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The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation.

Richard Bauckham
Published by Baylor University Press in 2010

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has been working toward a full treatment of Bible and ecology for some years, with articles appearing in a variety of peer-reviewed publications in the areas of biblical studies and theology. It is therefore noteworthy that he has chosen to make that fuller argument for the first time in a book written for a broad audience and not primarily for his immediate colleagues. The Bible and Ecology serves exactly the function that its straightforward title suggests, as a general introduction to the topic. The beautifully clear design of the argument and Bauckham’s lucid writing style make the book suitable for students and other readers with no formal background in Bible and theology. Readers who have already considered the Bible from an ecological perspective will find fresh and valuable insight into the under-worked aspect of the topic, namely what distinctive guidance the New Testament offers for Christian understanding and responsibility in this matter.

Bauckham presupposes an ecological crisis rather than arguing for its existence or presenting any details about its current manifestations. The problem he addresses is a theological one: “a deep crisis in the human relationship to the rest of nature that stems from the modern technological project of mastering nature” (Preface). The crucial point here, and the core argument of the book, is that the Bible represents humans as ineluctably part of nature, or (in the theological terms Bauckham prefers), members with our fellow creatures in the community of creation. The argument is presented in five chapters, accompanied by numerous brief notes, with a useful bibliography and indexes. (A minor flaw is the lack of a list of abbreviations for the notes and bibliography, which is regrettable in a book designed to introduce readers to a field of investigation.)

The fundamental identity of humans as creatures among fellow creatures is the source of Bauckham’s extensive criticism of the stewardship model, adopted by Christians as the chief alternative to a view of the non-human world that is marked by domination and exploitation. The first chapter offers a schematic critique of the stewardship metaphor or mode—indeed the most careful such critique that I have seen. It culminates in the criticism that the model is grounded in just two biblical verses, Genesis 1:26 and 28—not incidentally, the same verses that have been used to defend a stance of domination. The rest of this chapter and the book altogether unfolds from that criticism; much of what follows takes the form of exegesis, at varying levels of detail, of numerous biblical passages that spell out a more complex way (or multiple ways) of understanding how humans relate to living creatures and the inanimate world. For instance, Bauckham proposes that the early chapters of Genesis offer a model of “hierarchy qualified by community” (31). Granting that Genesis 1 represents humans as exercising something like royal authority with respect to other creatures, he cites Deuteronomy to support his insightful comment that the only kind of kingship that the Old Testament approves is in fact one that “subverts all ordinary notions of rule. … If Israel must have a king, then the king must be a brother” (32).

The second chapter treats the text that stands at the farthest remove theologically from Genesis 1, in terms of its treatment of humans within the created order. The “strong medicine” of God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind “put[s] us in our place” (37), turning us from hubris to “the much needed ecological virtue” of cosmic humility (46). Such humility entails a serious reckoning with our vast ignorance, which grows in pace with—or indeed outpaces—our knowledge. The chapter establishes a perspective that is instructive for use of the Bible in many or most matters of contemporary ethical discernment: “Our knowledge of the universe has expanded vastly since Job’s time, but nevertheless the difference is comparatively superficial. For the story of science is that each advance in knowledge merely opens up new areas of mystery” (46).

The third chapter explores the notion of the community of creation as a locus of both praising God and mourning in the presence of God. A variety of texts—Prophets, Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8—are skillfully adduced to show that neither activity is solely or even primarily a human activity. “The non-human creation glorifies God for making it what it is and by being what he has made it” (102), and at the same time, nature’s praise is inseparable from lament, because the degradation of creation is a regular part of human history, as the biblical writers themselves understood. So when Psalm 148 invites every creature to offer praise, “it is praise in defiance against evil … until the day when mourning is subsumed into the eschatological joy of all creation” (102).

Chapters 4 and 5 look at “ecotopias,” the ideal physical environments that the Bible envisions as places that enable the flourishing of humans together with non-human creatures. These include the orchard or forest (!) of Eden, the wilderness, the garden-city of Jerusalem as envisioned by the book of Revelation, and ultimately the Kingdom of God as an image for the renewal of the whole creation; he explores the use of this last image in the Psalms and Prophets as well as in the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and Revelation. These chapters offer memorable reflection on the dynamics of relatedness and otherness that characterize flourishing within the community of creation: “Encounter with the otherness of nature can be a sacrament of encounter with the great otherness of God”—and conversely, the loss of a sense of God in much of the urban west may be related to widespread isolation from wild nature (132).

The predominant focus in the early chapters is on the Old Testament, wherein lies the core of the Bible’s creation theology. Bauckham’s treatment of these texts is broadly based and consistently insightful, although I might raise questions about various (small) points of interpretation. However, my only real disappointment with the book is that there is not more detailed treatment of New Testament texts. I am disappointed, first because Bauckham is certainly one of the most accomplished New Testament exegetes working today, and second because the New Testament has received far less attention from an ecological perspective than have most of the Old Testament passages and books he treats.

Bauckham is surely right when he points out that Jesus (and consequently the New Testament writers) “presupposed the rich creation theology of the Hebrew Bible, which taught, not only that God created all things, but also that God cares generously and tenderly for all his creatures” (164). Yet a number of New Testament scholars consider ecological issues peripheral, irrelevant, or even contrary to its central concerns. Bauckham scores crucial points in arguing the opposite: “incarnation needs to be understood as participation … in the common creatureliness of all creation” (171); Jesus’ resurrection “makes him pre-eminent in the new creation of all things” (172); “reconciliation with God and reconciliation with the rest of God’s creation are … inseparable” (178). Nonetheless, readers, including those new to the subject, might ask for more. For instance, Bauckham reads the stories of Jesus’ mastery of the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41, 6:47-52) as signs pointing toward the new creation; he cites Andrew Linzey that the nature miracles are signs “that in Jesus is a birth of new possibilities for all creation” (168). This seems right, but it begs the question of one of Jesus’ “hard sayings” and signs, the cursing and subsequent withering of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-24), which could be interpreted as foreclosing possibilities. Again, Bauckham argues persuasively for the “ecological character of the water of life and the trees of life in Revelation” (177), and he argues further that the new creation is a renewal, not a replacement, of the present one. If so, then it would be helpful to hear from this scholar, who has written a book on the theology of Revelation, about the eco-theological import of the war in heaven, which purportedly dries up the Euphrates, creates an earthquake and a hailstorm of unprecedented proportions, and causes mountains and islands to disappear altogether (Revelation 16).

From a somewhat different perspective, one might ask also for deeper engagement with the economic and political ramifications of ecological destruction and restoration, in both the biblical and the modern worlds, and for more differentiating comments about various ecological points of view to which he refers: for example, deep ecology and agrarianism. Are some of these more helpful than others for biblical interpretation? Moreover, the endnotes, in which virtually all the scholarly discussion is found, will often leave the biblical scholar or the theologian wanting a more thorough interaction with the relevant literature. In sum, Bauckham has written an excellent introduction to the subject of the Bible and ecology, but those who admire his more specialized New Testament exegesis, or who are concerned about the wider dimensions of creation-oriented theology, may feel some unsatisfied longing.

Finally, a quibble on book formatting. Since the endnotes are essential for theologically informed or expert readers, their placement at the back of the book is somewhat inconvenient, as such readers must turn to them with reference to virtually every page, sometimes several times.

Cite this article
Ellen F. Davis, “The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 89-92

Ellen F. Davis

Ellen F. Davis, Duke Divinity School