John Austin Baker has been Bishop of Salisbury in England since 1982. He is Emeritus Fellow of Corpus Christi College (Oxford) and author of The Foolishness of God and The Whole Family of God. From 1980-82 he was Chair of the Church of England Board of Social Responsibility; and from 1983-86 he was a member of the Standing Commission of Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.
This essay originally appeared as Chapter 1, pp. 9-26 in Charles Birch, William Eakin and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches to Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
This is primarily a religio-historical essay, not “biblical theology.” Both the New Testament and the Old speak the same message, that the whole created order is God’s work and thus is good. God’s care extends to the most insignificant of animals, and to all living things.
Ecological theologies that are shaped by biblical materials require a thorough analysis of the various views of nature held by biblical writers. This essay offers that analysis. It was written more than a decade ago, when theologians in different parts of the world were first realizing the depths of the crisis inflicted upon earth by human exploitation. It appeared in the World Council of Churches’ publication Anticipation [No. 25, January 1979, 40-46].
Ten years later the essay is even more timely. Acknowledging the diversity of biblical perspectives on nature, Bishop Baker shows how the Bible combines concerns for creation with concerns for the transformation and redemption of the world, and how both sets of concerns have profound implications for an understanding of nature. However contemporary ecological theologians appropriate or repent of the various views of nature in the Christian scriptures, an analysis such as this is indispensable for ecologically sensitive vision.
One or two remarks by way of preamble may be helpful in preventing misunderstandings. This paper is descriptive and interpretative; it is an attempt to convey my understanding of the views of nature found in the biblical writers. It is not intended to draw normative conclusions for our own attitude to nature or our treatment of it. It is, therefore, primarily a religio-historical essay, not one in “biblical theology.” The most I have allowed myself by way of contemporary application is to comment at various points on which of our current attitudes and policies seem compatible with the biblical view under consideration, and which do not. Secondly, I have called the paper “Biblical Views of Nature” because I do not believe there is any one view held by the whole range of biblical writers. Any single view which incorporated all their various insights, assuming such a synthesis could be made, would be a theological construct of our day, not something properly called biblical. This is not to say, of course, that there are not themes and beliefs which the biblical writers share in their approach to nature, but the differences are as important as the common assumptions. Again, however, I have allowed myself to draw attention to some of these common (or majority) assumptions, since these can be helpful in any attempt to compare biblical views with those from other sources.
The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, unlike ourselves, did not have an immense stock of universal or semi-abstract terms. While this limited them in some directions — philosophy and metaphysics, for example — it also saved them from a certain woolliness of thought to which we are peculiarly liable. Thus, the lack of a word corresponding to our term was in some respects a handicap: but it also safeguarded them against lumping together things that have no obvious business together and against being taken in by such phrases as “communing with nature,” or “nature, red in tooth and claw.” What they saw when they looked around them was not some undifferentiated global category but particular things — mountains, seas, rivers, crawling animals, oak trees, birds, the sun and moon, and so on. Their nearest approach to an all-embracing word for their environment was ‘erets, the earth. The title Friends of the Earth they might have understood; nature-lover would have required some explanation.
How far are humans involved in nature, and how far have they distanced themselves from it? The basic elements of this question can be found scattered in the Hebrew Scriptures. Humanity is part of the panorama of nature. Psalm 104 places humanity with great artistry in the context of all the other teeming life of the earth. If the human is the final figure to be painted in, and therefore in some sense special or climactic, this is very much understated (v. 23). In the same way, in the older creation story (I) in Genesis 2:4b-25, both man and the animals are formed out of the soil. Here, in a strange fashion, the original fusion of supposed fact and faith-image, after an interim period of being dismissed by the religious mind as purely symbolic and crudely so, becomes in our day once again the vivid symbol for a faith-interpretation of literal fact. Genesis does not go as far as the following quotation, but the germ of the idea is there:
My body was originally formed from an ovum and a sperm in my mother’s body, and this ovum and sperm were formed of matter which came into the bloodstream of my father and mother from the world outside. I am formed of the matter of the universe and am linked through it to the remotest stars in time and space. My body has passed through all the stages of evolution through which matter has passed over millions of years. I have been present when matter was first formed into atoms and molecules, when the living cell appeared. I have passed through every stage from protoplasm to fish and animal and man. If I could know myself, I would know matter and life, animal and man, since all are contained within me (Griffiths, 35).
Nevertheless, even this older creation story is concerned predominantly to stress the distinctness of man from the rest of creation. Birds and beasts may share a material origin with man, and even a divine artificer, but they are not adequate companions and partners for him (v. 20). Only another human being, formed out of his own living substance, can be that (vv. 21-23). It is this unique kinship, so the story claims, which explains the all-surpassing force of the bond between man and woman (v. 24). The superiority of man to the animals is further emphasized by the incident of man’s naming of all the living creatures. This act has two important implications. First, to give a name to some other being is to claim and exercise sovereignty over it. So a parent names his newborn child, an overlord his vassal (2 Kgs 24:17). True, man gives a name to his wife at her first creation (Gn 2:23), implying the male hegemony characteristic of the biblical world, and reasserts his authority over her, in accordance with God’s judicial verdict after their joint offense, by giving her a new name (3:20). But the first of these two names, the generic woman (‘issa), emphasizes that woman is the only creature who belongs in the same category as man (’is).
