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A Christian Agenda for Environmental Protection

By Editorial Staff
Published April 5, 2008

By Calvin Beisner

Managing the resources of the earth – a very crucial issue facing us in the 1990s – involves the planning and controlling of the raw materials which are developed for the benefit of mankind. How do we formulate public policy on the environment from a Christian perspective? Five chief standards from the Bible seem apparent to me:

1. The Dominion Mandate. The first of these appears in what theologians have called “the dominion mandate” in the opening chapter of Genesis. There God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule [or “have dominion”] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And, having made man male and female, He said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26, 28). Let me suggest three observations about this mandate.

First, the dominion mandate is, as Old Testament scholar R. Laird Harris put it, “far from specific. To have ‘rule over’ the earth might as easily refer to free use and development of resources as to our responsibility for their conservation. To ‘rule over’ the animals does not specifically say high dams for power should be rejected so as to avoid bringing an exotic type of little fish to extinction.“1 In other words, the dominion mandate cannot be packed as a pistol in the holster of either the devotees of untouched nature or the rapists of mother earth.

Second, while it may be ambiguous about other things, the dominion mandate clearly means that the earth, with everything in it – though it all belongs to God (Psalm 24:1) – was intended by God to serve man’s needs. Man was not made for the earth; the earth was made for man. It is man, not the earth or anything in it, who was created in the image of God. To make man subservient to the earth is to turn the purpose of God in creation on its head.

Third, the dominion mandate does not tell us what particular uses of the earth are best suited to man’s service. From this we can legitimately infer two things: (a) that God intended there to be considerable liberty regarding the ways in which we rule the earth, particularly since we differ about how we want the earth to serve us; (b) that difficult scientific and practical issues are involved in determining how best to make the earth serve us. From these two inferences we can derive a third: that we owe it to each other to be moderate and humble in our judgments of each others’ views about resource management lest we mistakenly impose our own standards rather than God’s.

2. Private Property. Scripture clearly approves of the ownership of private property, forbidding, as it does, all forms of theft (Exodus 20:15). In the context of resource management, granted the prevalence of statist attempts to control people’s uses of property, it is particularly important to note that the Bible assigns to the owner of property absolute control over it within the limits of God’s moral law (Acts 5:4, Matthew 20:13, 15). This principle tells us that the owners of resources may use them as they wish so long as they do not violate the rights of others – rights delineated in the Ten Commandments.

3. Justice. The third theological and moral standard governing our use of resources is the broad biblical principle of justice. It is important, however, that this principle be rightly understood. Justice means rendering impartially to everyone his due in accordance with the right standard of God’s moral law revealed in Scripture.2 What the law prohibits, we should neither do nor permit others to do; what the law permits, we may not prohibit.

Furthermore, the principle of justice prohibits force for any purpose other than to prevent or punish violations of God’s moral law. Force may not be used to induce compliance with anyone’s wishes outside those supported by that law. Reward, not punishment, is the proper incentive to lawful economic action; punishment should be restricted solely to violations of biblical moral law.

4. Liberty. From these first three theological and moral principles follows a fourth: liberty. If God’s instruction that we “rule over” the earth and everything in it is far from specific, and if a biblical understanding of justice prohibits the use of force except to prohibit, prevent, prosecute, and punish violations of God’s moral law – the doing of injustice – then it follows that in all activities not proscribed by God’s moral law we have, and are to grant others, liberty.

So long as we do no injury to another, we may use what belongs to us as we please – at least we may do so without fear of human judgment. (God’s judgment is another thing. He looks on the heart, not only on the outward action. He knows whether we have done something just from an unjust motive, and He judges us for that motive as well as for the act. But such judgment is impossible for human minds.)

5. Love. But the dominion mandate, private property, justice, and liberty do not exhaust the biblical principles governing resource management. A final principle is love, the selfless act of caring for the needs of others. While justice gives us the minimum standards of action, love is the high goal toward which every child of God is called to aim. It is not enough that we should refrain from injuring our neighbors; we must do them positive good.
This said, however, it is essential to note that love cannot be forced. It must be voluntary. Hence no appeal may properly be made to civil government to force actions above and beyond the minimum standards of justice. Because civil government is by nature an entity of force, the principle of love falls largely outside its capacities. It exists to enforce justice, not love.

Applying These Principles to the Environment

How might these general principles be applied to problems related to resource management? Time permits us only a brief survey of two basic points, and I cannot claim that this is an exhaustive list. My purpose is only to suggest some directions in which we might go.

