Volume 40 - Issue 3

Beyond Christian Environmentalism: Ecotheology as an Over-Contextualized Theology

By Andrew J. Spencer


When Christian theology fails to adapt to the cultural context in a healthy manner, it can lead to a loss of cultural relevance. Proper contextualization is essential. This essay argues that ecotheology, which is a form of liberation theology, is an example of a contextual theology that is more closely linked to the contemporary context than it is to traditional forms of Christian doctrine. To argue this thesis, the essay will first provide an overview of ecotheology, demonstrating its consistency with praxis theology using an ecocentric hermeneutics of suspicion. Then the essay will offer critiques of ecotheology to show where the movement presents a helpful corrective and where it becomes over-contextualized.

All theology is, to some degree, contextual. Theology is bound to time and space through language, technology, and other forms of human culture. Language changes. Technology alters perceptions of the world and of the human condition. New cultural expressions are exposed to the light of the gospel. In the midst of this, Christians must discover how to integrate new data with their worldview. As witnessed in the controversy over the application of the regulative principle and the implementation of a contemporary worship style in Reformed circles, this can be a painful process, where dearly held traditions are evaluated, found wanting and discarded.1 It can also be a joyful experience as innovative expressions of the gospel are generated and demonstrated, providing ways to demonstrate the wonder of God’s creation through human ingenuity.

The ability of Christianity to adapt across cultural and temporal boundaries is a testament to its power and the grounding of its truth in a Being higher than any human culture.2 Contextualization is thus necessary because the God of the Bible is a God of all cultures. Theology, as the study of God, should reflect the truth of the Creator rather than the time-bound sub-creations of a particular group of God’s creatures.

When Christian theology fails to adapt to the cultural context in a healthy manner, it can lead to a loss of cultural relevance and the shrouding of the gospel light. Proper contextualization is essential. Within a model of healthy contextualization, there is room for debate over which elements of the Christianity of the gospel-bearers are gospel-essential and which are simply an artifact of the surrounding culture imported into worship. However, there are cases in which an effort is made to contextualize the gospel to a particular time and culture such that essential elements of gospel truth are denied, resulting in syncretism.3 Connections between such forms of Christianity and the greater Christian tradition often become tenuous. The attempts to correct real or perceived errors in traditional4 forms of Christian theology may in fact result in the destruction of the meaningful connections with authentic Christianity that efforts in contextualization were intended to salvage.

A recent book by Daniel Brunner, Jennifer Butler and A. J. Swoboda makes the argument that ecotheology is a valid form of properly contextualized evangelical theology. They base their claim to evangelicalism on a loose interpretation of David Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral, as they claim their ecotheology satisfies the criterion of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.5 By defining the terms broadly the three ecotheologians seem to have a valid claim, but when the methodology of ecotheology is considered it becomes clear ecotheology is not consistent with evangelicalism as Bebbington describes it.6 In fact, ecotheology, which is a form of liberation theology, is an example of a contextual theology that is more closely linked to the contemporary context than it is to traditional forms of Christian doctrine.

1. Overview of Ecotheology

Ecotheology refers to a version of contextual theology, much like feminist and Latin American liberation theologies, which interprets Scripture and Christian tradition through a controlling paradigm.7 As a form of contextual theology, ecotheology can be cataloged within the Praxis Model.8 As Stephen Bevans notes in his seminal work, Models of Contextual Theology, the Praxis Model “start[s] with the need either to adapt the gospel message of revelation or to listen to the context.”9 Theologies in the Praxis Model “take inspiration from neither classic texts nor classic behavior, but from present realities and future possibilities.”10 As a form of praxis-oriented theology, ecotheology is consciously framed as differentiated from traditional forms of theology, which are often viewed as Western or European––thus foreign to much of the world and, according to White’s hypothesis, bent on domination of ecosystems.11

Bevans lists several presuppositions of the Praxis Model. 12 The most critical presupposition is epistemological, which Bevans lauds as the main strength of the Praxis Model. Praxis theologians begin from an understanding that “the highest level of knowing is intelligent and responsible doing.”13 Clodovis Boff describes the ideal methodology of praxis theology, where right action is evaluated as the ultimate criterion of truth.14 He is not uncritical of this approach, noting, “To posit praxis as a criterion of truth implies empiricism and leads to pragmatism. It conjures away not only the theoretical problem, but the ethical one as well, which consists in asking which praxis and which theory are being referred to when this thesis is advanced.”15 In other words, a movement from oppressive orthodoxy to liberating orthopraxy as a criterion of truth merely shifts the point of theorizing and empowerment; it does not eliminate the existence of theory. Praxis must not, then, be confused with a mere practical theology.

Another key presupposition of the Praxis Model is that God’s revelation is not static, being contained in a finished canon; rather, God works throughout history in new and surprising ways.16 Revelation is available to all people at all times in the same way; no longer is God’s special revelation solely defined by male authors of previous millennia.

