October 29, 2013

Biblical Studies

Global environmental issues are affecting the creation we’re a part of. These environmental issues are critically important to the world at large, but are they relevant for Seventh-day Adventists? 

The answer to this question depends on two broad perspectives—our worldview and our theology. Let’s take a closer look at these crucial elements.

The Adventist Worldview

In line with Israel’s experience during biblical times and the experience of the early Christian church, Adventists have often focused on the Christian journey. We are pilgrims and strangers on this planet. Hymns that are part of our Adventist heritage are filled with lyrics that suggest while “others seek a home below,”1 we’re straining to hear “the tidings that greet the pilgrim’s ear, as he wanders in exile from home.”2 Although these sentiments are real and even biblical, if our worldview has taught us that we’re pilgrims and strangers in this world, that we’re not home yet, and that our home is elsewhere, our interest in the long-term welfare of the community of creation3 may be limited. But Jesus demonstrated His enduring care for all creation when He showed His care for the birds of the air (which carried no real economic worth) as a proxy for His care for the needs of humanity (Matt. 5:45).4 If our worldview teaches us that we are fully integrated in this complex web of life and are called to be responsible trustees of creation,5 our responses to environmental challenges will declare it.

The question of time is at the heart of an Adventist worldview. Our discussions regarding Creation have usually centered on the issue of God’s creation of life on Planet Earth, which was accomplished by Him “in the beginning.” At the opposite end of the time spectrum, we have equally focused on the end of time, when Christ shall come and eternity will begin for us. Yet as Adventists we’ve often been ambivalent toward the issue of present time, and have thus been less interested in being creatively and productively engaged in the larger ecological issues facing the planet today. While we are actively engaged in defending the importance of the Creation story, we have been less actively engaged in developing a broader doctrine of creation and progressing to the next steps involved with caring for what our Father has entrusted to us. How are we, as proponents of creation, engaged in finding solutions to the global scourge of plastic pollution, now found in every ocean and even on uninhabited islands?6 How are we trying to reduce the devastating impacts of global deforestation, resulting in the complete loss of more than 250 million acres of tropical forests in the decade between 1995 and 2005?7 Believing that God created “the [seas] and all that is in them” (Ex. 20:11; cf. Ps. 146:6; Rev. 5:13), what are we doing to help reduce such destructive, unsustainable, fishing practices as bottom trawling and longline fishing?8 Does our Creator (and Master) require us to do anything about the issue of bycatch9 on behalf of His creatures with which we’ve been entrusted?     

Some may ask, “If the Advent is ‘soon’ and global environmental change is relatively slow, why should we be concerned with the deterioration and destruction of the planet and nonhuman life? Besides, if God has promised a new earth, why worry about this one?”

Adventist Theology

A position of apathy toward the present deterioration and destruction of the planet is inappropriate on the basis of four crucial elements of Adventist theology.

1. Creation: Because we believe that God is the source of the physical universe and all life forms, all creation shares a common created relationship. While God gives trusteeship of His creation to humanity, this is a position not of domination but of respectful care and guidance, as representative of the Master. He also calls those who are the recipients of His creation to responsible action.

2. Sabbath: God rested on the Sabbath, commemorating the completed work of the previous six days of Creation. His example provided the blueprint for all creation, every week. God made specific mention of nonhuman creation in His command to remember the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8). This command was for the entire household to set aside an entire day in order to concentrate on communion with the Creator. God does not exclude domesticated animals, which labored all week, and specifies that the Sabbath should embrace both human and nonhuman life, as the reminder that it was God, and not labor, who provided life for all.10 This concept is further highlighted in the model of the sabbatical year, when the earth was to rest from its labors. This rest encompasses even the wild animals, allowing them to glean what the poor people of Israel did not take (cf. Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:4-7). The sabbatical year gave “Israel occasion to remember that the land is God’s, given to them in trust; not a commodity, but a gift, and a gift given to the whole community,” as Richard Bauckham puts it.11 

3. Salvation: On Calvary, Christ demonstrated God’s love for fallen humanity and a deteriorated world. Yet through that same sacrifice and the kingdom, which He ushered in with His first coming, He has secured the eventual end of deterioration of the physical world, its plants, humans, and nonhuman life. Even in the decline of His world as a result of our sin God provides hope, not only for the future, but also for now (Rom. 8:19-23).

