Wesley Granberg-Michaelson has been the director of the sub-unit on Church and Society of the World Council of Churches since 1989. Prior to that he was president of the New Creation Institute in Missoula, Montana. He is the author of A Worldly Spirituality: A Call to Care for the Earth and editor of Ecology and Life: Accepting Our Environmental Responsibility and Tending the Garden., Essays on the Gospel and the Earth.
This essay originally appeared as Chapter 2, pp. 27-53, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
God’s covenant as depicted in the Bible consists of promises not only to humans but to all of creation. By showing the relevance of the concept of covenant to the crises now faced by life on earth, Granberg-Michaelson calls for preserving the integrity of creation.
For Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, director of the sub-unit on Church and Society of the World Council of Churches, God’s covenant as depicted in the Bible consists of promises not only to humans but to all of creation as well. In thematizing the concept of covenant and showing its relevance to the crises now faced by life on earth, Granberg-Michaelson uncovers an oft-neglected resource within the Christian tradition. The perspectives and material in this essay originally were developed by the author as part of a consultation by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches exploring the meaning of covenant for justice, peace, and integrity of creation, and as preparation for their World Assembly.
Relating covenant to justice and peace is a task already initially embraced both theologically and in the practice of the churches today. The same, however, cannot be said about the integrity of creation. For the most part, our churches have been inattentive to the growing threats facing the life of the creation. And our theological and biblical understandings often have minimized and ignored the significance of God’s creation when expressing the meaning of Christian faith.
Our challenge, then, is to relate the insights of the Christian tradition to the crisis that today threatens the essential integrity of the creation. In so doing we can discover neglected yet empowering dimensions of God’s covenant. Moreover, we can call upon the members of our church communities to respond through covenanting for the very survival and renewal of the gift given in God’s creation.
God’s Covenant Embraces the Creation
This is the biblical truth that forms the foundation for upholding the integrity of creation and provides the basis for the church’s response to the perils threatening the life of the world.
God’s action as Creator did not consist simply of God making the world. Rather, as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, God chose the creation. Through grace alone, God identified the world as the beloved creation. "For God so loved the world. ."
Within most Christian thought and particularly in Reformed theology, covenant has been understood as God’s promises to humanity. Biblical scholars have revealed the nature of covenant agreements in the world of the Hebrew Scriptures. This background has led to insights concerning the various ways in which covenant was understood by the people of Israel. In some cases covenant promises between God and a people were seen as conditional, and dependent upon appropriate responses. Another tradition came to stress the abiding and unconditional character of God’s covenant. Yet, most all such reflection has assumed that the scope of covenant is only God and humanity.
That limited perspective has contributed to the church’s inattention to the crisis facing the world’s environment. The assumption that God’s promises extend simply to humanity has left little roam for regarding the creation as central to the message of Christian faith. This has allowed an anthropocentric bias to dominate our interpretation of the biblical message. Further, attitudes that sanction the ruthless domination of nature have been theologically tolerated and even strengthened from the view that God’s promises and covenant have no practical relevance for the earth.
Our fresh and hopeful discovery, however, is that the biblical message resounds with declarations of the creation as God’s loved possession and gift. The promises of God, and the work of redemption in Jesus Christ, encompass the whole created order. Moreover, the creation is a partner in covenant with God. In fact, the covenant tradition biblically is linked to the creation from the earliest prehistory to the future promises of a new creation.
Christian faith today faces the critical task of renewing its theological tradition through recovering the central place of creation in the biblical message. The community of believers is confronted with the clear calling to participate in the heart of the struggle throughout the world to uphold the integrity of creation. The realities that jeopardize life on this planet make clear that our response is imperative if our hope in God’s promises is genuine.
A Fundamental Breakdown at the Heart of the Ecological Crisis
At the heart of the global ecological crisis lies a fundamental breakdown in the modern world view of Western culture. Since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Western culture came to assume that humanity had both the right and duty to dominate nature. Objective, scientific knowledge became an absolute value. And the purpose of such knowledge was to exercise power over the creation. The view of life became secularized;we came to understand the world apart from any reference to God. The creation became "nature" -- raw materials that existed only to be given value through exploitation.
The pragmatic benefits of these developments for civilization are remarkable in many ways. Humanity has been afforded protection against many ancient threats to life. However, this mindset now is presenting humanity with more curses than blessings. Technology has become a social drug. We are addicted to technological solutions to any problem. Power seems the same as truth. Thus we split the atom because we could do it. Instead of solving problems, that action gave humanity the godlike power of life and death over created order.
Modern humanity has become too confident in its own power and has trusted far too deeply in its dominance over the creation. It has constructed a world view that places human power and glory at the center of the universe. We have become like gods, masters over creation’s destiny, and ready to demand any sacrifice for our enjoyment -- even the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends.
