This article also appears in Electronic Green Journal, vol 12. (http://egj.lib.uidaho.edu/egj12/) Interested readers will find this article's full appendices there.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Bible has a great deal to say about the environment and its conservation some 20 centuries since it was written. Perhaps among the most surprised will be Bible-toting church goers who may have never heard a sermon related to the "environmental crisis" which has become such a concern to so many around the world. This lack of attention by Christians is especially perplexing since many of our environmental problems are rooted in the Christian faith, according to some scholars. However, by examining the doctrine of Christianity, the basic text of the faith, the Bible, we find an entirely different message. The purpose of this discussion is to present the entire portion of Scripture which relates to environmental principles whereby we may develop a Bible-based, 21st Century prescription of environmental conservation. Some 2,463 verses have been topically organized into nine sections. Four appendices present the full-text of this collection in addition to selected hymns, which have been instrumental in teaching the truths of Scripture over the years. This compilation of verses constitutes approximately eight percent of the Bible. The Authorized Version, also known as the King James Version, was used in the preparation of this collection due its widespread distribution and influence since 1611. Based on the Bible, Christianity’s positive contribution to environmental conservation is consistent with its positive contributions to other fields such as literature, art, music, education, health, and science.
Landscape of Environmental Literature: A Forest Without Trees
Christians, like many other groups, have served as convenient scapegoats over the years, being blamed for all kinds of social ills, including environmental problems (White 1967). While the allegation that our present environmental problems lie rooted deep within Christianity, has been well answered and refuted by Harrison (1999) as well as many others, ill-informed finger pointing continues as the new millennium dawns (Worster 1993). Rather than address the behavior of Christians, genuine or otherwise, it is first of all necessary to examine the basic doctrine and text of the faith – the Bible.
Various authors have presented bits and pieces of the Bible as they have sought to either validate or invalidate the charge against Christian teaching (Joranson and Butigan 1984). I submit that the Bible can well speak for itself and is presented in its entirety with regard to environmental issues. Appendix A is a compilation of 1929 verses from the Old Testament and Appendix B lists 638 verses from the New Testament. These two appendices organize the Scripture topically so a small number of verses have been included in more than one section. Appendix C lists the scriptural references sequentially but does not include the actual text nor does it list any verse more than once.
The importance of examining the Bible, as the message of Christianity, rather than the behavior of Christians, as the representatives of Christ, is underscored by the fact that relatively few people actually read the Bible. This phenomenon is not new. Foxe (1981) reported that after 1500 years of Christianity, though the words of Christ were relatively widely distributed, few actually read the text. Hence the Bible had relatively little influence on the culture at that time. Little interest in reading the Bible also characterizes this day and age (North American Scene: Religion in School 1987, Glenn 1990, Christianity in America 1995, and Stafford 1986). Therefore, in order to understand what God has to say on this issue, it is essential that the entire word of God be examined. The assumption upon which this discussion is based is that the Bible is the word of God and as such it is trustworthy and timeless. It is trustworthy because it is truthful. It is timeless, hence practical and relevant today, because God never changes.
A Message with Melody
In addition to the biblical text, selected hymns from across many centuries of hymnody, have been compiled (Brown and Norton 1995, Osbeck 1990). This collection is not comprehensive but representative of the environmental message of Christianity as an echo of that which appears on the pages of Scripture. Appendix D presents the full-text of these church songs organized within the same topical framework as the Scriptural text. Singing is central to the Bible, so it is considered quite appropriate to include the music of the church in this discussion. The task of teaching with church music has also been very important throughout history, as literacy levels have varied.
If the implication were true that Christianity lies at the root of the modern environmental dilemma, one might expect that those regions of the world where Christians are relatively few might enjoy a better track record of environmental conservation. However, one need look no further than the daily news to discover that serious environmental problems are reported from areas where Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, and other religions dominate. See the following list. As Anderson, Slovic, and O’Grady (1999) point out, technological advances have done more to negatively impact the environment and diminish our identification with the natural world, rather than the so called "dualism" of Christianity.
International Reports of Environmental Problems
- Asia (EnviroLink 24 January 2000)
- Azerbaijan (Wolfson 1993)
- China (Kriz 1997)
- India (EnviroLink 21 February and 24 March 2000)
- Indonesia (Cohen 1994, EnviroLink 21 February 2000)
- Iran (Wolfson 1993, EnviroLink 3 January 2000)
- Japan (Gros 1999)
- Kazakhstan (Wolfson 1993)
- Kenya (EnviroLink 7 March 2000)
- Malaysia (Cohen 1994)
- Russia (Wolfson 1993)
- Turkey (Juhasz 1992)
- Turkmenistan (Wolfson 1993)
Science and Faith: Greening Collaboration?