Second, there is the strong conviction of the whole ancient world that a true name expresses the nature and controls the destiny of its owner (cf. Gn 35:16-18, for example). By giving animals the truly appropriate name for each (Gn 2:19), Adam proves that he has insight into their true nature. This at once puts him on a different plane from them. He is a creature nearer to God than they, for he shares some at least of the insight which enabled God to create them in the first place. So the giving of names to the animals by man is a sign of actual superiority and legitimate authority over them on his part — not the absolute superiority and authority that belong to God alone, but real nevertheless, even if relative. By this act of sovereignty Adam proves that none of these other creatures is a “helper fit for him” (vv. 18, 20); and paradoxically the act of naming by which he claims authority over his wife is also a recognition of her essential equality with him. That this is the correct reading of the story is confirmed by the divine sentence passed on Adam and Eve for their offense in eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because man has rebelled against his proper overlord, God, his own subjects are to rebel against him. The tillage of the earth was once within his strength and its fruits were all beneficial (2:15); now it is to yield less, and that only to unremitting labor, and some of its produce will be worthless for human consumption (3:17-19). Similarly, the woman who upset the order of things by persuading her husband to disobedience loses the relationship of a free subordinate partner and becomes his servant, driven by a compulsive attachment (3:16). In all this, too, it is possible to discern the traits of kingship in the portrait of man, expressed not only through the naming ritual but also in the ancient cultic symbolism of the tending and watering of the tree of life, a sacral duty of the king.
In the later creation narrative (P) in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, man’s supremacy is spelt out categorically, though here, be it noted, the sub-plot of male superiority to the female is eliminated. This is not to be taken as implying equality of the sexes in the writer’s mind, merely that in the context of the relation of man to nature, all human beings share in the distinctive superiority of their species in the created order. In this story man’s supremacy is given technical theological expression, peculiar to this writer and his school. Man is “in (God’s) image” and “after (his) likeness” (Gn 1:26-27). The exact meaning of this phrase has been endlessly debated. There may be influence from the Egyptian formula, according to which the pharaoh is the “image of Amun-Re,” in which case there are viceregal overtones, made explicit in v. 28. But the Hebrew and Egyptian phrases are not truly parallel. Much more certain is the implication that man is the nearest visible pointer to what God looks like (cf. Ez 1:26). The interesting question is: How far is this similarity thought to go below the surface into the realm of understanding and character? To some degree it must do, since it is improbable that any writer would make God give even a shadow of his own unique likeness to a Creature that had nothing in common with him; and this common-sense conclusion is confirmed by the fact that God entrusts to man dominion over his new and wonderful earth and its other inhabitants.
The major difference between this creation story and the older one, so far as our present subject is concerned, is that in Genesis 1 the theme of a common material origin for man and animals is suppressed altogether. The writer seems to have held a view, instanced elsewhere in the ancient world, that the earth and the sea themselves “brought forth” their various inhabitants (vv. 20-21, 2425), but he has combined this with safeguards against any divinization of earth or sea by insisting simultaneously that in fact God himself “created” (v. 21) and “made” (v. 25) the creatures these primordial entities generated. The resultant picture is that all animal life was produced either by the earth or the sea as a result of God’s creative edict and operation. There is a very careful gradation upward from the production of plant life (vv. 11-12), where God issues the creative fiat, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, . . .” but is not said to have “made” or “created” what is put forth. The writer seems to be saying that animal life, whether on land or in the sea, is more marvelous than mere plant life, and, although issuing from the womb of the earth and from the waters, required a special operation of God to bring it about. Then in the case of man we take yet another step upward. Here the divine edict and activity are everything; no intermediate creative source is named. Man is presented as created by God directly, and the question whether he too came from the earth is at least passed over in silence. It is possible that Psalm 139:15 draws on a myth that man was “earth-born.” If such a view was current, then the writer of Genesis 1 has deliberately snubbed it. As for the fact that God is said both to “create” (v. 27) and to “make” (v. 26) man, there do not to the present writer seem to be solid grounds for finding here two distinct theological concepts. As is well-known, the verb ‘bara’, “create,” is found in the Hebrew Scriptures only with God as subject. The significance of this is hard to assess. The word is used only by the Priestly Writer, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Second and Third Isaiah, Amos, Psalms, Malachi, and Koheleth. With the exception of Koheleth, who is late and therefore drawing on an already established usage, all these sources are strongly priestly in character (the Amos instance comes in a formal hymnic doxology which may or may not be the prophet’s own work). Since the Hebrew Scriptures are, to all intents and purposes, the only Hebrew literature of their period that we possess, it is precarious to argue from evidence that bara’ was an exclusively theological terminus technicus with no secular use. Etymologically it has been linked with an ancient South Arabian verb meaning “to build,” and with a verb in the dialect of Socotra meaning “to bear, bring forth.” The absence of more standard ANE parallels suggests that it might have been a fairly esoteric word, entering Hebrew through a specialized channel of some antiquity. (There may just be some significance in the fact that Levi, the priestly gentilic, is also, in one view, related to a South Arabian word for a cultic official.) On balance, the most likely view seems to be that bara’ simply means “to build” or “construct,” but that it came into the Hebrew as part of the sacral vocabulary of priestly circles and may already at its importation have had by convention an exclusive link with the deity. What we are not justified in doing on the basis of known usage is to read into bara’ anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures later metaphysical understandings of the idea of creation, such as creatio ex nihilo, which is not the sense of Genesis 1:1f. and is indeed not found in Jewish religious writing until 2 Maccabees 7:28, where there is undoubted Hellenistic influence. In the end, therefore, there is no reason to see any substantial difference of meaning between “create” and “make” in Genesis 1. The collocation of the two words at the end of the Priestly creation story (Gn 2:3) is a sonorous full close for the stylistic effect. Nevertheless, with regard to our main point it seems clear that by stressing the direct divine activity involved in the making of man, and by omitting any reference to physical stuff out of which man is formed, this writer is intentionally minimizing that which is common to man and the rest of the animal world. The only common bond is the theological one: both are the works of God and created to fulfill the particular purposes he has in mind for them.
