10 January 2015

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology

Review of Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014.

In this recent addition to the burgeoning literature on ecotheology, a diverse team of evangelical theologians set out to introduce an evangelical ecotheology.

The volume is structured in four parts. They begin with methodological issues. An autobiographical introduction suggests that this book has arisen out of their personal experiences of environmental crisis. Chapter 2 takes us to Scripture – the predictable starting point for an evangelical approach to the environment but also the appropriate starting point for any orthodox Christian perspective on the subject. Thus in our engagement with the environment they recommend that we return constantly to the biblical witness, while maintaining a dialogue with the various Christian traditions and always conscious of the fallibility of our interpretations. They take for granted the popular metaphor of the two books: Scripture and creation are equally revelatory; and they warn against reading creation in ways that might lead us to romanticize, deify, or, spiritualize it. And they conclude the chapter with a brief survey of biblical reasons for creation care. In the following chapter, they pick up and further develop the theme of creation as revelatory.

Part II is an introductory exploration of ecotheology, beginning with a whistle-stop tour of how Christian traditions have viewed the natural environment, which admits the ambivalence of most of those traditions but nevertheless gives the reader an impressive introductory list of resources for further development of an ecotheology. The other two chapters of the section are devoted to a systematic survey of the major theological loci and how they relate to environmental issues.

With Part III, we turn from theory to Christian ecological practice. This is not so much because of the traditional Western intellectual prejudice that prioritizes theoria over praxis, but rather because for Christianity the two are inseparable: by their fruit shall ye know them and a theology that does not bear good fruit must always be questionable. After a discussion of what is involved in developing an ecotheological mindset, the authors embark on an exposition of good ecological behaviour for individual Christians in which they outline no fewer than ten spiritual/ecological disciplines. The final chapter of the section recalls that as believers we are not isolated individuals but members of a community as it explores ways of greening the Church.

In a brief concluding section, they highlight a distinctive feature of Christian environmental care: it is rooted in a specific hope – the restoration of all things. And they flesh out some of the characteristics of Christian hope as they relate to the environment.

The book certainly offers ample resources for someone embarking on an orthodox Christian exploration of environmental issues, but in what ways is it distinctively evangelical? Starting as it does with the Trinity, their systematic account of ecotheology suggests a post-Barthian perspective (albeit one informed by wide reading in the major Christian theological traditions) rather than a distinctively evangelical outlook. I must confess I was left wondering whether the approach is described as ‘evangelical’ simply because the authors self-identify as such.

One striking feature of the book is its perspective. This is particularly evident in the chapter on embodying down-to-earth living. For example, they offer, inter alia, an ecological examen, which includes such questions as ‘What kind of car do you drive?’ ‘How often do you fly?’ and ‘How often do you select cleaning products that are biodegradable or nontoxic?’ And they recommend buying a stainless steel thermos so that you can drink tap water while on the move rather than buying bottled water! This is environmentalism for suburban, middle class North America.

In conclusion, this is a well-written volume, and while it does not break new ground in ecotheology (evangelical or otherwise) it is a useful introduction for newcomers to ecotheology who want something written from an orthodox Christian perspective.