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SIDIC Periodical XXII - 1989/3
The Integrity of Creation (Pages 9-14)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Care of Creation: a Christian Perspective
Dennis Richards


Central to the construction of a Christian perspective on any matter is the doctrine of revelation: God has revealed himself in the creation of the canon of Scripture, in the traditions of the Church and continues to reveal himself to his people today. Before considering the ethics of the care of creation, let us consider the context in which Christian ethics are to be understood. What are God's purposes in bringing the creation into being and what is the future hope of creation as revealed in the Bible and in Christian tradition?

The Biblical Doctrine of Creation
Biblical scholars have discerned four creation narratives in the OM Testament: Gen. 1:1-2:4, Gen. 2:5-25, Prov. 8:22-31, and a fourth story deduceable from the frragments Job 318, Ps. 74:13-14, Ps. 89:1011, Ps. 93, is. 27:1, 30:7, 51:9-10, Hab. 3:8. In the last story God battles with and defeats a draconic monster, variously called Leviathan, Yaur, Nahar, Tannin or Rahab. This is a Syro-Palestinian version of a story found throughout the Ancient Near East.

What the Old Testament gives us, therefore, are four different accounts of the creation story in terms of the world-view of the Ancient Near East. Where the Jewish version differs from other contemporary stories, however, is in the sovereignty of God. There is only one God, and it is by his will that the creation has come into being.
In the New Testament a development of the doctrine of creation is seen in the Pauline and Johannine writings, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. By the first century C.E. a view existed in Judaism that both the Torah and the name of the Messiah had been created before the creation of the world. The Jewish philosopher Philo had already equated the pre-existent wisdom of God (cf. Prov. 8:22-31, Wis. 7:30, 8:6) with the rational principle underlying all creation, the logos of Stoic philosophy. To the early Christians who saw Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the source of all wisdom, it was a relatively small step to take to reach the higher Christology of the pre-existent Christ who was an agent of creation.
The early Church was thus able to deduce the work of the Father (Gen. 1:1a), the Son (John 1:3, 10, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:21) and the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:1 b) in creation. Both Old and New Testaments also depict God as the sustainer of creation, e.g. Ps. 104, Col. 1:17, Heb. 1:3. Finally, the Church could draw support for the doctrine that the universe was made out of nothing (creation ex nihilo) from the apocryphal 2 Maccabees 7:28).

