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I've heard from a Christian that the Bible talks about God giving stewardship over the earth. That is, not just an entitlement to use the earth, but a responsibility to maintain it wisely.

When I asked him about where it was said, he said he thought it was Genesis 1:28, but wasn't 100% sure.

Is "Stewardship" a modern interpretation, which arose after environmentalism became a major issue in the politics of western countries (apparently the 19th century)? Or did this interpretation exist beforehand?

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  • Short answer is Yes, I think. Genesis 1:28 makes man sovereign over the earth, not a steward. Man is given dominion over the earth. He's even told to "subdue it": doesn't sound very environmentally friendly or green to "subdue it." Sounds like Genesis is Ok with humans wiping out mosquitos that cause malaria, for instance. Aug 26 '14 at 0:35
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    There are very old Jewish commentaries on this, but I'll need time to look them up. Aug 29 '14 at 2:34
  • Christianity changed the way humanity understood the act of ruling (Mark 10:42-45).
    – Lucian
    Jul 30 '17 at 17:38
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God tells humanity to "rule over" (LXX-κατακυριεύσατε) the earth in Genesis 1:28. This cannot be taken as divine permission to trash the planet.

In the ancient world, image bearers of potentates acted as royal regents. God created humans, both male and female, as his image bearers to act as his regents. Stewardship of the created world seems to be part of our role as God's regents.

When God saw what he had created, he saw that it was "exceedingly good" (Gen 2:31). As his image-bearers, I think there is an implicit responsibility to keep the earth in an "exceedingly good" state while making responsible use of its resources.

This is not a new interpretation, but it has only been since the industrial revolution, and the huge increase in population, that humanity has needed to be much more conscious about dealing with industrial and domestic waste, maintaining renewable resources, and protecting the environment.

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A question about how old or recent an interpretation is goes beyond basic hermeneutics into textual studies of the hermeneutics of the ancient and medieval church. I can't go in depth, but I can give a brief overview.

Respected scholar Richard Bauckham notes in his book, God and the Crisis of Freedom, "Neither the theological nor the exegetical tradition was particularly interested in the human relationship with nature."

The first reason for this is because the early church was overwhelmingly influenced by Greek philosophy, which helped them frame how the universe worked and where everything fit in the cosmological hierarchy. This is extremely complicated, and I can't go further into it here.

The other main reason for this lack of interest was that the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century was the first time that humanity seemed to have significant power over the the forces of nature. Before then, nobody could conceive of the possibility of man destroying the environment we live in. The idea of human "dominion" over the earth as a sort of "humans are in charge of the earth and can control and do whatever they like with the environment," is equally as new as "humans are stewards of the earth, and must take care of the environment," because before that, the question would have been ludicrous. Humans simply didn't have the power to damage or exhaust the resources of the earth. So why would anyone ever ask whether we have a right to maintain or treat it well? You can't hurt it.

As far as their interpretation of Genesis 1:28, Bauckham comments, "[T]he human dominion over nature was generally understood as a static fact... They take it for granted that the text refers merely to the usual ways in which people were using nature in their time."

In other words, they saw God's words in Genesis 1:28 about man's dominion over earth as a practical description of just how things are; not so much as than a command to do something.

The idea of man having serious REAL, practical power over nature or the environment is something NEW. That's why the ancients so rarely discussed it. It was only when humanity began to wield serious power over the environment that Christians had to address the question of how we ought to use that power. The question of whether we have a responsibility to maintain the environment wisely never occurred to them, but only for the same reason that the question of whether we ought to go to the moon never occurred to them.

Now, what does the Bible say about humans and taking care of or polluting the earth? A LOT. But not in the way that we think about it. Blood (i.e. murder) pollutes the land. Sin pollutes the land. It was pollution in the same way that eating pork or shellfish caused pollution, or touching carcass or a woman during her period caused pollution. But the important thing was that polluting the earth was SERIOUS offense against God. It belonged to him, not us. People aren't even allowed to sell land permanently! "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." - Leviticus 25:23

So to conclude:

The early church didn't talk or think much about the stewardship or dominion of man over the earth, but that was because of their highly specific Greek interpretive approach to the Bible, and the fact that it was, to them, stupidly obvious that humanity couldn't ever have the power to hurt the earth anyway.

The Old Testament has a huge concern for not polluting the earth because it belongs to God, and, even though polluting the earth was about sin and ceremony to them, They would have almost certainly seen the new kind of pollution invented by science and industrialization as polluting God's earth.

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