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Alan Padgett
 on March 29, 2021

Ecotheology: Developing New Perspective

Introducing ecotheology: What it is, and ways we can use it to evaluate how we as Christians interact and care for the earth.

hands holding a seedling in dirt

Ecotheology finds its footing as a field of theological concern and exploration driven in part by increased social and cultural anxiety over the long-building problem of accelerated climate change, among other reasons our home planet is in peril. Out of the struggle to bring healing and sustainable vitality to our living planet, Christian theologians have been re-examining Scripture, Christian doctrines, and ethical principles to see what wisdom divine revelation and historic Christian faith have for us in this struggle. “Ecotheology” is the most common name for this ongoing revision of Christian thought, biblical interpretation, and faithful practice. It aspires toward a robust embrace of God’s creation as a whole. Understandably, there are questions over whether this theological trajectory is truly biblical and evangelic. What should a Christ-centered person think about this movement? Is it just modernist theology pursuing the latest cultural trends while abandoning historic orthodoxy and the Word of God? Thankfully, the short answer is “not usually.” Acknowledging here the great diversity among Christian theologies, including ecotheologies, I present what might be call an “evangelic ecotheology,” one grounded in Christ and the gospel.

The first challenge is overcoming our own traditional biases—the blinders of the past—and allow Scripture to speak into our classic faith, revealing the wonders of the natural world more fully and our true place in it.

Alan Padgett

While not all ecotheologies are created equal, many are deeply grounded in divine revelation, providing new insights into what the Scriptures say. In the same context orthodox theology can—and should—be “green” and earth-friendly, because the God of the Bible is. There is already strong movement in that direction.For example, His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, the current Orthodox ecumenical patriarch, is known as the “Green Patriarch”, and he is a strong advocate of earth-care on orthodox grounds (Bartholomew I, 2003). Let’s look briefly at a couple of the exciting things that an earth-friendly framework for Scripture studies, theology and ethics are adding to our awareness.

male hands brushing dirt through them

Human Bodies in the Community of Creation

One doctrine that’s being fruitfully examined is theological anthropology, the doctrine of human being. Church thinking about creation has always been grounded in the first chapters of Genesis. While Christian tradition has tended toward focus on the soul, recent theologians and Bible scholars have also pointed to the importance of the body in Scripture’s understanding of what it means to be human. We are created out of the very dust of the earth, and the Hebrew word for human (adam) sounds strikingly like the word for dust, or dirt (adamah). As Pope Francis observed, “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (Laudatio Si’, §2).

Christian Ethics as Creation Care

Caring for the earth and its creatures must also go alongside loving our human neighbors. The Christian call to provide food for the hungry and hope to the poor depends directly upon dramatic intervention into the global destruction of foundational, life-sustaining systems. Christian ethics must expand to include what biblical scholar Richard Bauckham calls the “community of creation” (Bauckham, 2010). The earth is God’s. The air, land and water are God’s provision for all creatures that call earth home, but if abused, we dishonor God’s blessing, and every creature suffers. Interestingly, while human beings are uniquely created in the image and likeness of God, we are not given our own day in the biblical story of Genesis 1. Rather, we are created on the same day as all the land animals, demonstrating an agricultural appreciation of who humans are in the economy of creation (Genesis 1:24-31). The virtues of the good farmer (or gardener) can be seen further in a re-examination of Genesis 2:15. Here, the man is placed alone in the garden (or “forest” given that it is filled with trees). The adam is then commanded to work or serve (avad), and to guard or keep (shamar), the forest. The verb “guard” or “keep” functions together with the verb “to serve” (as in the work of serving in the Temple) indicating the kind of labor humans are to put into the earth: not like the lumber barons who destroyed whole ecosystems to retrieve one type of tree, but like a shepherd who tends and cares for sheep while also working (or serving) as a shepherd.

What Kind of Dominion?

This notion of God calling humans to be good, virtuous shepherds of the animals provides a framework for re-examining the old idea of humans called by God to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over” the animals. Bauckham argues that the term “subdue” (kabash) is not a kind of political domination. Instead, when kabash is used with land as its object, the sense is more a domestic and agricultural idea of “moving in” and making the land a home (e.g., Numbers 32:22,29; see Jorgenson and Padgett, 2020:26). This sense of the verb goes along well with filling the earth. Likewise, God’s call for humans to “have dominion” needs to be reframed from a political context into an agricultural one. The Bible tells us what godly rulership is meant to look like (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

shepherd standing at water's edge with sheep

In Deuteronomy rulership is characterized by humility and service rather than domination, and the ruler keeping a heart for God instead of a lust for wealth and power. Ezekiel uses this same verb, “to rule” (radah), to describe the actions of a good “shepherd” of Israel: feed the sheep, heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and seek the lost (34:1-5). To “rule” in this sense over sentient life, to be a leader in the community of creation, is to serve by caring for and respecting the needs of our fellow creatures. Older theological models that embrace dominion and its shadow self, exploitation, have led to countless missteps that ecotheology seeks to expose and address.

So much more could be said beyond the consideration of these few verses from Genesis, read in the context of just one doctrinal and ethical issue! Providence, eschatology, the doctrine of God, and redemption are all areas receiving new and exciting expansion and re-examination in ecotheology. The first challenge is overcoming our own traditional biases—the blinders of the past—and allow Scripture to speak into our classic faith, revealing the wonders of the natural world more fully and our true place in it. We gather soon to celebrate Easter, remembering God’s amazing grace in becoming a creature, dying on the Cross and rising again to new life! Thanks eternal are due to the Blessed Trinity for this incredible gift. May we learn to treasure this living Earth, and “bind up” her wounds in respect and appreciation for God’s amazing gift.

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About the author

Alan Padgett

Alan Padgett

Alan G. Padgett (D.Phil., Oxford) is a theologian, philosopher, Methodist pastor, and prolific author who has lectured in many countries.  With a life-long interest in physical sciences, he works at the intersection of theology, philosophy, biblical studies and religion-and-science.  He is professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, where he also coordinates the Methodist House of Studies.  His most recent work is Ecotheology: A Christian Conversation (Eerdmans, 2020), co-edited with Kiara Jorgensen.  He lives with his wife and two friends in a rural area of the St. Croix Valley, along the WI-MN border.