Hope by Fiona Sherwin

Being God’s Image: Biblical Ethics and the Care of Creation.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice! Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy! Let the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he is coming! He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with justice, and the nations with his truth. Psalm 96:11-13; New Living Translation

We live in an age where the human capacity to adapt the physical environment for human purposes has been dramatically enhanced through technology, economics, and political processes. The resulting problem is what Oliver O’Donovan calls the “hominization of the world,”[1] where the world becomes a human artefact and nature becomes manipulated and reconstituted in the service of human wants. Furthermore, this leads to economic imbalance where the more affluent have global access to natural resources often to the detriment of the poor. The consequence of this is what is now called the global ecological crisis, identified through:[2]

· Mass extinction of species via human action.

· Climate change.

· Global pollution.

· Erosion and desertification.

Within the world-wide Anglican Communion the imperative to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth is identified as one of the five-fold tasks of the Church’s mission.[3] Theologically, the care of creation is based on the biblical understanding of God as Creator and humanity as the imago Dei – the created beings that bear the image of God, living as God’s representatives within creation to serve creation.[4] Furthermore, there is an fundamental connection within the biblical narrative between creation, redemption, and ethics, so that as Colin Gunton suggests, “If God’s purpose is for the redemption and perfection of the creation, all human action will in some way or other involve the human response to God that is ethics.”[5] So what are the ethical criteria on which we can base our human activity for the care of creation?

The standard secular ethical criteria of autonomy, beneficence, justice, and non-maleficence[6] often result in public policy based on the “lowest common denominator capable of securing public consensus.”[7] In contrast, biblical theology offers a way to determine ethical criteria by focusing on the importance of the biblical metanarrative. While encompassing the historical-critical methodology of biblical criticism, biblical theology specifically focuses on the theological themes that unify the Bible.[8] As a unified whole, the Bible can then be read as the drama of God’s sovereignty in the renewal of all creation. In taking the biblical metanarrative as the starting point for theological ethics, the central question is the sort of person/society the narrative shapes. In this context, faith means the “joining of our personal stories with the transcendent/immanent story of a religious community and ultimately with the grand narrative of divine action in the world.”[9]

From a Trinitarian perspective, theological ethics presupposes a personal relationship with God, lived in response to God’s call in Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This relationship then enables God’s people to recognise God at work to shape and empower them individually and communally to reflect God’s character in the world in the face of new issues requiring a Christian response. Morality then becomes as O’Donovan suggests, our “participation in the created order.”[10] The proposal in this article is that the major themes of Creation, Continuing Creation, and New Creation can be used to identify a number of spiritually-based ethical principles that provide a Christian-based ethical response to issues relating to the care of creation.

Biblical Theology and Theological Ethics

The challenge within our technologically advanced society is how to live in a manner faithful to the Christian story, when often the common secular approaches to ethics negate many of the larger questions about worth and value that are also important. At best these secular approaches provide a morally neutral stance where decisions are based only on the impact on social policy. However, there is a growing realisation that religion deepens the justification for ethical action by focusing on the “intention embedded in action”[11] rather than a justification based on the action or result alone.

Within the context of today’s environmental issues, the challenge is to discern how to use biblical resources as a voice in this new area of knowledge and praxis. For Christian ethics, the moral teachings of Jesus form a paradigm that provides scenarios for action, from which the correct pattern of behaviour can be discerned, and the paradigm extended to new situations. In doing so, Scripture is “freed up to offer signposts in areas not on the original map,”[12] where the paradigms are utilised in an analogous sense to that indicated in the Bible. Richard B. Hays describes this as providing “imaginative analogies” that allow the biblical stories to speak into our historical context through a process of “metaphor making.” Then, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, imaginative links can be made resulting in “imaginative correlations” for biblically inspired action in new situations.[13] Although the context is different, the basic biblical narrative remains the same so that theological understanding of the Christian faith is still applicable in the context of environmental issues today.[14]

Ethical Categories Based on Biblical Theology.


Within this ethical approach utilising biblical theology, the Christian doctrine of creation is a distinctive worldview that forms the basis of how God, humanity, and the whole of creation are understood. It is my contention that the Christian doctrine of creation is a necessary presupposition for understanding the ultimacy of God as Creator, leading to the notion of relation/relatedness that provides the framework for ethical principles.

The first concept of ethical significance is the term “creation” that represents a view of origins providing meaning and purpose to existence. Creation is also an ontological state of existence, the “given totality of order which forms the presupposition of historical existence,”, and the objective reference for moral human life, rather than a human construct.[15] Of central importance is that God and only God is understood as the “Creator”, the sole agent of creation who is primarily characterised as love (1 John 4:8, 16). This primary characteristic of God is identified with the relational interpretation of the Trinity – where God, defined as Father, Son, and Spirit, is ontologically one God existing in communion. Creation therefore is understood as the outflow of God’s love in an act of self-giving and sustaining love, where God’s love for creation reflects the love within the Trinity and is expressed in covenantal terms.[16]

