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Volume 2/Issue 1/February 2016

Does the Old Testament “Authorize” A Creation Care Mission of the Institutional Church? Examining Christopher Wright’s Claims

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John Wind is Assistant Professor of Theology at Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, CO. He also served in Asia with his family for 8 years and holds a Ph.D. in Christian Missions from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

Abstract

Christopher Wright proposes that Christians, including the institutional church, have a God-given mission for creation care, finding his main scriptural support for this claim through his “paradigmatic” approach to the ethical application of Scripture, in particular in regard to OT ethics. Wright also calls for a broadened understanding of biblical authority which understands a mission of creation care as a responsibility “authorized” by the historical realities to which Scripture refers even in the absence of more explicit NT commands for the New Covenant community to pursue creation care. This article critiques both Wright’s expanded view of biblical authority and his paradigmatic application of the OT. This article concludes by providing an alternative interpretation of the scriptural data concerning creation care.

Christopher Wright is one of the leading evangelical voices advocating creation care. Through his many publications, through his work with the Lausanne Movement, and through his position as John Stott’s successor as head of the Langham Partnership International, Wright’s views exert a wide influence. Concerning creation care, Wright believes “justice towards the earth and entire cosmos forms an integral part of the mission of the church.… [The church] must include the ecological sphere within its scope, and see practical environmental action in general and aggressive responses to the climate crisis in particular as a legitimate part of the Christian mission.”[1] For Wright, creation care is an expression of compassion because “to care for God’s creation is essentially an unselfish form of love, exercised for the sake of creatures who cannot thank or repay us. It is a form of truly biblical and godly altruism.”[2] While Wright is not the first to argue for the importance of creation care,[3] what sets Wright apart from many other advocates is his in-depth engagement with the biblical text, the Old Testament (OT) in particular, in seeking to provide textual warrant for his claims. A key aspect of Wright’s OT-based argument is his paradigmatic hermeneutic for doing biblical ethics, a model which includes a broadened understanding of biblical authority. Wright argues that the weight of biblical authority does not merely rest behind the explicitly-commanded mission tasks of Scripture but also behind unstated mission tasks, true responsibilities “authorized” by the realities to which Scripture points. 

This article will consist of three parts: first, an overview of Wright’s paradigmatic approach to OT ethics and his broadened understanding of biblical authority, with a special focus on how these two components undergird his belief in a biblically-required creation care mission. Second, this article will critique Wright’s paradigmatic approach and his broadened understanding of biblical authority, demonstrating that Wright goes too far in claiming extensive Scriptural warrant for a mandated creation care mission of the institutional church today.[4] Fundamental to this paper’s critique is the argument that the conscience-binding, ethical authority of Scripture is better understood as wedded more closely and narrowly to the intentional, textually-encoded meaning of the human authors, rather than broadened in the manner Wright advocates. Wright’s expanded understanding of biblical authority is foundational to his expanded vision of the institutional church’s God-given mission (including a robust responsibility for creation care), while a more limited view of how Scripture functions authoritatively cautions us against enlarging our understanding of the mission of the church beyond clear textual warrant. Finally, this article will propose an alternative understanding of what Scripture teaches about creation care, including the corresponding responsibilities of Christians toward the natural world.

1. Wright’s Paradigmatic Approach to OT Ethical Authority

Even a cursory reading of Wright’s body of work confirms his own testimony concerning “the great love-affair of my life with the ethical study and relevance of the Old Testament.”[5] How does Wright develop ethical applications for today from the OT? He employs a “paradigmatic” approach,[6] using the term “paradigm” in both the senses proposed by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to Wright, in the first sense, Kuhn uses “paradigm” to refer to a “wider conceptual paradigm,” an “overall matrix of beliefs, values and assumptions,”[7] what could also be labeled a “worldview.” In the second sense, Kuhn uses “paradigm” in a more narrow way as “a concrete model, a practical, experimental exemplar of the beliefs and values” of the wider paradigm.[8] For example, when a chemist working within the broad paradigm of the discipline of chemistry produces a model (or narrow paradigm) to solve a particular problem within chemistry, other chemists later apply the successful model (or case study) to additional problems within the eld of chemistry.[9] These chemistry case studies or problem-solving models function “paradigmatically” for other chemists as they address additional problems within the overall discipline of chemistry.