Eschatology in the Bible
A perennial problem for monotheism has been the reconciliation of the sovereignty of a good God with the existence of natural evil. Although this question does noi have systematic treatment in the Scriptures, there are many passages which indicate that in the fullness of time (the eschaton) God would renew the creation and banish evil: Is. 11:6-9, Ezek. 34:25-27, Is. 35:1-10, Joel 3:18, Hos. 2:18-23. At other times, notably in times of persecution, Jewish writings Look the form of apocalyptic, viewing the future in terms of the sudden intervention of God to vindicate the righteous and destroy the wicked (e.g. Is. 24-27, Daniel). By the time of Jesus the imminent end of the world was a common expectation in some circles of Judaism. A coming new age was a feature of some contemporary Greek thought, so that both Jews and Greeks were expecting a catastrophic change.1
was in this climate that the early New Testament writers adopted the Jewish literary style of apocalyptic. This is seen in Mk. 13, Matt. 24, Lk. 21 and the Book of Revelation, the latter being clearly dependent on the book of Daniel. All these writings look forward to the imminent return of Jesus in power and glory, with the final routing of Satan.
As time went on, however, the Church found itself having te contend with the fact that the parousia (literally «the coming») had not happened during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries as predicted in Mk. 13:30. The writer of 2 Peter sought to explain the delay as being due to God patiently waiting for everyone to come to repentance. The Gospel of John is notably vague in its expectations of the future, emphasising the present life in the spirit (e.g. John 17:3). In the Epistle to the Ephesians, too, the writer looks forward to the unity of all things under Christ without the urgency seen in the Synoptic Gospels. It is difficult to determine what Jesus himself believed as the words placed on his lips in the Gospels could easily reflect the thought of the early Church rather than the genuine views of Jesus. Even if authentic, the apocalyptic passages could reflect the fact that Jesus was a man living in fisrt-century Palestine, rather than a divine revelation of the future. The New Testament scholar C .H. Dodd coined the term “realised eschatology” to describe the view that in one sense the end has already come. In The Parables or the Kingdom Dodd analysed the sayings of Jesus on the kingdom of God and deduced that Jesus' message included the proclamation that the Kingdom had already come; the last days had broken into the present time. According to this view the role of the Christian is the ushering in of the kingdom of God in the present age.
Regardless of the urgency of the coming end what is clear is the presence of a distinct view in the New Testament that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus had cosmic consequences. In the Synoptic Gospels this is represented by the stilling of the storm, and the casting out of demons. In the Gospel of John the opening poem mirrors the beginning of the book of Genesis, leading John Marsh to say “What God was doing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was more than simply calling a new people, a new Israel, to himself, more even than making a new humanity, but actually making a new creation.»2 Finally in the Epistle to the Romans Paul makes the classic statement of cosmic redemption:
« Far the creation was subject lo frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in the pope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bandage to delay and brought into the glorious freedom of the kingdom of God.» (Rom. 8:2021)
The Doctrine of Creation in Christian Tradition
The Church has always been at pains to refute those groups (Gnostics, Manichees, Cathari, etc.) who claimed that the material creation was completely evil. Within Christian tradition the creation has been said to have value for three reasons:
i) it has instrumental value, i.e. for its usefulness to human beings in the betterment of their earthly existence,
ii) it has instructional value: the creation, at least in part, reveals the nature of God (cf. Is. 6:3, Roms. 1:20). For Luther even the more distasteful aspects of creation were of instructional value in portraying God's judgment on mankind,
iii) it has intrinsic value. That the creation has value in itself is represented in some strands of the Christian tradition, e.g. Augustine attacked those who berated the apparently useless aspects of creation, saying:
They do not consider how admirable these things are in their own places, how excellent in their own natures, how beautifully adjusted Io the rest of creation and how much grace they contribute to the universe by their own contributions as to a commonwealth, and how serviceable they are even to ourselves if we use them, with a knowledge of their fit adaptations.3
However, it is true to say that the doctrine of creation has often been eclipsed by an emphasis on human salvation. In Western Christianity St. Thomas Aquinas was to set the Church on course to a more instrumentalist view of creation by asserting that only human and angelic beings were created in a state of grace. The philosophy of Kant was to drive another wedge between God and nature, which became increasingly seen as the exclusive domain of science.
Nevertheless, there are significant sections of the Church which have retained the notion that the whole creation acts as a vessel for God's grace. This «sacramental» view of nature can be found particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and the Religious Society of Friends. It is also a feature of the theologies of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich.

