Does Genesis 1:27-28 Authorize Exploiting Nature?


Part One

            Genesis 1:28 instructs the first couple—and by extension the entire human race—to “subdue” the earth and to have “dominion” over nature (KJV). Since the 1960s, virtually all secular environmentalists have assumed that Christians interpret this to mean that God gave the human race carte blanche to use nature without any regard for other created life.  But is this what the passage actually means? Not at all.
           
            There is a fundamental rule of biblical hermeneutics that applies to this verse. All passages in Scripture must be interpreted within context of surrounding passages as well as within context of other passages that speak on the same topic. A single passage rarely provides the full meaning or total teaching on any particular subject. There are many doctrines in Scripture, such as the Trinity, that require a systematic study of numerous related passages. Following this rule, let’s explore the closest relatedpassage to Genesis 1:28. It’s found in Genesis chapter two:
[T]he LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed (Genesis 2:7-8).
            The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (2:15).
So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man (21-22).
           
            Verses 7 and 8 relate that God created a garden in Eden and placed Adam in it. Verse 15 adds that Adam was instructed to “take care of” the Garden (i.e. stewardship). It was later, after these events occurred, that God create Eve (21-22). In light of this chronology, it’s important to note that the so-called dominion instructions were given to both Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 1:27-28). Thus, since Eve was created after Adam was placed in the Garden—and before their banishment from Eden—the “subdue” and “dominion” instructions had to have been given while the couple resided in the Garden.
           
            This important to understand because the harsh sounding words “subdue” and “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 are softened and qualified due to the Garden setting where the instructions were given.  In other words, the natural environment in which Adam and Eve lived before the Fall was a paradise. It’s preposterous to think that the command to subdue the earth and have dominion over nature had anything to do with battling or destroying nature. There was nothing to conquer in the Garden of Eden! This alone strongly suggests that whatever “subdue” and “dominion” mean in Genesis 1:28, they do not give the human race complete freedom to exploit nature as they see fit. (Notice that in many modern translations “dominion” [KJV] has been changed to “rule,” which better denotes to actual meaning of dominion.)  
           
            Critics who claim that Genesis 1:28 provides a license from God to exploit nature solely for human pleasure fail to heed the cardinal hermeneutical principle of interpreting a single passage within context of related passages as well as the whole biblical teaching on the topic. Critics select Genesis 1:28 (often quoting the King James Version) as a primary proof-text and disregard the host of other passages that reveal what God actually means by His instructions to mankind to subdue the earth and to have dominion (rule) over nature.
            So what exactly does the Bible mean when it instructs the human race to have to dominion over creation? Well explore this in my next blog.
Dan Story
This article is adapted from my book, Should Christians Be Environmentalists? (Kregel Publications, 2012).

           

Is Christianity the Blame for Today’s Environmental “Crisis?”

