Biblical Principles and Environmental Ethics

A conversation with Calvin B. DeWitt

From the Environmental Review Newsletter Volume Three Number Ten, 1996


 In response to attempts in Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act, a spokesman for the Evangelical Environmental Network, Professor Cal DeWitt lobbied Congress to strengthen rather than weaken it, likening the Endangered Species Act to a modern day Noah's Ark. The Bible teaches that people should serve and keep the creation, that creatures and ecosystems not be relentlessly pressed (sabbath principle), that provision must be made for the flourishing of the biosphere (fruitfulness principle), and that people should act on what they know is right.
     In a scientific journal, Professor DeWitt argues that our environmental problems are at root ethical problems; technical and legal approaches are not sufficient in themselves; they must be joined by ethics put into effective practice. Churches must join in the work of assuring the continued integrity of the biosphere.
     It has been written that the environmental crisis is a result of the Judeo-Christian teaching; the Bible exhorts people to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the Earth. DeWitt argues that this is a misinterpretation of Biblical language; rather, the Bible has a longstanding stewardship tradition which stresses responsibility for nature. The Bible has powerful ecological teachings that support an ecological worldview.

ER: Professor DeWitt, what is your academic training?

CD: My Ph.D. is in zoology from the University of Michigan, where I also took a Masters in biology. As a child I came up through the Christian school system in Grand Rapids and then on to Calvin college; pretty much all my education has had a theological context. I am a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I teach principles of environmental science, field investigations in wetland ecology and research methods in land resources. I am also director of AuSable Institute where I spend three months each summer. The Institute serves forty Christian colleges and universities in the US and Canada with transferable credit to their home institutions. And from 1972 to 1977, I was an official in my town of Dunn, including town chairman, when we developed and put into place a land stewardship plan.

ER: Were you alienated from your scientific colleagues because you came up through a Christian educational system?

CD: No. And it probably has to do with the kind of education I got, one which affirms science, the arts, politics, and involvement. My schooling was largely in the Reformed tradition in Christianity which sees one's work as being in the world, rather than apart from it. At Calvin College we were encouraged to be good scientists, musicians, artists, teachers, doctors. Science was never suspect. The president of Calvin expected their graduates to go on to the university and get into the most rigorous graduate programs.   

ER: In your paper you refer to the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, without which western civilization is inexplicable.

CD: This is a phrase used by a secular environmental ethicist, Max Oelschlaeger, in his reference to the Bible. Not long ago however, he was severely critical of the Bible and Christianity, regarding these as a major cause of our environmental problems. His initial position was that Jewish and Christian teaching were the roots for the ecological crisis. That was based on a 1967 article by Lynn White Jr. called The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, in Science magazine, in which he put the blame of domination over
the environment to Jewish and Christian teaching. That is the most widely reprinted article ever published in Science, and the notion of a biblical tradition of human dominion over nature became the dogma: dominion is the root cause of our environmental problems.
     Lynn White was an historian at the University of California and a mainline Christian, and was being critical of his own tradition. He concluded that we either have to revitalize our old religion or invent a new one. He was not a scholar of Scriptures but he was attempting to come to grips with why we have an ecological crisis. His hypothesis received a great deal of approval because it simplified the cause of the crisis. This article has been used in practically every course in environmental studies, and still is.
     When this article was first published it struck me that this idea had elements of truth. However, it tore at everything I had learned from and about scriptural teaching. So I generated my own hypothesis that the Judeo-Christian tradition must have embedded within it strong environmental teachings in order to survive for several millennia. Starting with that hypothesis I began to explore the Scriptures in ways that extended what I had done as a youth and as a young assistant professor at the University of Michigan. I began by using the Bible in hard copy, but soon purchased computerized versions, including Greek and Hebrew and began probing them to test my hypothesis. I discovered that the Bible is in many respects an ecological book, rich in ecological teachings.
     The substantial core of biblical environmental teaching comes down to three principles: earthkeeping, fruitfulness and sabbath, particularly sabbath for the land. As I put this work into print, I sought to bring these findings across the spectrum of interested readers, including those who might argue for and against Lynn White. But the news conference in Washington D.C. on January 31, 1996, in which I likened the Endangered Species Act to Noah's ark, seemed to galvanize people across the full spectrum of opinion. For people who would take the Bible literally, it made them question, To whom do they answer? To their political party? To a government leader? To an economist? Or to their Creator? A sobering question.
     Moderate and more liberal folk, on the other hand, were reminded of a story they already knew but had not thought much about; when they unpacked it for its truth and got past arguments like: Could all the animals fit on the ark? or, How big was the ark? or, Did it really land on Mt. Ararat? The Noah story speaks of the worth of species and the time and effort that is reasonable to try to save them. The Noah story also addresses the question, Is saving species more important than saving people? It depends. If you are people who respect God and creation, you may be just as important as a species. If not, you might be lost along with the drowning animals.