Eschatology in Christian Tradition
Although in Western Christianity the cosmic dimension of eschatology has been largely overshadowed by a human-centred view of salvation, it is actually a deeply embedded feature of Christian tradition. Irenaeus (ca. 130-210) viewed the fulfilment of all things thus:
« The Word being made man, summing up all things in Himself, so that in the super-celestial, spiritual and invisible things the Word of God is supreme so also in things visible and corporeal He might possess supremacy, and taking to Himself the pre-eminence, as well as constituting Himself Lord of the Church, He might draw all things to Himself at the proper time.» 4
Origen (186-253) believed that the material creation carne into being by a cosmic fall and would be restored to its former glory by a corresponding cosmic redemption. In contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) introduced a more anthropocentric and qualified hope for the non-human creation. He said, «the corporeal creature will be rewarded for its services to man», having in mind only the four elements and the heavenly bodies. Catholic thought was to show progressively less emphasis on the eschatological hope for the cosmos until this century and the writings of the French priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He developed an extensive metaphysical system through which hewas able to see God at work in the process of evolution.
The cosmic dimension of salvation has been most evident in the Eastern Church, which has traditionally looked forward to the return of all things to God by a process of apotheosis or deification. A recent Orthodox gathering expressed the hope of creation as follows:
We may say that the cosmos provides the stage upon which humankind moves from creation to deification. Ultimately, however, the whole of the creation is destined to became a transfigured world, since the salvation of humankind necessarily involves the salvation of its natural home, the cosmos.»5
Turning to the Reformation, the emphasis that Luther and Calvin placed on mankind's relationship with God was to set Protestant theology on a course which was to largely ignore the desfiny of the non-human creation. Calvin did, to his credit, affirm the doctrine of cosmic restoration, saying, «God will restore the present fallen world to perfect condition at the same time as the human race.»6
However, this was not a theme that was well-developed in Protestant thought until very recently.

Christian Ethics and the Care of Creation in the Bible
As Rabbi Hillel Avidan has pointed out in this issue, the Hebrew Bible is well furnished with ethical strictures regarding the non-human creation (Ex. 23:4,5,10,12, Deut. 5:14, 20:19,20, 22:6,7,10, 25:4, Lev. 22:27). In the New Testament however, there are no clear guidelines as to how the Christian should relate to non-human creatures. In Matt. 12:11 and Lk. 14:15 the concern which Jesus assumes should be shown to a sheep, ox or ass which has fallen into a pit could be because the animal was of commerciai value rather than worthy of mercy. The same could be said for the giving of water to an ox or ass on the sabbath, which Jesus contrasts with the synagogue ruler's attitude to the healing of a crippled woman in Lk. 13:15.
The real point of these stories is of course a criticism of too legalistic interpretation of Sabbath observance. it is likely that in the period of oral transmission of the Gospel material that the more contentious aspects of Jesus' teaching were preserved. Hence we have sayings of Jesus on food laws, fasting, forgiveness and love for enemies. The fact that no specific teaching on the relationship to the creation exists in the New Testament could be because Jesus held orthodox Jewish views on the matter.
For the early Church, also, it is not clear how they regarded the Jewish Law on the treatment of Creation. Although the writer of Matthew's Gospel views fidelity to the Law as being an integral dart of discipleship (cf. . Matt. 5:17-20), St. Paul held the view that the grace of Jesus Christ had freed him from the Law (1 Cor. 9:21, Gai. 3:25). In 1 Cor. 9:9 he reinterprets the prohibition of muzzling an ox while it is treading grain to refer not to animals at all but to the sustenance of evangelists!

