Essay: Salvation in traditional vs green theology

This essay seeks to examine traditional ideas about salvation/redemption, in particular examining the contribution to theology of Gerhard von Rad, whose ideas centred around the salvific event of the Red sea. It will then examine what happens when green philosophy and conservationism enters the domain of theology, in particular the Earth Bible movement and the work of Thomas Berry. It will then address some of the concerns around the new ‘Eco-theology’, and the ongoing response of some mainstream New Zealand churches in this area.

Gerhard von Rad’s two-volume Old Testament Theology, published in the 1960s, was the centre of a “great flowering of biblical theology.”[1] For him, salvation was seen as predominantly about the salvific history of Israel, that is, God saving Israel from Egypt, through the Red Sea. “Even the earliest avowals to Jahweh were historically determined, that is, they connect the name of this God with some statement about an action in history”[2] such as Deut 26:5-9.

This was rehearsed and remembered at many cultic occasions. “When Israel ate the Passover… she was entering into the saving event of the Exodus itself and participating in it in a quite “actual” and novel way.[3] [4] In this Israel differed radically from her neighbours.[5]

The prophets reminded Israel of their history, and persuaded them that if God were to act again, they must change.[6] The remembered salvific act was to re-occur – deliverance from contemporary political enemies could be hoped for- Deutero-Isaiah refers to the “new saving event’ in terms of Cyrus rescuing Israel politically. [7]Von Rad comments on the way that “the saving data are constantly applied to, and made relevant for, contemporary situations.”[8]

Creation was not  a major feature in von Rad’s Theology – “For von Rad creation was a late import into the Bible, gaining significance only from its relation to the concept of redemption; only in Psalms 19 and 104 was creation an independent concept.”[9]

And yet, von Rad notes a particularly earth-centred approach in Hosea –

“The word of promise at the end of the book… speaks wholly in terms of the natural world. (Hos. 14:5-7) It is a remarkable fact that the same prophet who thinks so emphatically in terms of saving history can at the same time move Jahweh’s relationship to Israel over into the horizons of an almost vegetable natural growth and blossoming, where all the drama of the saving history ebbs out as if in a profound quiet.” [10]

Later theologians began to note the connection between creation and salvation – “But for Deutero-Isaiah the creation does not belong in a category distinct from that of the deliverance of the Red Sea! …. At this point the doctrine of creation has been fully absorbed into the complex of soteriological belief, so fully absorbed indeed that the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of redemption are both included in the one picture of the battle with the primaeval dragon.[11] Creation itself began to be seen as a “saving act of God.”[12]

Around the end of the twentieth century a rising awareness of ecology began to be reflected in theology. Rather than Genesis being read in the light of Exodus, this would be reversed.[13] Along with this was a re-thinking, even rejection,[14] of dominion and stewardship, and human responsibility towards the earth which led to the Earth Charter.[15] God’s compassion for all creation was the new paradigm,[16] and interconnectedness[17] the new model. “The principle of mutual custodianship states that Earth is a balanced and diverse domain in which responsible custodians can function as partners, rather than rulers, to sustain a balanced and diverse Earth community.”[18] The rhetoric became more heated – “The rights of our planet have been violated and the time has come for humans, in their role as advocates for Earth, to join in resisting this violation of our planet. The time has come for Earth justice.”[19] The Earth Bible movement was a response to these stirrings. “The Earth Bible has listened closely to ecologists and developed a set of principles to re-read the biblical text from an ecojustice perspective. The concern of earth Bible writers is … to identify those passages which may have contributed to the crisis and to uncover those traditions which have valued Earth but been suppressed.’”[20] [21] Human domination would be questioned. “The devastation of the planet is attributable to this exaggerated understanding of particularity in election to the biblical, Western tradition,”[22] with Gen 1:28 cited as justification. “The key Hebrew verbs are Kabash, translated ‘subdue’, and yirdu, translated ‘have dominion over’. Both commands, given only to humanity are forceful: sort of coercion by the subduer.” Eyles 1991 p 17

Concern about salvation in the Old Testament would be replaced by redemption – the means by which salvation can occur. Rather than a focus on the ‘salvific event,’ the theme widened to include the whole planet and all its inhabitants. “God as love is interested not in rescuing certain individuals from the world but in saving, making whole, the entire beloved cosmos that has become estranged and fragmented, sickened by unhealthy practices, and threatened by death and extinction.”[23]

There seemed to be a deep sense of guilt[24] at the way humans had apparently treated the planet, and a desire for redemption from the consequences.[25]