This same mindset also results in the domination of women by men. A hierarchy of values justifies not only the exploitation of nature but identifies female characteristics with nature; both are regarded as weaker, and become subject to male mastery and oppression. The same mistaken biblical interpretation that justifies the rule of men over women also blesses man’s unbridled exploitation of creation. Moreover, this stance of mastery over nature has justified the oppression by white people of others who, like women, have been treated as "lower" and associated with nature as objects for exploitation.
Therefore, if the Christian tradition is to play some part in upholding the integrity of the creation in our own time, we must recognize the depth of our challenge. Rather than simply acknowledging immediate environmental problems that need remedy, our task is confronting the basic modern mindset that spawns and rationalizes environmental ruin. This requires nothing short of the power of the gospel.
The message of new life in Jesus Christ overturns the values and cultural assumptions that lie at the foundation of modern ecological ruin. We are called to conversion; such conversion frees us from the ways of thought and life that are hastening the earth’s destruction and calls us through the Spirit to live in ways that protect and nourish the gift of God’s creation. The power of the gospel beckons us to confront the economic, cultural, and technological assumptions that are destroying life on earth and offer a vision for upholding the creation.
Early Reformed Theologians and the Universal Scope of the Covenant
Bullinger maintained that God’s covenant did not originate with Abraham but was renewed. Covenant began with Adam and Noah. Zwingli also argued that the covenant was one whole, reaching to the entire human race, and then to the people of Israel through Abraham. Karl Barth underscored the broad scope of the covenant as understood by such early Reformers, and pointing ultimately to the intended destiny of all humanity.
In Calvin, the kingdom of God is portrayed as the special end and goal of the creation. Thus, creation and redemption become united. In this truth. we can understand how humanity’s destiny is fully linked with the destiny of creation itself.
The promises of the covenant, then, find their foundation in God’s steadfast relationships to the creation. Indeed, the first explicit biblical reference to God’s covenant comes in the story of Noah, and establishes the creation, not only humanity, as a partner m the covenant with God. When the creation, with all of its life, is reestablished as Noah and all the animals come forth from the ark, God’s covenant is announced. And it is a covenant with "every living creature," a covenant God describes as "between me and the earth" (Gn 9:13). To underscore the promise, the integrity of the earth’s cycles, "seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night" is also assured (Gn 8:22); as the Lord promises, "I will never again curse the ground" (Gn 8:21). Five times in the ninth chapter the scope of this covenant is repeated, extending to "all living things on earth of every kind." And the rainbow is described by the words of God as the sign "of the covenant between myself and the earth."
In other expressions of God’s covenant promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, the place of creation remains prominent. The Abrahamic covenant (described in Genesis 15 and 17), for example, involves the land, given as God’s gift to his descendants. Indeed, in the later giving of the law, the Sabbatical and Jubilee laws rest on the proper treatment of the land, to allow the just sharing of its fruits. The Mosaic covenant at Sinai, often regarded more as a covenant conditional on the actions of the people of Israel, also encompasses God’s relationship to all the creation. In Exodus 19, before the ten commandments are given, the Lord reminds Moses that "all the earth is mine" (v.5). In the account of the same events in Deuteronomy 10, when Moses sets forth God’s requirements to "fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments" (w.12-13) he then immediately declares, "Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it" (v.14).
Following the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, the tradition of the unconditional covenant also found expression in the promises to the throne of David. Seen initially as God’s guarantee to rule through the Jerusalem kings in the line of David, this covenant finds affirmation in God’s reign over all creation. The justice and righteousness at the foundation of David’s throne rest upon God’s intention to bring shalom, and right relationships, in all the creation. The "Royal Psalms" refer continuously to God’s power to rule and accomplish divine intentions in all the world. Rightly understood, kings were to serve as the servants upholding and preserving such dominion in the creation, because it all belongs to God.
This underscores the links between covenant and shalom. Covenant implies a rightly ordered relationship, whether between people, with God, or with the creation. In the biblical view these relationships become inseparable. Shalom is the vision of the harmony, fulfillment, and fellowship among God, humanity, and the creation; its result is justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. In the understanding of covenant we discover God’s pledge of faithfulness, intention, and grace to bring about shalom in all that is created.
Establishing such right relationships, and a legitimate order, is initiated through God’s identification with the weak, poor, and oppressed. This theme resounds through the pattern of biblical covenants, revealing a movement of solidarity with what is broken, outcast, and rejected. And this pattern extends to the creation. For in the midst of its brokenness and suffering, resulting from "nature" being exploited, we discover that God’s solidarity extends to the creation itself, longing for its liberation and wholeness.