Furthermore, in Trinitarian terms, creation is understood to have occurred through Christ the creative “Word” (John 1:1-18; Col 1:15-20). In the incarnation, God became human; the Creator became a “creature in time”[17] in which Jesus Christ is the “oneness of Creator and creature.”[18] Christ is the perfect example of human nature, and the fullest expression of God's intent for creation and humanity in particular, being both the image of God and the norm for true divinity and true humanity.[19] Therefore, God shares in the creaturely existence and God’s relation with the world is identified as personal.[20] There has also been a re-emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s activity at the beginning of God’s creative act as the “Lord and Giver of life,” highlighting the universal role of the Holy Spirit and of grace.[21] The Holy Spirit is pictured as the breath of God breathing life into and empowering the universe in all its stages, and as God’s immanent power “enabling all creatures to be and to become.”[22] As a result, God’s creative act is aligned with God’s further works in which, through the Son and Spirit, God is continually involved in the world in order to provide the “institution, preservation and execution of the covenant of grace.”[23] The witness of Scripture is the restoration hope of this creation in which all of creation is redeemed and transformed through Christ, not a hope from this creation.[24]

In creating, God freely decided to not exist alone, but rather, to exist in fellowship with a reality that is truly distinct from Godself. This distinction between God and creation is expressed in the understanding of creation ex nihilo – creation out of nothing, in which God does not rely on anything outside of Godself, and is therefore truly sovereign and free.[25] In the act of creation, God also has given creation freedom – the time and space to become itself within constrains, through what Karl Barth describes as “God’s patience.”[26] Therefore, the act of creation can be seen to have two purposes: to create something that is intrinsically of value; and to make something valuable in itself because it is created to serve God’s glory.[27]

The relatedness of creation is grounded in the relationality of God so that the universe is understood in terms of “nature-as-creation,”[28] rather than pure raw material. Creation is therefore ordered: vertically to its Creator (Col 1), and also horizontally among its parts – “fellow creature to fellow creature.”[29] Order then leads to an understanding of the givenness of creation, a fundamental religious idea across all peoples outside of Western Europe and its sphere of influence.[30] Givenness identifies creation is a covenant, “a gift of being which God conferred upon the world.”[31] The failure to see the givenness of nature is a failure of spiritual vision that Bruce Foltz suggests, is both “odd and modern” and is understood as foolishness.[32] Therefore, humanity can approach nature as wondrously given, bestowed as true creation so that we encounter nature as a whole and recognise nature’s inherent beauty and integrity.[33] The natural world is the given context within which we exist, rather than a context made in our own image. As such, nature itself becomes an inspiration for praise of the Creator God,[34] and leads to a growing understanding of our interconnectedness with nature in all its power and beauty.

The notion of creation also provides a specific understanding of humanity in relation to God, and in relation to the whole of creation. As the climax of God’s creative activity, humanity is the only creature made in the image of God (imago Dei; Genesis 1:26–27), a pre-eminent position, dignity, and worth relating primarily to function and position rather than appearance and form. This is based on the understanding of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture where the concept of image was associated with representing a god on Earth.[35] In contrast to other ANE cultures where the imago Dei resides with the king, in the biblical creation story there is “democratisation” of the imago Dei to the whole of humanity.[36] Rikki Watts utilises this view within the metaphor of “creation-as-temple-palace” to describe humanity's function as the installed image-bearers of God within creation with a representative function to look after creation on behalf of God.[37] In the biblical creation account, Adam and Eve as the imago Dei and as archetypes of humanity are given a royal and priestly status to serve as God’s vicegerents to extend God’s temple and kingdom throughout the earth.[38] Significantly, the giveness of creation means that the place of humanity as creature is distinguished from that of God as Creator within the created order. Human nature is located within a divinely given order, in which humanity has an ordained place and role that results in the flourishing of humanity and the whole of creation.[39] As Christopher Beetham suggests, “Christian Scripture is the story of the Creator King fulfilling his original creation intentions to establish earth as the Kingdom of God through flourishing human vicegerency.”[40]

In contrast to the individuality that defines humanity today, the biblical view of humanity is “relational” in three ways:

Relationship with God. To be human identifies a special “capacity and vocation for community with God.”[41] Therefore being human-in-relationship-with-God, identifies God as the “Redeemer” who has restored the broken relationship between humanity and God through Jesus Christ. Redemption of this relationship has occurred through the resurrection of Jesus Christ who came to restore the imago Dei in humanity, and through whom we can live as the restored image-bearers of God. As Oliver O’Donovan states, “in proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, the proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him.”[42]

The Imago Dei. Humans are defined as persons in terms of relationship with others, rather than a definition based on individuality that emphasises separation from others. Therefore, as part of the created order, for humanity “other” includes the whole created order.

Free Will. Human free will is a relational concept defined by distinctiveness and role which is limited by the sovereignty of God and the existence of fellow creatures. In terms of distinctiveness, the biblical account of human creation (Genesis 2) identifies humanity as bearing witness to God’s acts, where only humanity can witness to Christ as God’s partners who can knowingly and freely respond.[43] Humanity, although in continuity with the created order, is also distinct in its role within creation as the image bearers of God. Therefore, there is a God-given mandate to exercise “dominion” (Gen 1:26) and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:29) which is the realisation of humanity’s function. This is not, however, an end in itself because in doing so as the restored imago Dei, the whole of creation flourishes and nature and humanity live in harmony as God intended (Rom 8:19-22).[44] Therefore dominion/rule is understood as stewardship through vicegerency, which means being appointed to look after the creation that God has entrusted to us.[45] For some, however, stewardship is inadequate and still views nature as a resource, so other metaphors have been explored to develop a more Christological focus of what it means for humanity to function as the imago Dei, such as: shepherd, partners, priestly service, Christ-centred service and servanthood, and created co-creator.[46]

Creation: Ethical Implications.