Both Birch (below) and Berry[26] find in Romans 8 a guide to interpreting the Fall in Genesis – it “links the redemption of nature with the redemption of human beings. It does not say ‘save people and they will save the world’. Rather, it implies that redeemed people have an obligation to save the world.”[27] Berry calls[28] for a ‘mystique of the earth’, a “deep, emotional, imaginative sensitivity to everything”,[29] and a new religion of the ‘Ecozoic Age’ that will “foster a definition of the universe as a community of subjects ”[30] – Dee Ecology giving equal rights not only to humans and animals, but geological features and the atmosphere.[31] An eleventh commandment was written[32] and ‘Speciesist’ thought was to be rejected.[33]

This new theology of redemption of the earth began to move dangerously close to earth worship -“Earth is a far more inclusive and suitable object of devotion than Christianity, a nation, or economic growth… this directs us to the earth with all its inhabitants, especially the human ones, as the locus of our Christian service.”[34] Some have called for us to be Earth lovers in order to keep earth in God’s way.[35]

A theology of earth’s redemption with such a ‘green’ focus has had its critics. Berry’s book ‘Befriending the Planet’ has been criticised as “one of the strangest outpourings of an ordained Christian minister.”[36] Calls to save the planet can be answered, from what?[37] Worshipping the earth, rather than God, “becomes the essence of the faith.”[38] Secular environmentalism has been proclaimed by religious spokesmen as the “newest good news.”[39] Environmental projects are replacing missional work.[40] Nature may be a wonderful “object of worship”[41] but as CS Lewis puts it, “By emptying nature of Divinity or, let us say, of divinities, you may fill her with Deity, for she is now the bearer of messages. There is a sense in which Nature-worship silences her – as if a child or a savage were so impressed with the postman’s uniform that he omitted to take in the letters.”[42] Green spirituality has been criticized as ‘syncretist’, taking from many world religions, including animism and paganism[43] – Berry “believes that “the salvation of Christians lies in the unassimilated elements of paganism.”” [44] But some church leaders sound a note of caution. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

“A secularist reinterpretation of the ‘Kingdom’ has gained considerable ground, particularly, though not exclusively, in Catholic theology.  The ‘Kingdom,’ on this interpretation, is simply the name for a world governed by peace, justice, and the conservation of creation.  Our main criticism of the secular-utopian idea of the ‘Kingdom’ has been that it pushes God off the stage.  He is no longer needed, or else he is a downright nuisance.  But Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, not just any kind of kingdom.”[45]

As the churches respond to the green theology movement, they are looking for ways to incorporate it into their worship life.[46] The Anglican Church’s Five marks of Mission includes “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” [47] as a core value. The Presbyterian Church has released a study guide called “Caring for Creation.”[48] A book called ‘Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God’s Earth’ “reveals how a focus on God’s earth transforms both people and congregations, creating more relevant and powerful ministries for today.”[49] The church finds itself ‘sidelined’ without sensitivity to ecological issues which are widely held among its congregations.[50] Creation has become linked with redemption, which is “an overcoming of anticreational forces at every level, including the cosmic.”[51]

We have looked at von Rad’s ideas of the salvific event as referencing the Exodus and how the Jewish people made it relevant, and we have examined, in contrast, a green-centred approach to salvation/redemption, which involves the whole planet and is not confined to either the fall or a particular group of people. We have seen how the modern church has embraced a conservationist approach to spirituality regarding the earth, redemption and salvation. Green theology is here to stay.


Anderson, Bernhard W. (ed) Creation in the Old Testament Issues in Religion and Theology 6 SPCK London 1984

Bergant, Dianne. ‘Restoration as Re-Creation in Hosea 2.’ In The Ecological Challenge: Ethical, Liturgical, and Spiritual Responses, ed. Richard N. Fragomeni and John T. Pawlikowski, 3-15. Collegeville: Liturgical, 1994.

Berry, Thomas with Thomas Clarke Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut 1991

Birch, Charles. ‘Preface.’ In The Earth Story in Genesis, ed. Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst, 11-14. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000.

Brueggemann, Walter Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme and Text ed. Patrick . Miller Fortress Press Minneapolis 1992

Clifford, Richard J., Collins, John J. (eds) Creation in the Biblical Traditions The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 24  The Catholic Biblical Association of America Washington, DC 1992

Eyles, R.J. Voices of Hope in a Suffering World: Reflections on ecologically sustainable lifestyles The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand Wellington 1991

Fretheim, Terence E. ‘The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus.’ Interpretation 45 (1991): 354-65.

