Saturday, November 7, 2009

John Calvin's Land Ethic

This is the 500th year since John Calvin was born.  I've done my share of reading on this man and attended an excellent conference too.  Yet, with all of this discussion I have yet to read anything related to the environment or land use. 

It might come as a surprise to many Christians to learn that the environmental movement lays at their feet the charge that the Church is responsible for the misuse of the world's resources.  This is based on a misreading of Genesis 1:28 and God's mandate to Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and have dominion over (it)."  It is readily apparent that the Genesis account speaks of stewardship instead of abuse, but this is often overlooked by those who wish to find an easy scapegoat.

A few days ago as I was doing my sermon preparation on Genesis 2:15-17 I came across a stunning quote from John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis.  It came in the context of Adam's work in the Garden of Eden.  Calvin draws a principle to demonstrate that we, like Adam, are stewards of God's creation.  He writes,

"Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.  Let him so feed on it fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits (it) to be marred or ruined by neglect.  Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses.  Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved."

The father of the modern conservation movement is Aldo Leopold.  In my undergraduate studies we took a class on environmental ethics and closely read his work A Sand County Almanac.  I don't think that Leopold was aware of Calvin's opinion when he wrote his Land Ethic.  Nor do I think that many Christians are aware of this 'reformation' perspective either.  In my opinion Leopold would've been stunned to learn that he wasn't really breaking new ground with his book and landmark essay.  I also think that he would be scandalized to learn that CHRISTIANS were talking about a land ethic four centuries before it was fashionable.

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