Book Review: John Stott on Creation Care by R.J. Berry and Laura S. Metzner Yoder

If you are a Christian who is indifferent to environmental issues, or if you have dismissed the Christian faith as something which permits or facilitates environmental damage, this book will challenge your thinking! If you are already quite committed to the care of the natural world, you will find this book greatly encouraging. Whatever your starting point this book will offer you a deeper understanding of the Bible, of creation, and the importance of creation care as an essential component of Christian living. Here R.J. (Sam) Berry and Laura S. Meitzner Yoder have assembled the teachings of theologian John Stott on Christian environmental responsibility and creation care. Excerpts from Stott’s writings, sermons, and lectures are organised and interspersed with further insights from Berry, Yoder and others.

John Stott (1921-2011) was one of the most renowned theologians of the 20th century. His influence and respect were global. He was an Anglican clergyman known for his disciplined study and careful exposition of the Bible and his clear and powerful preaching. He authored more than fifty books. He was firmly committed to the authority of the Bible, had a passion for world evangelisation, and profound compassion for the poor and oppressed. Although Stott never wrote a book devoted singly to the topic, the theology of creation and creation care were woven throughout much of his writings, sermons and lectures. He had great foresight. His understanding of the importance of creation stewardship began in the 1940s, well before the importance of environmental issues became widely recognised in the 1970s and 80s. His personal study of nature (particularly birds) and his careful study of the Bible’s teachings (particularly the Psalms) contributed to his growing convictions.

This book differs from almost all other books advocating environmental protection in that its plea for care of the natural world arises not from scientific data or the urgency of our current environmental crises, but rather directly out of Scripture. Care of the natural world that God created is an area that the Bible speaks to throughout both the Old and New Testaments, but it has been largely neglected in the preaching, teaching and practice of evangelical churches, and too many Christians view nature conservation as an ideological or political issue rather than a biblical issue. Almost all other books on the topic begin with a statement of the environmental issues and problems, with varying discussion of the underlying science, followed with a biblical justification for action. Stott, by contrast began with careful exposition of the Bible. Berry and Yoder likewise do not discuss specific environmental problems or science.

The authors discuss several major biblical doctrines which Stott focused on as constituting the imperative for our care for the earth. The first is that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1) and that it was created by him and for him (Col. 1:16). The earth is created, sustained and redeemed by Christ (Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:2-3). Thus, we dare not abuse what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance. It is also clear from the book of Genesis that God has delegated the responsibility of serving and protecting his creation to us. We are its stewards. God remains the landlord and we are his tenants. To be faithful stewards, our delegated dominion over the earth should model God’s, and his model for us to follow is clear throughout scripture, e.g. God is loving towards all he has made (Psalm 145:13). To dominate, abuse, waste or destroy is modelled on sinful human arrogance and selfishness, not the loving care for the earth and its creatures modelled by God.

Another relevant biblical principle is that God’s redemptive plan is much larger than our personal salvation. The Bible is clear that the mission of God to bring all things in heaven and earth into unity under Christ, reconciling them through his death and resurrection. Like us, creation too will one day be freed from its slavery to decay and enter into God’s glory. We often neglect this, and as Stott notes, “Many Christians have a strong theology of salvation but a weak theology of creation”. Stott also drew a direct link between our care of creation and the biblical principle of mission and the commandment to love our neighbours. Our mission in the world should be modelled after that of Jesus, who came both to save and to serve others (Mark 10:45). Thus, both evangelism and compassionate service belong together in our mission, and caring for others must include caring for the earth upon which we all depend. I certainly agree. Given that more than 8 million people die annually due to environmental pollution and many millions more are made ill, loving our neighbours must include care for the environment.

Finally, the authors note that the creation itself is an important part of God’s revelation to us. The Bible teaches repeatedly throughout that we are to observe, study, and learn from creation as well as from the Scriptures. Stott called this “double listening”, and he valued his personal time in nature observation and study as an important part of his Christian life and learning. As a scientist and a Christian, I am saddened by the dismissal of science by many Christians, and I appreciate the perspective on science and faith expressed here. As Stott notes, theology is our attempt to understand what God has revealed in Scripture, while science is our attempt to understand what God has revealed in Nature.

In discussing the Bible’s teaching on our relationship to creation, the authors caution against the extremes of idolatrous nature worship on one hand, and indifference to God’s creation and its degradation on the other. They dispel many unbiblical beliefs about the environment, e.g. We needn’t care about the earth because God is going to destroy it anyway. Environmental degradation is an inevitable result of the fall of man, therefore we needn’t and can’t do anything about it. These and others are not dispelled based on the authors’ personal ideologies or views, but rather based directly upon Scripture.

The message of this book is clear, compelling and most importantly, biblically-based. It is not a call to save the planet. Rather, the message here is that Christians should actively care for the natural world simply because the Bible teaches that we are to be faithful stewards of what God created. Our care of creation is an essential part of our worship of the Creator and our care for all humans who depend on the natural world He created, and it should be an integral part of our daily Christian life.