How does Wright apply Kuhn’s two senses of “paradigm” to his interpretation and ethical application of the OT? First, Wright sees the OT as providing an overarching worldview or broad paradigm.[10] Second, within this larger worldview, OT Israel is a particular application of that worldview to a certain time and place — a “case study” as it were. OT Israel as a case study or narrow paradigm provides us with “actual experimental results” and with a “historical exemplar of what [the OT worldview] meant in practice for one human community.”[11] This illustrates Wright’s conviction concerning the indivisibility of God’s particular will for OT Israel in history and God’s universal will for mankind throughout history. Though Wright resists making simplistic transfer from the particular to the universal, he does assume that "the laws and institutions God gave to Israel accurately reflected, within the particular historical and geographical context, his desire and design for human life in the world."[12]  Wright sees this connection between historical Israel and God's universal purpose for humankind as an "important hermeneutical principle [which] helps to unlock the relevance of the Old Testament for our own ethical construction."[13]

Is Wright’s paradigmatic approach to OT ethics a case of reading back into the OT what was not originally intended by the authors? Did the OT authors expect readers outside of the original historical context of OT Israel to use OT Israel as a paradigm for application to their own lives and contexts? Is Wright’s paradigmatic approach a creative imposition on Scripture or does it reveal how the OT was intended to function all along? In answer, Wright is convinced that Israel was originally “intended by God to be an ethical model or paradigm and this was part of what it meant for them to be ‘a light to the nations.’”[14] Therefore, according to Wright, the concept of Israel as paradigm is “not just a hermeneutical tool devised… retrospectively, but, theologically speaking, was part of God’s design in creating and shaping Israel as he did in the first place.”[15] While Wright clearly claims that this paradigmatic application of Israel to the reader’s context was God’s original intent, it is not as clear whether or not he believes that this paradigmatic usage was also the conscious intent of the human authors of Scripture. As will be addressed further below, a crucial question in assessing Wright’s paradigmatic approach is the debated hermeneutical issue of the role of the consciously- and textually-encoded intent of the human authors for determining the authoritative meaning of Scripture. 

Wright outlines four basic steps for moving from the paradigm of Israel to contemporary applications. First, the reader must acquire a general and broad understanding of OT law and its various categories and functions.[16] Wright’s main point is that the reader must begin by seeking to “step inside [the OT world] and understand the law from Israel’s own social perspective” and in so doing determine “the different ways that law functioned in Israelite society, the different kinds of law that operated, and the different patterns of judicial administration.”[17] Step two is to turn from the OT law broadly considered to the analysis of particular laws and institutions.[18] This analysis includes understanding the relationship of individual laws to the overall system of law and the function of those individual laws within the society, an analysis requiring in-depth engagement with “the fields of Old Testament economics, politics, sociology, [and] legal history.”[19] Aer attaining an understanding of Israelite society and law, including the function of individual laws, step three seeks to clarify the objective or objectives of those individual laws.[20] Finally, step four transfers the understood objectives and functions of particular laws from within the context of OT Israelite society to the new context of contemporary society.[21] According to Wright, this process of translation from ancient to modern is an attempt to achieve the underlying objectives of OT laws within society today or, at the very least, to “bring our own social objectives to point in the same direction” as OT Israel’s.[22] Through this four-step, paradigmatic ethical application, Wright seeks to establish a framework or outer boundary for our behavior even while permitting “a degree of variety and disagreement among Christians over the details of ethical decisions and social policies.”[23]

We should note that Wright’s paradigmatic approach is not his only rationale for creation care from the OT. For instance, Wright reasons, “if the greatest commandment is that we should love God, that surely implies that we should treat what belongs to God with honor, care, and respect. This would be true in any human relationship. If we love someone, we care for what belongs to them.”[24] In addition to such reasoning, Wright also believes Genesis 1–2 (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 in particular) gives specific commands for humans to engage in creation care, commands whose validity is not contingent upon his paradigmatic approach. In Wright’s interpretation, Genesis 1–2 teaches creation care as “the first great responsibility that God laid on the human race,”[25] a never-rescinded duty which means that “ecological concern and action” must be seen as “a valid part of biblical Christian mission” today.[26]

Wright also integrates this “first great responsibility” into his paradigmatic approach. According to Wright, Genesis 1–2 presents the original broad paradigm of the proper relationship between humanity and the natural world as God intended it. Wright believes the church today must apply these same creation principles as an accurate reflection of the consistency and continuity of God’s purposes throughout history. In addition, this continuity of purposes is not merely drawn between the Old Covenant people and the New Covenant people but is also continuity in God’s purposes for all humanity, including humanity presently outside the New Covenant. Therefore, Wright believes that OT Israel is intended to function as an ethical model for Christians to apply in secular society today: “What God did with Israel in their land functions for us as a model or paradigm from which we draw principles and objectives for our socio-ethical endeavor in secular society.”[27Though Wright acknowledges the asymmetrical relationship between Israel as “a redeemed community” and present day secular society as a mixture of believers and unbelievers, he holds that Israel as a model was rooted in unchanging, universal “creation ordinances.”[28Consequently, Wright believes that Christians today should not hesitate to apply OT ethics to secular society using his paradigmatic approach.

