God’s relation to creation and ours.

A video and a clarification

Last week, the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, posted a video on behalf of Oxford diocese in which she looked at the theological basis for Christian care for the environment. In the course of this video she suggested that a reason that Christians should care for the environment is that God is ‘incarnate,’ not only in the person of Jesus Christ, but in creation as a whole, and has been ever since the Big Bang.[1]

What she said provoked much criticism on the grounds that it undermined the basic Christian claim that God was, and is, uniquely present in the person of Christ. In the light of this criticism Bishop Graham posted a clarification on the Oxford Diocese website in which she conceded that her use of the term ’incarnation’  had been unhelpful, and explained that what she meant was that ‘the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.’[2]

Bishop Graham’s original video and her subsequent clarification leave us with three questions that I shall consider in the remained of this post.

First, what does it mean to say that God ‘pervades every part of the universe’?

Secondly, what is the basis for our care for creation if it is not the case that the creation is the incarnation of God?

Thirdly, what form does our care for creation need to take?

God’s relation to creation.

Saying that God pervades every part of the universe is a way of expressing what Christian theology has mean when It has said that God is ‘omnipresent.’( i.e. simultaneously present in all places).

The reason that God is omnipresent is because as God he is infinite rather than finite. All things in creation are finite. This means that however big they are they have a limited and local existence. Thus, we can say of the biggest galaxy or the largest black hole that they are here and not there. However, as Matthew Barrett notes in his helpful book None Greater – The Undomesticated Attributes of God this limitation does not apply to God:

‘God, as the Creator, escapes this creaturely limitation, nor is it even possible  For him, as one who is infinite, to be limited in this way. As one who has an ‘infinite essence,’  so must he also have an ‘infinite presence.’ The latter follows from the former, for if God is infinite in his essence, then it’s impossible for him to be demarcated by or contained within a finite space. While finite creatures like you and me are bounded by space, the same cannot be said of an infinite being.’[3]

In the words of the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock:

‘God, because infinite, fills all, yet so as not to be contained by them. He is from the height of the heavens to the bottom of the deeps, in every point of the world, and in the whole circle of it, yet not limited by it, but beyond it.’[4]

It is because this is the case that the Psalmist writes:

‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me. ‘ (Psalm 139:7-10)

It is also important to note that God’s simplicity, the fact that God is  simply, and solely, and entirely  God (‘I am who I am’ Exodus 3:14), means that God’s universal presence throughout creation does not mean that he is any way mixed with the created order. To quote Barrett again:

‘Yes, he is everywhere present, but we should not go so far as to think that he becomes everything in the process. Such a presence would spell disaster, dividing God’s being as if he were meshed by the creation, absorbed by the creature, dissolving the Creator-creature distinction. God may be present with the world, but he does not become one with the world. ‘The finite and infinite cannot be joined.’ Consider the way the sun produces light. The light illumines a room, but that does not mean the light becomes the air. The two remain distinct. Likewise with the Creator and his creation.’ [5]

This distinction between God and his creation remains in place even in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. As the Christological debates of the fifth century established, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, one divine and one human. His humanity is truly human and does not possess the attributes of God, but the attributes of a first century, Jewish, male, human creature.  If this was not the case he could not be the ‘second Adam’ the progenitor of a renewed human race  (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). To be the second Adam he has to be human, and to be human he has to have a human nature, which means a nature distinct from the nature of God.

Our relation to creation

What all this means is that it would not be correct to say that we as human beings should care for the rest of creation because God is present in creation in a way that means that we could point to a tree, a rabbit, or a mollusc, and say ‘that is God.’ As we have seen, God and creation are distinct and they should never be identified (which is the reason for the prohibition in Exodus 1:4-5 of worshipping any idol made to represent ‘anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’).

The reason we should care for creation is instead laid out for us in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, chapters which set the stage for the rest of the biblical account of what it means to live rightly before God.

These chapters tell us that our vocation as male and female human beings is to show what God is like (this is what it means by being God’s image bearers, Genesis 1:26-27) and fulfilling this vocation involves expressing our love for God by taking responsibility for the world that he has created. The created order as a whole, and not just the human part of it, has value in God’s sight[6] and human beings are called to share in God’s care for it. 

In Genesis 1:28 God tells the first human beings:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

This command gives human beings authority over rest of the created order and it also involves the right to use the resources provided by the natural world. As God goes on to say in the next verse ‘I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’

In our day, many people have come to see this command in Genesis as lying at the root of the environmental problems that we face.[7] This is because it can be (and has been) viewed as giving human beings the right to treat the rest of creation in any way they see fit. However, to view our God-given calling to exercise ‘dominion’ over creation as giving us a right to engage in unlimited exploitation of it for our own benefit is fundamentally to misrepresent what Genesis is saying.

God’s rule over creation is for the benefit of creation as a whole. ‘The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). The same is meant to be true of the human vice-regency over creation exercised by human beings on his behalf. 

As the second creation account in Genesis 2:15 tells us, human beings have the vocation to ‘till and keep’, that is to say to ‘serve and preserve,’ the created order in the same way that someone might be given the task of taking care of a garden or a park and the animals living in it in order to enable them to flourish. This in turn means that while human beings have the right to make use of the rest of the created order in order to live, this should be done with appropriate restraint, in a way that recognises that the non-human creation has its own intrinsic value in the sight of God. That is why, for example, the Old Testament law sets limits to the way in which the people of Israel can use the natural order (see  Exodus 20:10, Leviticus 25:7, Deuteronomy 25:4).

Because human beings are part of creation, God’s mandate to care for creation also involves care for other human beings.  We are called to express the reality of our love for God not simply by caring for the non-human creation, but also by showing love to other people (see 1 John 4:20-21).

