Just listening with John Stott | On caring for creation (3/4)
LICC’s founder John Stott called us to triple listening – to the Word, the world, and one another – in our particular time and place. As we do this, we become wise peacemakers: followers of Jesus who embody his just way.
Revd Dr Dave Bookless, Director of Theology for A Rocha International, explores the chapter in Issues Facing Christians Today on ‘Caring for Creation.’
This four-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Just Listening, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
It’s impossible to be unaware of the multiple environmental crises we face today, with daily headlines covering major catastrophes, gloomy scientific projections, and political controversies. We’ve become numbed to the statistics that 70% of wildlife populations have disappeared since 1970, and that the earth is hurtling towards 3–4°C warming this century (rather than keeping within the 1.5°C target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).[i] The massive associated injustices – that those who have done least to cause the problems are on the frontline of the consequences, leading to a global refugee crisis and deepening inequality – are a major underlying source of much of today’s global political, economic, and social instability.
It was very different in 1984, when John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today was first published, with a prescient chapter entitled ‘Our Human Environment’. In it, Stott appealed to Christians to consider both contemporary environmental threats and the biblical perspective on the natural world and our relationship to it. In words that remained largely unchanged through to the fourth edition in 2006, he wrote, ‘In consequence, we learn to think and act ecologically. We repent of extravagance, pollution, and wanton destruction. We recognize that man finds it easier to subdue the earth than he does to subdue himself.’[ii]
Re-reading Issues Facing Christians Today and its evolution from the first to fourth editions, from today’s context 15 years on, several things are striking:
- The chapter’s title evolved from ‘Our Human Environment’ to ‘Creation Care’, perhaps in recognition both that the former is deeply anthropocentric, framing the planet in exclusively human-centred terms, and that the latter reflects a growing acceptance of ‘Creation Care’ in evangelical circles
- The environmental situation has worsened vastly and rapidly
- The political, economic, and social issues involved remain deeply complex and problematic
- Stott’s biblical and theological reflection remained largely unchanged between 1984 and 2006.
This brief blog cannot go into detail on the massive developments in scientific understanding, nor the popular and political contexts and potential solutions that have emerged. Climate change was not even mentioned in the 1984 edition; by 1990 the ‘greenhouse effect’ was included; in 1999 this had become ‘global warming’; and by 2006 there was a substantive discussion of climate change and its impacts. As with all the Issues Facing Christians Today, John Stott sought expert advice and, in the case of climate change, was briefed from the third edition by Sir John Houghton, who Chaired or co-Chaired the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1988 to 2002.
Today, amongst talk of the ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate justice’, and ‘global weirding’, one wonders how John Stott would have reflected on Greta Thunberg, school strikes for the climate, and the Extinction Rebellion movement. My hunch is that, as ever, he would have sought to listen and understand carefully and, whilst opposing violence and instinctively preferring discussion to provocation, he would have agreed with the radical challenge to business, politicians, and the societal status quo. As with issues such as racial justice, nuclear war, simple lifestyle, and global poverty, John Stott knew well that the Scriptures and the example of Jesus are rarely on the side of the rich and powerful.
What does ‘fill and subdue the earth’ really mean?
It is, however, the theological material on creation care in Issues Facing Christians Today that feels somewhat dated and, dare I say, problematic in places. Roy McCloughry, who updated the fourth edition, acknowledges that ‘the theological debate has moved on’ but counters that ‘thousands of people still benefit from John’s wisdom and reflection on these issues’.[iii] That is undoubtedly true, and the remarks that ensue here acknowledge a massive debt of gratitude to Stott’s careful grappling with issues that few other evangelicals were even considering. I had the enormous privilege of spending time discussing creation care with ‘Uncle John’ in his later years, and always found him razor-sharp, eager to engage and learn, ever humble and yet quick to defend what he perceived to be the clear message of Scripture.
Some of the areas where evangelical theological discussion and biblical interpretation have evolved since Issues Facing Christians Today relate to:
- The place of Genesis 1—2 in discussing humanity’s role as ‘the image of God’
- The growth of non-western theological approaches, challenging assumptions about ‘progress’, ‘growth’, and ‘stewardship’
- The nature of hope, and the place of lament and ecological grief, in relation to the future of the planet
- The place of creation care within the mission of the church.