Habel, Norman C. ‘’Is the Wild Ox Willing to Serve You?’: Challenging the Mandate to Dominate.’ In The Earth Story in Wisdom Traditions, ed. Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst, 179-89. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001.

Habel, Norman C., ed. Readings from the Perspective of Earth, The Earth Bible, 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000.

Hayes, John H. , Prussner, Frederick Old Testament Theology: Its history and development. John Knox Press Atlanta 1985

McDuff, Mallory Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God’s Earth

Mallory McDuff  Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

Martens, Elmer A. ‘Yahweh’s Compassion and Ecotheology.’ In Problems in Biblical Theology: Essays in Honor of Rolf Knierim, ed. Henry T.C. Sun, Keith L. Eades and others, 234-48. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Morton, John Christ Creation and the Environment Provincial Secretary Church of the Province of New Zealand Auckland 1989

Plimer, Ian  heaven+earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science Howling at the Moon Publishing Ltd Kaukapakapa NZ 2009

von Rad, Gerhard trans. John H. Marks Genesis: A Commentary Old Testament History Library SCM Press London 1966

von Rad, Gerhard Old Testament Theology vol 1 The theology of Israel’s historical tradition. Oliver and Boyd Edinburgh 1962

von Rad, Gerhard Old Testament Theology vol 2 The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions. Oliver and Boyd Edinburgh 1965 (28 Nov 2012) (28 Nov 2012) ibid › Earth Bible  (28 Nov 2012)  (21 Jan 2013)  (28 Nov 2012)  (28 Nov 2012) (28 Nov 2012)

[1]Clifford and Collins1992 p.1

[2]von Rad 1962 p.121

[3]von Rad 1965 p.104

[4]Hayes 1985 p.234

[5]von Rad 1965 p.110

[6]von Rad 1962 p.128

[7]von Rad 1965 p.244

[8]von Rad 1965

[9] Clifford and Collins 1992 p.57

[10]von Rad 1965 p.146

[11]Anderson 1984 p.58

[12]Hayes 1985 p.274

[13]Fretheim 1991 p.354

[14]Berry 1991 p 58,59

[15]The Earth Charter is an international declaration of fundamental values and principles considered useful by its supporters for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. …. The Earth Charter’s ethical vision proposes that environmental protection, human rights, equitable human development, and peace are interdependent and indivisible. The Charter attempts to provide a new framework for thinking about and addressing these issues. The Earth Charter Initiative organization exists to promote the Charter.(  {28 Nov 2012})

[16]Martens 1997 p.247

[17]“Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.” Habel 2000 p.24

[18]Habel 2001 p.179

[19]Habel 2000 p.26

[20]Tutu in Habel 2000 p.7

[21]“Other passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy protect fruit trees , oxen, mother birds and fallow land and led to the notion of bal tashhit (do not destroy), an ancient and sweeping series of Hebrew environmental regulations that were rabbinically extended (to include the cutting off of water supplies to trees, etc.” Eyles 1991 p.20

[22]Berry 1991 p.18

[23]Sallie McFague in Eyles 1991 p.90

[24]Morton 1989 p.15

[25]“We obviously need to be redeemed from the destruction and the devastation that we have always caused. But now we need to be redeemed more than ever.” Berry 1991 p.79

[26]Berry 1991 p.70

[27]Birch 2000 p. 4

[28]Berry 1991 p.96

[29]Berry 1991 p.98

[30]Berry 1991 p.101

[31]Whelan et al 1996 p.27

[32]“thou shall not despoil the earth, nor destroy life thereon.” Eyles 1991 p.94

[33]Morton 1989 p.38

[34]John Cobb in Birch 2000 p.11

[35]Jegen in Martens 1997 p.248

[36]Whelan et al 1996 p.31

[37]Plimer 2009 p. 467

[38]Whelan et all 1996 p.x

[39]Whelan et all 1996 p.ix

[40]“When birdwatching in the Algarve [a La Rocha project] is regarded as a reasonable alternative to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in Africa, it is clear that the church’s understanding of mission is undergoing a radical change.” Whelan et al 1996 p.2

[41]North in Whelan et al 1996 p.23

[42]Morton 1989 p.43

[43]Whelan et al 1996 p.32


[46]Eyles 1991 p 85


[48] Presbyterian Church of AotearoaNew Zealand

[49] McDuff 2010

[50] Eyles 1991 p 35

[51] Fretheim 1991 p.357, 359

1 thought on “Essay: Salvation in traditional vs green theology

  1. Pingback: Living with the climate is cheaper: 50 to 1 | Rev. Felicity O'Brien speaking as a deacon

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