- Reading the New Testament in the Environmental Age
by David Rhoads
Professor of New Testament
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
It is a pleasure to contribute an essay in honor of Bill Lesher. Among Bill's many gifts is a vision for global ministry that encompasses a concern for the common good, a proactive stance toward justice, and a commitment to the integrity of creation. It is this last item that I want to lift up here, for, as President of LSTC, Bill Lesher has led the way in helping the seminary become a place that fosters care for the earth and that prepares pastors who can offer leadership in matters of ecology and justice. For this, along with many other dimensions of his legacy, I am deeply grateful.
Since we are now entering an Environmental Age, we are beginning to discover what it means to read the Bible for what it says about creation and the role of human beings as part of that creation.1 Much has been done in Old Testament studies to begin the process of interpretation, but only a limited number of articles have appeared in New Testament studies. This essay, also, is a modest effort to suggest some directions for consideration.
We will not find in the New Testament our modern concerns over the human degradation of creation -- the deterioration of the ozone layer, threats to life from global warming, the effects of massive garbage and toxic waste disposal, the problems of deforestation and desertification, or the loss of biological diversity. Nevertheless, there is much in the New Testament that has implications for the environmental crisis and that undergirds a commitment to care for God's creation.
As we seek to discover what the New Testament has to offer, we will surely highlight passages that emphasize creation and new creation as the work of God and of Christ. We will also probably want to make apparent the cosmological dimensions of the various New Testament writings -- the image of creation and the human place in it. As Christians, we will likely find ourselves interpreting familiar passages in new ways and finding relevance in passages not so familiar. We will also turn to the Bible to challenge us and to transform us so that we are better prepared for the conflicts, the choices, and the sacrifices that may come to us in this Environmental Age.
Problems and possibilities for the New Testament in relation to the environment
While there are clearly problems with trying to read the New Testament as an "environmental" document, there are also many promising possibilities. On the one hand, the New Testament does not have extended descriptions of creation and of nature like the Old Testament has. On the other hand, there is more in the New Testament about creation and nature than first meets the eye.
Unlike the Old Testament, there are no stories about God's creation of the world, stories that explicitly articulate conceptions of creation and the place of humans in creation. This situation makes it difficult to discern the point of view of the New Testament writers on these matters. However, the New Testament writings usually assume fundamental points of continuity with Old Testament views about creation. Also, several New Testament writers assign a role for Christ in creation as well as a role in redeeming the (whole) creation. In addition, the New Testament tells many recreation stories -- stories about the restoration of creation and stories of people who recover their proper place in creation. These stories affirm that the redemption of Christ does not abandon creation but rather fulfills creation.
Also, unlike the Old Testament, there are no extended passages in the New Testament that describe the larger natural world, such as we find in some psalms or in certain passages in the prophets or in the book of Job. Nevertheless, there is much more about the natural world in the New Testament than interpreters have usually acknowledged. Views of nature are embedded in or implied by the New Testament writings in a line here or a brief passage there -- in a metaphor or a parable or a wisdom saying or a credal formula. When we treat these brief passages as windows through which to discern the affirmations and assumptions about nature behind these passages, then the whole writing in which they are embedded looks different. In this process, the purpose is not to identify proof-texts but rather to see each whole writing in a new way. Then we can integrate the particular view of creation into our overall understanding of that particular writing.
Also, the New Testament is more anthropocentric than the Old Testament. Recent scholarship has made it clear that salvation history in the Old Testament encompasses both human history and natural history as one unified story. By contrast, salvation in the New Testament is predominantly anthropocentric, that is, centered on human beings.2 For example, in the New Testament there is no covenant that includes animals, no promises connected with the land, and the metaphors for salvation are overwhelmingly anthropocentric -- as if redemption existed for humans alone and not for all of creation.
Nevertheless, here again, there is much more for us to recover in the New Testament than seems apparent at first sight. In the New Testament, as with the Old Testament, human salvation and judgment are never divorced from the rest of the natural world -- a star appears at Jesus' birth, the arrival of the kingdom involves the calming of storms at sea, the oppression of humans will be accompanied by signs in the sun and stars, in the end time the trees will produce fruit all year round, Jesus will return on the clouds, and so on. In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, there is no separation between human history and the natural world. They are not even two different things kept together. Rather, there is simply one world.
