Book Review

"For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care" by Steven Bouma-Prediger

Matthew Barrett
Steven Bouma-Prediger
Thursday, September 1st 2011
Sep/Oct 2011

"What does ecology have to do with theology?" This is the question Steven Bouma-Prediger seeks to answer in the second edition of his award-winning book For the Beauty of the Earth. But his aim is not merely to enter the dialogue or to inform but, simply put, to persuade. "My central claim is simply: authentic Christian faith in-cludes care for the earth. Earthkeeping is integral to Christian discipleship" (xii).

Bouma-Prediger reminds us of the truth in Scripture, so often taken for granted, that there is something wrong with the world we live in, nature included (Rom. 8:19-23). The fall of Adam has resulted in not only death for man, both spiritually and physically, but for the earth as well. By looking at the earth we live on, it is not difficult to observe that we are no longer in Eden. Furthermore, in a fallen world mankind abuses (either accidentally or purposefully) the earth that God created to reflect his glory. "Indeed, it is a rare week that passes without learning about some ecological degradation" (23). One is reminded of the recent ecological disaster that resulted from the BP oil spill in the Gulf, for example. Many other worldwide concerns persist as well: population growth, increasing hunger, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity and impurity, land degradation, accumulating waste, expanding energy consumption, acid rain, global climate change, and so on. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the "state of our home planet is not good" and the "earth is groaning" (54).

If this is all that is told, however, the story is only told in part. There is good news, says Bouma-Prediger. For example, the "air in Los Angeles is better now than it was thirty years ago," and "Lake Erie is recovering as a viable fishery" (54). These and other examples of reform are to be celebrated. Nevertheless, the negatives outweigh the positives by a landslide. The earth is damaged, and the evidence shows that much of it is our own fault, due to our own irresponsibility (mea culpa!).

One of the strengths of Bouma-Prediger's work is the well-balanced lens through which he views and examines the ecological situation in which we find ourselves. He wants to correct the ignorance and reckless attitude of those who say that the ecological situation is just fine, but he also wants to avoid the extreme of those who say that the situation is dire and that there is little encouraging news. Bouma-Prediger's ability to be balanced in his evaluation is evidenced in at least two other areas.

First, he avoids the liberal agenda and solution to many ecological problems. Take human population for instance. Many of a liberal mind-set see human population as a "problem" that is having destructive consequences for the environment. The solution, some say, is to curb reproduction in order to save the environment. Helpfully, Bouma-Prediger exposes the flaws here while acknowledging that the number of humans on earth does have serious consequences, as seen in resource consumption. Questions have been raised by Lester Brown, for example, "How many people can the Earth support? And at what level of consumption?" Bouma-Prediger's responses are insightful. Following Wendell Berry, he recognizes that many times the wrong question leads to the wrong answer. The question of "how many people" is perhaps not the first or most important question to ask. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that the earth is overpopulated, we should ask if the problem is whether the people who do exist are using the earth inappropriately. Perhaps the solution then is not population reduction but a reform of the way individuals use the earth (via affluence and technology), so that we minimize the "large-scale effects" of the population as a whole. "The question is not simply how many humans can the earth sustain, but at what level of consumption and using what kind of technology?" (27).

Second, Bouma-Prediger sees our mishandling of nature for what it is: a horrible failure in stewardship, even if this is not the worst kind of failure. He seems to recognize that others, like Berry, tend to overreact. Berry says, "Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy" (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 98). As important as ecological sin is, it is not the most important "blasphemy." Surely others could be ranked higher, like human holocausts and especially the spiritual blasphemy many commit each day as they reject the supremacy of the risen Christ.

Not only does Bouma-Prediger seek to be balanced, but he also seeks to defend Christianity against those who blame it for the ecological crisis. For there are some who argue that Christians in the past did not care for nature but only for the soul, and this is why the earth is in the condition it is in. As one example, Ludwig Feuerbach claimed that "nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul" (The Essence of Christianity, 287). Without denying that there have been some Christians who have adopted this mentality, Bouma-Prediger shows that this kind of complaint is simply not cogent. He points the reader to the biblical narrative, beginning with Genesis 2:19-20 where man, created uniquely in the image of God, is appointed by God to have dominion over the earth. Yes, Bouma-Prediger argues, dominion does involve authority over the earth, yet such an authority is not a careless domination but rather an authority that rules by serving. Yes, we are to subdue the earth, but we are to do so by protecting the earth for God's glory and our own good.

But what about the objection that Christian dualism, which elevates the spiritual over the material, leads to indifference to the earth? Bouma-Prediger observes that such a dualism is far from the teaching of Scripture. Building off of John Cooper, Bouma-Prediger states that it is better to interpret the biblical material as supporting a holistic dualism (functional holism). "While the body is separate from and inferior to the soul for Plato, this is not the case for Scripture." The body cannot be devalued. Body and soul are distinct, but they cannot be divorced from each other.

