Biblical Environmental Ethics

Dr. Calvin DeWitt, an expert on faith-based environmental stewardship, has been a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies for more than four decades. His early work focused on the stewardship and care of wetland ecologies. An Evangelical Christian, Dr. DeWitt is also a leader among faith-based coalitions that aim to connect Christian theology and ethics with environmental stewardship.

This session provided a decidedly Christian perspective on the stewardship of creation and how this applies to agriculture and food production. The articulation of an environmental ethics, based on biblical scriptures, calls us to a new understanding of cultivation and caring for the earth.

“Our Commission of Con-Service” / Biblical Environmental Ethics

Doxology: “Praise Good from whom all blessings flow.”

DeWitt began his presentation with a doxology, or praising of God, in respect to Creation and our ability as human beings to see ourselves in relation to all created things. Our belief in one God, creator of all things and all life, is the foundation of a spiritual ecology.

DeWitt set forth a number of thought-provoking slides:

“Creation is a symphony of material and life cycles, empowered by Earth’s star the sun, whose energy drives global circulations of air and water — flows shaped by unequal heating and varied topography of land above and below the sea.”

“Solar energy captured by green plants fuels molecule-to-molecule & organism-to-organism transfers helping to weave Earth’s integrative biogeographic and trophic fabric that interlaces all life.”

Given our human consciousness – to know that we know – we have the ability to learn from God’s Creation. DeWitt said we also have the ability to learn from God’s Word. These are gifts not of mere learning, but inspired learning through the working of the Holy Spirit within us.

“Christianity, and the ideas that lay behind it, is a religion and a philosophy of creation. It is preoccupied with the Creator, with the things He created and their relationships to Him and among themselves.” (Clarence J. Glacken, 1967, p.168)

Using the title words of the symposium, Dewitt said:

FAITH incorporates what we believe about the world in which we live. What we believe about ourselves and the world relates strongly to the institution of the Church and the institutions inspired by and affected by the Church.

FOOD: God’s gift to every person, and to every creature. “I have given you every plant yielding seed…and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29) “(T)o everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30) “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, with its blood.” (Genesis 9:3-4)

ENVIRONMENT: God’s gift to every person, and to every creature. God’s bountiful care breathes in the air, shines in the light; streams from the hills and descends to the plain; sweetly distills in the dew and the rain. (see Psalm 104)

We gratefully practice the principles of Earth-keeping (Gen. 2:15) and fruitfulness (Ez. 34:18) and Sabbath (Ex. 23:10-11). Genesis 2:15 gives us the commission of stewardship to avad (cultivate) the Garden and to shamar (care for it).

  • The Earth-keeping Principle: SHAMAR

As the Lord keeps and sustains us, so we must keep and sustain our Lord’s creation.

  • The Fruitfulness Principle: We should enjoy – but not destroy – creation’s fruitfulness. (Genesis 1:22-28; 6-9, Ezekiel 34:18)
  • The Sabbath Principle: We must provide for creation’s sabbath rests.

(Exodus 23 and Leviticus 25 & 26)

VOCATION: Agricultural leaders who follow Christ will apply Scientia (Knowledge of Creation) in respect to Ethics (Biblical Teaching) and make this their Praxis (Putting into Practice). This triad of Science-Ethics-Praxis (which is comparable to See-Judge-Act as presented on Day One of the symposium) poses these questions:

  • Science asks: How does the world work?
  • Ethics asks: What ought to be?
  • Praxis asks: What then must we do?

As people of faith, following a vocation, “We must practice what we believe.” (see Ezekiel 33:30-32 and Luke 6:46-49) We as human beings should not take the services of creation and creation’s goods without returning services of its own. (Con-Servancy Principle, DeWitt, Earth-Wise, 2011) The idea of agricultural sustainability centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these assets.

Vocation of the Christ-Follower & Agri-Cultural Leader:

  • To glorify God with Gratitude and Praise for Creation and its Service.
  • To Safeguard Creation; to Safeguard Food; as Gifts of God’s Love.
  • To Return the Service of God and God’s Creation with Service of Our Own.

Are there examples – paradigms – of what can be done within and through our institutions? Yes, and one of these is the subject of a comprehensive study by Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex. (See his book, “The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Earth and Our Place In It”)

With his colleagues, Pretty studied more than 4,000 certified organic farms in the United Kingdom that met the standards for sustainable agro-ecological systems. [Six slides of charts are shown that call for a restructuring of whole farm systems.]

Service to the Agrarian Majority

For the 2.5 billion people around the world whose livelihood is in farming, stewardship of land held in trust over the generations largely remains the cultural and ethical norm.