Covenant, then, portrays God’s predisposition toward humanity and all creation. Simply because of the grace of God, all that God has created becomes loved, chosen, and destined for glory.
God’s intention for the creation, underscored by covenant, provides the basis of hope for creation’s destiny. For the people of Israel, such hope became refined and purified through the experience of exile and desolation, which shattered their self-aggrandizing dreams. In this time the vision of the prophets returned again to covenant and creation.
In the later part of Isaiah the prophet sets forth the vision of God’s work of renewal and salvation. And that vision finds roots in the faithfulness of God’s covenant promises. God’s work as creator and ruler over all the earth is sounded with fresh power to the people. And the redemptive work of God results in a cosmic renewal and transformation. God’s righteousness upholds and brings new life to the whole of creation.
Thus, biblical faith comes to place its hope for the fulfillment, healing, and renewal of creation in the covenant promises, which look to God’s redemptive activity. We hear the power and expanse of this hope in Hosea’s words:
And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.
And in that day, says the Lord, I will answer the heavens and they shall answer the earth; and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel; and I will sow him for myself in the land. And I will have pity on Not pitied, and I will say to Not my people, "you are my people"; and he shall say, "Thou art my God" (Hos. 2:18-23).
God’s Covenant Promises Find their Full Expression in Jesus Christ
The depth of God’s grace -- the faithful, long-suffering, sacrificial love of God -- is fully embodied in God’s Son. And in the saving and redeeming work of Christ all creation finds its promise of fulfillment and glory.
Christ announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. This kingdom consists of the full reign of God in the world, a reign that restores right relationship among God, humanity, and the creation. Shalom finds its expression. A new order, divinely initiated, breaks into history. And in this all, the initial promises of covenant with creation and humanity become manifest in the life of the kingdom of God.
Thus, the New Testament builds on this foundation, which integrates creation into the work of God’s redemption. God’s role as creator and sustainer is ascribed to Jesus Christ in understanding the incarnation. John says of Christ, "All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:3). Colossians repeats this description with this worshipful declaration: "In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (1:16-17).
When the work of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ is discussed by New Testament writers, the reconciliation achieved through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ extends to the creation. The Colossians passage, for example, continues by declaring, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things" (1:19-20). This is the same "all things" that were created through Christ. Several other New Testament passages underscore how Christ’s defeat of all the rebellious powers results in the restoration of God’s purpose and intended order in all the creation.
God’s saving activity once expressed legalistically through the commandments and laws from Sinai now is embodied through the one commandment of love demonstrated in the life of Jesus. And the foundational scope of the covenant, embracing the whole of creation, is taken up in Christ, the source and reconciler of all things, who initiates the new creation. This is celebrated in the eucharist, the feast which acknowledges our belonging to this new covenant relationship as the body of Christ and opens all life to the promise of new creation.
Response to God’s Covenant Actions
The initiative of God’s covenant actions always asks for response. Faced with the crisis confronting the life of creation itself, the church today is compelled to offer to the world a decisive commitment for preserving the integrity of creation as a witness to the promise of God’s love. In covenant, the solidarity of God with the created world is declared as an everlasting promise. What is chosen as God’s own must now be embraced in solidarity by God’s people.
The church’s response to creation is rooted, above all, in gratitude. Even in the midst of the calamitous destruction inflicted on the created order by human sin, we still can receive God’s creation as the gift of grace. This grace sustains all life, momentarily, through air, water, land, and energy. It opens humanity to the possibility of fellowship with God and to the potential of justice and peace in relationship to others. From God’s covenant with creation we discover and receive all life as gift. And our response is one of joyous gratitude and praise to God’s glory.
Such gratitude compels resistance. As the church, our response to God’s covenant with creation must certainly place us in stalwart resistance to all that breaks the integrity of creation, all that treats the earth as an object for our possession rather than God’s gift, and all that subjugates the creation to destruction and ruin rather than saving the creation through fellowship with it. Such resistance brings the power of the gospel to convert the most fundamental attitudes and values in modern culture, which has assumed that the creation can be severed from its belonging to the Creator, and which has placed its highest goal as the industrial and technological exploitation of the earth rather than its preservation.
In Romans we read that all creation longs for liberation from the bondage imposed on it by human sin. And in this longing the creation looks to "the full manifestation of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19). For the creation and the children of God are to share together in the kingdom of glory. This is the divine intention of God’s covenant action through history.
The church is called to participate in the liberation of creation through entering into fellowship with it in response to God’s grace. And here, the struggles for the integrity of creation and for justice and peace all become indivisible parts of one whole.
The creation hungers for its transformation and freedom promised by God. In its suffering, the creation is waiting for the church -- waiting for the people of God to embrace, protect, and renew the world as God’s well-loved gift. Creation exists to give God glory and honor. Its possession by God is the ground of its final destiny and sustains the church’s response in covenant for a renewed creation.
