I have always enjoyed the natural world. From as far back as I can remember until today, my childhood and my young adulthood have consistently been colored with the delight of nature. From this personal perspective, the topic of Environmentalism is for me especially interesting.
Indeed, I am only one of many to whom the enjoyment and preservation of the natural world is important. Throughout history, people have been moved, sometimes very deeply, by nature. Also, today there is a growing minority concerned with the preservation of the environment and with sensitizing others to this responsibility. As Christians, we need to work out not only a defense against the errors of the world with regard to their largely inappropriate relationship with the natural world, but even more importantly, we need to formulate and give attention to a correct and positive system of thought regarding our natural environment as our Father’s creation.
Although Christians are the only people who can view the creation correctly, many others have viewed it positively. Often this positive attitude has become extreme and people have deified the natural world around them. Most, if not all, pagan religions include some element of nature worship. Ancient “uncivilized” cultures frequently held to Animism, the belief that all living phenomena have souls and need to be worshipped, placated, or dealt with in the proper manner. So-called “civilized” peoples such as the Egyptians, Aztecs and Incas worshipped a host of creatures and other natural objects including hawks, jackals, bulls, jaguars, rivers, seas and the greatly respected sun and moon. Even within the more familiar cultures of the Greeks and Romans, nature-based fertility cults were very common, particularly among the lower classes. In Western civilization, nature worship was gradually replaced by Christianity, rationalism, the worship of man and his advancements, and in turn, nature was gradually seen as something to overcome, domesticate and control rather than worship.
In the nineteenth century, however, the Romantic poets again began to bow before the altar of the Natural world. Wordsworth, for example, referred to nature as “The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being” and openly referred to himself as “a worshiper of Nature.”l
The Romantic spirit has not disappeared today. The modern world has not rejected as erroneous the ideas of men like Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Thoreau. Instead, these ideas have been modified and coupled with elements of thought from Eastern religions, science (or pseudo-science such as the growing field of parapsychology), the occult, and Native American spiritualism. It is not then the political agenda of the “environmentalists” against which we must defend the proper view of the creation, but the powerful, growing, conglomerate world view that is this agenda’s matrix.
It is also this nature-idolizing world view, both historical and modern, that is not difficult to prove wrong. We find in Romans 1 a description of those who “became vain in their imaginations” and “worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.” This passage further speaks of the guilt of those who do such things and the judgement to which God gives them over.
However, instead of entering into a lengthy discussion of the faults and untruths of this nature-based, spiritualistic and unchristian world-view, it would be more productive to explore positively the Christian’s proper view of nature. After all, with the cognizance of the truth is the lie exposed.
There are then, many different perspectives of the natural world that the Christian must keep in mind. For example, we must always remember that the natural world is the Lord’s and is cared for by Him (L.D. 10). We must also remember that this creation will some day be made new (Romans 8:19-22). Also, nature provides a way of knowing God.
With regard to the last idea, we can picture the creation as a book of which our God is the author, because He made it and wrote it. We can read this book with the eye of faith and comprehend it with believing hearts and minds. The Belgic Confession in Article 2, supplies this picture of creation as a book and states that one of the ways in which we can know God is “by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely His power and divinity.
Before we go any further, however, we must understand that nature only functions fully in this way to those who are believers and who already know God through other means. The unbeliever can only read on the pages of creation the words: “There is a God.” They can see in the creation some of the “invisible things” of God, “even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20) but they cannot witness Jehovah as a covenant God and all this implies in mountains and meadows unless first the gift of faith is present.
Another pitfall that we need to avoid is the misconception that we can lay our Bibles aside and replace the study of God’s Word with the study of His creation. Nature does not teach us about salvation, God’s will, the Trinity, or the Church. Nature can only supplement our Biblical knowledge by giving us pictures and showing us a little about what these things mean.
Although nature can reveal to us an idea of the glory of God, we must remember that it can not do so perfectly. All the limitations placed on creation’s revelatory message are due to the Fall. When Adam fell into sin he no longer was able to view God’s hand in nature as he once could. He went from a 20/20 vision in this respect to near blindness.