4. Resurrection and Restoration: The resurrection of Jesus reveals God’s plan for the world (both human and nonhuman), and clearly points to the fact that the Spirit of the risen Lord is still actively working in the world and church, in ordinary people and places. Jesus’ resurrection also gives us the assurance that even through devastating environmental crises God has not abandoned us to face this global breakdown alone. We are not left to ourselves to work out our own solutions to the issues. 

Look Again

My work at Loma Linda University (LLU) gives me a unique vantage point from which to view Adventist interactions and outreach with local and global communities. Indeed, LLU is a flagship institution that highlights a wholistic approach to personal health and growth. The Adventist understanding of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 6:19) has done much to promote and maintain our view of a healthful lifestyle of body, mind, and spirit. However, this emphasis tends to be restricted. We often just look at our own bodies or our larger family. Maybe it’s time to add another dimension to the metaphor, with the inclusion of other components of health that lead to a balanced, truly wholistic vision for all of God’s creation? 

Next Steps

But how do we go beyond discussing the doctrine of creation to taking the next steps? I am sure there are many “next steps” we could take. Let me share my take on just five that could start us, as a church, on the road to owning Creation.

Revise the curriculum throughout the Adventist educational system to integrate aspects of environmental care, beyond the creation-evolution debate, into every course of study from kindergarten to graduate school.

Develop and support programs that provide graduate students with opportunities to be involved in conservation, environmental planning, and other areas that train for environmental care, management, and the study of creation from a biblical perspective.

Make environmental care and creation a topic of regular and highly visible discussion and dialogue at every level of the church.

Guide our industries and campuses around the world to rethink our energy use and waste management processes, to reduce our negative impacts and increase our positive ones.

As individuals, make the personal choice to be better “trustees” of our Father’s world.

Throughout Scripture the theme of creation is tightly interwoven with the story of humanity. It is clear that what happens in heaven has direct implications for earth, and what happens on earth has eternal implications for heaven. The fact that the Creator has entrusted to us His world surely teaches us that heaven and earth are much closer than we may have thought. While we as Adventists have always considered the doctrine of creation as foundational, it’s time to do more than discuss the doctrine. It’s time to make it our own and take the next steps.

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Loma Linda University will host the “Entrusted: Christians and Environmental Care” symposium on the campus of Loma Linda University, April 26 and 27, 2013. The symposium will be live-streamed to registered participants. Find out more at http://www.lomalindabiodiversity.org/Entrusted.

  1. The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), no. 437. 
  2. Ibid.,  no. 442. 
  3. I’m indebted to Richard Bauckham for this term from his book The Bible and Ecology (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2010), p. 64.
  4. Christ’s concern for His nonhuman creation, including the inanimate, is a theme threaded throughout Scripture from before the Creation to its eternal restoration. For more on this, see Sigve K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2009), pp. 398-419.
  5. The meaning here is as stewards who take responsible care of their master’s goods in his temporary absence, as in Matthew 25:14-30. The absurdity of believing that what has been entrusted is now one’s own to do with as one pleases is emphasized in a similar parable in Mark 12:1-9. Unfortunately for many Adventists, the idea of stewardship is often connected with only finances. 
  6. Plastic pollution is a truly global problem, impacting both land and sea animals. For more, see http://coastalcare.org/2009/11/plastic-pollution/ 
  7. Deforestation has wide-ranging impacts, from reducing the kinds of animals that live in forest regions to impacting land and coastal degradation. For more detailed estimates on global deforestation in recent years, see http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/ and http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/40893/icode/ 
  8. Unsustainable fishing practices include bomb fishing, drift net fishing, and bottom trawling, all of which destroy target and nontarget species, as well as marine habitat. For more, see S. G. Dunbar, “Forum on Impacts of Fisheries in Jamaica,” Caribbean Marine Science 2 (2004): 6-8.
  9. “Bycatch” is the word for species of marine organisms that are captured during commercial fishing that are not the target species. These may include sea turtles, sea birds, dolphins, and a host of small animals. All these are usually discarded dead back into the sea. 
  10. Tonstad elegantly unpacks these ideas in TheLost Meaning of the Seventh Day.
  11. Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology, p. 27.