In Issues Facing Christians Today, Stott bases creation care theology squarely on the Genesis 1:28 mandate, with humans uniquely created in God’s image, given dominion, and commanded to ‘fill’ and ‘subdue’ the earth. He describes a hierarchy with humans ‘midway’ between God and other creatures, suggesting that ‘subduing’ includes agriculture, domesticating animals, power from fossil fuels, uranium for nuclear energy, and creating silicon chips. In so doing, he appears to affirm western industrial ‘progress’ without qualification, stating: ‘In all this, in human research, discovery and invention, in biology, chemistry, physics and other spheres, and in all the triumphs of technology, human beings have been obeying God and exercising their God-given dominion.’[iv]
Later, Stott qualifies ‘dominion’, emphasising it is ‘delegated, responsible, and cooperative’, and that, ‘far from exploiting the earth and its creatures, we are to use them in such a way as to be accountable to God and to serve others.’[v] He also recognises, ‘At the root of the ecological crisis is human greed, what has been called “economic gain by environmental loss”’,[vi] and that humanity’s role is to be ‘viceroys’, ‘bailiffs’, or ‘caretakers’.[vii] Nevertheless, in so uncritically affirming industry and technology, the door is left open to assuming biblical support for the western, extractive model of economic growth.
Most contemporary evangelical writers on creation care place Genesis 1:28 alongside Genesis 2:15, where Adam is sent to ‘till and keep’ or ‘serve and preserve’ the garden of God’s creation, and also examine passages such as Psalm 104 and Job 38—39 which qualify human assumptions of hierarchical dominion with what Bauckham calls, ‘the community of creation’.[viii] This recognises our contingency and interdependence. A full biblical overview places human ‘dominion’ and our ‘cultural mandate’ to develop and modify nature within God’s overarching purpose that all creation should worship and glorify God. In practice this means that our shopping and eating, our business, technology and industry, our urban and agricultural landscapes, should all seek not only human wellbeing but the flourishing of biodiversity and ecosystems. Only when all creation is able to sing God’s praise as intended do we truly reflect the image of the God who delighted in all He had made and declared it all ‘very good’.
Learning from non-western voices
Stott inevitably reflects his western background in his anthropocentric approach to humanity’s place within nature. He would, no doubt, have welcomed the irony that his championing of diverse global evangelical voices, through what is now the Langham Partnership, has led to a wealth of Asian, African, Latin American, and indigenous theologians bringing a healthy corrective to western assumptions. Gnanakan,[ix] Ramachandra,[x] Niringiye,[xi] and Padilla de Borst[xii] are amongst many to have taken the discussion further.
The tragic legacy of western imperialism and capitalism on the ecology and biodiversity of Australia, for instance, has been mourned by Aboriginal Christians there, who rightly point out that their ancestors lived sustainably for tens of thousands of years. That was, of course, until European settlers arrived and decimated 80% of Australia’s species in just 200 years.
Today, it is incumbent on western Christians to listen carefully to the voices of our sisters and brothers whose lives are already being devastated by ecological collapse. The cries of the poor and the groaning of the earth are a prophetic rebuke to the overconsumption, waste, and addiction to materialism that clog the spiritual arteries of the West. Living more simply is not just a lifestyle choice. It is a gospel imperative.[xiii]
Stewardship and the second coming of Christ
Others have questioned the term ‘stewardship’ to describe humanity’s role.[xiv] It is not used in Scripture explicitly to refer to creation, and it can suggest a managerial, hierarchical attitude which objectifies nature, and leaves little space for wilderness and biodiversity. Instead, we must recognise creation as an interdependent community of which humans are simply one part. Just as God took Job for a wilderness walk to explore the mystery and majesty of creation (Job 38—39), so our busy, digitally-dominated lives need earthing by the simple practice of spending time in nature. Being still, observing and listening, gardening, walking, and worshipping God within creation, are practices that awaken our sense of wonder and belonging within God’s world. They are a necessary corrective to the illusion that we are separate from nature.
A further critique relates to how little Stott says about environmental eschatology. Some evangelicals, particularly but not exclusively in North America, have excused exploitation and destruction of the natural world by the premise that Christ will destroy the earth on his return. The shoddy exegesis and plain disobedience of our mandate to reflect God’s image towards creation are exposed by theologians such as N. T. Wright,[xv] but it is a strange omission that these views – widespread when John Stott wrote – are not tackled in his writing.
Today, with apocalyptic predictions of climate chaos and ecosystem collapse, the need for clarity with regard to the nature of Christian hope for creation is urgent. Scripture is clear that God’s purposes in Christ include creation’s ultimate liberation (Romans 8:21) and restoration (Acts 3:21). This is all God’s work through Christ, rippling outward from the resurrection victory. Yet, as Christ’s body, we are called to cooperate with God’s Spirit by participating in the ‘groaning’ of creation through lament and grief,[xvi] as well as to anticipate the coming fulness of God’s Kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ through prophetic obedience and practical action.
Although we cannot know exactly how our actions today will become part of God’s future, we seek to build on the foundations of what Christ has already done (1 Corinthians 3:11–14). In our work with A Rocha[xvii] we are often working with damaged landscapes, threatened species, and vulnerable communities, seeking to implement a biblical vision of justice and shalom for all. Sometimes we fail, but often we are told this work is a sign of God’s kingdom. For any of us on our own frontlines, this might involve planting native trees, seeking to work with people of good will to restore and rewild damaged landscapes, minimising the ecological footprint of our businesses and our own lifestyles, taking part in the Eco-Church award scheme,[xviii] or becoming vegetarian (as John Wesley did) in anticipation of the day when all creation will live in harmony in God’s peaceful kingdom of shalom.
