An Ethical Framework

By Tom Rowley, A Rocha USA Executive Director

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re sure to get there. When it comes to environmental conservation, that’s exactly where the world is: huge seemingly intractable problems and little consensus on how (and even whether) to address them. More troubling still are the studies showing that Christians in the USA are less likely than non-Christians to care about the environment—what the Bible refers to as God’s very good creation.

My colleagues in the secular environmental arena are no less concerned about the current state of affairs. In their influential 2004 report, “The Death of Environmentalism”, Shellenberger and Nordhaus concluded that,

“What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to re-think everything. We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical and make proposals that are essentially technical.”

What’s the problem? What’s missing? We could talk about a lot of different obstacles—things like politics, mistrust of science, bad theology, and, of course, greed–but at the root is a lack of understanding about the ownership, value and proper management of the environment. Or in another words, the lack of an appropriate ethical framework for conservation.

In his book, Between Heaven and Earth: Christian Perspectives on Environmental Protection, Fred Van Dyke–friend, former A Rocha board member and now head of Au Sable Institute—argues that biblical values offer the best (most effective) ethical framework for conservation. He does that by asking five key questions any conservation ethic framework must address, and providing biblical responses to them.

1) What is the value of the non-human environment? Is it intrinsic—meaning it has value in and of itself–or simply utilitarian—valuable only in relation to human use? (See Feb 18 and 24 blog posts.)

  • God created it and called it good irrespective of use by humans. Day by day he called each part of creation prior to creation of humans.
  • God owns it. The Earth is the Lord’s.
  • It all brings him glory. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork.

2) Is there and what is the basis for human obligation toward the welfare of the non-human environment?

  • God created man and woman in his image and put them in the garden to work and tend it or to protect and serve it (abad and shamar). Humans alone have this obligation and it is one of servanthood not kinghood.

3) What value or purpose is being advanced by the work of conservation?

  • Obedience to God, which glorifies God, benefits humans and nonhumans alike, and witnesses to the Lordship of Christ.

4) Is there a standard of “environmental virtue” that should guide human behavior toward the environment and, in the process, contribute to the formation of ‘better’ people?

  • The short answer to this is yes, and the standard is one of “moral scrutiny”. Does our behavior toward the environment glorify God and advance His Kingdom work? Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord.

5) What is the fate of the Earth, and does our conservation activity align with this ultimate fate?

  • The answer to this question is the most hope-filled, which distinguishes a Christian approach to environmental conservation from all approaches. We have hope—the hope of new heavens and new earth as the culmination of Christ’s reconciling work. Not new earth as in replacement, but as in renewed, rejuvenated, restored.

To this last answer, I add NT Wright’s words from Surprised by Hope:

“The point of the present kingdom is that it is the first fruits of the future kingdom; and the future kingdom involves the abolition, not of space, time, or the cosmos itself, but rather of that which threatens space, time and creation, namely, sin and death.”

We have the framework. We just need to act upon it.

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