creation, is you have expressed it of providing things that people need, helping people and life flourish. And yet we’re well aware of how the narrow focus perhaps on shared holder gain and short term profit can lead to, as you expressed it too often widespread degradation of the earth. Such that there often is a hopelessness for individuals to do anything when they recognize the scale of the challenges that are created by large businesses and corporations.
And so the hope for me for business people who are followers of Christ who have roles where they can impact their businesses, there is such potential there, to take a stand, what’s going to be a risky stance in some cases, I recognize. To say we are going to adopt these practices that may be more costly in the short term, but because want to recognize our role to faithfully care for the earth to attend to environmental cost of what we do and the social cost of what we do. I think there remains, we have some stellar examples of that. But there remains so much potential for more people to step up and show how that looks. And for those, when we invest, I mean even the very idea of investing suggests that we are putting something in a place and we expect it to then lead to gain, to flourishing. And I think as Christians, we have to see it as not just gain for ourselves, but of course, as we actually support and are excited about the work that these things we’re investing in are doing.
So in the first instance, of course that doesn’t mean investing in the traditional sense that Christians do in those who are spreading the gospel and those who are caring well for creation. Groups like A Rocha that is a Christian conservation organization, supporting them is of course a part of our investment. That’s not going to show us financial return, that is going to show return in God’s kingdom. And so that perhaps should be our first priority. And then when we’re investing towards our retirement, when we are investing for monetary gain, as well as for all the other ends we might pursue through investing, I would hope, and I know for the tiny amount that I have to invest this is central part of what I look for. Is to look for ways of investing that are at a minimum, not leading to increased despoilation and ruin of the earth.
And then ideally are leading to flourishing. Those companies are actually willing to step out there and take that risk to say, “I want to support that kind of a company. So I want to find funds that are going to invest in that sort of a thing. And I want to disinvest in those that are not.” And of course I recognize that there’s this interesting tension. And maybe my dad alluded to that. Between just fully disinvesting in certain companies, which I’ll be honest has been my predilection versus this new rise of shareholder activism. Where you do actually hold shares in a company whose practices at the moment may be less than stellar. Maybe practices we want to challenge.
But recognizing the power for example, of a large energy company, “You know what happened last year?” For example, with Shell, sorry, with Exxon, as shareholders to say, “We actually want you to transform your practices.” And so maybe a combination of those things is the way that a Christian investor should proceed. And as my dad said, I’m way outside of my depth here. And it’s why I would look to people like you for guidance on how to best do that. How to have to best have an impact while being faithful with our use of the resources God has given us.
Let me just thank you both for being willing to take time and also being willing to come out of your comfort zone a little to extend your ideas into the business and investing arena. But I certainly share with you the clear hope that you have. Your book will serve as something of a reminder to Christians about how deeply our God cares about this creation. And therefore we need to do the same. And if that means having to, in many of our cases, rediscover that important commitment, if we haven’t been consistently on that wavelength previously, I really think your book can do much. In fact, I’m sure already is doing much to restore a more balanced understanding of creation care as one of the fundamentals of what God is looking for from us. So thank you so much for the book. Thank you so much for this interview. It was a great pleasure. And who knows maybe if your schedules permit and you’re willing, we can do a part two of this at some point down the road.
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