1.1 Ecotheological Distinctives

Ecotheology as a theological movement is consistent with Bevans’s description of the Praxis Model. It is a theology that includes right action as a necessary component in its epistemic foundation. Ecotheology also emphasizes liberation but in a way distinct from Latin American, black, or feminist versions of liberation theology. The starting point of ecotheology provides the most significant differentiation from other liberation theologies. According to Nessan, “The starting point of liberation theology is most definitely the human situation.”17 For ecotheology, the starting point is in the condition of the created order, which requires a different set of theological presuppositions. A representative articulation of the theological presuppositions of ecotheology can be found in the Earth Bible Project’s six ecojustice principles:

  1. the principle of intrinsic worth: The universe, Earth and all its components have intrinsic worth/value;
  2. the principle of interconnectedness: Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival;
  3. the principle of voice: Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice;
  4. the principle of purpose: The universe, Earth and all its components are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design;
  5. the principle of mutual custodianship: Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over, Earth to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community;
  6. the principle of resistance: Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustices but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.18

A prima facie consideration of these six principles raises concerns about the use of such presuppositions when approaching the interpretation of Scripture and theological tradition.19 The method for choosing the presuppositions seems to be the more significant question. Ernst Conradie, largely supporting the approach, writes,

The Earth Bible team acknowledge this danger but argue that each interpreter approach a text with a set of governing assumptions that often remain unarticulated and subconscious and that are therefore even more dangerous. The danger of reading into the text randomly may be avoided if the articulation of such ecojustice principles is done in conjunction with historical, literary and cultural modes of analysis.20

As Conradie notes, these principles certainly direct the interpreters toward consistent readings of the text that resonate with the “perspective of justice for the earth.”21 Whether that perspective is in line with the divine or human authorial intent, traditional interpretations of the canon, or the theological underpinnings of historic Christianity is another question.

Ecotheological hermeneutics is a method of interpreting the Bible that regards the text with suspicion.22 As such, the reader is called to believe the intentions of the human authors are corrupted by their context; thus the text of Scripture cannot have a meaning that can be directly applied by the contemporary reader.23 This leads Conradie to comment, “The interpretation of the Bible cannot merely focus on the meaning of the texts themselves.”24 Rather, “Interpretation is the event in which we respond to the significance of the signs, for us, today.”25 This second statement sounds similar to instructions that might be given to divinity students in an evangelical setting except for the substitution of the word “signs” for “text.” Conradie is demonstrating an attitude toward revelation consistent with Bevans’s description, specifically that revelation is “a personal and communal encounter with divine presence” or “the presence of God in history.”26 This leads to Conradie’s criticism of Christians with a more conservative attitude toward Scripture:

Some fundamentalist Christians sometimes talk as if they believe in the Bible itself, as if the Bible itself is God. They attribute divine characteristics to the Bible. The Bible is regarded as equally trustworthy, authoritative, and inspiration compared to Godself.27

Inspiration is at best the inspiration of the human authors of the biblical text and not of the text itself. Inspiration points toward the encounter a sinful human had with God and the resultant text reflects their tainted musings on the experience. The text of Scripture must, then, be regarded with suspicion. Ecotheologians do, however, hold out hope for retrieving useful instructions from the Bible.28

1.2 Recovering the Earth’s Voice

In his outline of ecotheological hermeneutics, Norm Habel recommends attempting to retrieve the voice of Earth from each biblical text. This may take the form of reconstructing the text with Earth as the narrator. Habel notes, “Such a reconstruction is, of course, not the original text, but it is a reading as valid as the numerous readings of scholars over the centuries.”29 Habel demonstrates this difficulty in his attempt to retrieve ecotheological meaning from Gen 1:26–28—notably one of the more difficult passages of Scripture for ecotheologians to redeem. In that passage, the author clearly describes God giving instructions to the primal couple to subdue creation and rule over the other creatures. Since the passage is so clear, Habel simply questions the bias of the author, describing the passage as anthropocentric. This passage, he argues, gives rise to the ethical acceptance of domination and subjugation of the created order.30 He then goes on to rewrite the passage, describing the cultural mandate from the perspective of the earth:

This story claims that the god-image creatures belong to a superior ruling class or species, thereby demeaning their nonhuman kin and diminishing their value. Instead of respecting me as their home and life source, the god-image creatures claim a mandate to crush me like an enemy or a slave.31

The message of Gen 1:26–28 is so distorted in Habel’s retelling it is not clear how it can be described as connected to the actual Christian Scriptures. As Conradie notes of the Earth Bible project, “The assumed sacred authority of the Bible must therefore be questioned.”32 If only the approach of Habel and the Earth Bible team is considered, it becomes difficult to accept Scripture as a source for ecotheology.

