Modern philosophy, which began with Descartes, is premised on the idea that objective knowledge is possible only if the cognitive agent first separates himself mentally from the external world around him.
Kant reinforced the separation when he postulated a dichotomy between the phenomenal order (things as empirically observed) and the noumenal order (things-in-themselves) in order to give room for human freedom in a world determined by fundamental laws of nature.
That is to say, both human knowledge and human freedom entail a flight from nature. The resulting loss of vital connection between man as knowing subject and the world of nature is one of the causes of human disregard of the environment today.
In contrast, the Bible upholds nature, or creation, as the theatre where knowledge of God is revealed. It acknowledges that God is transcendent but he reveals himself through his mighty works of creation, providence and redemption.
T.F. Torrance emphasises that our knowledge of God is mediated to us in and through this world as the sphere of his activity toward us. Torrance writes,
“We know God, then, in such a way that our knowledge (theologia nostra) is correlated with the world as his creation and the appointed medium of his self-revelation and self-communication to mankind. Everything would go wrong if the creaturely reality of this world were confused with or mistaken for the uncreated Reality of God, or if knowledge of God were cut off from the fact that it is our knowledge, that is, knowledge of God by us in this world.”
Unlike modern thought that sees creation as a means to an end, a resource simply to be exploited, the Christian tradition does not regard creation as a temporary expedient. Early Christian theologians, beginning with Irenaeus have taught that creation and humanity will grow together to their final destination intended by God.
Irenaeus emphasised that creation was created with the capacity to ‘mature’ to perfection and that the Incarnation was to further this development and not merely to save man from sin. That is to say, creation is the vessel that man may use to navigate to his final destination.
The Bible vividly describes how creation eagerly waits to share in the eschatological glory awaiting mankind (Romans 8:19-21). The eschatological expectation is described as the new creation where all will be perfect (Isaiah 11:6-10, 65:17-25 and 66:22-23). Isaiah 65:17-25 begins with a declaration that God will create (bara) new heavens and a new earth.
Note that the Hebrew word bara does not always mean creating something out of nothing but frequently denotes a divine activity by which God brings forth something new from the old (Isaiah 41:20; 43:7; 54:16; 57:18).
Likewise, the Greek word used to emphasise the newness of the new world found both in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 is kainos, which means new in nature and quality in contrast with the word neos, which means new in time or origin. There will be both continuity and discontinuity between the new world and the present world.
Although there is the idea of a complete re-doing of Genesis 1:1, this new world will be so radically transformed that even the more loftiest aspects of the former world will probably fade in comparison to the new glory.
Moving from Environmentalism to Creation Care
The contemporary debates over the environment largely takes place within a secular world-view. The basic argument is that we are part of a fragile eco-system and must make concerted efforts to protect the larger system for the sake of all living things on the planet.
It is not that we fundamentally disagree with this argument. Our point is that this argument is reductionistic and sets the whole issue in too small a frame. Thus, it is important that we help to re-frame this issue for the larger church and remind the people of God what “added value” we bring to this discussion.
We will, of course, have many “technical” shared outcomes with the environmental movement. However, we bring a much larger frame to the broader discussion.
We understand that the universe cannot be reduced to mere mechanistic naturalism. We see the whole of creation infused with God’s presence and, indeed, the creation itself is sometimes understood as the “temple of God” in the broadest sense of that expression.
We care for the creation precisely because God’s presence fills it and he has made it the dwelling place of those created in his image. By caring for the “house” we honor the “builder of the house.”
The Bible emphasises that God has appointed us to be stewards of His creation. Creation care becomes a part of what it means to love and honor God.
New Initiatives in Creation Care
There should be no idealisation of creation. Nature is experienced both as a foe (e.g., by primitive dwellers in the tropical jungle) and as a source of inspiration for poets (e.g., beautiful Lake District, England). Economic development is inevitable but it must be carried out with respect for the environment and the careful preservation of traditional cultures and societies.
Since a major root cause of the neglect of ecological stewardship is theological, there must be added emphasis on the doctrine of creation in Christian teaching today. Calvin DeWitt offers us some helpful biblical principles concerning care of creation:
1) Principle of stewardship – As God keeps and sustains humanity, so humanity keeps and sustains creation. Creation is given to man out of God’s overflowing goodness.
2) Sabbath principle – Creation must be able to recover from human use of its resources.
3) Moderation and enjoyment – The abundant gifts and fruitfulness of God’s creation must be enjoyed and not destroyed. Creation is to be enjoyed with gratitude as a sign our appreciation of God’s overflowing goodness.
The final destiny of the people of God is the New Creation (Rev. 21). However, the New Creation is not merely something tacked onto the end of human history after the present created order collapses. Rather, in the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the New Creation is already breaking in to the present order.
The future kingdom has been inaugurated, but is not yet consummated. We therefore understand the creation as the theatre where signs of the future reign and rule of God are already breaking in to the present order. This provides significant theological space for the church to celebrate the cosmic dimensions of God’s saving work.
Creation is not rendered secondary in God’s salvation. Creation retains its integrity as the sphere of human stewardship; it is the sacramental reminder of the hope for glory. The book of Isaiah portrays life in restored creation (the new city of God) as one of excellent cultural achievement. It is a place where the kings of the earth shall bring their glory and nothing unclean shall enter it, but only the glory and honour of the nations (Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21:24-27).
Anthony Hoekema aptly captures the glorious vision of human destiny with renewed creation:
“The Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On the new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God.”
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.