I am just now working through Richard Bauckham’s 2011 book Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology, and I am already grateful for his thoughtful and careful consideration of the biblical teaching about creation and how humans relate to the natural world where they live. I usually do a quick scan of a book before reading it in full, so I know that I won’t be able to follow him in every conclusion (perhaps more on that later), but I want to honor him for his humble tone and interest in drawing a broad Christian consensus on this difficult and controversial topic.
He begins by looking at Gen 1:26-8, the biblical passage that is usually the first to be referenced in discussions on this subject, and using it as a springboard for the rest of his treatment. The themes that he draws from Genesis 1 and other texts, I am glad to see, give a useful foundation for consensus-building.
This authority in creation, given by God to humans, has traditionally been known as the human dominion over creation. By virtue of their creation in God’s image, humans in some sense represent within creation God’s rule over his creatures. Very often this has been taken to mean that the rest of creation has been made by God solely for human use. Very often in the modern period It has been taken to mandate the scientific-technological project of achieving unlimited domination of nature.
In reaction against that, Christians sensitive to the ecological problems of recent decades have insisted that this is not a mandate for exploitation, but an appointment to stewardship. In other words, the whole human role in relation to other creatures is one of care and service, exercised on behalf of God and with accountability to God. Creation has value not just for our use, but also for itself and for God, and humans are to care for creation as something that has inherent value. That understanding of the human dominion as stewardship has, I think, been enormously helpful to Christians thinking out what God’s purpose for us in the present crisis.
However, I think we need to go further. Christian focus on this one text in Genesis 1, even when it is understood in terms of stewardship, is problematic for two reasons:
1. The neglect of the rest of Scripture. We need to read this text in its proper context in the rest of Scripture. That means both attending to ways in which the rest of Scripture provides important indications of how we should understand the dominion, and also recognizing that there are other key themes in Scripture that illuminate our relationship to other creatures. We need to take account of these other themes alongside the idea of dominion. They cannot be simply reduced to the idea of dominion.
2. What has been deeply wrong with much modern Christian reading of Genesis 1:26-8 is that it has considered the human relationship to nature in a purely vertical manner: a hierarchy in which humans are simply placed over the rest of creation, with power and authority over it. But humans are also related horizontally to other creatures, in the sense that we, like them, are creatures of God. To lift us out of creation and so out of our God-given enbeddedness in creation has been the great ecological error of modernity, and so we urgently need to recover the biblical view of our solidarity with the rest of creation. (3-4)
Bauckham goes on to lay out several biblical themes that ought to govern any thinking about the relationship between humanity and creation: human solidarity with the rest of creation, living in theocentric creation, ruling fellow-creatures (hierarchy qualified by community), ruling within the order of creation (sharing the earth), preserving creation, and letting creation be.
At first glance, each of these themes seem biblically defensible, though the devil will always be in the details of application. In any case, as Christians, we should be willing look for points of consensus in controversial subjects, and the points above seem as good to me as any.