When you start asking, “What is the Bible’s stance on the environment?” one of the first and probably most important verses is Genesis, chapter 2, verse 15:
“Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”
The first, that we should leave the creation alone, is wrong, because we are responsible for nature. It is partly because of our own culpability for bringing non-native species in, for destroying habitat, for hunting or overfishing, and for bringing new diseases and parasites into play, that we are now in a position where we have to do something or we will certainly lose biodiversity. Original habitat has enormous biodiversity compared with re-planted sites or large stands of aggressive non-natives which harbor very little biodiversity. In native tallgrass prairies, for instance, there can be as many as 100-200 species of plants on a single site. (1)Count that and all the specialist pollinators, birds, etc., and you have all the biodiversity you could want. On the other hand, if you allow teasel in prairies, or purple loosestrife in wetlands, or garlic mustard and buckthorn in forests to push out the native species, making large stands of themselves, allowing no other plants to grow, biodiversity is thwarted. We have allowed these non-natives to grow, and we have intentionally and unintentionally spread these species around to the effect that it’s getting harder and harder to find room for the native species. We can’t now just let nature “take its course.” We have to intervene if we are ever to save biodiversity. We must be responsible for what we have done.
The second argument, that nature is a gift and we can do with it as we please, also is wrong. Imagine a father who gives a precious present at Christmas to his two-year-old child. The child opens the box and immediately doesn’t like the gift but takes it out and smashes it on the ground destroying it. What will the father give to the child on the next Christmas? Maybe something a little safer, more durable. Maybe nothing at all. Is God going to keep giving us “all good things” if we are not responsible for what he has already given us? (See also Luke, chapter 16, verse 10.) The best thing to do with a gift is to keep it and to cherish it. It’s a reminder of the one who gave it.
The argument that the creation was made for our enjoyment is an old one though. I’ve been trying to read the early church fathers and I’ve found this argument even there to some degree. It does not, even in these early passages, however, contain the caveat that we can destroy nature if we please.
One of the earliest Christian writers, Justin Martyr, states (in a passage on why Christians don’t commit suicide since in that way they would receive heaven):
“We have been taught that God did not make the world aimlessly, but for the sake of the human race.” (2)
“In the previous books I have set forth the causes for which God permitted these things to be made, and have pointed out that all such have been created for the benefit of that human nature which is saved, ripening for immortality that which is [possessed] of its own free will and its own power, and preparing and rendering it more adapted for eternal subjection to God. And therefore the creation is suited to [the wants of] man; for man was not made for its sake, but creation for the sake of man.”(3)
On idolatry, the writer Tatian, writes the following:
“Him we know from His creation, and apprehend His invisible power by His works. I refuse to adore that workmanship which He has made for us: how, then, can I adore my own servants? How can I speak of stocks and stones as gods?” (4)
And there are others also who write in this way about the creation. The fallacy here is not to say the creation shouldn’t be enjoyed, or even that in a certain sense it was not made for our enjoyment. The fallacy is in being a little too anthropocentric about it — to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for it.
The creation was made for us, but not only for us. It was made also for God. As one Scripture says, “For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine.” (Psalm 50, verses 10 & 11) The creation was made for us, but it doesn’t belong to us. It does belong to us for a little while, but inevitably, it belongs to God. A good Scripture reference is the warning about watchfulness in Luke, chapter 12, verses 42 to 46:
“And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.'”
A slave is not the owner. A slave is a servant. In the passage above, it’s the slave who is put in charge of the master’s possessions. Maybe it’s time for us to start doing what a slave is supposed to do, that is, serving. And maybe it’s time for us to begin again “to cultivate and to keep” the natural world around us. Maybe it’s time for us to give up some of our notions of primacy and begin to serve the creation as well as be served by it.
(1) On the Markham or Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, Illinois, there are 4 sites. Three of these sites are small, but the largest is Gensburg Prairie. The four prairies contain about 250 plants, 350 insects, and 13 species of reptiles and amphibians. Birds, many of which are probably migrants, have been numbered at 97 different kinds. (See www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/illinois/preserves/art1119.html).
Another prairie preserve in the South Suburbs of Chicago is the Old Plank Road Trail. It covers a trail several miles long, and used to be an old train track. Volunteers have counted 205 different plant species along a one mile length of the trail.
(2) Justyn Martyr in the early church fathers set published by Hendrickson, 35 volumes. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, volume 1, page 189. The work is “The Second Apology of Justin for the Christians: Addressed to the Roman Senate,” chapter iv, paragraph 1.
(3) Irenaeus in the same set by Hendrickson. Same volume. Page 558. The work is, “Irenaeus Against Heresies,” chapter xxix, paragraph 1.
(4) Tatian in the early church fathers set by Hendrickson. Volume 2. Page 66. The work is, “Address of Tatian to the Greeks,” chapter iv, paragraph 1.
All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, or NASB.