A. Ultimate and Penultimate.

In ethical terms, the distinction between the Creator and creation identifies God as the ultimate source of life and existence. In contrast, humanity is a creature who can participate in the work of God by taking on a penultimate role within the created order given by God, including acts of social action that point to God and establish certain definite conditions.[47] As Neil Messer suggests, we need to discern what limits we can and are called to transcend, and what limits we cannot or should not try to overcome.[48] The result is human action characterised by critical reflection and humility rather than hubris, in which sacrifice and restraint are the overriding determinants of ethical action.[49] The notion of “ultimate” also supports what Bruce Foltz calls an “ethic of givenness.”[50] Because God is the creator and nature has an inherent givenness, this calls for a deep sense of respect for the integrity of creation that includes environmental considerations, as the integrity and value of nature exists outside of human construction and human interests. Therefore, human action can and should lead to both the flourishing of humanity and nature as a whole. The penultimate is also a call to radical dependence as humanity realises its place in the created order and our reliance on the power and providence of God.[51] As a result, human action is always an activity against the backdrop of God’s ultimate reign and within our natural limitations, as we move live in the service of the other, including nature.

B. Relationality and Covenant

From a Christian perspective, the relational nature of creation is grounded in the relational nature of God, which also identifies a specific role for humanity as the imago Dei a role based on humanity’s relationship to creation and to God. Humanity is to care for creation as a whole on behalf of God, where a lack of care for creation results in a lack of care for ourselves. As John Haught suggests, “As long as the universe is unfinished, so also is each of us … Our personal redemption awaits the salvation of the whole.”[52] Therefore, we cannot only talk of an individual or even a species journey but must always consider the communal journey in which all of life is interrelated. For humanity, this broadens the ethical considerations away from individual autonomy to a community-based approach that also includes the rest of creation as a vital part of our ecological community. This “deep-seated interconnectivity”[53] is consonant with the relational understanding of the Trinity – the source of all created reality.

C. Personhood and Autonomy.

The relationality of creation also reframes our understanding of human personhood in terms of autonomy, a significant moral principle in ethics. The defining of autonomy in terms of individuals or even as a species leads to the commodification of nature, where the value of the natural world is determined by its value based on individual or human needs alone. For example, Oliver O’Donovan points to the irony that even the protection of nature has to be argued in terms of human interest in terms of preserving our environment, rather than nature as an end in itself.[54] Furthermore, as Northcott suggests, the human refashioning of nature has been freed from the moral constraints given by the Trinitarian doctrine of creation, especially through capitalism which removes human life from ideas such as place, custom, and tradition that previously helped conserve the environment.[55] However, human autonomy is never absolute, but is limited by the existence of fellow creatures and ultimately by the sovereignty of God. This broadens any ethical considerations away from autonomy and individualisation to a communal approach for ethical decision-making.

Continuing Creation

Biblical theology understands God’s act of creation as both an original action and as a continuing process, in which creation remains dependent on God’s providence as a continuing creation(creatio continua).[56] The notion of continuing creation does not deny the goodness of God’s initial creative act, but identifies that creation is to become something else perfected in and through Christ as a “new creation.” In this future, God’s providence sustains the world in a process where creation as a whole can be seen as “God’s project,” which is re-orientated to its “proper end” through the resurrection of Jesus.[57] Providence also denotes God’s gracious day-to-day involvement in creation, as the God who is actively concerned for the continuing life of the world which was created. Therefore, as Torrance suggests, God has “graciously bound himself to the creation even in its fallen condition, and has assumed the fearful cost of its redemption, reparation and preservation upon himself.”[58] In doing so, God ensures that the world continues over time and directs the world for a loving purpose in which Christ’s redemptive act is seen to include not just humanity but all of creation. This then is the vindication and manifestation of the created order that was always there but never fully expressed in what can be understood as the final perfection of cosmic history.[59]

The continuing presence of God is identified with the incarnation. This event is central to what is called kenosis – the humble and self-emptying love of Christ (Phil 2:5-11) and in turn, the suffering of God with humanity. Central to this understanding is the cross of Christ where God truly shares in the suffering of creation, so that there is the assurance that God truly understands and offers the possibility of redemption.[60] Kenosis is therefore an essential expression of God’s power, as God the Father expresses through God the Son complete love for creation through self-limitation and sharing the creaturely existence, which as an act of relational power is unlimited.[61] The ongoing presence of God is also a function of the Holy Spirit through whom God upholds and is present to the whole of creation, bringing forth newness of life even within a world of death and suffering. Therefore, God’s creative act is aligned with God’s further works in which through the Son and Spirit, God is continually involved in the world in order to institute and continue the covenant of grace.[62] In this view, creation is not static, but rather, the Spirit as the giver of life operates within creation and leads creation towards its fulfilment and perfection in achieving the purposes of God – the perfection of the complete work of creation.[63]

From the continuing presence of God, we come to the human response to God which is one of obedience to and participation in God’s purposes, so humanity’s rule, “is the rule which liberates other beings to be.”[64] Ethical obedience is done as a response to God’s grace using imagination rather than blind obedience to rules or principles, but always within the boundary of covenant behaviour based on divine standards of righteousness.[65] Obedience and participation therefore places significance on three ethical categories.

