Perspectives Resources

What Is Ecotheology?

Alan G. Padgett

Our living planet is in peril, pressed on all sides by unprecedented dangers. Human action and inaction, to no small degree, are at the root of it. So, to start with this most urgent matter before us, ecotheology is a liberative theology: it seeks to overcome oppression and evil in the name of God. Unlike Latin American liberation theology, feminist theology, or other liberating approaches, ecotheology is concerned with the evil we are doing to our living home, the Earth. The human-technological contribution to today’s global warming crisis is now beyond reasonable doubt, and we absolutely must do everything in our power to lower our green-house gas emissions now. (For an excellent overview of the scientific evidence, see Kathrine Hayhoe’s foreword to Ecotheology: A Christian Conversation, ed. Kiara A. Jorgenson and Alan G. Padgett [Eerdmans, 2020].) But even beyond this global climate disaster, the basis of life on our planet continues to be undermined by human ecological destruction and pollution. The current crisis of accelerated global warming is a loud alarm, raising awareness of the many ecological crises we all face. The life of our community of creation and of its future generations depends on changing hearts, minds, and behavior on a massive, global scale. This is the number one reason ecotheology is significant for Christian praxis today.

Christian theology has a number of specializations that focus the whole panoply of biblical, doctrinal, and ethical thought on a specific topic. Such work is necessarily interdisciplinary, even while theology is the main field. Examples would be the theology of art, the theology of government, the theology of culture, or the theology of nature. What we discover is that our reading of the Bible and our understanding of theology and ethics are often sharpened and improved by such interdisciplinary work. Our old assumptions about the meaning of the gospel, or a central biblical text, are called into question by new contexts and new knowledge. The natural sciences, for example, are crucial for a theology of nature, just as political science and political theory are crucial for the theology of government. Ecotheology benefits from just such a profound partnership with ecology. For the theologian, this interdisciplinary dialog and mutual learning call forth a critical, careful examination of those texts and doctrinal teachings in Christian theology to see how they can strengthen our spiritual task of ecological healing and restoration. (It is also true that the scientists in these dialogs learn more about ecology, society, ethics, and religion, but that is not our immediate topic here.) We learn to stay true to the foundations of our Christian faith and practice while also discovering new ways theology can support vital work for the world. Sometimes avenues of theological development open that were not explored in the past. Sometimes we find that our doctrinal traditions have obscured or undervalued possibilities in the key ecumenical sources of revelation and common tradition for all Christians today. This often allows us to discover new things that were long overlooked, or new paths to a deeper understanding of God and revelation. We can find early advocates of what we now call ecotheology among Christian theologians already at mid-century, such as Joseph Sittler (“A Theology for Earth,” The Christian Scholar 37, no. 3 [1954]: 367–74; reprinted in Evocations of Grace, ed. S. Bouma-Prediger and P. Bakken [Eerdmans, 2000]), H. Paul Santmire (Brother Earth: Nature, God and Ecology in a Time of Crisis [Nelson, 1970]), or Francis Schaeffer (Pollution and the Death of Man [Tyndale, 1970]). But the field is growing at a much more rapid rate in our century.

Reading the Bible and thinking theologically with a community of scholars seeking serious engagement with ecology has been a freeing, deepening, and powerful learning experience for me. Here I can share just a few of the fascinating areas where such work is yielding fruit. The crucial outcome we are all pressing for is a change in priorities for Christians everywhere: make saving our planet a central goal for every faith community and disciple. Here I will share some of the biblical, theological, and ethical discoveries, and new approaches—just a few tempting morsels to sharpen your appetite for more substantial fare (such as the books noted in this essay and suggested below).

The doctrine of creation is probably the obvious place to start. Interpreting the first few chapters of Genesis has been crucial to Christian thinking about creation for two thousand years. Much progress has been made in recent decades concerning what the Bible actually does teach about the earth. Two points are of growing import and serve to cluster some of the discoveries being made: (1) the Bible as much more earth-friendly than Christians have typically thought, including significant material on land, animals, and plants; and (2) the place of humans in the world God has made. Many of us will know the Ten Commandments, for example. But how many of us know that they apply to animals as well? Yet the sabbath command is explicit in its address of “you, your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, and your animals” (behemoth; Exod 20:10). The God of all is concerned not only about humans, but about animals, plants, and the land. Consider another example: the sabbath-year for the land in Lev 25: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (vv. 3–4). While it’s true that we now know this is prudent land management, this was not known in biblical times. The command is to set aside the land from being worked “for the LORD,” and is part of the holiness of Israel among the nations. Holiness and obedience, not prudent management, lie behind this legislation (and many others in Leviticus!). That the separateness, the holiness to the Lord, the sabbath-keeping among God’s people also extends to land and animals is a profound basis for reflection on the character of God, and a biblical ethic for our time of environmental crisis.

These sabbath commands reveal something else as well: the culture and assumptions of the Bible are agricultural in many places. Like all farmers, the ancient Jews would have been very, very aware of things like rain, water, and drought; planting and plants; the blessing of land; and the seasons of seedtime, harvest, and rest. God’s promise to Israel of “a land of milk and honey” is the promise of a land good for farming, for raising healthy ruminants (like goats) and pollinators (like bees). In our modern terms, a land of milk and honey must be a land of healthy ecosystems.