First, the dominion mandate means at least that man, not the environment, is primary. Certainly the environment should be protected, but it must be protected for the sake of man, not for the sake of the environment. Anything else is idolatry of nature. 3

Second, the biblical principles of private property, justice, and liberty mean at least that no entity, private or public, has proper authority to restrict others’ use of property – including any resources they own – in any way other than that required by God’s moral law, particularly the fifth through ninth commandments. Civil law should prohibit and punish actual injustices to life (sixth commandment), family and other contractual relationships (fifth and seventh commandments), property (eighth commandment), and reputation (ninth commandment) by acts of violence, rebellion, unfaithfulness, theft, and fraud. It has no authority to use its legal monopoly of force for any other purpose.

This does not mean that “just anything goes.” Pollution – whether toxic chemicals, noxious odors, bothersome noises, or solid waste – that causes injury to others or their property should be subject to redress through criminal and, primarily, civil action. The redress, however, should be in the form of restitution to those injured, not of fines to the state, which exists to protect and vindicate citizen’s God-given rights. Scripture provides for restitution of losses due to misuse of property (Exodus 21:28-36; 22:6). However, real damage to or trespass upon property (or person) must occur in order for restitution to be justified.

Some major difficulties arise at this point. Since the Industrial Revolution, civil courts have adopted conflicting notions of property rights and pollution-related torts. Furthermore, ever-growing state ownership of property – public lands, in particular – sometimes obscures the identities of both perpetrators and victims in pollution-related lawsuits. In addition, technology has enabled us to observe and measure levels of physical invasion – by sound, lights, liquids, solids, and gases – heretofore unnoticed. This greatly complicates problems related to pollution policy.

Both biblical principle and prudence indicate that this dilemma is best resolved by tightening up the understanding of private property and its attendant rights and responsibilities rather than by transferring such rights and responsibilities increasingly to the state – the latter being the choice of many theorists and courts. Furthermore, I cannot help thinking that the current crisis in the courtroom cannot be overcome until Americans learn to trust anew in the loving providence of God and so accept most of life’s inevitable suffering as from His gracious hand rather than thinking all of it must be blamed on someone else who must make restitution.

Who Should Plan and Control Resources?

It will come as no surprise now that I suggest that planning and control of resources should, except perhaps under the extremities of war, be left to the owners of the resources, within the limits of biblical moral law. There is simply no biblical justification for the civil government’s attempting to control the use of private property, including natural resources, beyond those limits.

Making this work is not always simple. Problems arise in which property rights are difficult to define and determine. Ownership of water in aquifers or running streams or rivers, for example, is difficult to define, as is ownership of lakes, oceans, and the atmosphere. In some instances, it seems that the state, acting on behalf of its citizens, must take on the role of owner of some such resources. In those instances, however, the state must function as nearly as possible the way private persons function as owners of property. If it fails to enforce its own property rights vigorously enough, its citizens will suffer loss due to abuse. If it exercises too vigorous control over the resources of which it asserts stewardship, its citizens may be deprived of considerable economic advantage and production.

Devising appropriate policies in this regard is not easy, but keeping three fundamental principles in focus should at least provide a sound basis for formulating policy: (1) resources exist to serve man; man does not exist to serve them. Therefore they should be used, to the greatest extent possible, in manners best suited to the desires of the greatest number of people. (2) the state always faces the temptation to exert its will beyond proper boundaries. Safeguards against this must always be built into every policy. (3) State officials and employees are subject to the same moral frailties as private persons. Their access to the coercive capacities of the state, however, makes them potentially more dangerous to others’ rights than most private persons. Strict systems of accountability, therefore, must always be part of policy.

What Are the Goals of Resource Management?

Consistent with the dominion mandate’s insistence that the earth, with everything in it, was made for man, not man for the earth, the goal of resource management should be to increase the degree to which the world serves man. Since, however, different people have different needs and desires, no generalization is possible regarding what particular uses serve that goal and what ones don’t. Within the limits of God’s moral law, any use of resources that serves people is permissible; the more efficiently it serves them, the better it is.

In general, expansion – not contraction – of private property rights, and even the transfer of more and more property into private hands rather than state hands, should be the goal of resource management policy. Such a policy will tend to keep the power of the state within its proper bounds, and so will diminish opportunities for oppression. It will also increase people’s liberty within the bounds of God’s law and, simultaneously, will increase their enjoyment of the goods and services that can be provided by the use of resources.

1 R. Laird Harris, “The Incompatibility of Biblical Incentives with the Driving Forces of World Economic Systems,” an address at Baylor University, 1988, p. 3.
2 Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books), chapters 4-5.
3 Herb Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 171.


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