Character, meaning the way of living out the Christian life by considering what it means to be fully human persons as God intended.[66] Ethical decision-making is then moved away from the right or wrong of action and towards the type of person/people we want to become. This inner personal identity (not specific acts), becomes acts of self-determination that form the person to meet future situations in a particular way so that in the words of William Spohn, “we become what we do.”[67]

Virtues which are understood to be traits of character expressed in all times and situations that are needed for successful living.[68]

Community, where an individual’s life is embedded in the story of others and in the communities from which the individual derives their identity, including a common narrative and tradition. We can also talk of a communal character, a concept central to understanding the Church as the body of Christ, a royal priesthood, and a “community recreated and restored for flourishing vicegerency.”[69] The narrative of self is therefore constrained by playing a subordinate part in the narratives of others, in which both individually and corporately there is a shared concept of future possibilities. In doing so we can extend Alasdair MacIntyre’s suggestion that “the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest,”[70] where asking “what is good for me” and “what is good for humanity,” can be extended to “what is good for creation as a whole.” Participating in this quest produces the moral life sustained by the practice of virtues.

Continuing Creation: Ethical Implications.

A. Participation.

The ethical considerations from a continuing creation focus on living in the present emerge through being a “community capable of hearing the story of God we find in the Scriptures and living in a manner that is faithful to that story.”[71] There is an ethical mandate for participation, as humanity participates in God’s creative and sustaining work, fulfilling their role as the image of God. The understanding of God’s continuing activity implies that human activity as the beings made in the image of God is a participatory activity in which we share in God’s creative work, as embodied beings. Embodied participation therefore implies our worldliness – our connection to the world as we share this terrestrial creation as part of a “spiritual community with nature”[72] where care for humanity also involves care for the world. This position also recognises Christ’s embodiment in the incarnation and resurrection as a validation of embodied existence, and Christ’s sacrifice as occurring not just for humanity but for the whole of the created order.[73]

Samuel M. Powell points to embodiment as leading to two ethical responses that exist in balance. The first, “world-transcendence” emphasises ethical separation between the Christian community and the world resulting in a distinctive Christian ethical response. Secondly, “participation” where humanity views the world as God’s good creation while recognising our imperfect condition. The dialectic between these two positions, however, emphasises participation, where even transcendence is the ground for our participation within God’s creation as we live in the realm of the Kingdom of God.[74] In the context of Christian responses to environmental issues, our call to participate in the world is a call to live in God’s presence and to participate in what God is doing; as God sustains, upholds, and leads creation to fulfilment. Therefore, human action attuned to God through the Holy Spirit can be considered as a “sharing in” God’s creative action and order, as God calls humanity to help shape creation so that all flourish. The traditional identification of humanity as the primary objects of God’s providential care does not downgrade nature in this context, but rather affirms that creation is to be perfected “with and partly through human agency.”[75] In a similar manner, the view of creation as a “temple-palace”[76] emphasises the importance of creation as God’s dwelling place of which humanity are the stewards. Therefore, humanity’s role is to work with God in the restoration of humanity and creation.

The call to participate moves beyond individual embodiment, and towards community participation as God’s people respond with faithful obedience, and social participation where the Christian voice is heard within the discourse of the public square. Social participation moves against the historic process of secularisation that has separated the secular sphere from religious institutions and norms, and relegated religion to its own sphere. Lisa Sowle Cahill identifies science, economics, and liberalism as the three main traditions within Western culture that have “priority, precedence, and presumed authority” within the current social discourse on bioethics. Within such a culture, Cahill identifies “participatory discourse” – theological and ethical speech with intellectual coherence – as the means to produce connective practices. As a result, shared social practices are transformed in the light of religious inspired visions and values.[77] I am suggesting that biblical theology provides a means of participatory discourse. The categories of creation, continuing creation, and new creation provide both a critique of, and a way to sustain the other ethical criteria of justice, autonomy, beneficence and non-maleficence, all of which can be considered within a participatory discourse.

B. Participatory Character

In associated with participation, Christian character has a future orientation when we ask, “what sort of person/people am I/are we going to be,” so that action and intentions reinforce moral character. Obedience in this context means to reflect/imitate God’s character (“Christ-likeness”) in human life,[78] where the spiritual and ethical imperative is to display holiness as the chosen people of God in faithful, obedient response to God’s grace. The primary expression of this holiness is love, as “the form of human participation in created order.”[79] Holiness characterised by love also provides a counter position to expressions of autonomy and authority, since by definition, holiness is directed towards both God and towards others. The “other” also includes creation itself, so here humanity empowered by the Holy Spirit shares in Christ’s authority, expressed through love for fellow humans, fellow creatures and the whole created order.[80] In biblical terms “others” specifically includes the vulnerable who are recipients of special care and compassion as an expression of neighbourly love,[81] a kenotic act of self-limitation and self–sacrifice always within the bounds of God’s righteousness. A kenotic ethic would therefore place limits on human action especially in terms of the use of natural resources.

C. Prudence and Wisdom.

Human character is given greater emphasis through a virtue-based approach, in contrast to the four basic principles of autonomy, beneficence, justice, and non-maleficence. Virtues provide a framework within which spirituality and ethics are intertwined, especially through God’s continuing activity in creation and the activity of the Holy Spirit. As a result, virtue ethics best captures the full dynamics of discipleship by looking at the person as a whole so that character leads to action which in turn reinforces moral identity.