Christians have been relatively quiet about environmental problems, but this is changing (Joranson and Butigan 1984). Catholics have actually been addressing environmental issues for several years. Caldecott (1996) refers to the Green Pope and the scriptural basis for environmental conservation. The Catholic Catechism includes a section on creation and responsible care for the environment. Anderson, Slovic, and O’Grady (1999) include an essay entitled "U.S. Bishops" where religious leaders address environmental concerns. However, politics predominates many discussions as environmental radicals and the media supply a healthy mix of misinformation, exaggerations, and biased views along with scientific data (Sanera and Shaw 1996 & 1997, Lichter and Rothman 1999, Wallace and Christy 2000).
However, science and faith are beginning to share more and more over this issue, yet significant disagreement over fundamental definitions remain. For example, Bunk (1999) claims that faith is not evidence-based but the Bible paints another picture. He also states that science deals with what is knowable where as religion involves that which is unknowable. Once again, according to the Bible, God is knowable and a personal relationship with the God of the universe is possible, even necessary if one is to experience eternal life.
In spite of these fundamental differences, church leaders and scientists are beginning to share the platform with one another as allies instead of adversaries. This collaborative relationship makes some uneasy, but it reflects an important new direction as we face the 21st Century. Web pages, sermons, Bible study groups, and environmental cleanup projects discussing cooperation between former foes are bound to make the headlines (Climate Change II: Plea from the Pulpit 1999, Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project 1999, Lampman 2000, Lowy 2000, Savoye 2000).
The common thread among the different faith groups that have gotten involved with environmental conservation projects is the belief that the God of the Bible cares about the environment and holds people accountable for its sustained management. The Bible serves as the guidebook for Christian conduct and, if followed, will have a positive impact on the environment. Surprisingly, the human conduct that benefits the environment the most, relates less to direct interaction between people and the world around them and more with how people relate to God and one another. In other words, environmental improvements are a natural consequence when people are rightly related to God and one another. This constitutes an environmental prescription for change as the next millennium dawns.
Christianity’s Consistent Contributions
In light of the fact that genuine Christians and Christianity have contributed so much that has benefited society over the past 2000 years, it is quite reasonable to expect no less when it comes to finding solutions to our environmental problems. Christianity’s contributions to the world of music have been extensive (Kavanaugh 1996). In America alone, the Bay Psalm Book became the first book of any kind published in the Colonies. Additionally, in 1838 Christian music was taught in Boston's public schools "in preparation for making the praise of God glorious in families and churches" (Reynolds 1963). Christianity's contributions to science and literacy merit made additional comment (Jeffrey 1999 and Livingstone 1999).
Christian contributions to science include such diverse fields as natural history, chronology, geography, cosmology, physics, and biochemistry by men and women throughout the ages, including the Venerable Bede, John Ray, Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Behe, and J.C. Polkinghorne, among many others (Stevens 1985, Eckenrode 1971 & 1976, Behe 1998, Polkinghorne 1996). The environment too has benefited from Christianity's influence, despite claims to the contrary. According to Armstrong (1973), environmental care and concern has been widespread among Christians for centuries, from the time of Christ to the time of Saint Francis. The impact of Christianity upon Society through literacy and education is particularly noteworthy and partially illustrated with the following table.