It is clear, however, that humanity’s purpose and role is a unique one. Man in Genesis 1 occupies much the same high place in the scheme of things as he does in Psalm 8: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honour. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea” (vv. 5-8). To our ears such words sound very like the most blatant human imperialism toward the rest of nature, as does the divine commission to man in Genesis 1:28; and in modern times they may have fostered such an attitude and been used as a divine “exploiters’ charter” to justify it. But what in their biblical context did they originally imply?
One connection of this type of language is with the institution of kingship. Under the influence of Mesopotamian models, even quite petty kings in the ANE seem to have used cosmic iconography to express their status and authority. Solomon’s throne, with six steps and a curved back (1 Kgs 10:18- 20). symbolized universal dominion; and the embroidery on the collar of the later high priests, which was probably zodiacal and signified the whole cosmos, was almost certainly taken over from royal robes of earlier times (cf. Wis 18:24a). “Kingship came down from heaven,” the ANE believed, and part of the mystique of kingship was that every king was God’s viceregent on earth. One of a king’s most important duties was to ensure fertility and prosperity by his obedience to the gods and by his observance of the yearly rituals. We can trace thinking of this kind at many points in the Hebrew Scriptures; for example, in the famine sent on Israel for the wickedness of Ahab (1 Kgs 17:1); or conversely, in a text like Psalm 72, where unimaginable abundance is to be a mark of the reign of the ideal ruler. The conditions pictured in this psalm — for example, the king’s worldwide sovereignty (v. 8) — certainly never obtained in any actual reign; but the psalm is nonetheless not just a dream of an indefinite future. Verse 1 refers to an actual king; it is a prayer, perhaps used at the coronation, that the vision painted in the psalm may come true in this king’s reign. Primarily, therefore, the “man” and “son of man” of Psalm 8 is also the king, whose sacred office endows him with the resources of divine power not just over his human subjects but over all other creatures within his domain; and it is only his sins which cause this power to be withheld. Later this correlation between righteousness and prosperity was to be democratized, and the magical element confined to the direct action of God; in the final versions of Deuteronomy, for example, the responsibility for righteousness is laid on all Israelites equally, and abundance is God’s reward for this. But there is also another line of development, which continues to use the figure of the individual ruler. As hopes set on actual rulers are falsified, so longing grows more intense for a ruler who will measure up to God’s standards. Under such a king all the anomalies of man and nature will be ironed out, and harmony and abundance will reign. The most famous instance of this hope in Hebrew Scriptures is Isaiah 11:1-9.
By a common feature of human mythical thinking, however, paradise in the end time is thought of as the recreation of a primeval paradise at the dawn of creation, the lost “golden age.” Thus we find a small but significant detail common to both Genesis 1 and the eschatological vision of Isaiah 11: the vegetarianism of the creation. Animals eat grass and man eats grains and fruits (cf. Gn 1:29-30 and Is 11:6-7). It is not possible to decide for certain whether the prophetic vision of the end time is consciously drawing upon paradisal traditions of the Urzeit, or whether a passage like Genesis 1 owes something to the prophetic imagery. Both no doubt derive along their respective routes from a long, complex, and interwoven traditional history. (Awareness of a link between the eschatological fulfillment and the primal paradise story shows in the words of Isaiah 65:25, “and the snake [shall eat] dust,” a reapplication of Isaiah 11:6f.) What we can say is that the basic assumptions of the Israelite view of history work out in two very different shapings of the whole historical sequence in the priestly and prophetic perspectives. Both are acutely aware of human sin and the disruption it has imported into the whole created order. The prophet, however, is interested primarily in the resolution of this discord in the new age God is going to inaugurate, the world in which righteousness is going to be achieved and peace and well-being reign. The priest sees God’s goal as something much more immediately manageable; namely a world where life is regulated by the God-given law, and any margin of failure is covered by cultic atonement. Consequently, though recognizing the imperfections of the present, he does not look for any radical reformation of it. The time — which must be a reality at some point — when God’s ideals are fully realized is in the primal past. Then all things were “good, very good” (Gn 1:31). The future which the prophetic vision desiderates, and the past, which the priestly theodicy presupposes, are, therefore, inevitably very close to one another in character; both speak of a way the world ought to be, but is not. And both link this ideal condition with the right exercise of kingship, either that of the perfect Israelite ruler or of the human species in its cosmic vocation. But the “dominion” promised to man in Genesis 1 or Psalm 8, and the government expected of the ideal Davidic ruler in Isaiah 11, are poles apart from the kind of right to egotistical exploitation that the words superficially suggest to our ears. They are in essence a perfect obedience to the will of God, which respects the divine order in nature and is rewarded by nature’s recognition of man as the greatest of God’s creatures and its provision of a sufficiency of food for all flesh (cf. Ps 145:15f.). If this vision has anything to say to our present situation, it is certainly not to ratify the extermination of species or the ruthless greed that exhausts precious natural resources for short-term profit. On the other hand, it would be overly simple to claim the Hebrew Scriptures in support of our modern study of animal life or the work of environmental conservation, since it is clear that neither priest not prophet thought the order of nature as we now see it to reflect God’s intentions, either original or ultimate, for it.