            I recently had an interview on a Christian radio station; the topic was Christian environmentalism. Before the host introduced me, he told his listening audience that he is against environmentalism. In his opinion, spending money to protect endangered plants and animals is a waste of taxpayer’s money and a hindrance to economic development and human interests.
            Unfortunately, when secular environmentalists hear this kind of sentiment from a Christian, it reinforces their belief that the origin of today’s environmental problems can be traced directly to the Judeo/Christian worldview. The most well known advocate of this theory was the late historian, Lynn White, Jr. In an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1966, White presented his thesis that the “historical root” of the modern environmental crisis was the marriage of science and technology in the middle of the 19th century under the umbrella of Christianity. Presumably, the Bible—in particular Genesis 1:28, which instructed Adam to “subdue” the earth and have “dominion over other animals—encourages Christians to exploit nature with little regard for the welfare of other life forms or the land. Although many Christian scholars took issue with White’s assumptions—and refuted them on many different points—his view nevertheless became the default position of academia and non-Christian environmentalists.
            The fact is, however, Christianity is not the blame for modern environmental problems—the entire human race is the blame.  Every society—and under the banner of every religion—has exploited its natural environments. This began ten thousand years ago, long before Christianity. Ancient hunters in the North America (Paleoindians), for example, contributed to the extinction of many large Pleistocene animals, including the cave bear, mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, camels, dire wolves, and saber-tooth cats. Over a period of several thousand years, hunting and gathering declined and many cultures turned to herding sheep, goats, and cattle. Shepherds typically overgrazed their livestock and often set fires to large tracks of brush and forest to create open grassland. “Early men,” explained Pulitzer Prize-winner, the late Dr. Rene’ Dubos, “aided especially by the most useful and most noxious of all animals, the Mediterranean goat, were probably responsible for more deforestation and erosion than all the bulldozers of the Judeo-Christian world.”
            Farmers followed the shepherds, causing more widespread devastation to the environment. Poor farming practices allowed topsoil to be lost; improper irrigation and drainage lead to the accumulation of salts in the soil, destroying its productivity and forcing farmers to clear ever more land; forests were burnt to provide farmland, exterminating indigenous plants and animals.
            The historical fact is that non-Western, non-Christian societies have caused massive environmental damage over vast portions of Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, the Mid East, and Australia. Extensive erosion, widespread deforestation, and the total extermination of plant and animal species have been a byproduct of human societies long before the Christian era.
            Besides corporate humanity’s inherent proclivity to exploit his environment with little concern for other living things, there is an even greater factor responsible for today’s environment crisis: unregulated technology. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, ushered in spectacular advances in technology. By the twentieth century, one man with a bulldozer could do more damage to the environment than hundreds of men with picks and shovels. Ultimately, the root cause of the twentieth century’s environmental crisis was technology running amok without ethical restraints. Unregulated technologic power over nature created environmental pollution and degradation, as we know it today. Christianity did not cause the modern environmental crisis; unbridled technology operating within an emerging secular society is responsible.
            In order to see this, it’s important to understand that advances in highly efficient technology occurred simultaneously with the fading authority and influence of the Christian worldview. Beginning in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Christianity became increasingly rejected as the dominant worldview in western culture—humanity was replacing God as Supreme Being. By the twentieth century, secular humanism had become the dominant worldview in the West, jettisoning many of the moral values that were fundamental to western culture for eighteen centuries. Thus, by the beginning of the mid–twentieth century’s environmental crisis, Christianity was no longer the dominant moral light in the West, and the authority of the Bible outside the church was largely rejected in popular culture. During the interim between the end of the Christian era and the modern environmental crisis, no ethical constraints arose to control—let alone prevent—the crushing technological exploitation of the earth’s natural environments. As French historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul stated, “The technical movement of the West developed in a world which had already withdrawn from the dominant influence of Christianity.”
            In sum, Christianity is not the root cause of today’s environmental crisis. Corporate humanity—adhering to its ancient proclivity to “dirty its nest” by exploiting and despoiling natural environments—is responsible. The destructive power of modern technology has enabled societies to accelerate this, with devastating consequences to the land and the wild creatures that share our planet. Ironically, had the human race applied ethical principles set forth in the Bible to environmental stewardship, such abuse would likely have been far less, if not curtailed.
            I explore this and many other related topics in my book Should Christians Be Environmentalists? I would enjoy your comments. In my next blog, I’ll explain what the Bible means when it instructs the human race to “subdue” and have “dominion”  over nature (Gen. 1:28, KJV) .

Dan Story’s first blog

Greeting,
Thanks for visiting my new blog. Although I’m open to most theological and apologetic related topics, I hope to initiate novel and challenging discussions in areas often neglected among Christians. For example, here are three topics I would enjoy discussing and getting your feedback: Christian environmentalism (what many evangelicals call “creation care”), the Bible’s perspective on human/animal relationships in this life and in the age to come, and almost anything related to natural theology and general revelation.
In terms of Christian environmentalism, in order to get my perspective, you should read my book Should Christians Be Environmentalists? (Kregel, 2012—it’s a short read, less than 200 pages, and available in paperback or Kindle.) Christian environmentalism is a growing but often underrated area of Christian ministry. Yet it can provide tremendous opportunities for evangelistic outreach—as well as culturally relevant apologetic points of contact—not only with secular environmentalists and followers of earth-based religions, but also college students and other young adults, who are more aware of and concerned about the world’s escalating environmental problems than most Christians. Church leaders are seeking culturally relevant points of contact with these least churched people in America (the so-called “Millennial Generation,” 18-30 year olds), and I believe Christian environmentalism can provide one of the best avenues for achieving this.
Here’s something even more provocative, and I would very much enjoy your feedback. I recently sent my agent my newest manuscript, provisionally titled Will Pets and Other Animals Be in Heaven; What the Bible Says and Science Supports. This is not a simplistic, sentimental book designed to comfort grieving pet owner or to encourage radical animal rights activism. Rather, the book is a thorough biblical exegesis of the topic, supported by recent studies in brain science and ethology (animal behavior). These two lines of evidence (biblical and scientific) have convinced me that sentient animals not only have immortal souls but also will resurrect alongside redeemed humans to inhabit the eschatological, restored “new heaven and earth” (Rom 8: 19-23; Rev. 21:1-4, et al.). I see nothing in the Bible to cast doubt on this conclusion—and much evidence to support it. I’ll share some of this in later blogs.
If you would like to get on my email list for occasional notices and updates—such as when my newest books are released—send me an email at danstory@earthlink.net. 
I look forward to hearing from you.
Dan Story
www.danstory.net