Finally, there are several dualistic aspects of thought in the New Testament not generally found in the Old Testament. Such dualistic aspects of thought tend to discourage a concern for the natural world. They include a dualistic contrast between God's Spirit and the life of the flesh, an apparent concern with individual, personal salvation after death in a heaven separate from the earth, and an early Christian expectation that Jesus would return soon to usher in the end of the world. In the view of many first century Christians, the form of this world was passing away as the new age was arriving. Such other-worldly ideas tended to treat this world not as an abiding home but simply as a place of pilgrimage on the way to heaven.
However, even the seemingly dualistic aspects of New Testament thought are not as negative toward creation as they may seem. In the New Testament, Spirit fulfills the material; it does not do away with it. It is an "orientation to the flesh" that the New Testament condemns, not flesh or body as such. After all, as John testifies, the word became flesh. Also, in the New Testament, there is no salvation apart from community, and there is no community apart from the whole (re-)creation. North America Christians have tended to read the New Testament with the individualistic eyes of our culture and failed to see the assumptions of the early Christians that all life is communal life. Finally, the coming apocalyptic age focuses not on heaven, but on a transformed earth, for the expectation was that Jesus was coming back -- a view that supports the vision of the new creation as an affirmation of the world rather than as a rejection or an abandonment of it.
Interpreting New Testament writings with "green lenses."
Many approaches could be taken toward reading the New Testament out of an environmental concern. One approach might be to look for relevant themes and patterns of thought commonly shared across the New Testament writings: God as creator, incarnational theology, the stewardship role of humans, the images of new creation, and so on. This approach emphasizes the unity of the New Testament witness about creation.
On the other hand, when we read the New Testament through green lenses, we may also see many different understandings of creation. Rather than look for one coherent image of creation in the New Testament, we might see in the different writings of the New Testament correspondingly differing views of nature and the human role within nature. Once we have seen these differing views, we can begin to interpret individual writings inclusive of their views of the whole cosmos. Here are three examples.
The Gospel of Mark:
- And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
- He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts,
- and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)
The words "and he was with the wild beasts" are a window into the overall view of nature in Mark's Gospel. Wild beasts represent the nonhuman creation, understood in Mark's experience to be at odds with humanity and a threat to human existence. In Mark's depiction of the world, this threat of nature is only one example of the oppression in a created order gone awry, in which human beings are under many oppressive forces -- storms on the lake, the lack of food in a desert, illness, demons, and other human beings.
From the patterns evident in Mark's portrayal of the world, we might legitimately infer an assumption lying behind Mark's depictions: human beings were meant to exercise authority over the created order, not be oppressed by it. For Mark, the arrival of the "kingdom" of God restores people to their proper place in creation -- making available to humans authority under God over nonhuman forces that oppress people (but with no authority over other humans), for "all things are possible to those who have faith.î With access to power from God, agents of the kingdom are expected to have authority over demons, illness, the wind, sea, and desert, but not over other people. Hence, the Gospel of Mark portrays the arrival of the kingdom of God as a restoration not only of human creation but of all creation.
According to Richard Bauckham, the temptation scene in the desert depicts the ideal.3 Jesus is with the wild beasts and they are no threat to him. In Mark's view, Jesus has come to restore creation to its proper order -- an order in which human beings are under God and in harmony with the rest of the created order -- exercising an authority (dominion) in which animals are not a threat to humans and in which humans care for animals. Hosea predicted a time when God would make a covenant with the animals; God would abolish war from the earth and the animals could lie down in safety. The animals lie down with Jesus because they are safe from harm in his presence. In turn, Jesus also is safe from harm.
When we look at the whole of Mark, a consistent picture emerges: nature is potentially threatening; the arrival of the kingdom of God restores human beings to their proper place and role in creation; by faith, followers participate in the restoration of creation -- either coming into harmony with nature or by having authority to overcome its threat.
The Letter to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:19-23)
In commenting on this passage, Robert Jewett notes that the creation is here personified as it awaits with eager expectation and groans inwardly in labor pains.4 This, Jewett notes, goes in the direction of the modern ecological movement that sees the fate of the creation as intimately tied to the fate of the children of God. Creation fell when the first people in the garden sinned and overstepped their limits in arrogance. Through Christ and the Spirit, God is re-creating people capable of righteousness who will treat one another and all of creation with justice and care. When the new creation of righteous human beings is revealed and given dominion, then all nonhuman creation will also be set free from its bondage to decay and experience the freedom of the glory of the children of God. This will begin to "restore a rightful balance to creation once again, overcoming the corruption and disorder that resulted from the curse on Adam."5 In other words, all creation is eager, because when human beings become righteous, they will treat the rest of creation in such a way that all creation will thrive.
