The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has developed and approved thirteen official “Social Statements” addressing important topics and issues since its founding in 1988. I had the privilege of serving on the task force that developed the second of those statements, Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, which was approved by the Churchwide Assembly in 1993.1https://download.elca.org/ELCA Resource Repository/EnvironmentSS.pdf

Environmental concerns were felt to be one of the earliest social issues that needed to be addressed after the formation of the new church body. That indicates the importance with which the church considered environmental theology and practice at that time. Looking at the document today can help us to evaluate how well the concerns that were noted then have been addressed, and to see if there are new problems that need to be confronted.  

“Caring for Creation” is a social statement that deals with relevant theological concepts, scientific and technological matters, ethical concerns, and courses of action that should be pursued or recommended. The members of the task force that developed the statement were almost all Lutherans. 

Almost, but not entirely. We also had a representative from the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which had recently adopted an environmental statement, at our meetings. That’s worth noting because concerns of Christians about the state of the environment and the human impact on it are spread widely across the ecumenical spectrum and, in fact, are shared by many believers of other faiths.      

Several sub-groups of the ELCA task force were asked to look at the topic of creation care from various angles. Most germane to our concern here was the theology subgroup on which I served. The other members of that subgroup were Peter Bakken, now Coordinator for Public Policy at the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Diane Jacobson, now professor emerita of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, and Paul Santmire, author of The Travail of Nature and other books on environmental theology.  A condensation of our report was published in the Pentecost 1993 issue of Lutheran Forum (pages 24-26) as “A Theological Basis for Earthcare.”2Peter Bakken, Diane Jacobson, George L. Murphy and Paul Santmire, “A Theological Basis for Earthcare”. Lutheran Forum 27.2,, Pentecost 1993, 24-26.

God’s Creation and Humanity’s Sin

Though “Caring for Creation” deals with a big topic, it isn’t, at about 4,000 words, a lengthy document. It followed a couple of decades of growing concern about the state of the environment and reflection on the effects that humans have had on it. Rachel Carson’s 1962 study of the effects of pesticides in Silent Spring,3Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962)., Lynn White’s 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”4Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”, Science 155, 1203-1207, 1967., the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the first Earth Day in 1971 were a few of the events that pointed to a need for church bodies to speak about environmental matters from theological and ethical standpoints, and to provide some guidance to Christians in dealing with such matters.  The ELCA Statement is one response to that need.

After a brief prologue, the statement begins with “The Church’s Vision of Creation.” The creation of all things is a work of the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation of the divine Word is God’s encounter with us through “earthy matter.” God’s repeated declarations in Genesis 1 that aspects of creation, including other living things, are “good” even before humanity is called into being is significant. God judges them good in themselves, not just because they are good for our use. The human who is created before other animals in the second creation account (Genesis 2:7) is made from the dust of the earth.

(The statement doesn’t go into detail about biblical interpretation. But readers will best be able to appreciate the first chapters of Genesis if they realize that there are two creation accounts, and resist attempts to “harmonize” the ways in which they tell of God’s work there.)

In Genesis 2:15, the human is placed in God’s garden to — with the traditional translation of the Hebrew —“till” and “keep” it, but the words could also be rendered as to “serve” and to “guard.” The same Hebrew words are used in the Book of Numbers (3:7-8, 4:47, 16:9) to describe the care of the Israelites’ tent of meeting in their journey through the wilderness. We are not just to exploit the earth for our benefit (the problem that Lynn White pointed to in his 1967 essay), but care for the earth even as we use it responsibly. We are to be stewards of God’s garden.

But we blew it! The statement’s next section is titled, “The Urgency.” As Genesis 3 tells the story, humanity was not content to be stewards of God’s earthly creation, but wanted to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  Sin led us to treat creation as a “boundless warehouse” to be exploited for our own ends.  Failure to care for creation has led in modern times to “excessive consumption by industrialized nations, and relentless growth of human population worldwide, … jeopardiz[ing] efforts to achieve a sustainable future.”  Some of what were seen as major environmental problems were then listed.

Problems to be faced

At this point the statement lists some specific matters that were seen as problem areas in the early 1990s, and I want to comment briefly on some with the advantage of hindsight at a 31 year remove.  To begin, the “relentless growth of human population” mentioned in the last paragraph is said to relate “to the lack of access by women to family planning and health care, quality education, fulfilling employment, and equal rights.” That’s a good start. 