In particular, the virtue of prudence (practical wisdom) is central for environmental considerations. Prudence informs all other virtues by providing the means to determine what it is to be virtuous and how a virtue should be expressed, where the good of the community is placed over the good of the individual.[82] Furthermore, when combined with God’s wisdom, prudence becomes a theological virtue, in which the Holy Spirit infuses prudence with God’s wisdom, resulting in the believer attaining a higher level of goodness than would be the case naturally, therefore broadening the scope of the virtues.[83] As a result, prudence based on human reason infused with God’s wisdom provides a useful approach in the face of new ethical situations, drawing attention to the character and attitudes of the agent, while wisdom looks to the deeper theological issues to include a theological premise for human activity.

Prudence as both practical reason and as a virtue infused with God’s wisdom is also central in bridging the categories of creation, continuing creation, and new creation. Prudence includes taking council, identifying the experience of the past expressed in memory and tradition, considering the context of the particular experiences in the present, and considering insights (including scientific) as to what the future outcome of the decision might be. These are also associated with caution and foresight so that prudence avoids haste and also over precaution, as well as judging when to move outside of determined guidelines. Prudence can also act to balance reason, passions, and the will, which is especially important in environmental concerns where greed can be powerful motivator for environmental destruction.

Among the virtues, the priority of wisdom produces a wisdom ethic that presupposes the theological virtue of charity (love) and therefore relationality. This provides a “transcendent theological category in which practical prudence is situated”[84] by defining the relationship between God, humanity, and creation. Therefore, a wisdom ethic follows the biblical pattern of God creating through wisdom and out of love (Prov 8:22-31), so that God is at the centre of ethical reflection and God’s creation is valued. Wisdom also expresses the immanent presence of God within creation so that a virtue ethic based on wisdom and prudence further connects creation and continuing creation, while taking cautious regard for the new creation. This approach is useful when there is no clear right or wrong and so attention is drawn to the character and attitudes of the agent, while wisdom looks to the deeper theological issues including the premise for human activity. Therefore, the “movement of wisdom is from contemplation to right action, from seeking to understand divine realities to human action according to divine truths, which leads ultimately to happiness even in tasks that otherwise might be burdensome.”[85]

Wisdom also provides a connection between creation and continuing creation as a lived reality because the wisdom of God in creating is present now in everyday life. This is clearly seen in the understanding of human freedom which is identified as limited freedom, meaning freedom toward excellence orientated toward the common good, qualified by wisdom, and directed towards God.[86] By adopting a more holistic approach to human freedom, virtue ethics connects character, action, and motive. In particular, motive plays an important part in today’s technological world where the motive to care can conflict with other motives such as financial gain and striving for scientific knowledge. The Christian understanding of virtue would then place community concerns such as care and respect ahead of individual motives such as monetary or scientific gain. Within a community ethic, respect plays an important part of our interactions. From a Christian perspective, all of humanity is made in the image of God and so should be treated with respect as bearers of that image. Likewise, all creatures have an inner purpose given by God, and creation itself has a given order, all of which needs to be respected and preserved. As O’Donovan suggests, “Man’s ordering to flourish as its ruler is a necessary condition for the rest of creation to fulfil its own ordering.”[87] Wisdom therefore recognises the connection of the whole rather than emphasising human needs alone when considering the environment.

New Creation

From creation and continuing creation the flow of biblical theology moves to the new creation, where in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, creation is led towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes – the perfection of creation where there will be no more suffering and death (Rev 21).[88] Through Jesus, God’s original intention in creation is achieved and creation is re-established as the realm of the Kingdom of God.[89] On a cosmic scale, the resurrection is a “yes” to this creation through redemption so that the whole of creation is re-orientated toward its “proper end” through the resurrection of Jesus.[90] This “yes” affirms the importance of the material universe where the new creation is produced ex vetere as the redeeming transformation of the old creation.[91] As a result the present is identified as creatio continua, connected to the future as creation is “[pulled] from the future”[92] towards its eschatological completion and is judged “very good.”[93]

For Christian ethics which looks back to the origins but also forward to the end of the created order,[94] the primary effect of the resurrection is to provide hope in the present in the midst of suffering and death, so that all of life can be lived in anticipation of the new creation.[95] As Polkinghorne suggests, we should “embrace a credible hope” in which the Christian concept of death and resurrection is already manifested in Jesus and shows us the faithfulness and justice of God.[96] Therefore, the eschatological perspective shows that the purposes of God will be fulfilled and revealed, in which humanity and all of creation will participate in the life and glory of God.[97] This vision of the new creation influences our psychological dispositions to act ethically, because how we feel about the end influences how we feel about the present world and our attitudes towards making the world a better place.[98] Therefore, life in the present can be lived in anticipation of the new creation as an “inaugurated eschatology,”[99] as we participate as God’s agents in the world even in the midst of death and suffering. As David Fergusson suggests:[100]

…Such a hopeful conviction about the end of the world and its people is demanded by belief in creation’s continuing status as loved by God, redeemed by Christ and brought to fulfilment by the Spirit. It is a belief properly expressed not in unwarranted speculation but in prayer, praise and Christian service.

