Steven M. Studebaker is assistant professor of systematic and historical theology at McMaster Divinity College, where he holds the Howard and Shirley Bentall Chair in Evangelical Thought, and author of the new book From Pentecost to the Triune God: A Pentecostal Trinitarian Theology, the latest volume in the Pentecostal Manifestos series.
In this post, he examines creation care as “a way to follow Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
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I spent one of the best weeks of my life fly-fishing for salmon on the Alagnak River in Katmai National Park. Why was it special? Primarily because it was a trip my father and I had dreamed of doing together since I was a little kid. It was good we did it then. A few years later he suffered several strokes that made another trip like that impossible.
The Alagnak flows into Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. It is one of the most remote and unspoiled wilderness areas left in the world. Salmon fresh from the Bering Sea fill it throughout the summer. Bear ply its gravel bars for the same salmon. Spruce and willow trees thrive along its banks. Bald eagles perch in their branches. Summer berries and flowers carpet the spongy tundra.
Today the Pebble Partnership (a multinational conglomerate comprised of Northern Dynasty Minerals, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, and Mitsubishi Corporation) intends to open Pebble Creek gold and copper mines in the Bristol Bay watershed. Plans include two mines, a massive open pit and an underground mine, near Lake Iliamna in the headwaters of two major Bristol Bay drainages, the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. The operation also would include a mill, the largest earthen dam on the planet (spanning over four miles and reaching 700 feet in height) to contain billions of tons of waste, and a 100-mile road through pristine wilderness to transport the ore yield to Cook inlet. To believe that the Pebble Creek mines will have no negative ecological impact requires a level of faith beyond that of the most holy Christian saint.
Should Christians care about any of this? And if so, why?
Many Christians embrace an environmentally friendly lifestyle, even as they struggle to see how it relates to their Christian life. Conventional wisdom says that Christians, after all, should give their energies to things of eternal consequence, not to those of this world. Evangelism has eternal value. Environmental sustainability efforts will not outlast the world that is passing away. Tending the earth is not the concern of Christian ministry and the kingdom of God. The affairs of the world — and thus efforts to save the earth — are not those of the saving work of Christ, whose “kingdom is not of this world.” They are not the substance of the Christian life. Planting trees and preserving wetlands distract Christians from saving souls, building the church, and supporting the approved moral and social issues — or so, at least, it would seem.
But maybe this view is wrong.
Is there a biblical and theological basis for considering the care and preservation of the earth as part of discipleship? I think there is.
Theology should deal with the real world. It should address the world of our lives. If talk of the Trinity, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is nothing more than a fanciful flight into some intangible Never Never Land, why bother?
The biblical creation story begins in a garden, lush and vibrant. It paints a picture of a thriving and harmonious world. God’s first command to human beings is not to build a temple and perform a rigorous routine of religious calisthenics. God commands his human charges to care for creation. God calls them to be stewards of creation — to cultivate and care for the earth (Gen. 1:28). Taking care of the earth is not an afterthought for Christians. It is their first calling.
The Bible also presents an earthy vision of the Holy Spirit’s work. God’s Spirit fosters and renews human life. The resurrection of the body is the Christian hope. The same Spirit is also at work throughout the cosmos. The Holy Spirit will ultimately “liberate creation from its bondage to decay” and usher in the New Heaven and the New Earth (Rom. 8:21; Rev. 21:1). The Spirit’s redemptive work encompasses all of creation, not merely the human soul. When Christians engage in creation care the work of the Spirit in them connects with the work of the Spirit in creation. Creation care, no less than the traditional disciplines of Christian formation, is a way that the Holy Spirit empowers Christians to foreshadow and participate in the ultimate renewal of creation. Creation care is just as much a way “to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and “keep in step with the Spirit” as praying, attending church, and fasting (Philippians 2:12). It is a way to follow Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
For more on this topic and how the doctrine of the Trinity relates to it see my recent book From Pentecost to the Triune God (Eerdmans, 2012), which includes an entire chapter devoted to the subject of creation care.
Click to order Steven M. Studebaker’s From Pentecost to the Triune God: A Pentecostal Trinitarian Theology.