But speaking of “family planning” without using the words “contraception” or “birth control” was a bit coy. And while it’s understandable that critical references to other Christian communions were avoided, it’s unfortunate that the supreme authority of the Roman Catholic church had, a few years earlier, rejected the proposal of an expert commission established by an earlier pope and continued a ban on “artificial” contraception.  (In an earlier article in Covalence, I commented on the concept of natural law in general, and specifically on birth control.5George L. Murphy, “Nature’s laws and natural law”, Covalence, 10/13/2021, https://www.luthscitech.org/natures-laws-and-natural-law/)

The next problem area mentioned in “Caring for Creation” was “depletion of non-renewable resources, especially oil.” Petroleum and other fossil fuels aren’t renewable on a human time scale, and desire to exploit new reserves that are available can sometimes threaten wildlife and human health. 

It’s worth noting that the statement doesn’t say anything about alternative energy resources such as wind and solar energy, or cars and trucks that are either gas-electric hybrids or entirely electric powered. Perhaps we had some discussion about such possibilities, but they don’t appear in the statement.

And nothing is said about the use of nuclear power. I can’t recall after this long interval whether or not I brought up that topic in discussions, but if I or anyone else did, nothing came of it. (Nuclear and toxic waste dumps are later said to be among things about which the church will be happy to discuss.)  

In any event, our more immediate concern with the use of oil and other fossil fuels is their contribution to air pollution from toxic emissions and, especially, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The problem with carbon dioxide isn’t that it’s toxic in small quantities but that both it and the methane of natural gas are contributors to global warming, a concern that is also mentioned in the 1993 statement.

One problem noted in 1993 now seems to be on the way to solution. This was the “depletion of the protective ozone layer, resulting from the use of volatile compounds of chlorine and bromine” was called “widespread and serious,” but this problem is now on the way to solution. 

Ozone molecules, O3, are formed by the effect of ultraviolet radiation on atmospheric oxygen. The ozone layer that is formed shields the earth from that radiation, which can cause skin cancer. It was found that CFCs, chemicals used as refrigerants, can break up ozone molecules, causing a hole in the ozone layer over the south pole. The Montreal protocol of 1987 phased out the use of CFCs, and the ozone hole may be completely fixed by 2050.         

Implications for the Church

Most of the statement’s text sets out implications for Christian communities of what has been presented. I’ll comment briefly on some points.

Section III, headed, “The Hope,” reminds us that our most profound hope is the cross and resurrection of the Son of God who has become a participant in creation. Scripture provides many examples of hope in apparently hopeless situations, like Jeremiah buying a plot of land when Israel was on the verge of defeat and exile (Jeremiah 32).

Section IV, “The Call to Justice,” reminds us of ways in which all parts of creation ought to be treated fairly. People who work on the land, the sea, and under the earth, along with those devoted to conservation and protection of the earth, should be heard together with those who are involved with “business” in the narrow sense. 

In the last analysis, we (including the non-human parts of creation) are all in this together.  We should strive for sufficiency — “meeting the basic needs of all humanity and all creation.”  (And, I’ll add, we need to be realistic, striving to meet the needs of all but not being amazed if we’re not 100% successful.)

We’re in this for the long term, and should strive for sustainability. Maximizing food supplies in one year at the cost of shortages in the future isn’t helpful.

Finally, “Commitments of this Church” in Section V include those as individuals, as several expressions of community, and as an advocate — most broadly, on behalf of creation.

One item of particular interest to me here is under the heading, “Creation Emphases in the Church Year.” Besides Thanksgiving and services of blessing of different things (fields, waters, etc.), “Earth Day or Soil and Water Stewardship Week” are mentioned.  While these observances can be helpful, they don’t have definite places in the church calendar, and are likely to be ignored in congregations where they don’t have a persistent advocate.

A suggestion of mine that was made part of “Caring for Creation” is that the Second Sunday after Pentecost (The first after Trinity Sunday) be designated “Stewardship of Creation Sunday, with appropriate readings.” That Sunday will be in the spring or early summer, when such observances usually take place, and has the advantage of being the first green Sunday of the season. In any event, the proposal hasn’t really caught on — but hope springs eternal.     

George L. Murphy
George L. Murphy

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972. He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

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