We referred just now to the general Israelite assumption that human sin was the factor that had disrupted the cosmic order. The Torah expresses in a number of ways the idea that man declined drastically from the standards of the golden age. The story of Cain and Abel (Gn 4) is one; the decline in the normal length of human life, another (cf. Gn 5 with 10:10-26 and 47:9). (This later feature is another link with the late prophetic vision of restoration in Isaiah 65:17-25, already mentioned, where some improvement in longevity to a norm of 100 years is promised: v. 20.) Another mark of decline of more direct relevance to our present subject, is the change in the divine laws of life after the flood. The new start for the human race, embodied in Noah and his family, is marked by a divine covenant, modeled ultimately on the treaties imposed unilaterally in some ANE empires by suzerains on their vassals, consisting of promises by the overlord and obligations laid upon his subjects. The promise is that never again will God destroy all living things by a flood (Gn 9:8-17; the older version of the story has the same promise, though not in covenant form: 8:21-22). It is interesting and important that this covenant is made not just with man but with all living creatures (five times repeated: 9:10, 12, 15, 16, 17) and indeed with the earth itself (9:13). The new laws of life (9:1-7) replace the ordinances established at the creation and modify them in significant respects. No longer is man’s food to be fruit and grains only: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you green plants, I give you everything” (9:3). (This license is qualified for Israel later, when they are granted the higher insight, denied to the nations, of the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” animals. Christianity’s rejection of this distinction is thus of great symbolic importance for her universal mission.) The flood and the subsequent new start for the world are thus used as an opportunity to switch from the theoretic “golden age” to the conditions actually obtaining; and one of the saddest features of this change is the degradation of relations between humans and animals from their first created beauty. The language of Genesis 9:1-2, when compared with the phrasing of 1 :28f., betrays at once the poignancy of the writer’s feelings: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” The language is that normally used of a conqueror slaughtering a routed army or sacking a fallen city. Man has become the enemy of all living things.
The Hebrew Scriptures, then, do nothing to justify the charge that they bless an exploitative, humanly self-centered attitude to nature. They recognize man’s preying on nature as a fact, but characterize that fact as a mark of man’s decline from the first perfect intentions of God for him or as a defect to be eradicated in God’s perfect future. This is in tune with another notable feature of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely that they are permeated with what we can only call an affectionate and admiring approach to nature. We have already noted the supreme example of this in Psalm 104, but instances are to be found in other psalms that are not, as is that one, modeled on already existing foreign poetry (cf. Pss 19:1-6; 65:10-13; 84:3; 136; 148). The same attitude is particularly evident in the wisdom literature, with its many similes from observation of animals, weather, plant life, and so on. We also find a kindred spirit in some of the prophets, where the faithful obedience of nonhuman creatures to the divine will is contrasted with the faithfulness and perversity of men: “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming; but my people know not the ordinance of the Lord” (Jer 8:7). This admiration of nature finds its climax in the book of Job, where the wonders of the natural order are used for a didactic purpose unique to the Bible, and possibly in all ancient literature: to make the point that humanity’s whole attitude to the created order is wrong, because it is totally egoistic, totally anthropocentric. If humans were to stop even for a moment to consider the universe as it actually is, they would see that by far the greater part of it has no relevance to them at all. If God created Behemoth and Leviathan, it assuredly was not for humanity’s benefit (chaps. 40-41); it must have been for some purpose opaque to humans, who can think only in terms of themselves and their situation. Such creatures glorify God in their existence according to rules far beyond our ken; God made them and delights in them for their own sake, not for some ulterior usefulness to us as human beings. The same point is made in a rather different way by drawing Job’s attention to the seemingly idiotic behavior of certain animals such as the ostrich (39:13-18) or to the apparent pointlessness of certain phenomena, such as the brief spring rains, which cause a short-lived carpet of tiny flowers to appear in the desert (38:26-27). Why have flowers where there is no one to admire them? Man did not arrange any of these; if it had been left to him, he never would have done! But God did arrange them. We are left to draw our own conclusions either that God is daft, or perhaps that we with our purely human-conditioned “wisdom” take far too narrow and short-sighted a view to reach any genuine understanding of reality. This is not to say that a sound and sensible way of dealing with nature is not a part of the wisdom appropriate to humans, and as such itself a gift of God (cf. Isa 28:23-29). Not only is this accepted; it is in fact one particular application of a more general principle developed in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is of some importance for our subject. This is the principle that by observing the way in which nature functions we can arrive at moral guidance for human life. In the Hebrew Scriptures this is not taken beyond the most obvious instances; for example, the world is made in such a way that the lazy are likely to starve, and therefore it is wrong to be lazy. But significantly, such conduct is held to be wrong not just in a pragmatic sense but also in a theological one. For, as with everything else in the Hebrew Scriptures, such thinking has an extra dimension, the omni-relevant fact of God. Since it was the wisdom of God that made the world, God must have had some purpose in every detail of its ordering and must therefore have intended laziness to be dangerous. Hence diligent and sensible work can be said to be something God both commands and commends, and sloth something God condemns. There are, then, in the Hebrew Scriptures elements to justify a pragmatic, science-based ethic, at least in some such general terms as these: What by observation we discover really to work best, both for man and for other creatures, is something that loyalty to God requires us to put into practice. Even the point about what is best for other creatures, which may seem very modern, is not without foundation in Hebrew Scriptures in such passages as the law against taking the hen-bird as well as the eggs from the nest (Deut 22:6), or this saying from Proverbs: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast” (12:10), where, be it noted, the quality that makes a man considerate of his working animals is not prudence or good business sense but “righteousness,” a point all the more significant when we remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures one of the marks of righteousness is not mere evenhandedness but active favor to the weak and deprived.