|More people have learned to read with the Bible and other Christian literature since the 15th Century than with anything else.||See the "Legacies of Literacy - Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society" by Harvey J. Geaff and published by Indiana University Press in 1987, pp. 10, 13, 29-31, 91, 113-114, 150, 241, and 286. Also note "Heresy and Literacy 1000-1530" edited by Peter Biller and Anne Hudson, published by Cambridge University Press in 1994, p. 257.|
|The arrival of the printing press in the western United States was directly linked to Christian missionary activity.||See "Indian Mission Printing in Arizona: An Historical Sketch and Bibliography" by James H. Fraser. Journal of Arizona History 10(summer 1969): 67-68.|
|Public libraries in the United States were largely an outgrowth of church libraries.||See "Thomas Bray: A Study in Early Eighteenth Century Librarianship" by Norma S. Gordon. A dissertation submitted to the faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC in 1961, p. 89.|
|Modern schools grew out of a system of Christian schools in the Middle Ages.||See "A History of Education in Antiquity" by H.I. Marrou. Translated by George Lamb and published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1956, 317 and 336.|
|No ancient society was more devoted to a written text (Hebrew Bible) than the Jews of the Roman Period.||"Literacy and Power in the Ancient World" edited by Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1994, p. 99. Also see, "Books and Readers in the Early Church - A History of Early Christian Texts" by Harry Y. Gamble, published by Yale University Press in 1995, p. 7.|
|Clearly the contribution of the Sunday School and its allied press essentially sustained the development of literacy throughout the first half of the 19th Century.||See "Schooling the Poorer Child - Elementary Education in Sheffield 1560-1902" by Malcolm Mercer and published by Sheffield Academic Press in 1996, p. 91.|
|The Bible is the number one best seller of all time. It is the only work which may be confidently attributed to Gutenberg's own workshop in 1455.||"Orality, Literacy, and Rhetoric: Historical Transitions in Christian Communication" by Greg Boulton. A thesis submitted to the Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, TN, 1995, p. 53.|
|The religious connection with literacy goes back to the beginnings of historical time in Russia, when the first written words were the Christian Scriptures and religion was stressed in the official school curricula.||See "When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Culture 1861-1917" by Jeffrey Brooks, published by Princeton University Press in 1985, pp. 22, 32, 49, and 306-308.|
Nine excerpts, representing each of the topics presented in appendices A and B, are presented to illustrate what the Bible has to say to us today relevant to environmental conservation. Each section will be designated as either a major or minor theme based on the number of books of the Bible from which verses were compiled. Verses from the Old and New Testaments are displayed in each table, along with a representative section of a hymn from Appendix D. The nine topical designations are: 1) Creation, 2) Stewardship, 3) Provision, 4) Pleasure, 5) Praise, 6) Power, 7) Witness, 8) Consequences, and 9) Perspective. A tenth section concludes appendices A and B, each with a handful of miscellaneous verses, which do not fit well in any of the nine categories presented.
Creation deals with the creative nature and activity of God. This is a major theme of the environmentally relevant verses found in Scripture, (29 books of the Bible). It is a consistent theme from Genesis to Revelation and is accepted by extra-biblical writers as well (Lactantius 304 or 305, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994).
Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee:
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Each little flow’r that opens up
Cecil Frances Alexander
And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:
The Bible records that God created everything from nothing, simply by speaking it into existence. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each mentioned in the creation account and God's creative activity is understood to be ongoing. Just as this is a consistent theme, throughout the Bible, is also frequently mentioned in sacred song.
Stewardship though not a major theme of Scripture, included in only 19 books, this is one of the more hotly contested topics discussed today (White 1967). However, it is not my desire to reinvent the wheel by continuing the debate. This issue has been dealt with very effectively by Harrison (1999) and others. A couple of comments are appropriate, however. White asks, "What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment?" His answers were not derived from the Bible. This led to a number of false conclusions, e.g. "nature has no reason to exist save to serve man." The Bible paints an entirely different picture. Nature belongs to God and exists for His pleasure, not men. It is interesting to note that White capitulates the real solution to our environmental problems to religion rather than to science. Is this to set up Christianity for additional blame if the environment fails to improve? Based upon the tone of Whites remarks, one can only wonder. White is not the only one to link our contemporary attitudes toward the environment with Christianity. Nash (1967) attributed the ancient biblical view of wilderness as the basis for our modern view.
How does religion influence a person’s attitude or behavior toward the environment? Is their any psychological evidence linking our environmental behavior with religious beliefs? Numerous studies have examined the issue and the results are consistent: Religion does not foster negative environmental behavior. In a few cases, it actually helps (Stern 1992, Wolven 1991, Lutzenhiser 1993, Winett and Ester 1983, Stern and Dietz 1994, Eckberg and Blocker 1996). Perhaps, religion that makes no difference could be considered negative since, at least some formal religious education programs teach that we are charged with the responsible management of God’s creation. (Caldecott, 1996).
If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young:
That Will Not
O love that will not let me go
Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.
Stewardship includes verses related to the relationship between people and the environment, including the fact that God owns the earth and people are merely charged with caring for it. Caring for the environment involves management for sustainable yields and balancing work with rest. This section also addresses caring for the needs of one another based upon the principles of God's economy. Relatively little church music has been devoted to this topic.