This is where the command to love our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) comes into the picture. God gives himself to be loved by us in the shape of other people and, as Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) explains, our neighbour is that particular individual in whom God gives himself to be loved by us at any given moment. Furthermore, true love for our neighbour will be shaped by our awareness that our neighbour’s highest good will be served by helping them to live in a way that is in accordance with God’s will for them.

The twin commands to love God and love our neighbour (Mark 12:28-34) thus go together.  We express love for God as we show love to our neighbour and we show love for our neighbour as we act towards them in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Loving someone means wanting what is best for them and what is best for all human beings is that they should flourish in the manner for which God created them.

This in turn means that just as love of God and love of neighbour necessarily belong together, so also do love of God, love of neighbour and care for the rest of creation. This is so for two reasons.

First, as we are coming increasingly to realise, human beings are dependent on the natural world for their existence and so when the creation is not cared for human beings are unable to flourish in the way that God intends. For example, if we poison the seas or the air this necessarily does harm to our neighbours since the inter-connectedness of the created order means that their well-being is dependent on the cleanliness of the oceans and the air which they breathe.

Secondly as has already been noted, love for neighbour means acting in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Therefore, our dealings with them will need to reflect the fact that, like us, they too are people who are called by God to exercise responsible care for the whole of the world that God has created. We are called by God to remind our neighbours that they too have a God given responsibility for creation as a whole.

Being modest about our role.

We need to be modest about our responsibility to the rest of creation. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, our job is not to ‘save the planet’ in any ultimate sense. The overall future of the planet is not our hands. It is the hands of God.

As the Christian faith has always acknowledged, the world in which we live is finite, riven by conflict even in the non-human creation (‘nature red in tooth and claw’) and ultimately heading towards death. Left to itself, and even without human intervention, all life in this world will come to an end and the world itself will cease to be.

However, the good news is that this world has not been left to itself. In accordance with God’s covenant commitment to the human race and the rest of life in this world recorded in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 9:8-17), God has kept both the planet and ourselves in existence and will continue to do so. Furthermore, as Paul tells us, the action that God took in Jesus to save the human race also saved the rest of creation as well (Romans 8:18-25). Because of what Jesus has done we can look forward to the day when the threat of death lying over all creation is lifted and we and the rest of creation will exist for ever in God’s peaceable kingdom in which, to quote Isaiah:

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb,

   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

   their young shall lie down together;

   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

   on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

   as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:6-9)’

Human beings now have the capacity to do very serious environmental damage to the planet and its capacity to sustain life. However, if we are Christians then we have no need to despair because we can trust that God will be faithful to his promises. In spite of human folly and wickedness, he will eventually enable creation to flourish perfectly in the life of his coming kingdom in the way that he has intended all along.

The guarantee of this future is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which are the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23, Romans 8:23 ) that show that the renewal of creation as a whole will follow in due time. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:22-23, the whole creation ‘groans’ in distress as it awaits the liberation from its bondage to futility and decay which God has promised, and Christians groan with it. However, this groaning is also like the groaning of childbirth, it is a sign that that a new birth is happening, that the new creation is coming in.

What this all means is that instead of being called to ‘save the planet’ human beings have the more modest task of so behaving in relation to the rest of the creation that we provide for our own legitimate needs while respecting the limits imposed upon us by the need to respect the rest of creation and to enable it to flourish. In this way we begin to manifest the values of God’s peaceable kingdom even in the midst of the world as it now exists.

Being realistic about what we are called to do.

Finally, we have to be realistic about the fact that we do have to provide for our own legitimate needs. As human beings we will inevitably have an impact upon the planet. There is no way in which we can exist as human beings and provide all those things needed for us to live rightly before God without having an impact upon the rest of creation, an impact that will necessarily in some ways be destructive. For example, using timber means cutting down a tree and providing clean water involves building dams that block rivers and drown valleys and their eco-systems.

The issue about the human relationship to the rest of creation therefore has to be one of balance How can we balance the need to provide for ourselves and our neighbours by using the resources of the planet, while having the minimum negative impact on the rest of creation?

Furthermore, how can this balance be sustained beyond the short term? We do not know how long it will be before God brings in the kingdom in all its fullness and we have a responsibility for future generations of human beings (who are also our neighbours in the sense of being those for whom God calls us to care) and for the future of the rest of creation. Therefore, we are challenged to think about how to act in the present in a way that does not simply create further problems for the future. As we have seen, according to Genesis 2, the human vocation is like looking after a park or a garden and that is a long-term business.

Caring for a park or garden involves having to think not just about what will happen this week, or this month, or even this year, but in the years ahead, years that the gardener or park keeper may never live to see. In a similar fashion in caring for God’s garden we have to learn to think long term, thinking not just about what is good for now, but for the whole future until Jesus comes in glory.

[1] The video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKTGeq99Lkk&feature=youtu.be

[2] The clarification can be found at https://www.oxford.anglican.org/care-for-creation-film-a-clarification/.

[3] Matthew Barrett, None Greater (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020), Kindle edition p. 165.

[4] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:368, in Barrett, p.162.

[5] Barrett, p.167.

[6] That is why Genesis 1:3-25 repeatedly tells us that the non-human creation is ‘good’ in God’s sight and why inGenesis 9:9-17 the covenant made by God after the flood is not just with Noah and his descendants but with all the other living creatures as well

[7] The key text in this regard is Lynne White, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,’ Science. 155 (1967), pp 1203-1207. For a helpful response to the argument put forward by White see Richard Bauckham, ‘Human authority in creation’ in Richard Bauckham, God and the crisis of freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox  Press, 2002), pp. 128-177.