Threats to Survival
By the end of this century the greatest threats to the survival of life on earth may well arise from the destruction of the God-given environment. What can guide the church in its response to this momentous crisis? How can the church witness to God’s covenant promises intended for the creation?
First, the church must identify concrete issues threatening the integrity of creation, which must be addressed, and cannot be ignored, for the sake of enabling the ongoing gift of life. The following are examples, interrelated to one another.
The Greenhouse Effect
A dramatic rise in the temperature of the earth over the next few decades, which scientists now say could occur, would result in global catastrophe second only to nuclear war. The church must join with other groups to urge governments of industrialized countries to reduce the burning of fossil fuels by at least fifty percent in the next twenty-five years. Alternative, renewable energy resources throughout the world must be encouraged as essential to global stability. Sustainable agriculture less dependent on chemical fertilizers -- another cause of the greenhouse effect -- must be aggressively promoted. In short, the churches’ mission to the world must now include the saving of the world’s climate and atmosphere.
The devastation of tropical forests throughout the world poses critical threats to peoples within the third and fourth worlds, increasing erosion of irreplaceable soil, creating greater water shortages, and contributing to drought and desertification. Further, deforestation is the chief cause of species extinction, as well as adding to the greenhouse effect. Curbing such deforestation, and planting trees, can be a vital form of the church’s witness for preserving creation’s integrity.
The contamination of atmosphere, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels, has already destroyed forests and lakes, as well as human lungs, in many regions of the northern hemisphere. Crossing political and ideological barriers as it is carried in the atmosphere, acid rain is spreading through many parts of the globe. The church can encourage international cooperation as well as changes in energy policies, which are required for preserving air that gives life rather than death.
The issue of global population cannot be considered in isolation from questions of lifestyle and consumption of resources, cultural realities, and prospects for economic justice. But neither can the population issue be ignored by the church. Even with reductions in the maldistribution of global resources, the unprecedented expansion of population over the next few decades will stretch the carrying capacity of the earth to its breaking point. Population growth must become an ethical and theological issue addressed by our churches.
Unlimited Economic Growth
Industrialized societies continue to believe that they can grow economically without any limits. The so-called developing societies often aspire to these same goals. Yet, scientific analysis, as well as practical common sense, make clear that the limits to the earth’s resources impose constraints on the level of economic development. The church must encourage the search in modern societies for new understandings of economic life that are rooted in ecological realities. Biblical wisdom underscores the inescapable harmony between human economic welfare and the integrity of the created order. Our world today stands in critical need of such a prophetic and saving message.
Yet, before our churches consider the nature of our witness within society concerning the integrity of creation, we must examine the shape of our own lives as believing communities. The initial steps we must take in response to God’s covenant with the creation are those that would bring our own corporate lives more faithfully under the Lordship of Christ’s reconciling presence, upholding all the creation.
Some concrete measures can be suggested. Our churches own large amounts of land, for church buildings, camps, and schools as well as for investment purposes. How well do we demonstrate the gift of God’s creation on lands that are in our control? What form of witness do we make through the ways in which we tend, nurture, and cherish those portions of land entrusted to us?
Similarly, our buildings, including their architectural design and their use of energy, are expressions of our witness. Certainly there are vast differences of geography and wealth among the member churches in the ecumenical family. Yet we all share the responsibility of relating our material Structures to our spiritual beliefs. In a time when the actual survival of many people will depend on radical shifts in the world’s patterns of energy consumption, churches can be salt and leaven within their societies through the ways we conserve and use energy resources.
Beyond any doubt preserving the integrity of creation will require dramatic changes in the lifestyles particularly of those living in the North and the West. And the changes in personal patterns of consumption by Christians need the support of the gathered church community. Responding to God’s covenant with creation will deepen our understanding of being called into the covenant community, living in love, interdependence, and sharing with our sisters and brothers in Christ’s body.
For any of these responses to take root in the lives of our member churches, a strong emphasis must be given to the biblical and theological teaching we offer at all levels concerning God’s creation and humanity’s relationship to the environment. Though these themes resound in the Bible, we have ignored and neglected them. Heresies have often taken their place. We deny the goodness of the material world and suppose that spiritual realities can be separated from worldly existence. We assume that biological life suffers under God’s curse rather than God’s blessing, and we fail to see how ongoing decay and death in the natural world bring forth new life. We don’t believe that God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ reaches out to the whole creation or that new life in Christ can restore a healing relationship to the earth. In all these ways and more our churches stand in need of God’s word and truth.
God’s covenant with the creation offers the world the true hope for the preservation of its life and invites the response of God’s people. Preserving the integrity of creation must become for our churches in the years ahead a central part of our witness and life in our societies.