Also, because of the Fall the creation itself was no longer perfectly able to reveal its Maker, for the curse also fell upon the natural world. In Genesis 3:17 and 18, God informs Adam, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth unto thee…” No longer was this creation the ideal habitat for Adam and Eve. Because of their sin, the natural world became for them (and us) a hostile environment. Perhaps the greatest measure of this hostility was the profound silence of the creation that the banished couple experienced. When they were in the garden they daily heard the sweet serenade of all creation as it lifted up its voice in praises constantly glorifying its Maker, for which purpose it was created. After the Fall, however, nature too served to ostracize man from the blessed communion of the Holy Trinity. Now Nature’s song was reduced to a barely audible whisper. Nature no longer taught man about his God as it once had. We have fallen and therefore need something more than the creation to teach us about God.
Although we do not learn our doctrines and theologies from nature, we do stand to benefit greatly from turning an attentive eye of faith upon the wonderment of nature, remembering all the while what Rev. H. Hoeksema wrote: “Creation is, therefore, a thought of God, a creative Word of God; and all creatures are individual thoughts, words, together revealing the perfect and infinite wisdom of the Most High.”2
When we view nature in this way, then we respond as Job did when God showed him His greatness through the creation. We also respond in awe to the Lord, “I know that thou canst do everything, and no thought can be withholden from thee.” We answer in this way when we also witness in nature, “things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:2 & 3c).
Augustine, too, spoke about these “things too wonderful” in his wise and eloquent way. He wrote, “Ask the earth and the sea, ask the plains and the mountains, ask the sky and the clouds, ask the stars and the sun, ask the fish and the animals—and all will say, ‘We are beautiful, because God has created us’. This beauty is their testimony to God.”3
When we, as so many before us, turn intent and observant eyes on nature we also cannot help but be stunned by the beauty of our Father’s World. Augustine continues for us with a word of caution in this respect, “Yet the soul must not simply enjoy outward beauty, feasting its eyes on what God has made. For outward beauty fades and decays, it is constantly changing. The soul must understand all creation as a sacrament, an outward sign of the inward love of God.”4 With this in mind, he says we must treat the creation “with respect and honor, with praise and adoration, but not as the first object of our love. The first object of our love is not the creation but the Creator.”5
The Psalms give us perfect examples of the nature- observant child of God responding in love and praise to the Creator. Many of the wonders of the creation that the Psalmists refer to are also very familiar to you and me, and so these Psalms also reflect our response to the Creator. We also exclaim, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, What is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 & 4). We, too, have heard the voice of the Lord in the thunder and seen His “lightnings lighten the world” (Psalm 77:18). We, too, with the writer of Psalm 147 have seen our God cover the heavens with clouds sending torrents of rain to the earth, causing the grass to grow. We, too, have seen Him send “snow like wool” and have exclaimed, “Who can stand before His cold?” We have seen Him return the springtime, melt the snow, causing “His wind to blow and the waters flow” again. We have heard the birds of the heaven “sing among the branches” and we know of the innumerable creatures of the “great and wide sea” (Psalm 104). We with the Psalmist instruct all these things to praise the Lord. Let all things praise their Maker! “Fire, and hail; snow and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling His word; mountains, and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl… Let them praise the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 148).
When we see the creation we cannot help but see through these things the great wisdom and glory, power and beauty that belong to the Creator. Then we can do no other but joyfully declare, “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being…Bless thou the Lord, O my soul! Praise ye the Lord!” (Psalm 104:33 & 35). “For His name alone is excellent; His glory is above the earth and heaven.” (Psalm 148:l3).
Creation, then, provides for us in part a way in which we can know God. As we gaze on our Lord’s magnificent creation we gain a more clear knowledge of His awesome wisdom and glory and by such are moved to praise and to a deeper and more fervent love for our God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.
1William Wordsworth from Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, taken from Great Poems compiled by Louis Untermeyer; pages 638-641.
2Rev. Herman Hoeksema from Reformed Dogmatics, RFPA, l966; page l76.
3-5Augustine from Sermons taken from Selected Readings from Augustine of Hippo, Fleming H. Revell Co., N.Y.; page 35.