Central to understanding the new creation is the resurrection, a new act of God that characterises the validation, restoration, and perfecting of creation through transformation rather than destruction and re-creation. A definitive event of divine promise where God guarantees the future by enacting it in Jesus.[101] In Jesus Christ, God identifies with the suffering of the creation in the cross (death/absence), and in the resurrection of Jesus (life/nearness), provides hope in the perfecting of creation through transformation. The result is “hope for the divinely promised fulfilment of God’s glory in the full freedom and of the created order, of humans as well as the liberation of creation itself from bondage and decay.”[102] This continuing transformative activity involves both continuity and discontinuity with creation’s present existence, in which the whole of history is “reconciled, rectified and healed,”[103] and on the basis of God’s everlasting faithfulness, all of creation participates in the life of God.

New Creation: Ethical Implications.

A. Participation, Anticipation.

A feature of Christian hope is the call for action as both participation in, and anticipation of, life in God, where the resurrection “throws its light backward illuminating the life lived in expectation of it.”[104] Participation in this context refers to the action of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who provides the promise of a renewed and transformed life for all of creation, including every creature. The Holy Spirit is God’s renewing power in creation who enables creation to continue its journey towards its eschatological perfection as the “new creation” and enter into the divine life of God. As a result, the Holy Spirit is the power of the future, immanent in the present so that in light of the transformation of suffering and death seen in Jesus, all of creation lives in the promise and hope of perfecting transformation through the activity of the Holy Spirit. In this perfecting capacity, the Holy Spirit suffers along with and lives in solidarity with creation, bringing creation to consummation, healing the broken relationships, and keeping the future open in hope. Therefore, all of creation and every creature exist in the context of God’s love through Christ and in the Spirit as creation is drawn into the life of God, which is the purpose of creation.[105]

Anticipation in this context includes participation because in terms of the Christian understanding of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the goal of God’s purposes is the transformation and perfection of creation as “new creation”. This goal is a process of reconciliation that calls humanity as the imago Dei into partnership with God to set things right. Christopher Southgate suggests humanity’s role can include being co-redeemers with Christ the redeemer of the cosmos, and in a similar position, N. T. Wright identifies the cross as a victory in which redeemed humans can now act as God’s agents in the world.[106] Therefore, humanity through the power of the Holy Spirit can “rule” as vicegerents in love for the benefit of humanity and the created order.[107] This provides an eschatological orientation to ethics that functions not in the light of deterrent but in the light of hope. As Peters and Hewlett suggest, “to be the created co-creator is to steward our resources and opportunities in light of our vision of the coming new creation.”[108]

B. Success, and Progress.

God’s promise of eternal life witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus, can be understood as “divine beneficence,” “an unconditional imperative to action in that this life in God remains an empowering source of our actions for the good.”[109] Here “unconditional” means that the mandate for action is not affected by considerations of success, which for environmental issues is often seen in financial terms or human benefit. This definition of “unconditional” focuses on action for the good including insights as to what the future outcome of a decision might be. Future outcomes have already been mentioned in that the virtue of prudence includes caution and foresight. Such considerations relate to a commonly applied principle that is used in relation to future consequences of action - the precautionary principle, which states, “where insufficient data exists to assess potential risks with large consequences and a fair probability, it may be appropriate to take countermeasures in advance of the data.”[110] Therefore, not all action is appropriate and as the precautionary principle states, consideration must be given to possible negative consequences that must be avoided.

The Christian concept of hope also provides an alternate means to sustain participatory and anticipatory action in contrast to the modern philosophy of progress. Progress is a consequence of modern optimism that reframes history as moving towards a perfect society.[111] Within this view lies a significant in that “the natural exists only to be superseded.”[112] This is particularly relevant in linking economics and consumerism to environmental considerations, where Western progress results in environmental ruin. As a result, progress becomes the “substantive story”[113] required to sustain moral activity in a finite and limited world. The narrative of progress assumes that increasing amounts of human effort is the means required to move humanity towards the ideal human life – a life of happiness that is free of suffering even if it involves unethical means. In contrast, the concept of hope provides an alternate means to sustain action by emphasising faithfulness to the God, thereby providing a means to critique the locating and doing of the good which must be done, and for judging alternative schemes for humankind. Therefore, not all action is appropriate, and consideration must be given to possible negative consequences.

C. Future Generations.

All ethical categories in biblical theology have a relational understanding of humanity and focus on faithful living in the present. In this context, the previous ethical principles of participation, anticipation, action, and hope, should be qualified by a consideration of the relational understanding of humanity and creation as a whole. In particular, a consideration of the future generations for which we have a moral responsibility. As a result, circumspection is required, a principle that can be understood in relation to future considerations through the virtues of: foresight, (the ability through which future consequences are anticipated); justice (which entails considering what conditions future generations deserve to inherit in order to enable them to have a full life); and temperance (that examines and limits the motives for such research).[114] Therefore, virtue ethics, and circumspection in particular, orientate human freedom toward the common good, a position that challenges the prioritisation of human autonomy to the exclusion of other goods. In this context, a flourishing environment is a prerequisite for a flourishing future humanity.

