Acton Commentary

Preserved Garden or Productive City? Two Competing Views of Stewardship


Recent political debates about the environment appropriatelanguage from churches in an attempt to lend moral legitimacy to the urgent andsometimes frenzied conversation.One example is the prevalence of the term “stewardship.” Legislation introduced by SenatorsMcCain and Lieberman concerning global warming has become well-known by itspopular moniker, TheClimate Stewardship Act.

This appropriation echoes the theological and religiousconcern with stewardship and human sinfulness as related in the early chaptersof the book of Genesis. What isn'toften recognized in the political debate, however, is the diverging characterof the various theological interpretations of stewardship. These divergences are summed by twomajor views on the definition of stewardship, characterized respectively by thewords “preservation” and “production.”As illustrated below, the preservationist position, while biblicallybased, does not do justice to the fullness of scriptural witness.

The first position, understood as the preservationist viewof stewardship, is manifest in the Evangelical Environmental Network's EvangelicalDeclaration on the Care of Creation. This view emphasizes the pristine stateof creation before the fall into sin, and understands this “garden” to be theideal toward which we are to bend our efforts. The failure of humankind lies principally in its inabilityto “both sustain creation's fruitfulness and preserve creation's powerfultestimony to its Creator.” Thestewardly role of humankind can essentially be seen as maintenance of thecreated status quo . The dominant image of the earthin this view is that of “garden,” a fruitful botanical paradise.

The second position is evident in The Cornwall Declarationon Environmental Stewardship . This view emphasizes “productivity” and“proliferation.” The“productivity” view of stewardship stresses the unity between the biblicalmandate both to “be fruitful and increase in number” and to “rule over the fishof the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moveson the ground” (Gen. 1:28 NIV).The adherents to the Cornwall Declaration affirm human “potential, asbearers of God's image, to add to the earth's abundance,” and recognize theidentity of human beings as both “producers and stewards.” We can characterize this view'sdominant image of the created ideal as “city.”

The parable of the talents contained in Matthew 25 helpsillustrate the difference between these two positions. Jesus tells the story of a man who goesaway on a trip, and leaves his servants in charge of varying amounts ofwealth. While the owner is away,the first two men double the money entrusted to them through productiveactivity, as each “put his money to work.” The third servant, however, buries the money, so that itcould be preserved and saved to be given back to the master upon hisreturn. When the master returns,he praises the productive servants, but rebukes the servant who merelymaintained his master's wealth, saying, “You wicked, lazy servant! ... You shouldhave put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I wouldhave received it back with interest” (Matt. 25:26-27 NIV). Jesus uses this parable in part toillustrate the moral imperative for human beings to be productive stewards withthe gifts we are given. Thisapplies to the mandate of the created world no less than to monetary wealth orspiritual gifts.

Theologians have sometimes used the doctrine “tertiarycreation” to get at this reality.Primary creation is understood as God's creation of the world out ofnothing. Secondary creation refersto God's forming of this material into various shapes and creatures, especiallyas described in Genesis 1. Bycontrast, tertiary creation points to the creative action of human beings,acting as image bearers of God and in the power of his Spirit, who bring outthe created potentiality of the world into new forms, shapes, and technologies. Such things as art, houses, and airplanesfit into this category.

It is in the recognition of this mandate to be productiveand creative stewards that the “productive” view of stewardship is superior tothe “preservation” view. Thus, theCornwall Declaration “views human stewardship that unlocks the potential increation for all the earth's inhabitants as good.”

The preservationist view of stewardship often containsbiblical truth as far as it goes, but it stops short of recognizing the fullwitness of Scripture. Instead, itoffers a truncated and inadequate view of stewardship, which can lead todestructive policies. Forinstance, the preservationist view sees fallen humans primarily as destructivepolluters, as menaces to the rest of creation. In this way, preservationists find that environmentaldegradations “are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God hasset for creation. With continuedpopulation growth, these degradations will become more severe.” This line of reasoning leads easilyinto support for various forms of population control.

By contrast, the “productive” view of stewardship does notoppose the fruitfulness and multiplication of human beings (as present in Gen.1:28) with the interests of the rest of the created world. Only by embracing humankind's role asproductive and creative stewards in all matters will we collectively hear thewords of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithfulwith a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share yourmaster's happiness!” (Matt. 25:21 NIV).