One reason why the attitude in the Hebrew Scriptures to nature is more sympathetic and comprehensible to us than that of some other ancient people is that for a good many of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, though not all, nature had been, to use a modern term, substantially demythologized. An example may clarify the point. In the Ugaritic texts of the mid-second millennium occurs the following passage: “If thou smite Lotan, the serpent slant, Destroy the serpent tortuous, Shalyat of the seven heads
” The name Lotan is the Canaanite equivalent of one that appears many centuries later in the Hebrew Scriptures, and to which we have already referred, namely Leviathan, who is also a sea-monster. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviathan plays a number of roles. In Psalm 74 he is, as in Ugarit, many-headed, and also an enemy of God. (By the process known as historicization his destruction is linked with the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea at their Exodus from Egypt. A similar association of the killing of the sea-monster with the Exodus occurs in Isaiah 51:9-10, but here the monster’s name is Rahab, a mocking name in the Isaiah tradition for Egypt, cf. Is 30:7.) In Isaiah 27:1 we have mention of “Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent,” another very close parallel to the Ugaritic text, but here the monster symbolizes cosmic evil, to be overthrown by God at the eschaton. In striking contrast to both these uses of the Leviathan figure, however, are Psalm 104 and Job 41. In Psalm 104 Leviathan is a pet with whom God enjoys playing in his leisure moments (v. 26); in Job he is the greatest of all God’s creatures, “king over all the sons of pride,” and is cited simply to crush the anthropocentric conceit of Job. If we try to date these passages, we find no steady theological trend. A majority vote of scholarly opinion would probably give this sequence: Psalm 104 — Psalm 74 — Isaiah 51 — Job 41 — Isaiah 27. In other words, running side by side we have the sea as something evil and something good, and the monster as a supernatural evil being, a symbol of anti-God forces, and a magnificent testimony to God’s wisdom and power.
The theological background to this ongoing activity of demythologizing that developed in certain quarters in Israel may be analyzed very crudely and briefly as follows. The basic premise of Israel’s faith is that her God is stronger than anything or anyone, and for this to be so, she found, it was necessary for God to be radically distanced from natural phenomena. Other nations in the ANE had advanced, it is true, well beyond the stage of a simple-minded identification of gods with natural forces or objects. But they were trapped in the morass of polytheism; one of the reasons for this was that the traditional associations of various deities with particular phenomena — the sun, the moon, the stars, storms, vegetation, the sea, and so on — meant that the obvious multiplicity of nature kept getting in the way of their struggles to apprehend the unity of the divine. By a kind of inspired bigotry the Jews, however, succeeded where all others failed. By holding fast to the thesis that God was supreme, in the teeth of all those disasters such as exile and persecution, which seemed to prove the contrary, they found themselves forced to treat everything — nature, humanity, and history — as subordinate to God, indeed as God’s instruments, even when the uses to which God put them proved morally inscrutable. This has two very important consequences for the attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures to nature. First, nature is progressively depersonalized and demythologized: “Who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers” (Ps 104:4). It is no longer the manifestation of supernatural beings but now for the first time actually merits the name nature, though, as we have said, the Hebrew language did not have that concept at its disposal. The climax of this process in the Hebrew Scriptures is the book of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth), which our own outlook on the world finds remarkably sympathetic. Second, following on from this, humans lose their numinous dread of nature. Nature can still frighten them, but only by virtue of being stronger than they in a natural way, from which they may need God to rescue them, but which they recognize as being in principle a strength they can understand and in many cases do something about.
We may summarize the main points emerging from the utterances of the Hebrew Scriptures about nature as follows:
(a) For the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, the determining factors in thinking about nature, as about every other subject, are the all-controlling rights and power of God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Ps 24:1); this can be carried so far even as to have practical consequences for human social organization, as in the principles underlying the law of Jubilee, that no human being can ever own land outright but must be regarded as a tenant installed by God (Lv 25:1-34).