Provision is a major theme, included in 28 books of the Bible. God’s people expect God to provide for their needs, all of them. God also does something unexpected, He provides for the needs of those who hate Him just as He provides for the needs of those who love Him. In so doing, He demonstrates that people too, are to love their enemies.
Then she arose with her daughters in law, which she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread.
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
I sing the goodness of the Lord
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
Section three sheds some light on the purpose of the environment, that of provision. This is, of course not the only purpose of nature, but it is an important one. Verses here relate to the relationship between the environment and people where nature meets our needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc. Included here is the idea of contentment, trusting God to meet our needs. This is a common theme in church music around Thanksgiving, though acknowledgments of Gods blessings are sung throughout the year.
Pleasure presents another purpose fort he environment. Though a minor theme, based on the number of books, which include this concept (17), it is nonetheless, a critically important principle that God takes pleasure in what He has made. Nature is first for God, for His pleasure and praise. It is not something just for us. After all, we are created beings too and our purpose is no different, to please God.
A land which the LORD thy God careth for: the eyes of the LORD thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.
The Friendly Beasts
And every beast, by some good spell
Traditional English Carol
Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
Section four includes verses related to the relationship between God and the environment as well as how the various elements of the environment relate to each other. God demonstrates His care and concern for the natural environment and we find that God takes pleasure in what He has created in its natural state, not modified with "human improvements." Christ's example of personal refreshment through time spent in the wilderness is illustrated here.
In his book, The Wisdom of God, John Ray concludes our creator delights in the beauty of His creation (Raven 1950). Dandi (1995) offers this biblical teaching to children indicating that creation (animals) are not for human exploitation. Selfishly exploiting that which God takes pleasure in, is inconsistent Christian behavior. This children’s book encourages young people to care for and simply enjoy all of God’s creation as He does. Soll (1991) and Austin (1988) tie together God’s plan of salvation with His love for the non-human elements of His creation based on a passage of the New Testament found in the eighth chapter of Romans. Here creation is described as groaning in anticipation of its final redemption with fallen mankind. Like section two, few church songs may be found which illustrate this topic.
Praise unlike sections two and four, offers a greater selection of sacred songs from which to choose than any other single category. However, this purpose of nature, to praise its Creator, is a minor theme, found in only 17 books. As one might expect, many of the verses are found in the Bible book of songs and celebrations, Psalms.
Let the heaven and earth praise him, the seas, and every thing that moveth therein.
All creatures of our God and King
Francis of Assisi
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
Verses in section 5 relate to the relationship between the environment and God where elements of creation express praise. Nature worships God rather than being worshipped as a god. God is clearly portrayed as preeminent in creation and He alone is to be worshipped. Included here are two of the Ten Commandments.
Power is a major biblical theme in relationship to verses about the environment. Thirty books include this topic.
I Kings 18:1
And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.
Come ye faithful raise the strain
John of Damascus
And he said unto them, Where is your faith? And they being afraid wondered, saying one to another, What manner of man is this! for he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him.
Section six involves authority. As Creator, God has authority over His creation. This is expressed as power and control over the laws of nature. Creation actually "melts" under the awesome power of God and several events recorded as miracles are located in this section. Creation reveals that the wisdom of God is far above any of the elements of creation, including human beings.
Witness is a minor theme for the Bible as a whole (21 books) but constitutes the largest single section of New Testament verses on the environment. Frequently, when verses that might otherwise have been classified as belonging in section six, clearly stated that the event was to bear witness of the presence of God, they were placed here instead.
And Moses said unto him, As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread abroad my hands unto the LORD; and the thunder shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that thou mayest know how that the earth is the LORD's.
The heavens declare Thy glory Lord
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
Harrison (1999) discusses this point when he says, "nature … was to be known in order to determine its moral and spiritual meanings and not so that it might be materially exploited." Joranson and Butigan (1984) help us to understand St. Francis more clearly than White (1967) with respect to what motivated St. Francis. His respect and appreciation for creation was so profound because it always led him to the Creator. Keynes (1951) conveys what John Ray concluded as he studied the natural sciences. In The Wisdom of God, Ray wrote that he could see in nature evidences of innumerable proofs of an omnipotent Creator.