In his major work on OT ethics, Wright explains his overarching goal as “outlin[ing] the broad contours of the worldview that lies behind the wealth of laws and exhortation in the Old Testament, as well as the moral values implicit or explicit in the narratives, worship and prophecy. Old Testament ethics are built upon Israel’s worldview.”[29] He goes on to identify God, Israel, and the land as “the three pillars of Israel’s worldview.”[30] Wright presents these three key elements as existing in a “triangle of relationships,[31] with the three corners labeled “God,” “Israel,” and “the Land.” Then, to demonstrate the relationship between the particular “case study” of OT Israel and the universal biblical worldview, Wright places the triangle within a larger triangle. The apex of the larger triangle is also labeled “God.” But the other two corners of the larger triangle are labeled “Humanity” (corresponding to “Israel”) and “the Earth” (corresponding to “the Land”).[32]  According to Wright, in the biblical worldview, just as God was centrally concerned with OT Israel’s relationship to the covenant land, so God continues to care deeply about all humanity’s relationship to the environment of the whole earth.

Wright’s formulation of the broader worldview of OT Israel corresponds with step one in his four-step paradigmatic process. In steps two and three (looking more closely at individual laws within the Israelite legal system), Wright also finds paradigmatic support for a creation care mission as he seeks to “make positive use of Israel’s comprehensive and detailed laws and institutions concerning the distribution and use of land in our own efforts to think biblically about economic and environ-mental ethics in our day.”[33] Consequently, for Wright, the specific ways Israel related to the covenant land apply to the way Christians should relate to the earth, including the kind of economic solutions Christians ought to support and advocate in the political sphere. As specific examples of how the paradigm of OT Israel might apply to economics and politics today, Wright argues for equitable land re-distribution, wealth re-distribution, and the re-distribution of other natural resources within contemporary society.[34] Additionally, according to Wright, even as OT Israel was intended to be a nation which paradigmatically embodied justice for the weak and defenseless, so creation care is a warranted expression of the OT paradigm of justice, since the earth itself is weak and defenseless before human abusers thereby making our defense of the earth against environmental degradation a legitimate expression of OT justice.[35]

While Wright does believe that Genesis 1:28 provides a direct divine command for humans to engage in creation care, through his paradigmatic approach to OT ethics, he also wants to rethink the whole idea of textual authority and re-examine the question of how the OT functions authoritatively in developing biblical ethics.[36He believes that Christians “need a broader understanding of revelation”[37] as well as a more flexible and “dynamic understanding of the authority and role of the Bible in a post-modern world,”[38] an understanding that goes “beyond merely direct, positive textual commands,”[39] such as Genesis 1:28. Wright is convinced that the church exhibits “a misleading tendency to equate the terms ‘revealed and authoritative’ too exclusively with the category of command.”[40]

Instead of seeing biblical authority for action as strictly attached to the commands intended by the human authors, Wright argues, “The authority of the Bible is that it brings us into contact with reality—primarily the reality of God himself,” and secondarily with other realities.[41] In turn, these various realities “generate authority that governs our responsive behavior.”[42]  Wright further elaborates:

Reading and knowing Scripture causes us to engage with reality  [original emphasis]. That in turn functions to authorize and to set boundaries around our freedom to act in the world. … these realities authorize our action in mission. They make our mission appropriate, legitimate and indeed necessary and inevitable. The authority for our mission flows from the Bible because the Bible reveals the reality on which our mission is based. I have three realities in mind, which are rendered to us first by the Old Testament Scriptures and then confirmed in the New. In these biblical texts we encounter the reality of this God, the reality of this story, and the reality of this people.[43]

Though a subtle distinction, Wright locates textual authority not primarily in the text itself but in the realities (God, the story, God’s people) to which the text points. Through this broadening of how the Bible’s authority functions and how God reveals his will, Wright then claims to establish grounds of biblical authority for mission tasks (such as creation care) that even if not explicitly commanded in Scripture are nonetheless “authorized” by the realities referred to in the text.