Yet the Bible is also clear that humans are allowed to work this land, to farm it responsibly as God’s creation, and to care for it. Genesis 2:15 is a classic text here, theologically. Our traditional translations often obscure the earth-friendly nature of the original Hebrew. The man (’adam) is placed in Eden to work or serve it (‘avad) and guard or keep it (shamar). The working of the land is thus similar to the way a priest works in the temple, or to the way the best kind of forester cares for the trees and animals, while also working with them to bring forth some needed resources for humans. It is hardly the kind of “working” that our modern, techno-scientific culture thinks of: using it for our needs and pleasures, with little or no thought for the creature’s own vitality and future. (“Creature” in this essay refers to any created thing, not just animals.)

But what about the fact that humans are created in the image of God? Did not God give humanity dominion over all the creatures of the earth? Genesis 1:26–28 has been read as a justification for practices that lead to the pollution and death of our oceans, skies, and land since, after all, we have been given “dominion” over them. This exploitative understanding of “dominion” does not actually go back to the original text read in context, nor to the ancient Christian fathers and mothers of the church. Its origins lie with early modern, science-oriented thinking, where “man” is meant to rule over and “penetrate” nature. (Richard Bauckham traces this exploitative reading of Genesis back to Frances Bacon (Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology [Baylor University Press, 2011], 47–55). The verb translated “dominion” (radah) does have this meaning in a political or military context. The obvious context of the natural world of plants and animals argues for a different meaning, and there is such a creaturely parallel where the verb in this context means “good shepherding” (Ezek 34:4—and note the duties of a good shepherd). Indeed, if the human race had taken the shepherding sense of radah more to heart, we would even now be treating our fellow creatures very differently: binding up the injured, strengthening the weak, and healing the sick. The ecosystems God creates to “be fruitful and multiply” are in dire need of just this kind of care and nurturing. And remember: Jesus teaches us that leadership is servanthood. Even if humans are given some kind of prudent responsibility for fellow creatures, in Christ this will be a kind of servanthood.

So, the OT is far “greener” than we have recognized in our traditional Christian thought. What about Jesus and the NT? Isn’t the heart of Scripture the Gospels, and is Jesus not our great teacher, the Word made flesh? Let’s think a moment about a central event in the life of Jesus and an element of his teaching as examples: incarnation and providence. When God the Son becomes a human and enters fully into the flesh, in the womb of Mary, God does more than become a human being. The Living Word becomes a mammal, a land animal (cf. the sixth day of creation), a material being made of matter-energy. God becomes a creature. And just as the incarnation immeasurably honors the human race, so it also immeasurably honors and sanctifies material and living creation. Why have we not seen that in our preaching, teaching, and theology? Apart from a few guiding lights like St. Francis of Assisi and early Celtic Christianity, there is precious little of this kind of creation spirituality in our great, common tradition. And yet the very fact of the incarnation cries out for just such prayerful and spiritual recognition of the sanctity of our fellow creatures, such as air and fire, wind and waves, birds and beasts.

God’s providence is, biblically, God’s providing for the creatures of the earth, that they may grow, be fruitful and vibrant. The roots of providence in Scripture are thus deeply earthy, creational, and vivifying. Genesis 1 is a great example with its constant refrain, “be fruitful and multiply,” and its portrait of God creating environments for creatures to live in. Another example is Ps 104, a great hymn of divine creation and providence. “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use” (104:13–14). The God of creation does not stop creating on the seventh day. The seasons, the waters, the day and night, the rich and fertile soil, the cycles of life in all creatures—all these are sustained in their courses by the Almighty so that earth might be fair and abundant, filled with life. This is truly biblical providence.

This creational understanding of providence can still be found in John Chrysostom’s last work, On Providence, where it is extended to saving humans from sin, death, and evil. Western Christian thought, however, narrows it almost exclusively in an anthropocentric mode, after the great Augustine. What matters in God’s providence is saving humans, so they would have us think. But this is a distortion of biblical revelation. As for the NT, it is obviously this creational doctrine of providence that Jesus draws from in his teachings. A famous example is from the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field….” The Father’s love and wisdom provide for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Who are we humans, in our sin and folly, to now undermine this divine work and will?

Ecotheology is an ongoing research program with a mission. Many areas of traditional theology and biblical interpretation are open to revisiting and revisioning, discovering the truly earth-friendly content of Scripture and the ecotheological promise of Christian doctrines. As fascinating as these developments in theology, ethics, and biblical interpretation are, there is an important practical conclusion to be made. We must not, we cannot, simply learn these new things for their own sake. We must teach them to others, and act on them individually and in community. All of us reading this should get involved with the broad, global movement for ecological health, to bring healing, hope, and justice to God’s creation. For this is the Father’s good will and the calling of Jesus our Savior on us, one and all.

Suggested Reading
Bauckham, Richard. Ecology and the Bible. Baylor University Press, 2010.
_______. Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology. Baylor University Press, 2011.
Bouma-Prediger, Steve. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Eerdmans, 2001.
Brunner, Daniel, Jennifer Butler, and A. J. Swoboda. Introduction to Evangelical Ecotheology. Baker Academic, 2014.
Davis, Ellen. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Deane-Drummond, Celia. A Primer in Ecotheology. Cascade, 2017.
Jorgenson, Kiara A., and Alan G. Padgett, eds. Ecotheology: A Christian Conversation. Eerdmans, 2020.

Posted Feb 09, 2022