Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evangelicals and the Environment: Learning from Thomas Payne?

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

It is the time of the year when academic societies dedicated to the study of the Bible meet. The Evangelical Theological Society met last Wednesday to Friday, the Institute for Biblical Research met Friday evening and Saturday morning and the Society of Biblical Literature met from Friday night until Tuesday morning of this week.

The Institute for Biblical Research is essentially the American counterpart to Britain’s Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research. They are both evangelical fellowships dedicated to supporting biblical research. Reflection on the papers given on Saturday morning reminded me of Thomas Paine’s saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

Sandra Richter [MATS '90] of Asbury Theological Seminary read the Old Testament paper on “Environmental Law in Deuteronomy: One lens on a Biblical Theology of Creation Care.” Here’s the abstract, taken from the Institute of Biblical Research website:
The testimony of the Old and New Testaments as a whole is that God is interested in the well-being of the earth and its creatures. The creation narrative initiates this message with the command to humanity to tend and protect the garden; the Nhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifew Testament confirms it with its report of the redemption of the cosmos, and the description of the New Jerusalem. Throughout there is a recurring message regarding humanity's responsibility as the steward of God's creation. This essay investigates that message as it is communicated in the politeia of ancient Israel, the book of Deuteronomy. Here the laws of land-tenure, agriculture, produce, warfare, wild creatures, and livestock are investigated with an eye toward the larger biblical theological message of the Bible. Israel's practice is compared to the norms of its ancient society, and modern parallels are proposed.

Douglas Moo of Wheaton Graduate School read the New Testament Paper on “Creation and New Creation.” Here’s the abstract for his paper, also taken from Institute of Biblical Research website:
The ecological crisis of our times has stimulated considerable interest in the teaching of the Bible about the created world. As evangelical biblical scholars, we have a particular obligation to respond to this crisis by discovering ahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifnd teaching truly biblical perspectives on the created world. In this paper, I pursue such an agenda by arguing that Paul's language of "new creation" cannot be reduced to an anthropological or ecclesiological focus. The OT and second-Temple Jewish background for the phrase, the contexts in which Paul uses it, and its place within Paul's wider theology make clear that the renewal of creation has an important place within Paul's proclamation of the "new creation." Moreover, the phrase bears significant ethical implications, some of which have bearing on our current ecological crisis.

Both papers were well done and I hope we will see them published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research. What does any of this have to do with Thomas Payne? It seems to me that caring for the environment is an area where until now evangelical interpretation of Scripture has failed to provide the leadership it should and we find ourselves following behind the society in which we live. Usually it is assumed that in these cases our interpretation of Scripture has been corrupted by the dominant views of society. In some cases, however, and I think this is an excellent example of such a case, developments in the wider society lead us to go back and read the scriptures again to see if we have not actually missed something that should have been recognized all along. In these cases “following” does not mean following society in some unbiblical direction but being prodded by our environment [!] to reconsider the scriptural evidence and follow it more faithfully than we did before. We may end up wishing we had led the society in these areas but it is better to follow along sometime later than to dig in our heels and continue to neglect an important part of biblical teaching. Better late than never….

Sometimes, of course we must not choose between leading, following and getting out of the way, but between leading, following or standing in the way. That is, sometimes Scripture leads us to take a stand against unjust or unrighteous developments in society and we must be prepared to take bold stands and seek to let light shine into the darkness. We evangelicals have usually been better at seeing where society is going wrong than we are at seeing where it has gotten something right, something that we should have seen all along. It is important to go and get our eyes checked from time to time. Parts of the environmental movement certainly have serious problems, but that should not blind us to the fact that we have been negligent in the responsibilities that God has given us to care for the creation that Christ died to redeem.

The papers by Richter and Moo are important reminders that “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1, NIV). When it comes to caring for it we should lead, follow or get out of the way.

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