In contrast, Conradie does not recommend such a radical approach to reading Scripture. Though suspicious of the text of the Bible, Conradie recommends the use of doctrinal keys for interpreting the text. He writes, “Doctrinal keys are comprehensive theological constructs which may be used to establish a relationship between the biblical texts and a contemporary context.”33 Doctrinal keys are “usually derived from the dominant beliefs or an interpretive community.”34 He notes multiple different movements, most within orthodox Christian tradition, that have some overarching theme they draw from the text. Examples include sin and grace in Augustine, kingdom of God in Calvin, and gifts of the Spirit among charismatics. Conradie argues, “In each case, a particular doctrinal key not only provides an explanation of the historical meaning of the biblical texts; it also provides the parameters for contemporary Christian living in the continued presence of God.”35 Conradie’s critique is valid in those instances where it is apparent the interpreters overreached the actual content of the text, reading their doctrinal key into the text rather than from the text. Conradie comments that traditional forms of Christian theology, which rely on agreed upon doctrinal categories, are no less guilty of eisegesis than he; the difference, according to Conradie, is his self-awareness of the doctrinal keys.36

Liberation theologians accept the circularity of their theological method, though more recent proponents describe it as a spiral.37 Conradie admits to a methodological circularity in his Scriptural interpretation. He argues for a theological method that encompasses three elements: Source, Message, and Receiver. A spiral-like circularity exists as the Source produces a Message, which is then received by the Receiver. The Receiver then becomes a new Source producing a new Message and the cycle continues.38 According to this model the pattern allows interpreters to appropriate biblical texts through the lens of their community of faith, their theological traditions, and the contemporary context. In a simplified interpretive model, Conradie describes the process as alternating between input from the text and from the context. The spiral pattern describes the progression in history as God continues to participate in history.39 The unspoken assumption behind this methodology is that the contemporary context is superior to historical contexts. Ecotheological interpretation of Scripture lacks a mechanism to critique the reader’s own context. The fluidity of doctrines, however, does not trouble ecotheologians, because the essence of true Christianity is something other than right belief.

1.3 Reinterpreting Tradition

Not only is ecotheology suspicious of the content of Scripture, it is also suspicious of traditional Christian doctrines. Conradie outright rejects the notion of “abiding propositional truths or values [from Scripture] which can be appropriated directly within a contemporary context.”40 This has led to an emphasis on pragmatic aspects of faith in the ethics of Willis Jenkins; good theology is doing things that resonate with an accepted set of values rather than those that match a set of dogmatic commitments.41 Jenkins downplays the distinctiveness of Christian doctrines to the extent that he anticipates authentic expressions of true Christian praxis outside of confessional accord with basic Christian doctrines.42 More than simply arguing for common grace, Jenkins is arguing that those that do not know Christ may be right with God due to their actions. According to Jenkins, “Social responsibility is not an expression or outreach of the church, then; it is partaking in Christ.”43 As Bevans notes in his description of the Praxis model, “The highest level of knowing is intelligent and responsible doing.”44 True theology, then, is not found in scholarly products or certain faith commitments, but in right living.45 Theological tradition is secondary to approved behavior that is consistent with the contextual presuppositions. For ecotheology, these presuppositions will reflect an environmentally friendly lifestyle.46

Ecotheology claims to be critiquing theological tradition, which is a necessary task. Uncritical acceptance of historical theological interpretations is not a worthy goal for any Christian. Contemporary theology should be done in conversation with historical theology, which implies that historical theology be allowed to critique contemporary trends. However, there is no place in the methodology of ecotheology for the historic to influence the contemporary culture. Despite this, Bevans argues the Praxis model has “deep roots in theological tradition.”47 Nessan affirms this assessment, arguing that liberation theologies are “deeply rooted in the Christian tradition” because they use the Christian Scriptures as a source for theology and due to “constant references to past formulations of the Christian tradition in articulating its own position.”48 Still, for ecotheologians theology is not “a generally applicable, finished product for all times and in all places, but an understanding of and wrestling with God’s presence in very particular situations.”49 There is a direct and inseparable tie between the substance of ecotheology and the context in which it is developed. That tie is closer than the connection to traditional Christian formulations.

In the ecotheological project, tradition is viewed with suspicion and referenced as a point of departure. Thus, as Conradie admits in his introduction to a volume discussing Abraham Kuyper’s influence, he selected Kuyper as a conversation partner despite his disagreement with Kuyper’s position on most issues. However, Conradie notes, “There were nevertheless some catch phrases in Kuyper’s theology that were very appealing to me.”50 Conradie goes on to discuss how these catch phrases were appropriated, like mottoes, while the greater substance of Kuyper’s theology was rejected. Much like the canon of Scripture, theological tradition is useful as a jumping off point for new, creative interpretations, instead of providing a critique of current theological tendencies.

The Marxist roots of liberation theologies insist that all traditions and structures are attempts to seize and exercise power. Like liberation theology’s rejection of power structures, the main thrust of ecotheology is to subvert structures that oppress the earth. Using a postmodern approach to truth, ecotheology is an attempt to give a voice to the marginalized. However, such attempts neglect the irony that by subverting the existing power structure, they have created a new power structure. The oppressed is seeking to become the oppressor by enforcing an all-encompassing concern for liberation of the earth on the global community. According to the logic of this system, it is a moral duty to emphasize the voice of those marginalized. However, once the voice of the earth is liberated and the voice of orthodoxy muted, their new power structure, with the liberated earth at its heart, should be undermined, perhaps by a retrieval of authentic and faithful readings of the text and orthodox tradition. The movement seems somewhat self-defeating.