Another way Wright describes these textually-referenced realities is as “indicatives,” which he says are “simply a statement of reality” and the ground for explicit biblical imperatives, like the Great Commission.[44] Because of this, Wright believes that one “cannot read biblical indicatives without their implied imperatives. Nor can [one] isolate biblical imperatives from the totality of the biblical indicative.”[45] Wright seems to say that biblical indicatives (or referential realities) contain “implied imperatives” that mandate certain actions, even in the absence of explicit imperatives. In this way, the underlying indicative reality of OT Israel sufficiently “authorizes” a Christian mandate for ecological activism, even in the absence of any direct NT commands. 

2. Critique of Wright’s Paradigmatic OT Ethical Authority for Creation Care

Wright’s paradigmatic approach contains multiple aspects that are commendable. His method is a good-faith attempt to construct a biblical theology encompassing both testaments. Wright seeks to read Scripture as a unified story expressing an overarching worldview, including his particular specialty of in-depth analysis of the OT. He reads the Bible as an authoritative text which reveals God’s will for human ethical behavior today. Wright correctly turns to authoritative Scripture as providing the proper framework for addressing important contemporary issues facing Christians, including environmental abuse. Whether or not one agrees with Wright’s perspective on creation care, Wright has made a significant and influential contribution to the conversation among those seeking to engage environmental issues from a biblical worldview.

Despite the strengths of Wright’s paradigmatic approach, his argument for a creation care mandate for the institutional church today suffers from notable weaknesses. While there is a certain logic to arguing that if we love God, we should love what he loves, including the natural world, nowhere in Scripture do the human authors make this particular argument for the necessity of creation care. Likewise, though it is true that the natural world cannot defend itself against human misuse, Wright expands the definition of “social justice” too far when he posits the environment as a legitimate object of social justice. The concept of “social justice” in the Bible is better limited to describing the relationships between humans within society and does not encompass human relationships with the environment.

While the textual basis of these two just-mentioned arguments is questionable, Wright’s argument for a Genesis 1–2 creation care command is more defensible. Though the precise meaning of Adam and Eve’s commission in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” and “have dominion over” the earth and the animals is heavily debated, at least one aspect of this mandate seems to be the maintenance of a proper relationship between mankind and the natural world.[46At the same time, the mandate for Adam and Eve to rule as God’s royal representatives clearly involves more than mere creation care, particularly requiring them to live in God’s presence in the unique setting of the garden, relating to God as his dependent children and as his priestly worshippers. [47Nonetheless, it is reasonable to understand the mandate of Genesis 1:28 as including the role of managing the created world.[48]

More debatable is the question of whether or how this mandate applies to the institutional church today. In Wright’s paradigmatic approach, the Genesis 1–2 creation care mandate represents an unchanging assignment given to all humanity, fully renewed after the Fall in the Noahic Covenant. For Wright, OT Israel with her responsibilities toward the covenant land is then but one particular expression within history of the creation care mandate incumbent upon all humans, including the institutional church today. One possible objection to this paradigmatic argument is that it flattens the relationship between the covenants, insufficiently recognizing discontinuity between the covenants and the covenantal shifts that take place during the progressive unfolding of God’s covenant plan.[49] The validity of Wright’s paradigmatic application of the mandates of Adam and Israel to the church today is therefore dependent upon his overall conception of continuity between the covenants. When greater discontinuity between the covenants is recognized or when the New Covenant is understood to supersede the previous covenants by fulfilling them,[50] a paradigmatic transfer of the responsibilities from earlier covenants into the New Covenant is more questionable. In contrast to Wright, who appears to assume the legitimacy of the wholesale paradigmatic transfer of covenant responsibilities from one covenant articulation to the next, this paper argues that, because of the major NT covenantal shift, any still-valid responsibilities from previous covenants must be explicitly reaffirmed in the New Covenant rather than merely be assumed as transferrable. Unlike Wright, the silence of the NT concerning an explicit mandate for Christians in this age to rule over and care for either the whole earth or a covenant land cannot be dismissed simply by noting the presence of the mandate in earlier covenant administrations. Therefore, Wright is mistaken to assume that Adam’s and Israel’s God-given responsibilities toward the natural world must necessarily be included, with little change, in the present responsibilities of the New Covenant community.

