Stewards of the Earth
by Allison Trent
One forms many questions when thinking about the story of creation, especially in the context of Christian theology. One of the most common questions seems to be, “What is my purpose on earth?”—or more defined, “What has God intended for me, in relation to creation, and how shall I live out this call?” To answer these questions, I have explored the ideas of four authors and theologians, including Calvin DeWitt, Sallie McFague, Mark McIntosh, and popular Christian writer C.S. Lewis. In order to answer the previous questions, one must understand the original intent of humanity in creation, the fall of creation, and the renewal of creation through Jesus Christ. The theological response to how one should answer the question of humanity’s purpose and responsibility within creation is based on stewardship—the selfless, loving service of caring for creation, on behalf of Christ, which praises the Creator.
The biblical account of creation takes place in Genesis; this is the first place that the purpose of humanity in creation can be found. Genesis 1.26 reads: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (NRSV). Here, humanity receives the privilege and responsibility to rule over the earth and creatures. This responsibility—an act of stewardship—bears with it a sense of purpose, mutual trust, and ownership. Humans receive “dominion,” the important task of acting as protectors, nurturers, and caretakers in communion with God. Dominion in this sense is not an abuse of power or some sort of exploitation of less-powerful beings, but a partnership with the Creator and a purpose for being.
Author Calvin DeWitt expands on the idea of “dominion” as Genesis uses it to describe humanity’s rule over the rest of creation. DeWitt talks about the “spectrum” of human dominion, at which one extreme dominion becomes selfish “domination,” and at the other extreme dominion is selfless “stewardship” (43). To explain this theory more in terms of creation, he writes, “Domination is service in behalf of self at the expense of creation; stewardship is service to creation in behalf of the Creator” (DeWitt 43). To have dominion over all creatures is a responsibility intended for individuals to carry out as stewardship rather than as an act of domination.
Deepening the view about the original intent of humanity in creation is Mark McIntosh. He believes that humankind’s purpose as stewards includes interacting with creation and communicating with God. He writes, “Humanity was intended to assist the whole creation in achieving the recognition of its inner meaning, its resonance as an element in the great ‘conversation’ of God and the creatures which is the universe” (McIntosh 194). Part of recognizing the “inner meaning” of creation is to become intimately aware of the truth creation holds and to appreciate genuinely and praise the Creator for such a mysterious, wonderful masterpiece.
Sallie McFague has similar ideas about how humanity should respond to creation—with wonder, praise, and appreciation—but she comes to this conclusion from a different perspective. She believes that the Creator intends for humanity to help in caring for creation because “we have the knowledge and power to help the process of the ongoing creation continue” (McFague 108). At the same time, she also argues that with great power and knowledge come great responsibility. McFague believes that humans are deeply connected to each other and to other forms of life and that humans have a responsibility to “accept our proper place and live in a fitting, appropriate way with all other beings” (112).
The Chronicles of Narnia, a fictional series written by C.S. Lewis, deals with the idea of stewardship as the purpose of certain beings within creation, using a popular Christian theology in a book called The Magician’s Nephew. This book describes the creation of Narnia; the great lion, Aslan, speaks into this new world of Narnia in order to “awaken” created life, including the Talking and Dumb Beasts. The Talking Beasts are told to treat the Dumb Beasts “gently and cherish them,” giving them power and knowledge but also great responsibility (Lewis 118). During the creation of Narnia, Aslan also appoints a King and Queen to “rule and name all these creatures, and do justice among them, and protect them from their enemies when enemies arise” (Lewis 138). The King and Queen are also responsible for ruling the creatures “kindly and fairly,” treating them not as slaves but as “free subjects” (Lewis 139). This simple illustration is an example of how humanity (or in this case, the King, Queen, and Talking Beasts) was intended to live as stewards, ruling justly, caring, protecting, and appreciating creation.
Humankind receives a unique and important responsibility to have dominion over creation, but the fall of creation (as seen in Genesis 3) changed humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation and with God. After Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had commanded them not to do, they were driven out of Eden and were guarded from returning. Once sin entered the world, communication between God and creation changed, and humans began to abuse their knowledge and power in destructive, dominating, irresponsible ways.
Contrary to some theological views, McFague believes that humans are sinners not because of rebelliousness or insufficiencies, but because of an “unwillingness to stay in our place, to accept our proper limits so that other individuals of our species as well as other species can also have needed space” (113). Simply put, for McFague, to sin is to be selfish. To use DeWitt’s language, selfishness is just the embodiment of domination, and is the opposite of selfless stewardship. DeWitt cites Genesis 1-11 as Scripture that addresses the “wrongness” of domination (43). Dominion on the “domination” end of the spectrum is “failing to meet the Creator’s expectations for us, it is sin,” while at the other end of the spectrum, dominion as “stewardship” is “seeking first to do the will of God with respect to creation” (DeWitt 44). Both theologians would agree that sin involves some type of selfish, dominating act that goes against the will of God.
McIntosh suggests that humanity is a “particular form of creaturely existence, a form in which creation’s communicable, linguistic orientation reaches up into ever more blessed fulfillment, or else falls back into ever more pernicious anti-communication and antagonism” (199). In other words, humans may continue to live in sin, or humans can decide to live as God originally intended, which is in communication with God and with creation. One can find an example mimicking McIntosh’s idea once again in The Magician’s Nephew. After Aslan gives some of the creatures in Narnia the ability to speak (a gift of power, knowledge, and responsibility), these Talking Beasts also receive warning to care for, but not act like, the Dumb Beasts: “Do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return” (Lewis 118). The Talking Beasts (and humanity) now have a choice to live in communication with God and with each other, moving towards “blessed fulfillment,” or to fall into “anti-communication” like the Dumb Beasts, back into sin.