Ecotheology has the stated goal of reformulating Christian doctrines along environmentalist lines.51 Ecotheologians claim to be improving Christianity and adapting it to meet the needs of the contemporary context. However, in their attempt to renew biblical interpretations and revise Christian doctrines, they bring into question whether ecotheology has so reinterpreted tradition as to weaken the links between the traditional sources of meaning that have provided continuity and community for Christians across the millennia. In this way, ecotheology has created a theology that is more closely related to the contemporary cultural context than the historic content of traditional forms of Christianity.

2. Critiques and Over-Contextualization

In their effort to create a Christianity that positively relates to contemporary contexts, ecotheologians have demonstrated the ability to critique traditional forms of theology in a sometimes helpful way. In many cases, study of ecotheology is helpful because it illuminates and counters weaknesses in certain forms of traditional theology. However, because of the distantiation of ecotheology from traditional theologies, those points of critique have led to overcorrections, which further the separation of ecotheology and traditional forms of Christian theology. They represent points of over-contextualization and syncretism. As Paul Heibert has argued, contextualization must be done critically, in a way that critiques both traditional and contemporary cultural expressions of Christianity. This prevents syncretism and a loss of distinct Christian identity.52 It is not clear that ecotheologians have developed such a critical mechanism. This section will discuss eight points of theological correction made by ecotheology, showing how these eight points of critique have resulted in theological overcorrections due to the failure to critically contextualize.

2.1 Re-Reading History and Culture

The first point of correction by ecotheology, as with liberation theologies in general, is the unification of history. For ecotheologians, there is no difference between salvation history and ordinary history.53 All of history is evidence of God working in time and space. That God is working in new and surprising ways throughout all of creation history is an essential aspect of an ecotheological understanding of revelation. This enables a missional emphasis among ecotheologians.54 Arguably, ecotheology began with a 1954 Joseph Sittler essay, “A Theology for Earth,” and came into the international theological spotlight when he delivered his essay, “Called to Unity,” at the World Council of Churches, which was then only 14 years old.55 Since that point, there has been a consistent witness to ecotheology with a view to participating in God’s ongoing work in all of the created order. In fact, many of the strongest voices among evangelicals in support of a robust environmental ethics share a unified understanding of history with liberation theologies. The weakness of many liberation theologies, including ecotheology, is a tendency “to collapse all of history into the imperious Now; to forget the paradoxical and serendipitous character of historical change; to downplay the provisionality of our historical moment and the partiality of our historical perspective.”56 Ecotheology, because of its emphasis on the importance of the contemporary context, often fails to truly listen to the voices of Christian tradition.

As a second correction to some versions of traditional Christianity, ecotheologians offer a positive perspective on human culture. Ecotheologians strongly appreciate common grace, which is one reason that Conradie interacts heavily with Abraham Kuyper.57 The positive view of human culture is so strong that Willis Jenkins expects to find authentic expressions of the Kingdom of God outside of the body of Christ. In other words, he not only expects the unregenerate to do good things sometimes, he believes non-Christians may be a greater part of God’s mission than those inside the universal Church.58 For Jenkins, the important thing is that the actions are right, particularly along environmental lines, rather than that the beliefs are distinctively Christian.59 This requires ecotheologians to accept, or at least ignore, some behaviors that are directly contrary to a consistently Christian ethic, but the ecocentric nature of ecotheology allows for a more narrowly focused ethic than more holistic forms of Christian theology.60 This attitude toward ethics relies on such a positive view of human culture that it minimizes the impact of human sin on the created order and sees sinfulness as a weakness to be overcome rather than a tragic condition that warrants punishment from God.

2.2 Eschatalogical Engagement

Third, ecotheologians demonstrate an appreciation for God’s continued working in the world. Ecotheologians see Scripture pointing toward God’s working to redeem all things. Conradie argues eschatology may be the key to an ecological anthropology.61 However, because of the concerns of anthropocentrism, ecotheology tends to strip eschatologies of their significance for the human portion of the created order. When ecotheologians address eschatology directly, it is to refute the idea of a final conflagration of earth, leading to its utter destruction and a new creation. Beyond a rejection of a dispensational view of eschatology, ecotheologians tend to ignore aspects of judgment and discontinuity in eschatology, focusing on hope in cosmic restoration, though the nature of this is presented in varying degrees of opacity.62 This is due in part to their strong view of the continuity of history; not only are salvation history and ordinary history united, but there are no discontinuities within salvation history. To ecotheologians, just as the fall is a myth that represents the human experience of sin,63 so the future judgments in the eschaton are representative of a type of redemption that is more progressive than cataclysmic.64