Wright’s inattention to covenant boundaries also plagues his attempts to find OT texts addressing environmental abuse. For example, Wright claims that Hosea 4:1–3 [51“provides the most direct example” of the “strong moral link between how humans behave on earth and the state of the earth itself—for good or ill.”[52] Wright presents these verses as an example of “the underlying scientific connections between human action and biological effects”—that is, the same kind of negative biological effects we observe today as the result of human environmental abuses such as pollution.[53] The weakness of this argument is that Hosea 4:1–3 is not presenting general principles for all the earth. Instead, the passage is speaking of the unique covenant land which received physical curses as a consequence of Israel’s covenantal unfaithfulness rather than as a result of their polluting. The languishing of the land in Hosea 4:1–3 is not the result of the impersonal laws of cause-and-effect built into the natural world where environmental abuse inevitably leads to environmental spoilage. Instead, the languishing of the land in Hosea is the result of the Lord’s direct, causal judgment upon Israel for their covenantal unfaithfulness. Wright is unconvincing in arguing that Hosea 4:1–3 is addressing the issue of environmental abuse.

The objections proposed so far to Wright’s argument for a creation care mandate are all based upon the inadequacy of Wright’s textual evidence. Yet, in light of his re-casting of how the Bible functions authoritatively in determining ethical application, are these objections dismissible as rooted in faulty presuppositions concerning the function of the text? As noted earlier, for Wright, the key question seems less, “What authoritative meaning did the human authors intentionally communicate through their written text?” and more “What is the authoritative meaning of the historical realities to which the text points?” But does biblical authority function as that which is wedded more narrowly to the author-intended textual meaning or is it wedded directly to the authority of God’s reality (and other realities)—potentially exceeding the bounds of explicit author-intended textual meaning? Millard Erickson agrees that “God himself is the ultimate authority in religious matters. He has the right, both by virtue of who he is and what he does, to establish the standard for belief and practice.”[54] So far, he agrees with Wright. But Erickson goes on to argue that God “does not exercise authority in a direct fashion, however. Rather, he has delegated that authority by creating a book, the Bible.” [55Though Wright would no doubt affirm Erickson’s statement, Wright’s belief that the reality behind the text “has its own intrinsic authority”[56] tends toward some allowance for the direct functioning of the authority of the referential realities (God, the story, the people) in a way which is not strictly limited by the more narrow authority attached to the author-intended meaning of the text. [57This is essentially the move Wright makes when he claims that the Bible authoritatively demands creation care as a vital part of the institutional church’s mission—even though the explicit evidence in the OT for such a mandate is at best minimal [58and is completely lacking in the NT. It is better to follow Kevin Vanhoozer who argues that we ought clearly to maintain “the connection between authors and authority” [59as “the author originates meaning,” and therefore “it is the author who has authority, author’s rights.” [60Rather than expanding the ethical authority of Scripture beyond the author-intended meaning of the text, it is wiser to maintain with Kaiser and Silva that “only what is directly taught in Scripture is binding on the conscience.”[61] If Scripture does not give an explicit command for creation care to the institutional church today, we are not at liberty to impose one.

3. An Alternative Proposal

After questioning the validity of Wright’s arguments for a creation care mission of the institutional church, this article will now propose an alternative view of a Christian’s responsibility toward the natural world in this age, consisting of six principles. First, as mentioned earlier, the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1–2 is fundamentally about humanity’s relationship with God as priestly vice-regents and only derivatively about humanity’s relationship with animals and the rest of the natural world.[62] Any Christian responsibility for creation care must then be seen as secondary to the mandate to multiply the “royal priesthood… [which] proclaim[s] the excellencies of [God]” (1 Pet 2:9).

Second, the renewed mandate of the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 9 is an altered mandate, a Fallen Creation Mandate. The commands to “be fruitful and multiply and ll the earth” are renewed, but there is no longer a command to “subdue” or “have dominion” over animals and the earth (9:1). This reveals the changed relationship of humans to the natural world aer the Fall. Instead of a harmonious dominion over the animals (2:19–20), animals now fear mankind (9:2), and mankind is allowed to kill and eat the animals (9:3). As well, animals kill humans, as indicated by the command to kill any animal that kills a human (9:5). Additionally, man no longer lives in the garden of God’s perfect presence and provision, but instead must toil in the cursed ground to bring forth food (3:17–19). As soon as God makes a covenant with Noah (a second Adam), Noah immediately plants a garden (a vineyard) and falls into sin in a way reminiscent of the first Adam (nakedness revealed) (9:20–22). Rather than exerting dominion over the earth, the fruit of the earth (grapes), ironically, exerts dominion over Noah (drunkenness). Finally, man’s new attempts to establish dominion lead to God’s judgment at Babel (11:1–9), much in the same way that fallen man’s attempts at dominion before the flood (4:16–24) also led to God’s judgment (6:1–7). As we consider Christian creation care in light of this fallen age, the reality of this Fallen Creation Mandate should temper our expectations for the dominion that we will be able to establish over the natural world.