Creation and ethics in Christian Tradition
In Western Christianity St. Thomas Aquinas has had an enormous influence on the ethics of the care of creation. in Summa Contra Gentiles he justified the killing of animals by the claim that «by divine providence they are intended for man's use in the natural order.»
In Summa Theologica he went further, saying that charity cannot be extended to irrational beings on the grounds that charity is a form of friendship and friendship cannot have an irrational being as its object. The best we can do for such creatures is to treat them well as good things we desire for others.8 Fortunately Vatican II redressed the balance by declaring -Redeemed by Christ and made a new creature in the Holy spirit, man can and should love the things created by God. »9
Although Aquinas may have been most influential in the formation of Catholic doctrine, St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), undoubtedly the most popular of saints in the West, has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the masses. What St. Francis presents us with is a care for and solidarity with the whole creation. Celano, one of his early biographers tells us:
He ordered honey and the best wine to be provided for the bees that they might not perish from want in the cold of winter. He called by the name of brother ali animals, though in ali their kinds the gentle were his favourites.» 10
In the Canticle of Brother Sun (11) St. Francis presents us with a beautiful hymn of praise for the creation (or an exhortation of the creation to praise God depending how one reads the Italian). The legends of the life of St. Francis which his biographers recount – the stilling of the swallows, the turning of the fierce wolf of Gubbio, the duet with the nightingale and the sermon to the birds present us with an eschatological vision of nature reminiscent of Is. 11:6f:
the wolf shall also live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together.»
Armstrong12 has pointed out that the legends may be accretions of similar stories from the Celtic saints and Eastern Fathers. Lest we become too sceptical we may note that C.F. Andrews recites a more recent story in similar vein in which a leopard lay down next to the Christian mystic Sadhu Sundar Singh while he was at prayer.13 The attitude toward nature exemplified by St. Francis has been describled as «contemplative mastery.-14 In St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-550) we see a slightly different attitude which the same author describes as «co-operative mastery.» In contrast to the often severe asceticism found in sixth century monasticism, Benedict introduced a form of communal religious life predicated on manual work. By their labour in the fields at a time when manual work was held in low esteem, the Benedictine monks achieved a practical befriending of nature which was to be the forerunner of the contemplative spirit seen in Celtic and Franciscan monasticism.
In the Eastern Church a reverent attitude to the creation is evident, in keeping with its cosmic view of salvation. St. Isaac the Syrian wrote:
What is a charitable heart? It is a heart which is burning with charity for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart; a heart which is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted on a creature.»15
Finally we will consider attitudes to the care of creation in Protestant thought. Despite the anthropocentric emphasis of continental Protestantism, the classical statement of Christian stewardship can be traced to Calvin:
We possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain... let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.»16
The Protestant tradition has also given us Albert Schweitzer's principle of «reverence for life» in which he maintained that attitudes to other life-forms must be based on a mystical relationship.
Turning to Anglican thought, we find a reverence for the creation in keeping with its sacramental attitude to nature. The nineteenth century Anglican theologian F.J.A. Hort wrote:
All Christian life is sacramental. Not alone in our highest act of communion are we partaking of heavenly powers through earthly signs and vehicles. This neglected faith may be revived through increasing sympathy with the earth derived from fuller knowledge, through the fearless love to all things.» 17
It was an Anglican clergyman, Rev. Arthur Broome, who called the meeting that was to set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later to become the RSPCA) which served as a model for similar societies throughout the world. Its first chairman was a Quaker (Fowell Buxton, M.P.) and it was another Quaker M.P., Joseph Pease, who introduced a bill into the British Parliament in 1833 to prevent the improper treatment of bulls and domestic animals. Thus the nineteenth century Quakers put into practice the sentiments which John Woolman expressed in his diary:
that as by his breath the flame of fife was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty towards the least creature moving by his life, or by lite derived from him was a contradiction in itself.” 18

The Care of Creation in the Modern Church
The modem Church is faced with ethical dilemmas which are unprecedented in world history. The human species now has the power to manipulate the natural world to create new elements, new com
pounds, and (through genetic engineering) new organisms. In many cases the lasting effect of these new creations has yet to be discovered. The science of ecology has shown how interdependent and delicately balanced natural assemblages of species are. At the same time studies of anima! behaviour have shown that we are not the only intelligent beings on earth. Other organisms are capable of both physical and psychological suffering.
Then there are the social problems of how to distribute fairly the dwindling natural resources of the earth. Technological progress threatens both wildlife and the livelihood of nations who cannot compete with less sophisticated technology. The sustainability of both people and nature is threatened by war and the commitment of resources to preparations for war. These inextricable links were recognised by the World Council of Churches when it called for a conciliar process on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, at its 1983 Assembly in Vancouver. This reflects the fast that it is out of its social teaching that the concern for creation in the modern ecumenical movement has grown.
To summarise contemporary thought within the Church it may be said that the human species has been endowed with awesome power over much of the earth, which carried with it awesome responsibility. This has been conceptualised as having:
i) A kingly aspect: we are called to be stewards, managers or vicegerents of the creation entrusted to us. Pope John Paul II expressed this as: «it was the Creator's will that men should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble "master" and "guardian" and nota heedless "exploiter" and "destroyer".»19 This role may be compared with that of the kings of Israel who exercised power with responsibility over God's people.
ii) A priestly aspect: we act as mediators between God and the creation. The 1987 Inter-Orthodox Consultation in Sofia expressed this as: «In spirit and body we are called to otter the whole of God's creation back to Him as a sacrament and as an offering cleansed, purified and restored for His sandification of it.» Jurgen Moltmann put it as: «Understood as imago mundi human beings are priestly creatures and Eucharistic beings. They intercede before God for the community of Creation.« 20
iii) A prophetic aspect: we are called to be interpreters of the state of creation. John Paul II talks about an awareness of the duty of the Church as an expert in humanity to scrutinize the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel.»21 Like the prophets of Israel, we are called to point out the consequences of human sin which are detrimental to the eschatological fulfillment of God's intentions for creation.