Thus, there is a clear connection between the righteousness of human beings and the state of creation. The issue is whether humans will express true dominion or idolatrous dominion. The basic idea, Jewett writes, is that "by acting out idolatrous desires to have unlimited dominion over the garden, the original purpose of creation -- to express goodness and to reflect divine glory -- was emptied."6 The phrase "the glory of the children of God" is thus understood in terms of humans regaining their proper dominion over creation and participating in the righteousness and justice of God whose scope is cosmic.7
The Letter to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.... He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.... For in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)
In analyzing this post-Pauline letter, Joseph Sittler was acutely aware of the anthropocentric nature of most metaphors of redemption.8 Now that we are aware how much all of nature needs to be redeemed, he argued, we need a Christology that is as large as the size of the problems we face, a Christology that addresses not just human fallenness but the fallenness of all creation.
Sittler pointed to this passage from Colossians as an adequate Christology. Here is an understanding of the cross of Jesus that extends to the whole created order. Jesus did not die for humans alone to be reconciled to God. Instead, Jesus' death is a reconciliation of all things in the whole of creation. The consequence is that humans too are reconciled with "all things" and therefore placed in a new and responsible relationship with the whole created order. The work of Christ as a cosmic redeemer catches the hearer up in a drama of redemption that includes the whole cosmos and is therefore able to address our environmental crisis.
Other Writings. We could illustrate the distinctive views of other New Testament writings: Matthew has a wisdom theology that views nature as a teacher for human morality and values; John's Gospel portrays the care and protection of an owner (of sheep by a shepherd), rather than the care provided by a hireling, as an alternative to stewardship in modeling our care for the gifts of God's creation;9 and the Revelation of John argues that all of creation is falling apart under the judgment of God because of human injustice and that only the renunciation of idolatrous allegiance to the wealth and power of the Roman Empire will restore creation. In each case, the task is to create a holistic interpretation of each writing so as to include the place of the entire created order in our understanding of that writing.
Human sin and exploitation of nature
The New Testament addresses the kinds of human sinfulness that existed in the first century and that, in our time, still exist and contribute to our present ecological predicament. Do we exploit the earth because of greed and self-centeredness? because we need to prove our self-worth? because we are alienated from the creator and from the rest of creation? because we are afraid to relinquish our present security with choices made for the good of future generations? because we give ourselves over in idolatry to institutions or realities that are not God? The New Testament engages in such analyses of what is wrong with human beings in order to liberate people for a transformed existence together.
For example, Paul addresses the exploitation that occurs when we humans seek to justify ourselves. His announcement that we are already justified by grace liberates us to love others (and creation) for their own sake without the need to use them in our project to prove something about ourselves. Mark's story of Jesus addresses our fearful need to secure ourselves at the expense of others. He proclaims a gospel that gives courage to risk loss and to sacrifice in order to serve others (and creation). Matthew condemns our blind hypocrisy that prevents us from acknowledging the destructive aspects of our behavior. He proclaims a gospel of presence and forgiveness, which grants us the capacity to look honestly at ourselves and to repent. John's Gospel lifts up our alienation from the creator as the root of the human condition. He proclaims a gospel in which the whole created order (bread, water, light, vines and branches, doors) is sanctified by its capacity to bear witness to the one through whom all things were created.
As we come to a clearer understanding of the ways we contribute to the ecological crisis and discover our resistances to change, the various understandings of the gospel in the New Testament will empower us to address our human sinfulness. If we seek to overcome our environmental problems out of guilt or fear or anxiety about ourselves, we will probably only make matters worse. Rather, transformation needs to come from the good news of God's redemption and liberation. We need to be fed by the grace and compassion and joy of God for the choices and changes that may be required of us in the future as we face the environmental crises.
The New Testament as a manual for facing a possible end to the world
Most early Christians believed that the end of the world as they knew it was imminent and that soon Jesus would return for final judgment and salvation. We too are facing a possible end of the world as we humans know it because of drastic changes that may take place in the earth's environment. Parallels between the New Testament and our own time become obvious in an age when radical action may be called for as means to avoid our destruction.