Third, as Wright notes, the Fallen Creation Mandate of Genesis 9 is a mandate for all humanity, believing and unbelieving, part of the Noahic Covenant made with Noah and all his descendants aer him (9:9). The universal Noahic Covenant is then not a covenant of salvation and special grace with a particular people (like the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants), but is instead a covenant of preservation and common grace with all people.[63] The Fallen Creation Mandate is therefore a responsibility for all humanity, not merely Christians. This should cause us to be more hesitant than Wright in assigning to the institutional church a distinct mission of creation care. The institutional church’s unique mandate is the New Covenant ministry of salvation and special grace. While individual Christians (along with all humanity) share Noahic Covenant responsibilities (responsibilities which arguably include creation care), we should be hesitant to assign the mission of creation care to the institutional church.

Fourth, contrary to Wright, the laws regulating Israel’s Old Covenant relationship with the Promised Land do not relate as directly as he claims to the church’s New Covenant relationship with all the earth. New Covenant members do not now have a unique and separated holy land. While the new heavens and new earth will one day provide Christians with that holy land, at this point in salvation history, Old Covenant land laws do not provide the unequivocal imperative that Wright claims they do for Christians to care for the present earth. Rather than an authoritative mandate for creation care, the OT laws provide wisdom and implied principles that should inform our relationship with the natural world in this age rather than offering binding prescriptions for the institutional church. As well, since human society today is necessarily a mixture of both those inside and outside the New Covenant, we should be more reluctant than Wright to apply OT laws, such as land redistribution, in a more direct fashion to secular society today. Those covenant laws were established originally with the Israelites alone, not with all humanity.

Fifth, the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 is only partially reflected in the NT. Jesus Christ, the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45), clearly expressed dominion over the natural world (and the spiritual realm) during his earthly ministry. As Jesus departed the earthly realm, he also definitively established the truth that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). But to what extent is Christ’s dominion over the natural world extended to his people in this age? When Christ sent out the twelve and the seventy in his name (Luke 9–10), he gave them his authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick. In the book of Acts, after Pentecost, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles continued to express authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick. But in the later NT era and in the patristic period, the authority and miraculous signs and wonders of the apostolic ministry (displaying in part a heightened experience of authority over the natural world by at least some believers) were increasingly revealed to be characteristics of a unique era in salvation history and of a foundational apostolic role. Scripture reveals the ongoing authority and dominion of believers in this post-apostolic age to be more limited to the spiritual realm and the realm of the institutional church (see for example the “keys to the kingdom” in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18), clearly not extending to dominion over all human society or the whole natural world. Yet, the NT also reveals that the authority and dominion of believers will, after Christ’s return, extend to all creation. Paul teaches that Christians “will judge the world… [and] angels” (1 Cor 6:2–3). The glorified Christ of Revelation promises that in the future kingdom of God, he will give believers “authority over the nations… [to] rule them” (Rev 2:26–27). Believers will “sit with [Christ] on [his] throne,” even as he “sat down with [his] Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). But the NT shows that this universal dominion of believers is a future, and not a present, reality. The NT picture of believers’ limited dominion in this age, along with the lack of a NT command for the institutional church (or individual Christians) to care for creation, should caution us against proclaiming, as Wright does, an unequivocal, biblically-warranted, institutional church mandate for creation care.

Sixth, the repeated NT command to “do good to all” is the best option for an appropriate category within which we can rightly recognize a Christian responsibility for creation care. Paul commands us: “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the house-hold of faith” (Gal 6:10). I lived for over seven years of my life in a horribly polluted Asian megacity. God originally fashioned the world as a place for human habitation, but as I experienced first-hand, human misuse and folly can make the natural world an inhospitable place to live. Though Christians put their ultimate hope for creation in the new heavens and the new earth (Rom 8:19–22), we are right to love our neighbor and to seek to do good to all by advocating for wise policies of creation care in this age. But our responsibility to care for creation as Christians is “as we have opportunity,” a command to do good whose weight and specificity does not match the magnitude or directness of Wright’s claims for an obligated creation care mission of the local church. In contrast, the New Covenant community’s primary responsibility toward the world is to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2), a command extensively repeated in different ways throughout the NT and a unique mission clearly assigned to the institutional church.