(b) Under this overall sovereignty of God, humankind does have a position of control over nature, which is approved by God and which is meant to be exercised in a spirit of respect and responsibility. Skills and technology of all kinds may be admirable, but the tyrannical or greedy use of human power over nature is a failure deriving from human sin, not from God’s intention in creation.
(c) Humanity’s proper control over nature is made possible because the realization that God is One and Supreme, and therefore transcendent, effectively desupernaturalizes the world, ridding it of superhuman personal power, whether divine or demonic, and placing humans in a position to use their powers rationally in dealing with nature.
(d) Nevertheless, nature is not to be evaluated simply in terms of human needs and interests; to think that it is, is simply a mark of folly. God created the greater part of the world for its own sake — a point that comes home even more strongly to us, with our knowledge of the infinite universe — and wisdom consists fundamentally in recognizing this and the limitations it imposes upon us. Technology may explore and exploit nature, but it will never discover the way to wisdom (Job 28). The truly wise person never imagines that he or she knows fully what God was about in creation.
(e) Since God, however, has a moral and rational character, humans must in the end submit to things as they are, as a genuine revelation, so far as they can grasp it, of ultimate goodness and wisdom. Hence the careful and comprehensive observation of nature will yield indications for human behavior, which were part of God’s intention in creating in the first place and which therefore have the status of moral imperatives for humans. We must ultimately be guided by respect for the intricate character and needs of the natural order.
(f) If we are so guided, then we may hope even to improve the condition of nature, which does not as yet embody God’s character as human beings have come to know this through their communion with him. Nature is not perfect; there is a work of salvation to be done in it, as well as in humanity, as part of God’s eschatological purpose, and this salvation is part of human responsibility for nature.
In contrast with the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament has relatively little to say about nature. The reasons for this are some fortuitous, some sociological, but some are inherent in the nature of the primitive Christian community and its world view. The fortuitous reasons arise purely from the scale and character of the New Testament material. To start with, the volume of the New Testament is only thirty percent of that of the Old. The bulk of its contents falls within a period of forty years, and the outside limits of its dating bracket only a century, compared with the nine centuries between the earliest and latest passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament is the work of a relatively small community with highly selective interests, whereas the Old is the product of a whole nation’s wider issues and situations. Hence it is no surprise to find in the Hebrew Scriptures far greater diversity of literature than in the Christian Scriptures. There is nothing in the New Testament, for example, to parallel the large collections of “observations on life and the world-order,” which we call the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, or its extensive range of liturgical poetry, or the detailed corpus of its laws on what we would regard as secular matters. The very types of material, therefore, in which an attitude to nature might be most likely to be reflected are precisely those missing from the New Testament.
Sociologically, it is hard to escape the impression that most of the New Testament writers are urbanized, compared with the predominantly agricultural orientation of the mind of the Hebrew Scriptures. The gospel material, especially in the teaching of Jesus, with its use of images from nature and husbandry, is nearest to rural society and to the world of the Hebrew Scriptures; James is thought by some scholars to be addressed to the Palestinian church. But otherwise there is little sign in the writers of any attention to nature; their audiences, where known, are almost exclusively urban. While it is true that this would not have been as strong a distinction in the Roman world as it is in our own megalopolitan culture, nevertheless it is probably fair to say that nature was not one of the things in the center of the mental focus of the early Christians; this is partly related to their sociological classification.
There were, however, other reasons, inherent in the earliest church and its gospel that conspired to minimize concern with the question of human attitudes to nature. The first was the approach of primitive Christianity to scripture. For Christians of the first century, the Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible, the only inspired word of God. It might be thought that this would have awakened some interest at least in all the various subjects with which the Hebrew Scriptures deals, but one overriding factor prevented this. The first Christians were interested in the Hebrew Scriptures primarily as a vast source book of predictions, some clear, some enigmatic, of the coming of Christ, his nature, life, death, resurrection, redeeming work, and heavenly glory, and of the mission and destiny of the church. The literal sense of any passage was, in most cases, of much less importance than its prophetic meaning, which had to be disentangled by allegorical or typological exegesis. Nor were they interested on the whole in the total range of an argument or the total message of a book. These are characteristically modern ways of using scripture. For them, every verse, sentence, or phrase could be taken, out of context if need be, and its reference to Christ extracted by what seems to us at times over-ingenious exposition, but which, given the thought-forms of the day, simply sprang naturally from their exuberant and untiring obsession with the gospel. Given this situation, it can be seen that many of those elements in Judaism that we have been considering were effectively blanked off from early Christian consciousness.
Second, there is the fact that the Christian message was initially a gospel of personal salvation. It impinged on ordinary life only at the points of religious belief and personal morality. The criticism of much present-day Christian preaching as being too much concerned with these two things instead of having something to say on corporate or global issues must, if it is to be both honest and helpful, face the fact that in the foundation (and still authoritative) documents of the church precisely these were the overwhelming dominant concerns. Christianity was from the start a religion of individual faith and morals, its corporate consciousness related not to membership of humankind but to membership of the elect community drawn out from the human race by its response to the gospel. The question whether anything which is specifically Christian, yet of wider import, can develop from this basic character is, of course, a general concern of the church today. But it was not ever thus. The members of the church at Corinth received much instruction from St. Paul, but none of it was directed at the matters we are considering. Indeed, when St. Paul does happen to mention a relevant text from the Hebrew Scriptures — “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deut 25:4) — he does so simply to apply it by a kind of allegorical interpretation to the economic support of those who preach the gospel. No doubt St. Paul was not anti-oxen, but he is quite clear that God would not waste valuable inspired wordage on such a subject: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake?” (1 Cor 9:9-10).