ER: Oelschlaeger seems to have changed his mind about the role of Christianity and the environment.

CD: Yes. He says "I think of religion, or more specifically the church ... as being more important in the effort to conserve life on Earth than all the politicians and experts put together. The church may be, in fact, our last, best chance. My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative."  He says in the next paragraph, "Environmentalists generally, I think, will be skeptical of this claim. To them, religion is the cause or part of the cause of ecocrisis. After all, they argue, Judeo-Christians believe that they have dominion over the Earth and do not believe that they are an integral part of biotic communities. And in any case, we need science and especially new technologies to solve environmental problems. How could religion be relevant? ... My claim is not that religion alone can resolve the environmental crisis, but that it has an irreplaceable function in the process.
     Oelschlaeger's book was the first case of a key environmental philosopher - himself not religious - discovering what I had been working with: the power of biblical teaching for addressing environmental problems. He refers to the Bible as the Great Code. On page nine he says, "I follow the lead of those who argue that the Bible is the Great Code apart from which, the existence of Western culture becomes almost incomprehensible - as implied in the oxymoron plotless story". He is saying, you cannot make sense of the
art in the middle ages without reference to the Bible, that you cannot fully grasp Shakespeare unless you recognize that he is quoting extensively from the Geneva Bible. You can say the fly in the ointment is that the Bible does not have anything to say about our problems, but the fly in the ointment is a phrase from Shakespeare taken from the Geneva Bible.

ER: What do you mean by the earthkeeping principle?

CD: On earthkeeping, the reference there is to Genesis 2:15 where Adam is expected to till and to keep the garden. To till, is the Hebrew word 'abad; elsewhere in the Bible outside of agricultural context, this word gets translated, serve. So we read in  "Choose ye this day whom you will serve ('abad,) as for me and my house we will 'abad Jehovah." In Genesis Adam is asked to 'abad the garden. The idea is that the garden - the creation - serves us and other creatures by providing habitat, food and shelter, and beauty. And in turn we must serve it. So there is this idea of con-service, con-servancy, con-servation.
     The rabbinic approach to biblical texts is, Turn it about, turn it about, for everything you need to know is in it. Unlike the scholarly rabbis, modern-day readers will likely pass by this verse quickly. However this textual stuff is meant to be chewed on. And after abad, the next piece to chew on is the word to keep, which is a translation of the Hebrew word shamar. That word is best known in the blessing of Aaron in Numbers 6:24, "The Lord bless you and keep you." The Lord bless you and shamar you. When that blessing is invoked for people, it expects God to keep them with physiological integrity, with psychological integrity, with proper connections with family, relatives, other human beings, soil, air, land, water.
     There is a second word in Hebrew that also means to keep, but it means to keep as one would pickles in a jar. In Genesis 2:15 the shamar word is used, the one meaning to keep in dynamic integrity not the one meaning keep as one would  pickles in a jar.
     There is a Jewish environmental organization Shomrei Adamah, meaning keepers of the Earth, that promotes stewardship of creation. Shomrei is a variant of the word shamar. This is a long standing Jewish concept as well as a word roughly similar to the word stewardship, and a richer one.
     If you read Genesis 2:15 in the Hebrew, you read it for what it says. But put into English we see these words through the eyes of their translators. That is not to say there are some translators who have not worked in a more literal way. There is an 1898 version of the Bible called Young's Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, that translates the word abad as serve, that Adam was asked to serve the garden, published long before our present-day ecological concern.
     What comes from unpacking this passage in Genesis 1:28 and seeing it in the context of the rest of the Bible is that dominion - whatever we have called it - really means service. In the Christian tradition the example of dominion as service is given in Philippians 2:6-8 of Jesus Christ who, "Counting equality with God a thing not to be grasped, he takes the form of a servant and is obedient even until death, yes death upon a cross." Genesis 1:28 by itself which says people are given dominion, can certainly be misinterpreted as domination, but as soon as you get to the next chapter, Genesis 2:15, service comes in and then in the New Testament you see the one who has been given all dominion take the form of a servant. You can hardly take the example of Jesus as someone who forcefully dominates.
     The Amish are a powerful present example of taking these teachings and practicing them as biblical earthkeepers without fanfare. Yet they are a people who adhere to biblical teachings on land stewardship. They are good at preserving land and producing abundantly. They are by-and-large, biblical earthkeepers, inspired by the Scriptures to keep creation.