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 [1] Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Earth Is the Lord’s: Biblical Foundations for Global Ecological Ethics and Mission,” in Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective , ed. Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 235.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative  (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 418.

 [3] A few of the many advocates of creation care include: James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?  (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000); C. Rene Padilla, “Holistic Mission,” in A New Vision, A New Heart, A Renewed Call: Lausanne Occasional Papers From the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization, ed. William Claydon (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 11–23; Andrew F. Walls and Cathy Ross, ed., Mission in the Twenty-first Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission  (London: Darton, Longman &Todd, 2008).

[4] Though Wright does not make a distinction between an “institutional” church mission of creation care and the environmental activities of individuals or groups of Christians in society operating apart from the structures and direct leadership of the local church (a distinction in keeping with Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the “institutional church” and the “organic church”), he nonetheless clearly includes both the “institutional” church and the individual Christian in his understanding of the obligation to pursue a mission of creation care. This paper will employ the term “institutional church” since it helps clarify the issue of whether there is a difference in the creation care responsibility of the institutional church in contrast to the creation care responsibility of individuals or groups of Christians when functioning apart from the direct oversight and operations of the institutional church.

[5] Christopher J H. Wright, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” Themelios 19 (May 1994), 4.

[6] Others, like Walter Kaiser, are hesitant to adopt a paradigmatic approach to Israel as a model for the nations because, according to Wright, they are reacting to the extremes of theonomy. See Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament: A Survey of Approaches,” Tyndale Bulletin 43.2 (Nov 1992), 206. In comparison to Wright, Kaiser’s approach to formulating ethical applications from OT law codes (employing what Kaiser labels a “ladder of ab-stractions”) represents what can be seen as a more qualied and restrained application of OT law to contemporary ethics.

[7] Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Authority of Scripture in an Age of Relativism: Old Testament Perspectives,” in The Gospel in the Modern World: A Tribute to John Stott, ed. Martyn Eden and David F. Wells (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 43.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 46. This approach seems to parallel the pre-critical understanding of Scripture which “saw in the biblical narratives a coherent world in its own right that had a reality of its own and into which the biblical interpreters have to t their own lives.” John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Christopher J. H. Wright, “God or Mammon: Biblical Perspectives on Economies in Conflict,” Mission Studies 12.2 (1995): 148.

[14] Wright, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” 4.

[15] Wright, “The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament,” (Nov 1992), 228.

[16] Ibid., 229.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 230.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 231.

[24] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God  (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 116.

[25] Ibid., 127.

[26] Wright, The Mission of God , 425.

[27] Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 175–176.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 17.

[30] Ibid., 19.

[31] Ibid.

 [32] Wright, The Mission of God, 394–395.

[33] Wright, “God or Mammon,” 149.

[34] Concerning land redistribution, Wright argues: “[The OT system of land tenure] is itself a reflection of God’s wider original creation purpose for mankind on the earth. That all people should have access to some of the resources of the earth that is God’s gift is a basic human right which takes priority over the unchecked accumulation of private ownership. Israel, as God’s redeemed, ‘model’ community, were given an institution designed to protect this principle in their own stewardship of their land. So we may justifiably take it as a moral paradigm and apply its force as a ‘lever’ in Christian-based arguments for land reform.” Wright, God’s People in God’s Land , 177. Concerning wealth redistribution, Wright believes on the basis of the OT paradigm, “If in our day the rich — individuals or nations — cannot be persuaded [original emphasis] to make the sacrifices necessary to enable a more equitable deal for the poor, we face the moral and political question of whether they should be compelled  to do so, whether by radical revolutionary means or by the more gentle process of redistributive taxation,” ibid., 179. Concerning resource distribution in general, Wright is convinced that “The moral principles of the jubilee are therefore universalizable on the basis of the moral consistency of God. What God required of Israel reflects what in principle he desires for humanity; namely, broadly equitable distribution of the resources of the earth, especially land, and a curb on the tendency to accumulation with its inevitable oppression and alienation.” Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 207.

[35] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Mission and God’s Earth,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th Ed., ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2009), 32.

[36] Wright, Old Testament Ethics , 442.

[37] Ibid., 451.

[38] Chris Wright, “Christ and the Mosaic of Pluralisms,” in Global Missiology For The 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 76.

[39] Wright, The Mission of God, 52.

[40] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 450.

[41] Wright, The Mission of God, 53.

[42] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 469.

[43] Wright, The Mission of God, 53–54.

[44] Ibid., 59.

[45] Ibid., 61.

[46] Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 220.

