Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer
Since Lynn White’s 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” was published evangelicals have been seeking to define their relationship to creation. Nearly 50 years after that seminal essay and there still is no distinct, well-developed, evangelical presentation of a theological foundation for environmental ethics.
Evangelicals are in need of a balanced, broadly appealing theology of the environment that affirms the goodness of God’s creation and the unique role of humans within it. Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is an attempt to provide such a theological perspective. The author’s make their claim to being evangelical due to their affiliation with George Fox Evangelical Seminary, which is associated with traditionally evangelical denominations. The authors cite Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral as their basic definition of evangelicalism. However, the evidence of evangelical doctrine is very thin in this volume. For example, biblicism for the authors refers to the acceptability of Scripture as a source but not the primary source for matters of life and godliness. Throughout the volume, the authors have cited numerous passages of Scripture that support their argument. The citations are primarily illustrative rather than normative, using a hermeneutic of suspicion to question the content of Scripture and the intent of its authors.
The book is divided into four parts, with ten chapters in all. Part I presents their case for ecotheology. They begin with an introduction and in the second chapter present the voice of Scripture, which is focused here on biblical data that affirms an environmental ethics. Notably in the chapter on Scripture, the purpose is to provide grounds for “two books” of revelation with an emphasis on listening to creation. Chapter Three is dedicated to the voice of creation, particularly through contemporary scientific interpretations. The cry of the earth for liberation is the foundation for ecotheology.
Part II outlines ecotheology as the authors understand it. The fourth chapter gleans earth-affirming themes from historical theology, tracing the progress through to contemporary ecotheology’s development. The authors admit to a revisionist methodology for their history (69). Chapter Five is an attempt to redefine traditional Christian doctrines ecologically, including Trinity, Christology, and Pneumatology. The next chapter, then, redefines the doctrines of Creation, Sin, Soteriology, and Eschatology from an ecological perspective. One example of their reinterpretation is the assertion that Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land because he hit the rock at Meribah. According to this volume, “Striking the rock––demonstrating power and dominance over the created world––was a sin against God and the created world” (96). The clear interpretation presented by the text itself (Num 20:12) of the nature of Moses’ sin is ignored in this volume, which gives a glimpse of the hermeneutical method.
Praxis in the focus of Part III. Chapter Seven encourages reducing waste, using terms like ecojustice and oppression to define the ethical concepts. In the eighth chapter the authors encourage some practical steps to living a greener lifestyle, like eating less meat, conserving water, and gardening. Chapter Nine argues for explicit ecclesial involvement in environmentalism as a primary focus, including using elements in the Lord’s Supper to emphasize ecojustice causes instead of the usual emphasis on propitiation. Part IV concludes with a single chapter which encourages hopefulness instead of emphasizing despair, which is a tendency among non-theistic environmental ethics in our climate focused age.
The book has three authors, but it does well in speaking with a united voice, which is a strength. At times points of tension are highlighted between the authors, but for the most part there is a clear point of view throughout the text. Another strength of this volume is that the authors avoid excessive data. Too many recent volumes on environmental ethics get bogged down in graphs and charts, all of which are out of date as soon as the volume is published. Additionally, the authors engage with good intent in an important discussion, in which the Church needs to be more active.
The major weakness of the volume is the assertion that an evangelical ecotheology is possible. When the term was first used in the late 20th century, ecotheology referred to a theology that emphasized ecotheological themes. However, as time has gone on, ecotheology has come to signify a particular theological method which is best described as a form of Liberation Theology. As such, the authors demonstrate a movement toward defining authentic Christianity by orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. This means that coming to the “right” ethical conclusions is more important than doing justice to biblical norms. For ecotheologians, theology is not the process of understand the truth of Scripture in a contemporary context, but a process where we “‘glean’ from the Bible and from our traditions’ insights and practices what might have been missed or left behind by dominant structures and voices” (22). In other words, the text may be wrong or insufficient and the task of theology is to make up for the deficiencies of Scripture and tradition. This method may be acceptably evangelical if the definition of evangelicalism is sociological, however, for those that see right doctrine as the central characteristic of evangelicalism, this book misses the mark.
The most significant problem with the approach of this book is that the misrepresentation of Liberation Theology as a viable evangelical theological methodology is more likely to increase the divide between orthodox Christians and healthy environmentalism. The first decade of the 21st century saw an increased interest in creation care among evangelicals. Books like Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology may possibly do more harm than good by presenting an unhealthy theological method as acceptable.
Overall, though well written, this book is not helpful for defining a doctrinally faithful approach to environmental ethics. Most of its prescriptions for action are sound, but the method used to come to those applications is unsound. This book is helpful for those seeking to retain the label of evangelical while modifying doctrines to suit the pressures of the day. It is much less helpful for those seeking to chart a biblically faithful path toward a holistic, theocentric stewardship.
Andrew J. Spencer
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC
Buy the books
Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations In Scripture, Theology, History, And Praxis