For the Christian it is through Christ that these roles are fulfilled. In union with him we share his prophetic, priestly and kingly roles. It is in this context and in the context of the eschatological hope for the cosmos as revealed in the Old and New Testaments and in the Church throughout history that a Christian ethic for the care of creation today must be worked out.

1. Dodd, C.H.: The Parables of the Kingdom. Nisbet & Co.. 1935
2. Marsh, J. St. John, Pelican, 1968.
3. Augustane, City of God, 11.22.
4. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3.16.6, quoted by Santmire. H.Paul, The Travail of Nature, Fortress Press, 1985.
5. Orthodox Perspectives on Creatimi. Report on the Inter-Orthodox Consultation in Sofia, Bulgaria on 24 Oct. to 2 Nov. 1987, WCC, Cenava.
6. Calvin, John, Commentary on Romans, 8.21. cited by Santmire, H.Paul, op cit. p. 248.
7. Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Burns, Gates & Washbourne, 1928, p. 92.
8. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.225.
9. Gaudium et Spes, para. 37. Documents of Vatican II ed Walter M. Abbott SJ, Goeffrey Chapman, 1966.
10. Celano, Vlta Secunda, 165, cited by Armstrong, EA., St. Francis: Nature Mystic, Univ. of California Press, 1973.
11. For a discussion of the canticle see Frizzell, L., Biblical Themes in St. Francis' Song of Brother Sun. SIDIC Review, XV, N° 3, 1982.
12. Armstrong, E.A., op cit.
13. Andrews, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Hodder Stoughton, 1937. p. 87.
14. Santmire, H.Paul, op cit., p. 79
15. St. Isaac the Syrian, Mystic Treatises, cited by Lossky, Vladi- rtur. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, CLarke & Co., 1957, p. 111.
16. Calvin, John, Commentaries an the First Book of Moses, called Genesis, Vol. 1, 2:15, Calvin Translation Society, 1848
17. Hort, F.J.A., The Way, the Truth and the Life, Macmillan, 1893, cited in Montefiore (ed), Man and Nature, Collins, 1975.
18. Moulton, Phillip (ed), The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, OUP, New York, 1971, p. 28.
19. Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, para. 45. 15/3/79
20. Moltmann, Júrgen, God in Creation, SCM Press, 1985, p. 190.
21. Pope John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 7. 30/12/87
Acknowledgement: all biblial quotations are from the HolylIble, New International Version, (c) New York International Bible Society, 1978, used with permission.

* Dennis Richards graduated in Zoology at Oxford University in 1977 and was a research student in Ecology at York University from 1977-1979. Since a profound religious experience in 1984 he has devoted much of his time to studying the theology of nature. He is a methodist earning his living as a computer programmer and is presently a part-time student in Religious Studies at London University. In February 1989 he published «Green Theology» (A udenshaw Papers, The Hinksey Centre. Oxford.


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