Reuther deals with eschatology in her book, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, but she rejects a traditional Christian understanding of the coming Kingdom of God, where all things are made new. Instead, she posits a view of time that sees all existence in a cyclical manner, eternally changing. Thus, hope is not in renewal of creation and bodily resurrection. Rather, “As we surrender our ego-clinging to personal immortality, we find ourselves upheld by the immortality of the wondrous whole, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being.’”65 According to Carl Braaten, in liberation theologies,

Eschatology is reduced to ethics. The kingdom of God arrives as a result of the ethical achievements of mankind. The gospel of the kingdom of God is removed to the future as a goal to be attained by the right kind of ethical activity. The gospel is not thought of as a present reality in history, already prior to human action, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.66

For ecotheologians, the Kingdom is not now, but it is not a distant reality to be realized only by dramatic intervention by God. The emphasis on this-worldly hope rather than judgment and renewal in the eschaton is likely a fulfillment of the evolutionary presuppositions of many ecotheologians, where the concept of a blemishless creation and subsequent original sin is discarded.67 As Neuhaus points out, such a vision of the Kingdom, with hope for salvation largely dependent on right living by humans, is illusory and worthy of critique.68 Ecotheology is, then, “in danger of transforming the gospel into a new synergistic scheme of salvation, a new form of revolutionary works righteousness.”69

2.3 Seeking Unity and Right Living

A fourth correction of some versions of traditional Christianity offered by ecotheology is the rejection of a dualistic vision of the created order. There are some streams of Christianity, particularly popular Christianity, which have a view of the created order more consistent with a neo-Platonic perspective than a biblical perspective.70 According to some ecofeminists, a large influence toward such a false dualism is Augustine’s theology.71 However, Rowan Williams points out, this is a misreading of Augustine, because differentiation between body and soul or material and immaterial is interpreted by Augustine’s accusers as disparaging the created order.72 In response to this, ecotheologians have a tendency toward a unification of all things. In the case of Conradie, this results in a diminished or absent view of heaven. In his anthropology, he espouses a materialism that seems to reject the possibility of an afterlife.73 In Reuther’s work, her materialism maintains a spiritual aspect, but it appears to have more resonance with a pantheistic description of reality, where souls of the dead rejoin a cosmic energy. In Reuther’s accounting, this destiny is common for all people.74 Pantheism and panentheism are constant temptations to ecotheologians, as they erase distinctions between physical and spiritual conditions.75 In large part, the departure from an orthodox understanding of the Creator-creature distinction does not result from a direct pursuit of traditionally unacceptable views, but rather a weakening hold on those traditional views caused by an emphasis on action instead of doctrine.

Fifth, ecotheology critiques forms of Christianity that do not result in right living. Christians that are influenced by ecotheology cannot, without disregarding the most basic tenets of the system, be left with their behavioral patterns untransformed; because the very heart of liberation theology is praxis, ecotheologians are not merely hearers, but doers of the Word (Jas 1:22). This is a positive attribute, and it is a compelling one. In a collection of essays entitled Sacred Acts, Christians present numerous examples of communities of faith in action consistent with ecotheological principles. In one case, a church used creative funding methods to raise money for an array of solar panels on their roof.76 To emphasize their right action, the church has a widget on their website which allows the solar output of the array to be viewed from anywhere in the world at any time.77 The emphasis on orthopraxy is not without cost, however. In many cases, focus on right actions takes the place of right living. In other words, individual acts that are ecologically sensitive can replace a more holistic approach to the Christian life. Concern for the proclamation of the gospel sometimes wanes. The same church that broadcasts the volume of power they generate fails to clearly broadcast the importance of faith in Christ on their website. Orthodoxy is neglected for an emphasis on orthopraxy.

A sixth point of critique by ecotheology is the emphasis on right living toward the environment. This is a positive, as it tends to curb sinful consumerism and wasteful habits and to emphasize limiting unnecessary uses of the earth’s resources. The positive effects of these efforts can contribute to healthier populations78 and ecosystems that more clearly represent native conditions.79 However, ecotheologians, and environmentalists in general, sometimes fail to discern when some harm to the environment is justified for the preservation of human life and health. For example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was written, in part, to encourage the banning of DDT as a pesticide. As a result of the environmental movement, international pressure has increasingly restricted aid to nations that use DDT. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the limited availability of a relatively inexpensive pesticide in certain developing nations, particularly those in Africa. Thus, a valuable method of chemically controlling the mosquito population has been eliminated and the lives of many impoverished humans have been made more difficult.80 Ecotheology, since it classifies all human impact on the environment as sin, lacks the ability to discern when some impact to the environment is acceptable.81 This, in the end, has potentially detrimental implications for a Christian environmental ethics, because it fails to consider a biblical vision for compassion on humans.