 [47] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 194–216.

[48] There are some who continue to resist allowing for any explicit creation care mandate in Genesis 1–2. Cyril Rodd, for instance, argues: “It needs to be asserted as forcefully as possible that the question of safeguarding the environment did not enter into [the Old Testament writers’] thinking.… What I am claiming is that there is no explicit demand to care for the environment, because it did not occur to anyone in ancient Israel to make such a plea. Such a demand may be implicit in the creation narratives and the ‘cosmic covenant,’ but hardly ever (if at all) in the Old Testament are human beings urged to take active measures to conserve nature.” Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T &T, 2001), 249. David Horrell agrees that “Even the apparently most valuable ecotexts do not straightforwardly imply any particular pattern of ethical responsibility towards creation.” David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology  (London: Equinox, 2010), 118.

[49] Wright does recognize discontinuity between the covenants. He agrees that there is not “a flat identity between the two Testaments” nor does he “overlook the diversity within the Testaments and the crucial developments between them” such as the different “historical eras, covenantal articulations, and changing cultural contexts at each stage of [the biblical storyline].” Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 315. The critique of this paper is not that Wright does not recognize any discontinuity but that his recognition of discontinuity is insufficient. In the final analysis, for Wright “the unity of God’s people in the Bible is a far more important theological truth than the different periods of their historical existence.” Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Whole Church: a Brief Biblical Survey,” Evangelical Review of Theology  34.1 (Jan 2010),19.

[50] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 604.

[51] Hosea 4:1–3 [ESV] “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: ‘There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this , the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.’”

[52] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 55.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 271.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 457.

[57] Another way to understand this issue is through the question: Where is the locus of authoritative and inspired meaning — in the human author’s intended meaning as embedded in the text or in the historical event or subject matter to which the text refers? While it can be said, in one sense, that God revealed himself in historical events, many who personally experienced that event-revelation (i.e. Israelites in Moses’ day or Jews in Jesus’ day) profoundly misinterpreted what they experienced. Scripture, on the other hand, is the only inspired interpretation of those events and the only on going access we have to special revelation in history and is itself a textual form of special revelation. But for those who accept some of the presuppositions and conclusions of historical criticism, the question becomes: How can a historically embellished and questionable text function as authoritative special revelation? Or for those who accept some of the epistemological assumptions of post-modernism, the question becomes: How can any text provide clear and authoritative propositional knowledge? Some (like Schleiermacher in an earlier age) respond with an understanding of authority not in the textual meaning but in the reader’s religious experience. Authority moves from text to experience, from author to reader — as is common in many reader-response hermeneutical approaches today. Others in history “developed elaborate apologetic approaches that sought to locate the truth of faith (revelation) in the history (‘events’) that occurred behind the texts of Scripture. The Bible formally preserves its authority, but its relation to revelation changes. Instead of the texts themselves being directly revelatory, the texts witness to the truth of revelation occurring in history.” Charles J. Scalise, Hermeneutics as Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1994), 11. While Schleiermacher moved authoritative revelation “in front of the text” (a reader’s experience), others moved authoritative revelation “behind the text” (the events of history). In contrast, for those, like Stein, who still approach Scripture as historically-trustworthy and epistemologically perspicuous, a distinction is maintained between textual meaning on the one hand and either historical events or the reader’s subjective response on the other hand. “When we are investigating the ‘text,’ we are seeking to ascertain what pattern or type of meaning the author willed to convey by his text. When we investigate the ‘event,’ we are investigating the historical subject matter referred to in the text,” and “Significance involves a person’s attitude toward the meaning of a text…. Meaning belongs to the author; significance belongs to the reader.” Robert H. Stein, Playing By The Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 48, 44. This understanding of authoritative textual meaning as found in the author’s explicit intent seems to cohere best with the idea of divine textual inspiration as conveyed in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20–21.

[58] The mandate of Genesis 1–2 for humanity and its (at least partial) renewal in Genesis 9 is probably the strongest OT argument for an explicit creation care command that applies, in some sense, to Christians today.

 [59] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 44.

[60] Ibid., 45.

[61] Walter C. Kaiser and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 204.

[62] See G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God  (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004) for one who argues strongly for Genesis 1–2 as presenting mankind as fundamentally functioning as priest-kings in God’s presence. Beale argues that Christians today have the same fundamental priestly tasks as Adam: learning and teaching God’s Word, prayer, holy living, and witnessing, ibid., 398–400.

 [63] See David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) for further development of this distinction between the biblical covenants.


 

 

 

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