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The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology (Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World) [Paperback]

David G. Horrell

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Book Description

1 Sep 2010 Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World
The biblical and Christian traditions have long been seen to have legitimated and encouraged humanity's aggressive domination of nature. Biblical visions of the future, with destruction for the earth and rescue for the elect, have also discouraged any concern for the earth's future or the welfare of future generations. But we now live in a time when environmental issues are at the centre of political and ethical debate. What is needed is a new reading of the biblical tradition that can meet the challenges of the ecological issues that face humanity at the beginning of the third millennium. 'The Bible and the Environment' examines a range of biblical texts - from Genesis to Revelation - evaluating competing interpretations. The Bible provides a thoroughly ambivalent legacy. Certainly, it cannot provide straightforward teaching on care for the environment but nor can it simply be seen as an anti-ecological book. Developing an 'ecological hermeneutic' as a way of mediating between contemporary concerns and the biblical text, 'The Bible and the Environment' presents a way of productively reading the Bible in the context of contemporary ecology.

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The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology (Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World) + Bible and Ecology - Rediscovering the Community of Creation + Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives
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'Immensely helpful in orienting (around) this important, fast-growing debate on relating the Bible to ecological concerns. I recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the current state of discussion...It would be easy to adopt this book as a textbook in various courses at college and seminary.' --Reviews in Religion and Theology

'A perceptive, nuanced and accessible treatment which offers proposals for a constructive reading of the Bible in the light of contemporary ecological concerns, while not underestimating the ambivalence and ambiguity of the texts. It would be a particularly useful textbook for a course on the Bible and ecology.' --Journal for the Study of the New Testament

'A perceptive, nuanced and accessible treatment which offers proposals for a constructive reading of the Bible in the light of contemporary ecological concerns, while not underestimating the ambivalence and ambiguity of the texts. It would be a particularly useful textbook for a course on the Bible and ecology.' --Journal for the Study of the New Testament

About the Author

David G. Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies in the Department of Theology, University of Exeter, UK.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Care and caution 15 Jun 2011
By Martin de Wit - Published on Amazon.com
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Within the context of a Biblical response to the ecological crises, David Horrel argues for a rethink on hermeneutics (the approach towards interpretation) and a further explicit development of an `ecological hermeneutic'. He suggests what we need is "a newly orientated way of reading the Bible that is demanded by our current context and the issues that face us".

In his review on approaches to review the Bible, Horrel broadly categorises between a strategy to recover or retrieve ecological wisdom from the Bible as opposed to an approach taken by some to resist a renewed reading of the Bible.

The first approach is taken by a several Christian commentators of the ecological crises. Horrel specifically refers to Paul Santmire and Steven Bouma-Prediger. The focus in this approach is, according to Horrel, to recover Biblical wisdom that has been hidden and obscured by interpreters who failed to see or attend to such dimensions of the text. This approach focusses on a re-interpretation of specific Biblical texts (e.g. Gen 1-2, Gen 9:1-17, Ps 104, Rom 8:18-25, Col 1:15-20, Rev 21-22), claiming that the Bible is the source of a positive attitude to the earth and that it helps to support an ethic of environmental responsibility and care.

The second approach is in line with the argument presented by Lynn White Jr a few decades ago and the more recent eco-justice principles as set forward by the Earth Bible team, resisting Biblical teachings mainly for its `damaging form of anthropocentrism'. Another form of resistance reading is from within some strands of Christianity itself, most notably those that associate the environmental movement with the New Age movement (e.g. Cumbey, Hunt), those who deny an ecological crises in the first place (e.g. Beisner), and those who are opposed to environmentalism due to certain interpretations of biblical eschatology, such as a millennial reign of Christ on earth and a period where Christians will be ruptured from the earth (e.g. popular books of Lindsay, LaHaye and Jenkins).