2.4 Inclusion and Contextualization

Ecotheology is also very inclusive, which is a seventh correction offered to traditional theologies. Since ecotheology emphasizes bringing oppressed voices into the conversation, theologians that would otherwise not be included are often brought into projects. In Ecotheology: Voices from the North and the South, there are a number of contributions from sources that would not typically be heard in the European or American theological publishing establishment.82 The impetus for inclusion and theological exploration among ecotheologians is a positive, improving the variety of voices. However, the search for new voices that were previously pushed to the margins combined with a decreased emphasis on right doctrine sometimes affords a central role in a theological conversation to those who are only, according to traditional categories, marginally Christian.83 David Hallman notes his desire to resource ecotheology, even beyond the boundaries of Christianity, through indigenous religions because “insights from the traditions of indigenous peoples are . . . critically important for the emerging ecotheology.”84 Thus, some of the articles Hallman includes in the volume are explicitly non-Christians, with themes that run counter to the gospel. It seems in this project a marginal voice has been given primacy over more established voices not because of the quality but the cultural situation of the marginal voice. This reflects a failure by ecotheologians to contextualize critically. It results in a form of syncretism.

Eighth, the emphasis on contextualization in ecotheology offers a needed critique of forms of Christianity too firmly associated with their cultures. Contextualization by ecotheologians is central to their method, according with Bevans’s assertion that “contextualization is an imperative.”85 Ecotheology is an attempt to contextualize for the good of the environment and those affected by environmental degradation. Willis Jenkins explains the importance of his ethical methodology, for the protection of both the environment and underprivileged populations. He claims minorities are more substantially impacted by environmental degradation, particularly due to the placement of polluting commercial establishments in more rural, often poorer areas. Thus, environmentalism is also an attempt to liberate minority populations from oppression. However, ecotheology is typically done by middle-class to affluent scholars in developed nations.86 As one author notes, the global recession of 2009 lowered interest in environmental causes because economic concerns became a more present reality.87 Ecotheology is a methodology best suited to theologians whose main concerns are excesses due to consumeristic temptations, rather than communities who are concerned about disease, starvation, and invasion. Additionally, as Habel describes it, ecotheology seeks to be a contextual theology for the earth.88 However, as Bevans notes, there is a sense in which a contextual theology must be done from within the contextualized population.89 Conradie in particular emphasizes the alien nature of humans in the created order, thus it is questionable whether an eco-centric contextual theology on behalf of the earth is possible.90 Ecotheology is contextual but the authenticity of the contextualization leaves something to be desired.

There are other points of critique within ecotheology that provide helpful corrections. In many of these areas, the critically-driven contextual theology has created an opposite and equal error. One might expect, then, ecotheology to be the subject of another round of criticism, in which tradition is allowed to critique, and creedal formulations are restored to a place of central consideration. There is evidence from the theological method of ecotheology that such a critique is unlikely. As Neuhaus pointed out, liberation theologies are dominated by the tyranny of the present.91 Bevans argues that by nature, theologies of praxis “cannot be conceived in terms of books, essays, or articles.”92 Yet the historical sources of theology are in books, essays, and articles. Additionally, to have a theological conversation with those outside of earshot requires distilling theoretical aspects into static, written forms. By undermining the connection to the sources and methods of traditional Christian theologians, ecotheologians have restricted historical sources to contributing “catch phrases” and notions that can be used to drive their social ethics.93 The product is a theological method that may be self-sustaining, but results in a theology that has stronger connections to its contemporary context than to traditional forms of Christian theology.

3. Conclusion

Ecotheology is an approach to liberation theology that has its roots in Christianity and the various forms of the environmental movement. Though it still draws on the authority from the Bible and the Christian tradition, ecotheology has deeper roots in the contemporary context of ecological concern than in Christianity. In an attempt to broaden the impact of its praxis and create a greater sense of co-belligerence with others engaged in environmental activism, ecotheologians have, in large part, blurred the lines of Christianity. For many ecotheologians, united concern over environmental degradation is a more important bond than united concern over historical Christian doctrines.

The most extreme versions of ecotheology are sometimes so syncretistic that they raise questions about claims to sharing in the common Christian heritage. Charity enables initially accepting the claims of ecotheologians and beginning a critique from that point. Still, the relative dearth of focus on central Christian doctrines and the radical revision of the message of Scripture bring into question the trajectory of ecotheology. Based on the current emphases of ecotheology, it is not clear whether the next generation of disciples of an ecotheological Christianity can present a coherent witness to the gospel of Christ. It seems that an insufficiently critical contextualization may lead to a syncretism with the ecological movement that will require a renewed effort toward contextualized evangelism of ecotheologians by traditional forms of Christian theology.

For evangelical Christians the task of engaging the important cultural issue of environmental stewardship is made more difficult by a relative dearth of comprehensive, academic treatments of the topic from a biblically faithful foundation. The exegetical and theological work done by Richard Bauckham represents the best treatment from an evangelical perspective. His two volumes, The Bible and Ecology and Living with Other Creatures, offer a carefully orthodox reading of Scripture looking for application to the human-environment relationship.94 Beyond Bauckham’s contribution there is a need for new research and writing in environmental ethics from a theologically conservative perspective in order to present a positive, biblical environmentalism for Christians and to resist unhealthy approaches like ecotheology.