A bigger mission
Another area where thinking and practice have developed subsequently relates to the place of creation care within the mission of God’s people. Stott clearly saw it as an ethical and theological necessity, but in conversation I found him hesitant to speak of creation care as mission. However, the foundations John Stott laid within the Lausanne Movement for an integral missiology have now borne fruit. Not only does the Anglican Communion recognise creation care as one of the ‘Five Marks of Mission’,[xix] but also the Lausanne Movement’s ‘Cape Town Commitment’, drafted by Stott’s successor Chris Wright, is clear that individual persons, society, and creation are all ‘included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God’s people.’[xx]
The true scope of Christ’s redeeming work is increasingly being reflected – with the global work of A Rocha across six continents; with the Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network[xxi] convening a global online network of practitioners in over one hundred countries; and with major mission organisations including Tearfund, World Vision, OMF, and CMS all incorporating creation care into their missional practice. Alongside this, local churches are also doing their part, ensuring the gospel is not only preached but demonstrated practically in love for neighbour and care for the earth.
Conservation to the glory of God
Concluding on a positive note, one area where Issues Facing Christians Today was ahead of its time was Stott’s concern for conservation and animal welfare. No doubt his love of bird watching and close links with A Rocha informed his thinking. John recognised the ‘catastrophic decline’[xxii] in wildlife and the threat of ecosystem collapse, and he argued for the intrinsic value of animals, writing, ‘we too must be committed to their welfare. The Bible is quite clear on this point.’[xxiii] Although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had already placed this on the agenda, it was marginal to most evangelicals when Stott wrote, and sadly remains so today. However, the massive recent growth in concern for animal welfare, vegetarianism, and veganism – alongside Attenborough-inspired awareness of biodiversity loss – make this a subject that now demands clear biblical thinking and action.
On the frontlines of our lifestyle and food choices, our travel decisions, our business practices, do we take note that the Lord ‘has compassion on all he has made’ (Psalm 145:9), and that as the Lord’s people we should too? Factory-farmed chickens, climate-affected coastlines and coral reefs, disappearing forests and glaciers, plastic-choked waterways, bulging landfill sites and fossil-fuel polluted cities, are all places where God’s compassion needs to be realised anew.
Overall, despite some inevitable aging, John Stott’s chapter on creation care in Issues Facing Christians Today remains a foundational and passionate call for Christians to return to Scripture in the light of the contemporary ecological crisis. It is, as ever, beautifully and clearly expressed, biblically rooted, and uncompromising in seeking the Lordship of Christ in this, as in every, area of life. Our challenge remains to put it into practice in the places where God has planted us.
Director of Theology, A Rocha International
[ii] John R. W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 1st ed. (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1984), 119–120.
[iii] Roy McCloughry, in John R. W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today [hereafter IFCT] 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2006), 15–16.
[iv] IFCT, 147–148. [Ed. – Dave Bookless was tasked with responding to chapter 5, ‘Caring for Creation’, in IFCT, 135–160.]
[v] IFCT, 154.
[vi] IFCT, 156.
[vii] IFCT, 150.
[viii] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Ecology: Recovering the Community of Creation (London: DLT, 2010).
[ix] Ken Gnanakan, God’s World: A Theology of the Environment (London: SPCK, 1999).
[x] Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra, The Message of Mission (Leicester: IVP, 2003).
[xi] Bishop Zac David Niringiye, talks for A Rocha and Micah Global. See Niringiye’s book, The Church: God’s Pilgrim People (Carlisle, UK: Langham Global Library, 2014).
[xii] Ruth Padilla DeBorst, ‘God’s Earth and God’s People: Relationships Restored,’ Journal of Latin American Theology: Christian Reflections from the Latino South vol. 5, no. 1 (2010), 6–17.
[xiii] See the Lausanne Occasional Paper no. 20 (LOP20), which John Stott edited in 1980, entitled ‘An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle’. Simplicity of lifestyle is necessary for integrity as we share the gospel, announcing good news to and for all creation.
[xiv] Clare Palmer, ‘Stewardship: A Case Study in Environmental Ethics,’ in Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, ed. R. J. Berry (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 63–75. See, also, Ruth Valerio, ‘Why We Are Not Stewards of the Environment,’ Ruth Valerio Blog, January 18, 2021.
[xv] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London, SPCK, 2007).
[xvi] Hannah Malcolm, ed., Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (London: SCM, 2020).
[xxii] IFCT, 141.
[xxiii] IFCT, 152.