Horrel continues to survey various interpretations of selected biblical texts and presents a refrain after each discussion on various texts more or less as concluded on his discussion of Gen1-2: "Since the text can be read and appropriated in various ways, a crucial question rapidly emerges: Why should one read the text one way rather than another; why should we view it through one interpretive lens rather than a different one?". Horrel presents several, often opposing interpretations of the text, and each time argues that the Bible is not so straightforward to interpret. He calls for new lenses to shape our reading of the Bible (p61), arguing that an ecological theology and ethics cannot emerge simply from "listening" to the Bible's message (p72), or simply to be found in the pages of the Bible (p103), and that the Bible is ambivalent and ambiguous in terms of its ecological implications (p117).

In reaction to this Biblical ambivalence, Horrel argues for a more constructive and creative mode of biblical interpretation (p87). The idea to follow simply what Bible says is problematic (p120). Horrel does take a reassuring stance on the authority of the Bible; in response to approaches seeking authority from outside the Bible, such as Earth Bible project, he does give the Bible a generative and normative role in the ongoing articulation and reformulation of Christian doctrine (p121).

Horrel relies on Conradie when stating that a Biblical interpretation needs to rely on its historical context, taking into account various traditions of interpretation throughout ages and the contemporary context that shapes questions. Biblical meaning is seen as a spiral of ongoing interpretation between reader and text (p122). Referring to Conradie; interpretation happens in the interaction between the reader's contemporary context and ancient text, so changing contexts and demands bring new perspectives and doctrines to light (p124). Horrel views stewardship, one of the favourites of those who follow a recovery strategy to reading the Bible, as one kind of doctrinal lens and that cannot be interpreted as simply what it stated in the Bible.

By now the reader becomes anxious what such a constructive and creative reading of the Bible would be. Horrel continues to address this question what this alternative ecological hermeneutic is: What then is this more nuanced hermeneutically -explicit approach to engaging the Bible with questions of ecology look like? Horrel identifies three dimensions to this task (p125):
1. There is an important role for historical study and informed exegesis - texts are products of ancient cultures, with different assumptions and concerns
2. An interpretation need to be to be informed by the theological tradition and may be labeled as a re-formation, an approach followed by `revisionists' (with reference to Santmire), standing somewhere between conservative apologetics and radical reconstructionists (p126).
3. A third dimension is an engagement with contemporary science and fields of human knowledge such as ethics that are relevant to understanding ecological issues.

In the last chapter of the book Horrel offers some tentative proposals organized around theological foundations and ethical implications. Horrel mentions the following main theological ideas:
1. The goodness of all creation: the created world is valuable and beautiful and a narrow focus on the spiritual dimensions of salvation of the soul only must be resisted. The material and spiritual are presented as inseparable, and God and the world are intrinsically connected (p129)
2. Humanity as part of the community of creation: humans have a unique ability to reflect and act. Humanity is but one element of a profoundly interconnected community of creation (p131). Human arrogance and sense of being superior needs to be punctured, such as through readings of Job 38.
3. Interconnectedness in failure and flourishing: a right relationship between humans and God, is also reflected in right relationships with the land (Leviticus). This challenges and contributes to a theology of sin away from interpersonal relationships only, including the whole network of ecological relationships in which humans are embedded (2010:132). (Horrel uses the unfortunate word `human animal').
4. The covenant with all of creation: the covenant with Noah and all living things, with all of the earth press towards a less anthropocentric theology. The relationship of the whole creation to God is at the centre.
5. Creation's calling to praise God: the whole of creation is bound in covenant relationship to God and expressing praise to God. The reality is also that all of creation groans and suffers (Rom 8), a tension that is captured in an anticipation of eschatological consummation (p135).
6. Liberation and reconciliation of all things: the whole of creation is to be redeemed (Rom 8, Col 1). God's work of creation, sustaining and redemption is for all created things.

In his discussion on ethical implications, Horrel includes a discussion on eschatology. There is a real question how eschatological hope inspires and motivates environmental care (p138). It is sometimes argued that human actions for preservation are irrelevant if God will finally bring a new creation anyway.