[1] For example, see the controversy surrounding John Frame’s advocacy for a revised order of worship. John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1996). Frame’s move away from a traditional style of worship was subsequently rejected by Darryl G. Hart, “It May be Refreshing, But is it Reformed?” CTJ 32 (1997), 407–23.

[2] This can be seen in Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

[3] Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” Missiology 12 (1984): 290.

[4] “Traditional” is a term used by Praxis theologians to distinguish their views and is not intended as a pejorative.

[5] Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 5.

[6] See especially David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1989), 2–17.

[7] Conradie comments that ecological theology is the next wave of contextual theology and likens it to black liberation theology, feminist theology, etc. Ernst M. Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology: At Home on Earth? (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 3–4.

[8] The term “praxis” is difficult to define. Nessan identifies several key elements in a praxis form of theorizing: (1) contrast orientation to the life and experience of a particular population; (2) the use of social sciences for theological analysis; (3) reflection upon a population’s conditions based on Christian tradition; and (4) actionable proposals for changing the present reality. Craig L. Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy: The North American Theological Response to Latin American Liberation Theology, AARAS (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 56–61.

[9] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 70. Bevans argues that all liberation theologies are praxis theologies, but not all praxis theologies are liberation theologies.

[10] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 70.

[11] See Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 3.

[12] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 77.

[13] Ibid., 73.

[14] Clodovis Boff, Theology and Praxis: Espistemological Foundations, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 195, emphasis in the original.

[15] Ibid., 231, emphasis in the original.

[16] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 75–76.

[17] Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 13.

[18] Norman Habel, “Introduction,” in Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics, ed. Norman C. Habel and Peter L. Trudinger (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 2.

[19] Liberation theologies tend to accept Bultmann’s critique of attempts to exegete without presupposition. See Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?,” in The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present, ed. Kurt Mueller-Vollmer (New York: Continuum, 1985), 242–48.

[20] Conradie, “Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics: A Review Essay on the Earth Bible Project,” Scriptura 85 (2004): 128.

[21] Norman Habel, “The Earth Bible Project,” Ecotheology 5.7 (1999): 123.

[22] Ernst M. Conradie, Angling for Interpretation: A First Introduction to Biblical, Theological and Contextual Hermeneutics (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2008), 31–32; Habel, “Introduction,” 4.

[23] Conradie writes, “Authors, texts and readers are not ‘innocent’ or neutral” (Angling for Interpretation, 104). That the reader is not neutral is not controversial. That the authors may have been biased or clouded is also not questionable. However, the concept that the text itself is corrupt, even in the autographa, brings into question a great deal of Christian tradition.

[24] Ibid., 51.

[25] Ibid., 39.

[26] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 75.

[27] Conradie, Angling for Interpretation, 73.

[28] Nessan notes that despite the desire of liberation theologians to ascribe authority to Scripture, “they are vulnerable to misusing biblical authority. Because the theologians of liberation insist so strongly that commitment to the cause of liberation must come prior to theological reflection, they are subject to the charge that their theology is ‘the mere rationalization of positions already taken’” (Orthopraxis or Heresy, 283).

[29] Habel, “Introduction,” 5.

[30] Ibid., 5–7.

[31] Ibid., 8.

[32] Conradie, “Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics,” 85.

[33] Conradie, “The Road Towards an Ecological Biblical and Theological Hermeneutics,” Scriptura 93 (2006): 306.

[34] Ibid., 307.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 308.

[37] Regarding liberation theology and the hermeneutical circle: Boff, Theology and Praxis, 135–39; Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 62–63.

[38] Conradie, “Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics,” 129–30. Conradie’s description and his diagram are very similar to the diagram in Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 76.

[39] Conradie, “Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics,” 130.

[40] Ernst M. Conradie, “On the Theological Extrapolation of Biblical Trajectories,” Scriptura 90 (2005): 903.

[41] Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 158–62.

[42] Ibid., 99.

[43] Ibid., 102.

[44] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 73.

[45] Nessan differentiates the idea of praxis-based theologies from academic theologies. According to Nessan, the purpose of praxis is to establish a true consciousness instead of a false one, maintain a continuing stream of theological reflection, and motivate the audience to sustained behavioral transformation. Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 408–10.

[46] The tendency to see environmental concerns as a crisis that requires action, no matter the motivation, is growing. Lucas Johnston argues positively for the role of religion––any religion––in the environmentalist movement. Lucas F. Johnston, Religion and Sustainability: Social Movements and the Politics of the Environment (Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2013).

[47] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 78.

[48] Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 402–03.

[49] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 78.

[50] Ernst M. Conradie, “Revisiting the Reception of Kuyper in South Africa,” in Creation and Salvation: Dialogue on Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for Contemporary Ecotheology, ed. Ernst M. Conradie (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 24.

[51] Conradie, “Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics,” 133.

[52] Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (1987): 109–11.

[53] Richard John Neuhaus notes this regarding liberation theologies in general, but it is applicable in particular to ecotheology, in “Liberation as Program and Promise: On Refusing to Settle for Less,” CurTM 2 (1975): 94.

