Recent political debates about the environment appropriate language from churches in an attempt to lend moral legitimacy to the urgent and sometimes frenzied conversation. One example is the prevalence of the term “stewardship.” Legislation introduced by Senators McCain and Lieberman concerning global warming has become well-known by its popular moniker, The Climate Stewardship Act.
This appropriation echoes the theological and religious concern with stewardship and human sinfulness as related in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. What isn’t often recognized in the political debate, however, is the diverging character of the various theological interpretations of stewardship. These divergences are summed by two major views on the definition of stewardship, characterized respectively by the words “preservation” and “production.” As illustrated below, the preservationist position, while biblically based, does not do justice to the fullness of scriptural witness.
The first position, understood as the preservationist view of stewardship, is manifest in the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. This view emphasizes the pristine state of creation before the fall into sin, and understands this “garden” to be the ideal toward which we are to bend our efforts. The failure of humankind lies principally in its inability to “both sustain creation’s fruitfulness and preserve creation’s powerful testimony to its Creator.” The stewardly role of humankind can essentially be seen as maintenance of the created status quo. The dominant image of the earth in this view is that of “garden,” a fruitful botanical paradise.
The second position is evident in The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship. This view emphasizes “productivity” and “proliferation.” The “productivity” view of stewardship stresses the unity between the biblical mandate both to “be fruitful and increase in number” and to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28 NIV). The adherents to the Cornwall Declaration affirm human “potential, as bearers of God’s image, to add to the earth’s abundance,” and recognize the identity of human beings as both “producers and stewards.” We can characterize this view’s dominant image of the created ideal as “city.”
The parable of the talents contained in Matthew 25 helps illustrate the difference between these two positions. Jesus tells the story of a man who goes away on a trip, and leaves his servants in charge of varying amounts of wealth. While the owner is away, the first two men double the money entrusted to them through productive activity, as each “put his money to work.” The third servant, however, buries the money, so that it could be preserved and saved to be given back to the master upon his return. When the master returns, he praises the productive servants, but rebukes the servant who merely maintained his master’s wealth, saying, “You wicked, lazy servant! … You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest” (Matt. 25:26-27 NIV). Jesus uses this parable in part to illustrate the moral imperative for human beings to be productive stewards with the gifts we are given. This applies to the mandate of the created world no less than to monetary wealth or spiritual gifts.
Theologians have sometimes used the doctrine “tertiary creation” to get at this reality. Primary creation is understood as God’s creation of the world out of nothing. Secondary creation refers to God’s forming of this material into various shapes and creatures, especially as described in Genesis 1. By contrast, tertiary creation points to the creative action of human beings, acting as image bearers of God and in the power of his Spirit, who bring out the created potentiality of the world into new forms, shapes, and technologies. Such things as art, houses, and airplanes fit into this category.
It is in the recognition of this mandate to be productive and creative stewards that the “productive” view of stewardship is superior to the “preservation” view. Thus, the Cornwall Declaration “views human stewardship that unlocks the potential in creation for all the earth’s inhabitants as good.”
The preservationist view of stewardship often contains biblical truth as far as it goes, but it stops short of recognizing the full witness of Scripture. Instead, it offers a truncated and inadequate view of stewardship, which can lead to destructive policies. For instance, the preservationist view sees fallen humans primarily as destructive polluters, as menaces to the rest of creation. In this way, preservationists find that environmental degradations “are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God has set for creation. With continued population growth, these degradations will become more severe.” This line of reasoning leads easily into support for various forms of population control.
By contrast, the “productive” view of stewardship does not oppose the fruitfulness and multiplication of human beings (as present in Gen. 1:28) with the interests of the rest of the created world. Only by embracing humankind’s role as productive and creative stewards in all matters will we collectively hear the words of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matt. 25:21 NIV).
Jordan J. Ballor is a Communications Associate at the Acton Institute.