Horrel mentions two arguments where eschatological visions positively inform Christian environmental ethics. The first are prophecies of a renewed and peaceful creation intended to motivate in the present (Isa 2:2-5; Mic 4:1-5). The second, following Gospels and letters of Paul, is that the new kingdom of God is already in the making. Examples are Jesus' and his followers' acts of healing, acceptance and table fellowship (p139). Horrel continues to state that ethical actions will be guided by convictions regarding the goodness of all creation, the interconnectedness of all creation, humanity included, and the calling of all creation to praise. Insofar as the eschatological visions shape ethical practice, then ethics will be shaped by the desire to work towards peace, reconciliation, and unity, not merely among humans, but among all created things. (p140). New Testament ethics, the imperative to imitate Christ in his self-giving to others, the "other-regard" (Phil 2:4-11; 2 Cor 8:1-15) is a further important contribution to Biblical ecotheology and ethics as this idea of reconciliation may be considered beyond human community only.

Horrel makes an important contribution to the field of ecotheology. His plea for caution in interpreting Biblical texts to emerging ecological problems, and in this process easily refuting a long Biblical interpretation, needs to be applauded. A strategy of recovery is too simplistic and is doing no justice to millennia of biblical interpretation.

Horrel resistance to measure the Bible against a non-biblical canon of modern values must also be applauded. The Bible as the sole and last authority needs to be protected and it seems as if Horrel honors this as his point of departure.

As someone not familiar with hermeneutical strategies, Horrel's plea for a more constructive and creative hermeneutic needs far more elaboration and substance. This is a crucial methodological argument in his book, but one that is not sufficiently explained and motivated. His hermeneutic strategy is presented with an appeal to very few references (mostly Conradie), and does not convincingly build on a body of literature on hermeneutics itself. Even if a reader largely shares Horrel's cautionary notes in reading the Bible in the context of the ecological crises, this book cannot be read and evaluated without a prior understanding of or deeper and critical reflection on what hermeneutics is and what it means for Biblical ecotheology and environmental ethics.

A more specific issue is the place of the "Fall" in Horrel's work. In his final reflections Horrel only emphasizes the goodness of creation without explicitly discussing the impacts of the "Fall" on such a view. Horrel did take issue with certain interpretations and implications of the "Fall" earlier in the book (Ch4), an area that needs further clarity.

The book does point towards a renewed vision for ethics, but does not go very far in developing it. Horrel's position is that the Bible does not tell us what to do in specific cases. I cannot help feeling though that the ethical vision that finally emerges from Horrel's hermeutically-explicit approach is broadly in agreement with an ethics of responsibility and care as argued by authors who follow a strategy of recovery. This may have important implications for scientists, economists and others working in the real world and seeking for Biblically sound ethical guidance on their work and on recommendations they make. Is it really that important to emphasise hermeneutical differences if the ethical vision that transposes and the practical conduct emanating from such a vision do not differ that much? If yes, then a much deeper exposition of hermeneutics is needed to responsibly advice on such choices. If no, the focus for scientists and economists working in a Christian tradition and concerned about the ecological crises can shift away from eco-theology and the hermeneutical question to ethics. The answer is likely to be in-between, urging all to be cautious in reaching conclusions. A further question is what Christian ethics on `its own' can contribute to address the ecological crises? Horrel alluded to this in his reference to ethical implications to the "other-regard", an ethical principle with implications across all spheres of life, including ecological concern. Although Horrel keeps on referring to so-called doctrinal lenses, the question whether such lenses are, in fact, timeless and possibly needs to be hierarchically organized may be further explored. Justification by faith for instance, one of Horrel's doctrinal lenses, may not loose its value in an age of ecological crises (not saying that Horrel argues this, but is not entirely clear from the text), but can also be interpreted as being in need of transformation to apply to the whole of creation.

Finally, Horrel's parting shots to rethinking religion al the time resonates. Reformation and revisioning in changing contexts never stops, and Christians do need to be positively engaged with the many challenges facing the whole of creation.

In summary, it is lovely book to read, and one that enriches eco-theology with inviting an explicit debate on hermeneutics.
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