The strategic objectives GGIAR — Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research ( — are:

  • Food for People: Create and accelerate sustainable increases in the productivity and production of healthy food by and for the poor.
  • Environment for People: Conserve, enhance, and sustainably use natural resources and biodiversity to improve the livelihoods of the poor in response to climate change and other factors.
  • Policies for People: Promote policy and institutional change that will stimulate agricultural growth and equity to benefit the poor, especially rural women and other disadvantaged groups.


As noted at the beginning, faith incorporates what we believe about the world in which we live. What we believe about ourselves and the world relates strongly to INSTITUTIONS: the Institution of the Church and the institutions inspired by and affected by the Church.

Faith incorporates what we believe about the world in which we live. Belief about ourselves and the world are what Douglass North calls “internal representations of the world.” BELIEFS, therefore, are internal representations that together form our worldview which include:

— ourselves & what we believe makes for good personal character & wholesome relationships within our families & communities

— what we believe to be our purpose in life

— what we believe about everything beyond ourselves

– the rest of human society and culture

– our view of our biosphere from outer space

– our biogeophysical world

– the biospheric economy, and

– our planet’s ecosystem services.

INSTITUTIONS are ‘external manifestations’ of these BELIEFS. Institutions are the social constructs that frame human action in the world — whether that be at the level of Ford, BP, national governments or the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

North emphasizes that our internal representations can displace the ‘rationality’ of market economics, maximization of profit, and attempts that might be made to disconnect the present from culture and history. The ‘uncritical acceptance of the rationality assumption’, North warns, ‘is a major stumbling block in the path of future progress’, and its currently wide acceptance ‘forecloses a deeper understanding of the decision-making process in confronting the uncertainties of the complex world we have created.’

There is another warning needed, and that is the falsehood that the human economy ‘trumps’ the biospheric economy. The uncritical acceptance of this assumption may prevent ongoing recognition of increasing unsustainability, and may foreclose the critically necessary decision-making and urgent action that is required within our institutions and institutional structure.

Institutions and Institutional Structure must be developed and maintained to match the changing complexity of the dynamic biosphere; the broadening ‘reach’ of human actions that affect the biosphere and its ecosystem services; and human values and aspirations toward a world of justice and vibrant human life and culture.

Otherwise institutional decay and ineffectiveness result, persist, and increase.

In short, institutions and institutional structure need to mirror the biospheric economy and human values. As they better mirror the economy of the biosphere and human values, they reshape human relations with the biosphere.

Agrarian Culture (meets Market/Industrialization)

Where agrarian culture remains, stewardship of land held in trust over the generations largely remains the cultural and ethical norm. As corporate agribusiness and its shorter-term interests take hold, agrarian culture is degraded and destroyed; soil stewardship is practiced only insofar as it brings immediate gains.

“We show that, empirically, the emergence of large farms in many developing countries was based on power relations and distortions, and that the international competitiveness of these farms is often maintained by subsidies, associated with significant social losses.”

— Hans P. Binswanger (World Bank), Klaus Deininger (Univ. of Minnesota), and Gershon Feder (World Bank) 1993. Agricultural land relations in the developing world. Amer. J. Agr. Econ. 75:1242-1248.

David Pimentel et al. (1995) reports that nearly one-third of all arable lands worldwide were lost to erosion during the last half of the 20th century and were taken out of production. This reduces productivity, disrupts vital ecosystem functions, negatively affects biodiversity and water resources, and increases vulnerability to climate change.


Contrasting Biblical & Utilitarian Worldviews


  1. Earth-keeping                                             1. Earth-consumption
  2. Fruitfulness (bal taschit)                          2. Expendibility/substitutability
  3. Restoration/Sabbath                                 3. Continuous exploitability
  4. Fulfillment and limits                               4. Unlimited human population
  1. Regulation by Sabbath                              5. Crisis Management
  2. Contentment                                               6. Discontentment as best condition
  3. Seek system integrity first                        7. Self-interest as best motivation
  4. Put beliefs into practice                            8. Dualism of belief & practice as best


Context for Stewardship in our day

Our civilization seems to be emerging from some two centuries of neglect of the stewardship tradition. This long lapse means that we cannot simply pick up the tradition where we left it at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, we need to size up where we are in the stream of time and identify the major happenings in our world and have this help to inform and shape our understanding and substance of stewardship for our time.

Among the most significant developments during these past two hundred years have been those of…

(A) understanding the biosphere and its climate system

(B) understanding human impacts on the earth, and

(C) understanding of worldwide transitions in human communities.

Dynamic Stewardship shapes and reshapes human behavior in the direction of maintaining individual, community, and biospheric stability. When we are in accord with the way the biosphere works, we are “imaging” God’s love for the world.

[Powerpoint presentation concludes with promo for “Earthwise: A guide to hopeful creation care” and “Song of a Scientists” (both by Calvin DeWitt)]