ER: What about the fruitfulness principle?

CD: The best known biblical passage that has to do with this says "And God blessed them and said unto them, be fruitful and multiply, be fruitful and increase in number." People often will see that as directed to people. It is in Genesis 1:28, but in Genesis 1:22 the same blessing, Be fruitful and multiply, is given to the fish and to the birds. The teaching in the first chapter of Genesis is that everything in all creation must be
fruitful, and it must fill the Earth. The Hebrew word for fill is male'; to fulfill, to bring up to the bounteous brim. Male' is used when rivers are filled to their banks. The biblical idea of fruitfulness is fulfillment, bringing something up to its intended flourishing. That is why in some English translations, Genesis 1:28 goes like this, "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth." Replenishment is a better sense of the word male'. All life should flourish, not just human beings. There is a reference in Genesis 1:20 to fruitfulness of other species. And so, six verses later in Genesis 1:28, the reader already knows the blessing has been given to more than human beings. Thus, there is no way you can argue that human beings alone should be fruitful. It is the flourishing of the whole creation that is important.
     The fruitfulness principle is more dramatically taught in the story of Noah (Genesis 6 through 9). This story answers a series of questions about the relative importance of saving species and people. Noah as a faithful person and Noah's family is saved; but all the others - the unfaithful ones - are lost in the flood. Then Genesis 9 describes God's covenant with all creatures and all creation never to destroy them again with a flood. The covenant is with every creature, with the Earth, with all of life. This is repeated time and time again. One of the rules in scriptural interpretation is if the message keeps repeating, it is important; that is what is happening with this passage.      
     One further teaching on fruitfulness which I think is very powerful is given in Ezekiel 34:18; it is right at the core for modern-day application: "Is it not enough for you to feed on the green pastures, must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink the pure water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?" The idea is that you may partake of the fruit of creation but you may not mess up the rest of it.
     And in Deuteronomy: "When you come to a mother bird on her nest,you may take the eggs or the young but you may not take the mother." This too is a fruitfulness passage. Stated negatively, the principle is, Do not destroy. Positively, it protects the fruitfulness of creation.
     Finally, there is the passage in Revelation 11:18 which also bears on fruitfulness. Here, after the sounding of the seventh trumpet of the Last Judgement, the words are spoken, "The time has come for... destroying those who destroy the Earth." This is a gripping passage for any one who takes the New Testament seriously.
     Most everything in the Bible on Earthkeeping is an invitation; there is a wonderful invitation to enjoy the world, to partake of its fruits, to preserve its fruitfulness, to keep the Earth. But it is an invitation that if declined, has profound consequences. Deuteronomy 30 reflects this: "I set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses, now chose life."

ER: The sabbath seems like a continuation of the fruitfulness principle.

CD: Yes. In fact all three principles, earthkeeping, fruitfulness, and sabbath, are completely interwoven. Sabbath is a means of assuring fruitfulness. Also, the sabbath allows you to keep the Earth without having to know everything you might otherwise have to know. If you keep one-seventh of the land unoccupied, or you give land its rest every seventh year, you don't have to know all the frogs and toads and insects; you are creating enough of a buffer that the likelihood is that you are going to save many species, but you are also going to allow for restoration, regeneration and recuperation. One of the ideas behind protecting wilderness is, if you have enough set aside, you don't have to know all the species. It is when you get down to postage stamp size refuges that you have to tally everything, and that gets to be a rough task.
     That sabbath principle is put forth as law in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20, "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work but the seventh is a day of solemn rest unto the Lord; in it you should not do any work, none of the members of your family, those who work for you, and neither should the animals under your care." The reason for that is that God rested from creation on the seventh day. No matter who you are, if you are God, an animal, a human being, a slave, an employee, all of you must get off the treadmill so you can come to enjoy the creation and give it its needed rest. The way to do that is, you create nothing, you destroy nothing and enjoy the fruit of God's good creation. We keep rediscovering that principle even in a secular society. If we don't observe this principle we burn out and are compelled to rediscover it. I think the sabbath principle recognizes that within human
beings, animals, and plants, we cannot continue to press ourselves or others relentlessly.
     Most powerful for environmental purposes, the teaching on sabbath in Exodus 23, is given the law of sabbath for the land: the land itself must observe a sabbath rest. That is emphasized and re-emphasized in Leviticus 25 and 26, where it is re-enforced with the warning that if these commands and ordinances are not observed, that the land will no longer support people; they will be driven off. And then the land, when the people must leave, will take its own sabbath, the sabbath it did not have when people occupied it.
     In our day, we see this happening. People who have abused farmland for years finally must abandon it. The forest here at AuSable Institute is like that. The whole area was deforested at the turn of the century. When I come here in the summer, I experience a peaceful feeling. But then, this feeling becomes mixed with the realization that here is land taking its sabbath.