The third and perhaps most important of all reasons is, of course, that the earliest Christians felt themselves to be those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). The “form of this world” was passing away, the new age was about to dawn; and it was a serious question what would happen to the bodies of those who had not yet died when the last day came, and so could hardly be resurrected (1 Cor 15:51). Since, therefore, the created order did not have long to run, there was no incentive to develop a constructive long-term attitude to nature as it was. It is to their successors of the second generation that we have to look for most of the modest amount the New Testament church has to say on this issue.
Turning now to this positive side, we note first that the underlying tonality, so to speak, of the New Testament is the same as that of the Old; namely, the created order is God’s work and as such is good. In the gospels God’s providential care extends to the most insignificant of animals, and the beauty of flowers springing up in the fields of Galilee is greater than that of Solomon in all his glory (Mt 5:6 = Lk 12:24; Mt 10:29 = Lk 14:6; Mt 6:28f.). There is no food that is unclean; impurity is a moral quality (Lk 7:19). In his parables Jesus assumes care and concern for animals, even if only in illustration of his main point (Lk 13:15; 15:4; Mt 12:11 = Lk 14:5). In St. Paul the wonders of the creation are sufficient in themselves to lead the open and rational mind to God (Rom 1:20). He accepts, despite his rigorous Jewish upbringing, the insight of Jesus that nothing is in itself unclean (Rom 14:14; cf. Acts 10:9-16, 28; 11:5-10); in discussing the question of meat offered to idols, while respecting the tender consciences of the more scrupulous brethren, he makes it clear that for himself, with his robust Jewish monotheism reinforced by the revelation of God in Christ (1 Cor 8:4-6), there can be no problem, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (1 Cor 10:26-28). This fundamentally affirmative and confident attitude to the creation is reinforced by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (Heb 11:3), which, as we noted, was not available to the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, emerging as it does in the intertestamental period. In the Acts of the Apostles we find the classic position again clearly stated: “The living God made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In past ages he allowed all nations to go their own way; and yet he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows; he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty” (14:15-17). In the same work there are signs of a very positive theology of the natural order developing with the assimilation of the Middle Platonist thought of Hellenistic Judaism: God the Unknowable, who created the world and everything in it, is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move, in him we exist, indeed, “We are his offspring” (17:23-24, 27-28).
Nevertheless, even though the basic tonality, to pursue our metaphor, is that of the major key, it is shadowed from time to time by more somber material in the minor. This is a reflection of the pessimism and anxiety afflicting the Mediterranean world around the turn of the era. In Judaism it found expression in that apocalyptic despair that in certain circles regarded the whole of the present created order as beyond redemption and looked for a cataclysmic irruption of God to establish a new order from which evil would be banished. The wide dissemination in the Near and Middle East at this time of dualistic faiths, the staple of that religious phenomenon loosely labeled Gnosticism, was another manifestation of the same malaise; while in Hellenism many suffered from a “sense of helplessness in the hands of fate” which made them “wonder whether it is possible to be at home in the world at all.” Because the world had become “a hostile, alien place,” they turned to astral cults. “The lower world was not centered in itself, but was under the control of the stars. . . . Hence, in the last resort all activity here is trivial and meaningless, and if it seems to be independent, that is mere illusion” (Bultmann, chap. 2).
These contemporary trends are reflected in the New Testament, partly in vigorous reaction against such beliefs, not by denying the reality to which they referred, but by claiming that in the gospel men were delivered from helpless subjection to that reality. Thus, in such passages as Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8,15, and Ephesians 6:12, Christians are exhorted to enter into the freedom Christ has won for them, and to fight against the domination of the hypercosmic powers. Again, in Romans 8:9-22, Paul seems to echo the Stoic views of the aging of the world, as well as the Jewish apocalyptic conception of its subjugation by evil powers responsible for human sin and the disruption of nature. But he puts all this in a new theological perspective. The passage presents notorious difficulties of translation, but certain convictions of Paul stand out. If God was ultimately responsible for the universe’s state of frustration, nevertheless this was always imposed within a context of hope: “The universe is itself to be freed from the shackles of mortality, and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God.” In other words, the kind of transfigured, eternal existence promised to humanity in the resurrection of Jesus is to have its counterpart in the transformation of the cosmos. The groans of the universe, then, are not the expression of hopeless anguish; they correspond to the cries of a mother in childbirth, they are the pangs of bringing forth a new order. It is true that the general diagnosis of the cosmic situation is not very different from that made by many other sects and schools of thought at the time. The Pauline tradition does not say, “This is rubbish! All this talk of deep-seated corruption and bondage to Fate throughout the created order is nonsense.” On the contrary it is taken very seriously; all that Christianity claims is that it has a better answer to the crisis. But that answer is not a program for redeeming the world of nature as well as the human soul, so that they can then live in harmony to create the kingdom of God on earth as it is, but a spiritual liberation of those men and women who believe in Jesus as the prerequisite of a total remaking of the cosmos by God’s Spirit and in God’s own time. The book of Revelation, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth (21:1), is the logical culmination of this approach.