D. Continuity/Discontinuity.

The eschatological emphasis on the resurrection identifies this occurrence as a transformational event, providing hope for creation’s continued relationship with God, as humanity and the whole of creation is drawn towards its eschatological fulfilment. To see the resurrection of Jesus as the paradigm identifies the conditions of continuity and discontinuity within an ethic based on future considerations. After the resurrection, Jesus was identified as a “person” who ate and drank (continuity) but was also transformed as indicated by the ability to suddenly appear, vanish, and reappear (discontinuity). In this context, the Holy Spirit empowers life for new expressions within an open future, and so through the Holy Spirit, it is possible to live in continuity with the context of this world as creation and as continuing creation, but also in the freedom to make anew. Therefore, in terms of new issues that Christians face, there should be continuity with the deeply held beliefs about creation and humanity but there is also discontinuity, whereby in the context of new situations, there is freedom to decide and act in new ways. This freedom for the new, however, is limited by the existence of God and the existence of other creatures. It is freedom to act in radical obedience to God characterised by sacrificial action as we mirror Christ’s divine beneficence. It is also freedom to act in light of God’s future calling-to-account for what we have done, when our ultimate reckoning is with God for the use or abuse of creation, which ultimately belongs to God. Therefore as William Spohn suggests, Christian spirituality “envisions a fundamental transformation from self-centred existence to theocentric existence.”[115] This is the forward-looking and life-long journey of faith, in which individual character is transformed into the likeness of Christ within the community of faith.


The challenge western Christianity faces in the twenty-first century is how to faithfully live out the Gospel in a world with ever-changing technology and values. Biblical theology identifies the movement from creation, continuing creation and new creation that can be used to determine ethical criteria useful in environmental decision-making. As Beetham states:

Christian Scripture is the story of the Creator-King fulfilling his original creation intentions to establish the earth as the Kingdom of God through flourishing human vicegerency.[116]


I would like to thank the InterChurch Bioethics Council (www.interchurchbioethics) for the many conversations on Christian spirituality and bioethics.

[1] Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.

[2] Michael S. Northcott, "Ecology and Christian Ethics," in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. R. Gill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 209-11.

[3] Bonds of Affection, Anglican Consultative Council 1984 ACC–6, pg 49 and Mission in a Broken World, 1990, ACC–8, pg 101. See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/mission/fivemarks.cfm. Mission and care for creation is also connected on an ecumenical level, as identified in the Lausanne Movement: http://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment-2#p1-7 and http://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment-2#p2-2.

[4] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 48–52.

[5] Colin E. Gunton, "The Doctrine of Creation," in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. C. E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 144.

[6] Tom L. Beauchamp and LeRoy Walters, eds., Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, 4 ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1994), 22–28.

[7] Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), xi. Such an approach negates many of the larger questions about worth and value, and so at best, provides a morally neutral stance where decisions are based only on the impact on social policy.

[8] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 315. For an overview of biblical theology see Craig Bartholomew et al., eds., Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (London: SPCK, 2006).

[9] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 271.

[10] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 76.

[11] Baruch Brody, "Religion and Bioethics," in A Companion to Bioethics, ed. Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 41–45. Also see Fraser Watts, "Approaches to Bioethics," in Christians and Bioethics, ed. Fraser Watts (London: SPCK, 2000), 2-3.

[12] I. Howard Marshall, "New Occasions Teach New Duties? 2. The Use of the New Testament in Christian Ethics," ExpT 105 (1993): 135–36.

[13] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 298–306.

[14] In the context of issues relating to technology, Gareth Jones has identified four possible approaches to the use of the Bible: 1) as a complete guide; 2) as the major of many sources; 3) as the one of many sources; and 4) as irrelevant. It is the second of these that is being suggested here as the most helpful approach when faced with the new issues presented by bioethics. See D. Gareth Jones, "Responses to the Human Embryo and Embryonic Stem Cells: Scientific and Theological Assessments," Science and Christian Belief 17, no. 2 (2005): 213–17.

[15] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 17, 60.

[16] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM Press, 2001), 41. Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 2 ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1997), 9–14. Thomas F Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 2001), 203–204, 223. The particular “persons” of the Trinity are understood as “persons” only in relation.

[17] Kathryn Tanner, "Creation and Providence," in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. J Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 200.

[18] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 48 and 54-55.

[19] Rikki E. Watts, "The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God: A Biblical-Theological Perspective on Salvation," in What Does It Mean to Be Saved? Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation, ed. J Stackhouse (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 31. Alister E McGrath, Nature, 3 vols., vol. 1, A Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 2001), 198–99. Also see 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15.

[20] Colin E. Gunton, Christ and Creation, The Didsbury Lectures (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 76. The incarnation also provides the basis for God’s eternal economic purpose that has been brought to its redemptive fulfilment in Christ. See Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 204.

[21] Clark H. Pinnock, "The Role of the Spirit in Creation," http://www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/1-2.htm.

[22] Denis Edwards, Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 43–44 and 117–18. The quote is taken from page 117.

[23] McGrath, Nature, 1, 181. Also see Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, Edinburgh Studies in Constructive Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 10–11.

[24] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 15, 31 and 56.

[25] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 43 and 46. As McGrath summarises, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo has four distinctive features: God is affirmed as being all powerful; no other exists before God; the mode of creation is conscious, ordered, deliberate, and purposeful; the Creator is free of any limitations. See McGrath, Nature, 1, 94, 166,. Gunton, "The Doctrine of Creation," 41. Colin E. Gunton The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 17.