Through class discussions with other students studying creation, I have learned another interesting point of view regarding the influence of sin on humanity’s role in creation. Zac Lauck argues in his paper that “God has allowed there to be sin and freewill” in order that humanity is given a “purpose to learn” (4). He cites theologian David Fergusson’s ideas that humanity’s purpose within creation is to make decisions that fulfill the image that God had intended (Lauck 4). With this view, humans have a responsibility that comes with their knowledge and power, yet because sin and freewill entered creation, humans may choose to live selfishly or in service to the Creator and all of creation.
Sin distorts God’s original intent for humanity in creation to exercise dominion as stewardship, but one finds in 2 Corinthians 5.16-21 that Jesus renews creation and gives humanity a new purpose within creation; stewardship in the form of reconciliation. According to this passage, there is a “new creation” in Christ, and just as God reconciles the world to Godself through Christ, humanity is to, “on behalf of Christ,” be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5.17-20). Through the lens of salvation, “dominion” becomes “reconciliation.” Jesus reconciles creation to God, therefore humanity is also responsible for taking part in the “ministry of reconciliation” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5.18. This ministry of reconciliation involves restoring creation’s relationship and communication, once destroyed by sin, with God.
In dealing with humankind’s ministry of reconciliation, McIntosh believes that, “Along with other intelligent creatures, humans have the capacity, as empowered by the Holy Spirit, to participate in the Word’s restoration of voice and communal, flowing life to all creatures” (225). He shares theologian Thomas Traherne’s view that humanity’s purpose is to “discern this deeper truth of all things,” but he also believes that humans can either behave like pigs, disregarding the mystery and beauty of creation, or like angels, enjoying the creativity, intricacy, and wonder of the work of the Creator (McIntosh 225). In this viewpoint, stewardship and reconciliation take place when humanity enjoys creation, searching for and appreciating signs of a creative, mysterious Creator and the truth of a loving, serving Savior.
Living in the image and likeness of God is something that DeWitt seems to find important when talking about salvation and reconciliation. DeWitt believes that service, or stewardship, should “reflect God’s love for the world” (46). He thinks that being made in God’s image gives us the important responsibility to “reflect God’s goodness, righteousness, and holiness. It is to use our intellectual powers, natural affections, and moral freedom to reflect the wisdom, love, and justice of God” (DeWitt 46). Therefore, since reconciliation is something that God takes part in, humans (being made in God’s image) should also take part in the reconciliation of creation.
McFague relates salvation and creation by saying that “salvation is the direction of creation and creation is the place of salvation,” meaning that creation moves towards salvation, and salvation takes place within creation (180). She also argues that salvation is for creation as a whole—not just for humanity—and she stresses that “the liberating, healing, inclusive ministry of Christ takes place in and for creation” (McFague 182). This means that reconciliation is not purely a spiritual matter, but has physical implications as well. Sustainability and restoration of the earth are examples of how humanity may participate in the reconciliation of creation in a real, tangible way.
There are several theories telling how humanity should respond to the call of stewardship today, and each of the four views mentioned below all have in common the responsibility to live a specific kind of lifestyle with the Creator and among creation. McFague suggests that humanity has a responsibility for five things today: living in unity but appreciating diversity, living appropriately in relation with others, fulfilling the physical needs of creation, living in solidarity with the marginalized, and following humanity’s unique calling to live in partnership with the Creator and Savior (199-201). DeWitt believes that it is important to seek God’s will with respect to creation; humanity must “keep” the earth, nurturing life-sustaining, life-fulfilling relationships with God, humans, and creation (44). McIntosh once again agrees with Traherne’s ideas about the “divine purpose in all things,” which includes delighting in and praising creation, living in mutual happiness, and receiving creation’s truth by thanking God (226). Finally, I have gained a fourth perspective on humanity’s responsibility for creation while in a class discussion with the group studying creation. My classmate Adam Litwiller cites Charles Hodge in his paper, who believes that God created in order to reveal God’s love and holiness, and so that God could “rejoice in [creation] and bless it” (5). Because humankind is made in God’s image and likeness, humans are created to love, rejoice, and bless creation just as God does, giving thanks and praise to God in return.
After examining the original intent of humanity in creation, the fall of creation, and the renewal of creation through Christ, it has become evident that humanity’s purpose and responsibility within creation is to engage in stewardship. When God created the earth, God gave humankind dominion over all of creation; this was a privilege and responsibility to selflessly protect, nurture, appreciate, interact with, and care for creation in partnership with God the Creator. This calling for humans was to accept God’s will by living in God’s image and likeness. The fall of creation brought an abuse of power and knowledge, causing the destruction of creation and loss of communication with the Creator. Because sin entered the world, humanity has the choice to live as a selfless steward, or to practice selfish domination of creation. Jesus renews creation, however, and this salvation gives humanity a renewed purpose—a ministry of reconciliation—to help restore creation’s relationship with God. Humankind’s purpose now involves a transformational, active stewardship—to communicate appreciation and praise to creation and the Creator, to work towards physically restoring creation, and to seek the will of God in all things.
DeWitt, Calvin B. Caring for Creation: Responsible Stewardship of God’s Handiwork. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Harold W. Attridge, ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
Lauck, Zac. “Is God Still in Charge?”. Essay. 2011. Bluffton University, Bluffton, OH.
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955.
Litwiller, Adam. “The Construction of Creation”. Essay. 2011. Bluffton University, Bluffton, OH.
McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
McIntosh, Mark A. Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.