As time went on a more optimistic note became discernible, chiefly in opposition to the false asceticism characteristic of the dualistic sects. Thus 1 Timothy 4:3-4 commends the right use of God’s gifts in the order of creation. And there was one theological concept in particular in the later New Testament writings that offered a theoretical foundation for a more affirmative attitude to nature. This was the idea of the cosmic Christ. In various forms the conception was developed that the pre-existent divine Christ was himself the divine agent in creation, and that the existence of all things was upheld by him. We find this in such diverse writings as Hebrews (1-3) and Colossians (1:16f.), but the best-known instance is the prologue to the gospel of John (1:1-4). The implications of this idea for a theology of nature are not, of course, worked out in the New Testament itself, but, obscure as the thought-forms undoubtedly are to us, there does shine through them a conviction that the whole universe, could we but see it, is in its essential nature in harmony not merely with some unknown divine power but specifically with God as revealed in Jesus, and that therefore there must be some modus vivendi between humans and nature which, even if not yet attained, is in keeping with all that is best in both.
In seeking for any kind of theology of humanity and nature, the Christian cannot but be grateful that his or her Bible does not consist merely of the New Testament. Even the final point, that of the cosmic Christ, would be virtually unusable were it not built on the world-affirming monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures. But in conclusion can we see in the Bible as a whole insights that are not present in either Testament by itself? What cannot be ignored is the unresolved tension between the theological view that puts all the weight on God’s wisdom in creation and the excellence of the cosmos thus created, on the one hand, and the theology which thinks eschatologically and looks to God primarily to redeem the cosmic order, on the other. The cosmic Christ concept can be used with either emphasis. Teilhard de Chardin employed a version of it eschatologically: in Christ is revealed “le Dieu d’en-avant,” the telos appropriate to an evolving creation, which in humanity has at last attained the self-determining freedom of reflective beings. What the Old and New Testaments together seem to say is that on their understanding of God the character of the primordial and the eschatological must be the same; there must always have been in God from the beginning that which is needed for him to be Savior in the end. Creation and redemption are two expressions of the same Ultimate Being, its power and wisdom and love, even though the “mystery” of this Being was for long ages hidden and has been definitively revealed only in Christ and in the developing understanding of existence of which he is the source. The diptych of the creation story in Genesis 1 and the Isaianic vision of a new and perfected cosmos finds a counterpart in the New Testament terminology applied to Christ: he is “the first and the last” (Rv 1:17); he exists “before everything”; in him “everything was created,” and “all things are held together in him” (Col 1:16f.). But at the same time, “the whole universe has been created for him,” and “through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself” (Col 1:16, 20). He “is its origin,” but also destined “to be in all things alone supreme” (Col 1:18); he is the one who “himself receives the entire fullness of God” (Eph 1:23), but who also descended to our world and ascended again” so that he might fill the universe” (Eph 4:10). Underlying this kind of language is without doubt a view of redemptio as redintegratio, the recovery of an original perfection that has been lost; this is the synthesis that seeks to reconcile the incompatibles of the priestly theology, for which Eden is something lost, and the prophetic, for which it is something that has never been found. Our own greater knowledge of the history of the universe puts us firmly on the side of the prophetic. But theologically we may still find the instinct of the New Testament synthesis significant, that in God himself there is a fullness and perfection that is unchanging and outside space and time, and that it is this which makes God the proper telos for a creation in which the mystery of that fullness is unpacked only through the ages of the evolutionary process, which passes through a series of increasingly critical stages and is now precariously poised in a dependence on the rational response of free creatures. Insofar as the crucial factor for the future of nature on this planet at the moment is humankind, the New Testament claim that the reconciliation of the universe is made possible through Christ has distinctive meaning. In Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, we see certain basic attitudes, which may seem overly simple but are in fact adequate foundations for an approach to nature. The first is a conviction that the natural order need not be written off as in bondage to evil — the apocalyptic view — but contains both clues to the nature of God (Mt 5:45) and conditions within which we can learn to be authentic children of our Father in heaven. The second is his equal conviction that we never shall so learn without a repentance, which among other things learns to trust the existence with which we have been endowed as the gift of one to whom we can say, Abba. These basic attitudes do not assume that nothing can be done to improve nature — no countryman would ever be so silly anyway — but they do presuppose a readiness to learn from nature and to be content with the limitations that even at maximum development it still cannot but impose upon us. The tendency of human beings here as in so many other fields is to say not, “What can be done?” but, “What do I want?” and to seek to extort that from nature, whether it is feasible or not. Our responsibility toward nature cannot be fulfilled simply by developing our positive and creative skills; it also involves denying ourselves and taking up the cross daily. All we can do will not be enough of itself to turn earth into paradise, but that after all is something for which we have to wait upon him who is both Alpha and Omega. The new heaven and earth are not of a kind to be evolved on our drawing boards; all we can hope for here are images and foreshadowings of them.
Bultmann, Rudolf. Primitive Christianity: In Its Contemporary Setting. Trans. Reginald Fuller. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.
Griffiths, Bede. Return to the Centre. Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1976.