[26] Karl Barth as quoted in Gunton, The Christian Faith, 6. In a similar manner John Haught talks of creation as “truly other” than God, where nature’s contingencies and evolutions randomness shows God’s caring and waiting for the “other” to appear. See John F. Haught, Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (Oxford: Westview Press, 2003), 80.

[27] Gunton, The Christian Faith, 19. Creation therefore has value in its own right. See Gunton, The Triune Creator, 10.

[28] McGrath, Nature, 1, 297. Nature-as-creation contrasts with the modern view of seeing nature as without intent. See Bruce V. Foltz, "Nature's Other Side: The Demise of Nature and the Phenomenology of Givenness," in Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, ed. Bruce V. Foltz and Robert Frodeman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[29] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 31-32.

[30] Gunton, The Triune Creator, 1-2. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 36. O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 61-68.

[31] O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 63.

[32] Foltz, "Nature's Other Side," 330 and 37-38.

[33] Ibid., 330-42.

[34] The Psalms in particular utilise nature as a source of praise. For example, see Psalm 8; 19; 36:5-10; 42:1; 84; 104; 139:13-16.

[35] Rikk E. Watts, "On the Edge of the Millennium: Making Sense of Genesis," in Living in the Lamplight: Christianity and Contemporary Challenges to the Gospel., ed. H Boersma (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), 142. Edward M Curtis, "Image of God (OT)," in ABD, ed. D. N. Freeman, et al. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 389. David J. A. Clines, "Image of God," in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, and D. G. Reid (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 427

[36] Christopher A. Beetham, "From Creation to New Creation: The Biblical Epic of King, Human Vicegerency, and Kingdom," in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis, ed. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishing, 2013), 239.

[37] Watts, "The New Exodus," 18-20. Also see David J. Bryant, "Imago Dei, Imagination, and Ecological Responsibility," Theology Today 51, no. 1 (2000): 36.

[38] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 68-70. T. Demond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008), 76-78.

[39] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 15-17 and 38. Northcott, "Ecology and Christian Ethics," 216.

[40] Beetham, "From Creation to New Creation," 254. This is achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The terms “vicegerency” meaning appointed official, and “viceregency” meaning acts in place of, are used by different authors for the role of humanity.

[41] Joel B. Green, "Scripture and the Human Person: Further Reflections," Science and Christian Belief 11, no. 1 (1999): 63. Significantly, the image of God comprises the whole person such that personhood cannot be separated from the physical. This position contrasts with that held by some secular ethicists who try to separate the biological from the meaningful. As a result there is a unique sanctity given to human life, where each and every person is precious in God’s sight such that human life is not to be taken and the vulnerable are to be protected. Gunton, The Triune Creator, 11. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3 ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 440. Green, "Scripture and the Human Person," 51-55, 58 and 62-63. Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 218 and 32. Scott B. Rae and Paul M. Cox, Bioethics: A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 130-31 and 224-25. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 237-40. Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 55-56, 174, 260 and 307. For the prohibition against killing another see Gen 9:6, Exod 21:12 and Lev 24:17-21.

[42] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 31.

[43] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 49. Gunton, The Christian Faith, 39. McGrath, Nature, 1, 197. Tanner, "Creation and Providence," 125. As Barth suggests “[Humanity] is the place within creation where the creature in its fullness is concentrated, and at the same time stretches beyond itself; the place where God wishes to be praised within creation and may be praised.” See Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 54.

[44] O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 52. Beetham, "From Creation to New Creation," 240. Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 76-78 and 157-63.

[45] Ian G. Barbour, Nature, Human Nature, and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 124. McGrath, Christian Theology, 304. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 68. Beetham, "From Creation to New Creation," 237-40. The Christian understanding of ‘dominion’ has been blamed for humanity's exploitation of nature. Lynn White in Science 1967, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”, claimed that the arrogance displayed towards nature by Western Christianity, “bears a huge burden of guilt for the environmental crisis.” See Richard Randolph and Jeremy Yunt, "Introduction: Beyond Lynn White, Jr," http://www.counterbalance.net/enviro/intro-body.html. Also see Northcott, "Ecology and Christian Ethics," 211.

[46] Ruth Page, "Theology and the Ecological Crisis," Theology 99, no. 788 (Mar/Apr) (1996): 110. Max R. Terman, "The Environmental Crisis: Thoughts of a Christian Ecologist," Direction 29, no. 1 (2000): 40. Douglas L. Chial, "The Ecological Crisis: A Survey of the WCC's Recent Responses," The Ecumenical Review 48, no. 1 (1996): 53 and 59-60. David Hallman suggests “priestly service” as outlined in Chial page 59-60. Bruce Nicholls, "God as Creator and Redeemer in Response to the Ecological Crisis," Stimulus 1, no. 2 (1993): 7. Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 40-49 and 264-65.

[47] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1971), 98-119. Also see Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Creation and Ethics," in The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, ed. Gilbert Meilaender and William Werpehowski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7-9.

[48] Neil Messer, "Human Cloning and Genetic Manipulation: Some Theological and Ethical Issues," Studies in Christian Ethics 12, no. 1 (1999): 11.

[49] Cahill, "Creation and Ethics," 14.

[50] Foltz, "Nature's Other Side," 340.

[51] Radical dependence is an affection described by James M. Gustafson. See William C. Spohn, "Christian Spirituality and Theological Ethics," in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 278.

[52] Haught, Deeper Then Darwin, 155.