Environmental Ethics

Christianity Is Not the Root of the Ecological Crisis?
In 1967, historian Lynn White1 published a now famous piece entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which he concluded that many of our environmental problems could be traced to the Christian notion that God gave this earth to humans for their use and specifically directed humans to exercise dominion over the earth. In 1972, Carl Amery2 followed with an even heavier accusation.

The first major answer was written by the evangelical reformed philosopher Francis Schaeffer in 1972.3 He warned against a dichotomy of nature and grace in Christian and evangelical circles and saw the disinterest in the future of the visible world as platonism. He saw the roots of the ecological crisis in the renaissance, humanism, and enlightenment, with their borderless trust in human ratio and technical development. This is a line of argument that was taken up by Jürgen Moltmann4 in his teaching on creation. Moltmann critized a secular kind of Christianity that made itself the handyman of technical and economic growth without ethical linkage.

Many Christian thinkers have formulated a response to White’s indictment and proven him wrong. The response has taken three distinct forms of argument.

One path, which can be called the stewardship model, concludes that God did give humans dominion, but only on the condition that we act as wise stewards, exercising our dominion with prudence and care. This model is preferred within evangelical circles. Proponents can point to forerunners like Schaeffer or the Danish bishop Hans Lassen Martensen,5 who, in his ethic of 1854 (German 1878), clearly formulates an Ecotheology, demanding the preservation of creation in line with the traditional doctrine of the Church, including the Fall as reason for the crisis between humanity and creation.

Within mainstream and liberal Christianity are two more models, eco-feminism and creation spirituality, which actually agree with White and Amery and therefore want to overcome traditional Christianity. Eco-feminism sees domination over women and over the earth as stemming from masculine, patriarchal institutions. The belief is that salvation for the earth will only flow by modifying these institutions. Creation spirituality attempts to recover the nature mysticism of some medieval Christians such as Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Mechtild of Madeburg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Francis of Assisi.

Creation and the Bible
Environmentalists have made the preservation of creation into a political issue. Christians must remind them that there can be no creation without a creator, and that hope for creation implies hope in the creator.

Humanity’s dominion over creation serves primarily
human beings; however, God intended it to serve
creation as well.

Humanity’s dominion over creation serves primarily human beings; however, God intended it to serve creation as well. Unlike the ungodly, anyone who keeps God's laws of creation will also serve creation: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10). God gave humans the responsibility to “work” the world and to “take care of it” (Genesis 2:15), to change it, and to preserve it. These two ideas seem to contradict each other. However, in everyday life they are inseparable; they belong together like the two faces of a coin.

Beginning with Genesis 1:26-28, Christians must point to God's instructions that humanity protect the creation in God's name. The biblical emphasis is on stewardship, not ownership. The earth remains the Lord's and does not belong to its human inhabitants, as Leviticus 25:23 shows: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.”

In war, it was forbidden to cut trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), birds and their nests were protected (22:6-7), and in the Sabbath year, the farmland was put to rest for a whole year (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7).

Humanity Above, Yet Responsible
The Christian solution to the ecological crisis is not to equate humans with the creation, but to see their role as something very special in and even above the rest of creation. This clearly includes humanity’s responsibility of the care of all creation, which has too often suffered because of falling in sin (Romans 8:18-24).

The ecological movement instead often chooses the way of deifying nature and creation, often using ideas of animism or Eastern religions. So, for example, the international “Earth-Carta” of Rio de Janiero 1992 declares that “we are the earth” and “we venerate the earth as home of all living creatures.”

In societies moulded so strongly by Christianity, the modern conservationist movement attracts attention with its use of the word creation, at least in several European languages like German and French. Unfortunately, they misuse the term, because they deify nature and deny the difference between humanity and the rest of creation, instead of thinking in terms of the creator. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that humans can only preserve the earth when they honour God and keep God's laws. When Christians act to conserve the environment, they do it according to God's laws, not because nature has any sort of claim in itself. This process is sometimes called “The Greening of Evangelicals.”


1. 1967, Science 155(10.3): 1203-1207

2. Das Ende der Vorsehung: Die Gnadenlosen Folgen des Christentums. Reinbek, Germany: Rowohlt.

3. Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology. London.

4. 1993. Gott in der Schöpfung: Ökologische Schöp¬fungslehre. München: Chr. Kaiser.

5. 1993. God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Fortress Press,

Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher is professor of ethics and sociology of religion in Germany and Turkey. He is also president of Martin Bucer Theological Seminary, spokesman for human rights of the World Evangelical Alliance, and director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo). Schirrmacher has four doctorates (theology, cultural anthropology, ethics, and sociology of religions).