Some may still object, however, that since Christians affirm an eschatology whereby they will one day leave this earth, there is no reason we should care for it in the here and now. Objectors often point to those of the Left Behind mind-set: We will be raptured from the earth, so why bother with it? Appeal is made to 2 Peter 3 where we read that when the day of the Lord comes, the earth will be burned up. However, Bouma-Prediger appeals to John Calvin who interprets Peter as saying not that the fires of judgment will "destroy creation but purify its original and enduring substance," as Susan Schreiner observes. Calvin "portrayed God as faithful to his original creation. Just as God brought the cosmos into being, closely governs and restrains its natural forces, so too he will renew and transform its original substance" (Schreiner, The Theatre of His Glory, 99). Bouma-Prediger goes on to point out that an evangelical eschatology does not need to participate in "creation-negating" but, on a biblical basis, can affirm some degree of "continuity" between the present and future. This "contrasts greatly with what seems to be believed in some evangelical churches, namely that our ultimate destiny is an immaterial, spaceless heaven, and that our present earth will be wholly destroyed" (Bouma-Prediger, quoting Thomas Finger, 70). Therefore, the "claim that Christian eschatology is essentially anti-ecological is badly mistaken" (70). Even if one interprets 2 Peter 3 as the earth being destroyed, it is still a non sequitur to argue "that because the earth will be destroyed in the future, humans should exploit it in the present" (70). The fact "that something will eventually be destroyed gives no license to abuse or neglect it" (70). To the contrary, as seen in Genesis 2:19-20, we have a biblical mandate to rule judiciously over the earth for the glory of God.

Bouma-Prediger not only shows that Christianity is not to blame for ecological irresponsibility, but he also demonstrates that certain non-Christian worldviews are far more likely to be at fault. Economic materialism, for example, finds its salvation in the attainment of the highest level of affluence, though seldom with reverence for nature or God. Indeed, anti-Christian worldviews as a whole lack proper biblical presuppositions that respect the earth. In Christianity, we affirm a God who is transcendent from his creation but made his creation for his own glory. The earth then finds its value and purpose inherently wrapped up in God's glory. Our respect for the earth is another way of recognizing that what God created in Genesis 1 was good, and though due to the Fall it has been distorted, one day those in Christ will live in a new heavens and earth (99). It is not the Christian faith that sustains a worldview that devalues the earth, then, but those who have an irreverence for God. "There can be no creation, properly understood, without a Creator" (76).

Bouma-Prediger is not, however, above criticism. Too often he blames the "modern West" and especially the Western church for the ecological crisis, particularly with its technological developments. He argues that the church has become captive to the Western gods of consumption and wealth. Granted, Christians in the West have at times succumbed to the assumptions of modern culture "which sever God from the creation and subject the creation to humanity's arrogant and unrestrained power" (77). But is the West, let alone Christianity in the West, entirely to blame? After all, ecological disaster is not solely a Western phenomenon but an international phenomenon. Bouma-Prediger falls prey to the tactic of picking on the region (or religion) that is most affluent.

Consider just two examples that show that Bouma-Prediger's outlook needs to be widened: 1) In 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine had a meltdown in which 4,000 people were killed due to the exposure to radiation (see the UN Chernobyl Forum Report); and 2) in 1984 in Bhopal, India, 9,000 people died immediately when 32 tons of chemical gases were spilled into the city (which is considered by many to be the world's worst industrial calamity). This industrial tragedy eventually killed over 20,000 people in the weeks that followed. Still today the Union Carbide plant continues to contaminate the groundwater. With these examples in mind, is it the West or the Western church in particular that is responsible for ecological disaster worldwide? Bouma-Prediger concludes by rebuking the Western church, arguing that it needs to pay heed to non-Western territories and even non-Western religions from which Christianity can learn much. Unfortunately, he does not follow his own advice in adopting an international perspective.

A second weakness of Bouma-Prediger's work is the vague and ambiguous connection he draws between ecology and the gospel of Jesus Christ. He believes that ecology is connected to soteriology, citing not only Colossians 1:20 but also Scott Hoezee who argues that "the redemption that God has in store catches up not just human beings but also trees, shrubs, rivers, lions, lambs, and snakes" (116). Bouma-Prediger himself concludes, "Indeed, if Jesus did not die for white-tailed deer, redheaded woodpeckers, blue whales, and green Belizean rain forests, then he did not die for you and me. Jesus comes to save not just us but the whole world" (116). This, the careful reader must conclude, is a confusion of the gospel with by-products and implications of the gospel for the rest of life and other nonhuman created beings. Colossians 1:19-20 says nothing of Jesus making atonement for trees, blue whales, and woodpeckers. The text says that by the blood of the cross all things are reconciled. But if we understand the cross correctly’ namely, as an atonement and propitiation for sin‘then surely Bouma-Prediger's statement is confusing social justice with the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ. Yes, Christ's death results in his preeminence over all things created, and yes, because of redemption one day peace will reign even over creation. But Christ's death itself is specifically an atonement and propitiation for the transgressions of sinners who deserve condemnation. As Paul says in the very next verse, "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death" (Col. 1:21-22a).

To conclude, one may not agree with Bouma-Prediger on every point, or even on how he interprets every scriptural passage he cites in support of his views. Nevertheless, he does demonstrate that we need to be earthly minded precisely because we were created to be God-centered in our outlook (112). To abuse the earth is to foster a self-centered mind-set rather than a biblical mind-set, where God is Creator and sustainer of the universe. So what does ecology have to do with theology? In the words of Thomas Aquinas, "Any error about creation also leads to an error about God" (Summa Contra Gentiles II.3).

Thursday, September 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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