[54] The work of Christopher Wright and Willis Jenkins indicate some of the confluence in the movement with radically different theological outcomes. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 415–16. Willis Jenkins, “Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32 (2008): 176–84.

[55] See Bakken’s argument in Joseph Sittler, Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter W. Bakken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1–10.

[56] Neuhaus, “Liberation as Program and Promise,” 97.

[57] Ernst M. Conradie, “Creation and Salvation: Revisiting Kuyper’s Notion of Common Grace,” in Creation and Salvation: Dialogue on Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for Contemporary Ecotheology, ed. Ernst M. Conradie (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 95–136.

[58] Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 104.

[59] Jenkins discusses his post-foundationalism and personal emphasis on right action over right belief in the introduction. The concept is woven throughout the book, but most clearly stated here (ibid., 6). See also his chapter, “Global Ethics: Moral Pluralism and Planetary Problems” in ibid., 111–48.

[60] See for example, Conradie’s delicate rejection of traditionally understood Christian sexual ethics in An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 234–36.

[61] Ibid., 13.

[62] Conradie wrestles with the tension between already-not yet in ibid., 223–30. He emphasizes, however, continuity over discontinuity.

[63] Reuther’s idea of sin is telling in this regard: “My understanding of what sin is does not begin with the concept of alienation from God, a concept that strikes me as either meaningless or highly misleading to most people today.” Rosemary R. Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, Introductions in Feminist Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), 70. Reuther goes on to argue that the primary concern is reconciliation of the horizontal (creature to creature) relationship, in ibid., 71–80.

[64] Anne Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Feminism, and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 73.

[65] Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, 120.

[66] Carl E. Braaten, “Gospel of Justification Sola Fide,” Dialog 15 (1976): 208. Also cited in Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 277.

[67] Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 30–31. Bouma-Prediger, The Greening of Theology, 150–54.

[68] Neuhaus, “Liberation as Program and Promise,” 92. For an extended critique of liberation theology in general on this point, see Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 270–83. Nessan works through the critiques of Neuhaus and Braaten in some detail.

[69] Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy, 277. Nessan is here summarizing the critiques offered by others of liberation theologians.

[70] See Reuther’s discussion of this: Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Religious Ecofeminism: Healing the Ecological Crisis,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 363–67.

[71] For example, Elaine H. Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 99. Anne Primavesi finds hierarchicalism, especially in the “patriarchal anthropology” in Augustine, which she argues is detrimental to the environment and leads to destructive human behaviors. Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis, 100–05.

[72] Rowan Williams, “‘Good for Nothing’? Augustine on Creation,” AugStud 25 (1994): 11.

[73] Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 23–26.

[74] Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, 119–20.

[75] For example, see Van Wieren, Restored to Earth, 78–80.

[76] Fletcher Harper, “Beyond Belief: Effective Religious Leadership on Energy and Climate Change,” in Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate, ed. Mallory D. McDuff (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2012), 36–38.

[77] Current solar panel output information from the United Methodist Church of Red Bank, New Jersey can be obtained at:

[78] One study that touts the health benefits for the global population for carbon emission reduction is, Justin V. Remais and others, “Estimating the Health Effects of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies: Addressing Parametric, Model, and Valuation Challenges,” Environmental Health Perspectives 122 (2014): 447–55.

[79] Van Wieren, Restored to Earth, 69–74.

[80] The debate about DDT use is still ongoing. One recent article argues for continuing to use DDT for mosquito control, due to its positive impact on the community. Hindrik Bouwman, Henk van den Berg, and Henrik Kylin, “DDT and Malaria Prevention: Addressing the Paradox,” Environmental Health Perspectives 119 (2011): 744–47.

[81] One example of this is Delores S. Williams, “Sin, Nature, and Black Women’s Bodies,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum, 1993), 24.

[82] One example is Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, “Ecology and Ethiopian Orthodox Theology,” in Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed. David G. Hallman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 155–72.

[83] Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 31–34. Indeed, this is a major project of ecofeminism, which, though it still often ties into Christian theology, has been largely paganized by Reuther and others. Carol J. Adams, “Introduction,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum, 1993), 4–5; Primavesi, Making God Laugh, 14–17.

[84] David Hallman, “Beyond ‘North/South Dialogue,’” in Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed. David G. Hallman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 6.

[85] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 11.

[86] For example, see Jenkins, “North American Environmental Liberation Theologies,” 273–78.

[87] Peter Heltzel, “The World House: Prophetic Protestantism and the Struggle for Environmental Justice,” USQR 63 (2010): 26.

[88] Norman Habel, “Introducing the Earth Bible,” in Readings from the Perspective of the Earth, ed. Norman Habel (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2000), 33–34.

[89] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 19.

[90] Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 9.

[91] Neuhaus, “Liberation as Program and Promise,” 97.

[92] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 74.

[93] “Catch phrases” is Conradie’s term for what he finds useful in Kuyper. Conradie, “Revisiting the Reception of Kuyper in South Africa,” 24.

[94] Richard Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010); Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Andrew J. Spencer

Andrew Spencer is a PhD candidate in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of assessment and institutional research at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

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