While nature may constitute a "book" which is fascinating to read, God as the author of the book, is far more interesting. Nature merely serves to reveal something about its author. Several of the parables of Christ illustrate here how the every-day aspects of nature teach us something about God. The spiritual lessons taught by nature are among the most profound.
Consequences is a major theme of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament (33 books). Verses here relate to the environmental consequences of human behavior. This includes verses where the environment suffers as a consequence of war. Additionally, environmental metaphors are used to describe the fate of the ungodly and where nature is called as a witness against the people of God. It's not all negative, however. Occasionally, Scripture reveals that the consequence of a growing relationship with God is an environmental blessing.
Morality is frequently mentioned in discussions involving environmental abuses (Caldecott, 1996). According to the Bible, reckless environmental damage is immoral but more importantly, immorality in any area, such as being out of fellowship with God, leads to the worst and most widespread environmental damage. Therefore, the biblical prescription for a healthier environment in the 21st Century includes loving God with all your being and loving others as yourself. The natural consequences will include a healthier environment. This is not to say that we need not bother with recycling, carpooling, energy conservation, managing natural resources for sustained yields, etc. All of these things may be important but according to the Bible, they are futile apart from first having a right relationship with the Creator of the universe.
The Bible does not present an environmental agenda such as the many found elsewhere. The World Resources Institute (1999a) focuses on maintaining or restoring ecosystem functions. Later, World Resources Institute (1999b) includes population, food shortages, over consumption, energy use, ozone depletion, nutrient cycles, acid rain, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water consumption. Birnie and Boyle (1995) simplify things suggesting the need to respect nature, protect biodiversity, and exercise sustainable productivity. The Worldwatch Institute (2000) includes climate modification and population control on its agenda for the 21st Century.
Other environmental agendas focus on ecosystem dysfunction, climate concerns, water, environmental activists promoting social change, and having a global view (MSNBC 2000). The United Nations (1999) is concerned about sustainable development, clean air, and mentions linking environmental protection with education, human health, and employment. Christians have not been silent when it comes to proposing environmental agendas. Bube (1994) suggests a model limited to two elements creation and stewardship. The Evangelical Environmental Network (1999) have established a Declaration on the Care of Creation which acknowledges that the earth is the Lord’s.
So if God were exalted to His right place in our lives how would the environment look? Consider this table of contrasting views, as it sheds some light on this question.
|God Not Exalted
|Sustainable harvests||Inadequate provisions|
|Absence of natural disasters||Abundance of (frequent) natural disasters|
|Good health and reproductive success||Disease and low reproductive success|
|Satisfying Work||Meaningless work|
|Lack of Weeds||Weeds|
A right relationship with God leads to a right relationship among the elements of creation, people with other people, and between people and the environment.
How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? The beasts are consumed, and the birds; because they said, He shall not see our last end.
Up Your Heads,
O blest the land, the city blest
And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.
Perspective is a minor theme (21 books) which seeks to put the relationships between God, people, and the environment in balance. These verses relate to the relationship between people and the environment with an emphasis on the fact that, though people are part of the natural scheme of things, people have priority. In other words, the needs of people take precedence or are considered more important than the needs of the natural elements of the environment, such as animals. This is not to say that the Bible condones such behavior as cruelty to animals, but it does suggest that animal rights are secondary to human rights. This includes the observation that the manner in which people relate to one another is different than the way people relate to animals. In relationship to God, nature is seen as smaller than God and of a lesser magnitude than its Creator.
From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the LORD's name is to be praised. The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto the LORD our God, who dwelleth on high, Who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts
Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts
Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux
And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
Nature as a mystic object of worship is common to many cultures, ancient as well as modern but the Bible condemns such practice as idolatrous (Anderson, Slovic, and O’Grady 1999). This section includes Scripture which reveals how nature, ultimately fails to fulfill a person's deeper needs. Solomon discusses this concept at length in Ecclesiastes. Augustine (1996) shares the same sentiment. While St. Francis is depicted by some as a nature mystic who puts creation ahead of Christ (White 1967), Joranson and Butigan (1984) help to clarify this picture of St. Francis as one totally committed to the Lord, not the land. It is a short step from saying "God is everywhere" to making "everywhere" your god. The very creation that is designed to help us know Him can cause us to forget Him (Whaley 1976). A Christian with a biblical perspective on the environment will seek God first, not people (Bonacci 1999) and not the environment. With God on the throne, all the other elements of a persons life will assume a correct balance which will result in a healthier person and a healthier environment.
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