In the face of a vision of a new world before them, the early Christians did not abandon the present age. On the contrary, they prepared for the salvation of the new age as a means to avoid its judgment. We are in a similar position. On the one hand, if we are not able to repent and change our destruction of the very ecosystems that sustain human life, the consequences may well represent God's judgment upon us. On the other hand, if we are able to repent and create a sustainable life together for future generations on the earth, the results will constitute a transformation that might in some sense represent God's salvation for the human race.
So, how did the early Christians act in the face of their expectation of the possible end of the world? What can we learn from them? Here are several characteristics shaped by their expectation of the end of the world.
- There was a tremendous urgency to spread the message: from village to village, from city to city__to call people and cities and nations to repentance and change of behavior.
- The early Christians made penetrating analyses of the human condition, not just in terms of obvious evil, but in terms of the dark side of our goodness and our compromises. They saw that the problem is not a simple matter of obvious good and evil, but of how we do evil in the course of doing good. They discerned their own hypocrisy and faced it. Instead of blaming others, they saw the evil in themselves and sought to change it. They identified the destructive myths of their culture, named those myths, and either transformed them or replaced them with life-giving stories.
- Many early Christians withdrew and dissociated from the behavior and lifestyles and beliefs of the culture. They made a break with cultural values and institutions that were destructive__narrow family loyalties, class, wealth, positions of honor, certain interpretations of the law, ceremonies, economic participation, among others. Instead, they identified with the values and behavior appropriate to the emerging new world of the kingdom.
- The early Christians confronted the destructive powers, fearlessly challenging their idolatry and hypocrisy. Thus, they were willing to sacrifice and to risk loss, persecution, and death in order to break with narrow allegiances of survival. They condemned the rulers, embraced a larger allegiance to God's whole world, and sacrificed for the coming new world.
- They created alternative communities. They did not just make a negative break from the culture, they also created a positive participation in the kingdom. They had a vision of the future and sought to live it now in the present. In so far as they lived that vision in the present, the kingdom had come! In this way, the early Christians sought to be a light for the world.
- They did prophetic acts. In a sense, their lives were prophetic symbols, for every act is a prophetic act when done out of a vision of the future. So healing the sick, feeding the hungry, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, were all prophetic symbols of a new age impinging on the present.
- They were willing to act unilaterally, to create a new world without waiting for the leaders of the nation or the rest of the populace to lead the way or even to agree with them.
Thus, we can study the behavior of the early Christians facing what they believed to be the end of the world as a means to discover the kinds of behavior that might be appropriate for us as we face ultimate choices for creating a sustaining life on earth.
To learn from the Bible and to be transformed by what we read is not a matter of some wooden imitation. We live in a world quite different from the biblical world. Our problems take a similar but also a very dissimilar shape. We are called to discern how the gospel addresses us in the circumstances in which we live. The New Testament is a resource book for such a calling, a collection of powerful testimonies to the work of God that authorizes us to be creative and that empowers us to address our problems in the Environmental Age with courage and with hope.
- I am grateful to my colleagues in New Testament, Edgar Krentz and Barbara Rossing, reading and critiquing an earlier draft of this essay.
- One of the most egregious examples of anthropocentrism is 1 Cor 9:9-10, where Paul cannot imagine that God would be concerned about oxen. "For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.í Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It is indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop."
- See Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age," in Jesus of Nazareth: Christ and Lord, ed. Joel Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
- Robert Jewett, "Romans 8:18-30" (Unpublished draft of the Hermeneia Commentary on Romans, by permission), 15.
- Ibid. p. 17.
- Ibid. p. 19.
- Ibid. p. 24.
- See Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity," Ecumenical Review 14 (1962) 177-87; reprinted in Currents 16:1 (February 1989) 5-13.
- "God's Family and Flocks: Remarks on Ownership in the Fourth Gospel," in Covenant for a New Creation: Ethics, Religion, and Public Policy, ed. Carol Robb and Carl Casebolt (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 91-106.
For further reading
Bergant, Dianne. Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberation-Critical Reading (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997)
Brueggemann, Walter. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987)
DeWitt, Calvin, ed. The Environment and the Christian: What Can We Learn from the New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991)
Hiebert, Theodore. The Yahwist's Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
Simkins, Ronald. Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994)
Tucker, Eugene. "Rain on a Land Where No One Lives: The Hebrew Bible on the Environment," Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1997) 3-17.
Weaver, Dorothy. "Anabaptist Interpretation of the New Testament and Creation," in Toward a Sustainable World: An Anabaptist and Mennonite Alternative (forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press).