ER: How do you think Biblical ethics fit with the more secular land ethic Aldo Leopold was developing in A Sand County Almanac?

CD: I think it is important to see Leopold's land ethic in developmental terms. He began as a forester, then he realized we can do with animals what we do with trees; that is, set goals for an animal population and engage in what he called game and wildlife management. But he moved from this to wildlife ecology when he wrote a Fierce Green Fire Dying; he began to understand the significance of predation in maintaining the health of the animal populations. Next, he moved from wildlife ecology toward the land ethic, from narrow biocentrism to dealing with the fabric of the landscape in relation to what is ecologically ethical.
     Leopold was evolving in his thinking and it is hard to say where he would have gone in his broadening scope. I personally think he would have come by now to incorporate Colin Russell's understanding of the need to go beyond ethics to address the human predicament.
     Colin Russell, a leading historian of science in the United Kingdom, has just written a book called, God, Humanity and the Environment. He concludes that the environmental problem is not merely an ethical one, which Leopold had come to see, but a problem is of what Russell calls the human predicament: when we know what we should do, we still don't do it. All of us know people who knew they should not drink themselves to death, yet did so. It is Colin Russell's conclusion, unpalatable as it might seem, that biblical tradition is the only one that addresses the human predicament substantially enough to make a difference.
      It all comes down to how are we going to address this basic human problem. We have tried to do it by law and with only moderate success.
     Take tax laws for example: we develop a means for funding the common good, but soon find ourselves trying to avoid paying what is due by finding the loopholes in the law.
     I think ultimately we come to wish that somehow people would simply seek the good, that somehow a universal law would be written in peoples' hearts. Of course that is what biblical teaching tries to do. It says, use the law as a guide, but not everything can be codified, so act right and use the law as a guide for what it means to act right. If the law says, Do not kill, you just might be able to see that you should not gouge your neighbor with high interest if this law is written in your heart.
     I think Leopold would be with us here. I think Leopold was an evolving ethicist. We often ossify our heroes after their death; Leopold was too great for that. He would not have stopped with the land ethic but would have brought it to address this human predicament. He might not have done that with biblical material; on the other hand, he might have.
     The Noah story just might convey persistent truth. The Bible thumping of television one day may be supplanted by Bible probing. The Bible is a code that has been in existence for these thousands of years, a distillation of wisdom for past and coming generations.
     I know an evolutionary biologist, a Ph.D. palynologist who is a native of Africa; I was at a meeting with her in Malaysia about six years ago. One morning we all sat on the floor to get oriented toward the activities of the day and she read from Genesis One. When she concluded, she said "There was never a truer story written." She is the first person I knew to read Genesis as a whole story and not argue about whether this day corresponded to this geological period or anything like that. I think Noah's story is like that. Reductionists may say, You couldn't possibly get all the species on the ark, or, There were other
people that survived the flood, and so forth. That erodes the power of the story. I think the Genesis story and the Noah story are stories you can read as a child and get a good sense of how everything works without having to be a scientist. When you become a scientist you may see the world differently, but if you can somehow take the African storyteller's mentality toward it, the story has the same force, the same truth.

ER: Leopold's approach to the land ethic was based on the love of nature not on the consequences if we mess up.

CD: My students often ask, Why do you do all this work with such joy? I do it because the world is so wonderful. I get distressed at the loss of species and environmental problems. However, if you work out of wonder you don't get bogged down in debates. I don't want to sit around in a church basement and decide how God made the world. Let's get on with enjoying this world. One of the ways we can enjoy it is to care for it, tend it. But this active approach to caring for and restoring creation must not be arrogant or oppressive. There is an old Hebrew teaching that goes like this, If a king destroys his subjects, he makes a fool of himself. If you think you are in charge and you destroy the things you are expected to keep, you have failed. And this is related to joy. You cannot take joy in something you have destroyed. Our principle motivation for caring for the Earth should be love. And if we fail to love the world we eventually will find ourselves motivated by fear. Noah's is a fine example for our time. Facing the problem of impending extinctions, he responds in faith and love to save the creatures from destruction. The call we all are hearing today is a call for new Noahs who will respond in faith and love. Once creation is made secure, we must then continue the joyful work of keeping the Earth.

Copyright 1996 Environmental Review