Biblical Ecotheology – Beyond Proof-texting by Keith Innes

Keith Innes
Keith Innes
Certain well-loved texts are happy hunting grounds for those of us who look to the Bible as the foundation for our convictions and practices in relation to the natural world. As examples we might think of the opening chapters of Genesis; psalms that focus on creation; the closing chapters of Job; certain parts of the Pauline letters and of the Revelation to John.

But large tracts of the Bible do not directly help us to solve complex ecological problems. Nor do they seem to offer easy resolutions for ethical and political disputes arising from environmental issues. So what is the ecologically aware preacher, who also follows a set scheme such as the Common Lectionary, to do – unless she or he saves up ecological preaching for Harvest Festival/St Francis’s Day/the Season of Creation, when the happy hunting grounds open up again?

I suppose that almost any passage can be applied to ecological issues, given a sufficient degree of abstraction – deriving principles so general that any distinctiveness in the original text is obscured. That kind of exegesis shows little justice to the text or respect to the congregation. It might justifiably incur complaints about ‘always dragging in the Green agenda’, etc. So, again, what is to be done?
A basic answer is to remain anchored to the historic faith of the Creeds – which, it will be remembered, begin with God and Creation! But this answer is too general to be much help to most aspiring ‘Green Christians’, or to the preacher struggling to reconcile an ecological awareness with an established pattern of sermon-preparation.

A more fruitful line of approach is to pay attention to the Bible’s ‘big story’. From one point of view this is the story of Creation – seeing ‘Creation’, with Richard Bauckham, as a community of which humanity is part (R. Bauckham, Bible and Ecology. Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010). The big story is also the story of God’s Covenant – the covenant with all creation at the close of the Noah story (Genesis 9:8-11), and the covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:1-8).

The story of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants leads through the Exodus and the possession of the Promised Land, and the judgment of the Exile, and the Return which is a kind of second exodus, to the coming of Jesus the Messiah. St Paul shows that, through faith in Christ, Gentiles as well as Jews can be numbered among the heirs of Abraham. But the ultimate fulfilment of the covenant promises will be the redemption of all creation (Romans 8:18-25). The covenants of God with Noah and with Abraham will thus be fulfilled.

This story is the biblical foundation for all believing, living and service. A Christian response involves every aspect of our lives. Ecological witness and living is one facet of a response of faith to Christ; other elements include social and political responsibility, the proclamation of the Gospel and nurturing believers. No genuine aspect of Christian faith and living is to be seen as an optional add-on.

When the big story of creation, redemption and the Covenant are recognised as the basic framework, new connections and applications begin to appear. Michael S. Northcott relates the messages of the Hebrew Scriptures to the current ecological crisis without straining or undue abstraction. In particular he focuses on the Prophet Jeremiah.

Ecological collapse, local climate change and post-exilic political disenfranchisement are all read by Jeremiah as the consequences of Israel’s neglect of the moral order upheld by true worship… Jeremiah’s theological reading of the collapse of the House of David and the ecological collapse of the land of Israel offers a powerful narrative with which to frame the current ecological crisis.

(M.S. Northcott, A Moral Climate: the Ethics of Global Warming. Darton, Longman and Todd/Christian Aid, 2007, pp. 13, 14).

The relevance of the Scriptures to our contemporary ecological crises does not depend just on proof texts, but on the big story of God’s majestic plan of cosmic redemption.

Keith Innes

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