An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Review of Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics by Marlow

Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics
Re-Reading Amos, Hosea, and First Isaiah
Hilary Marlow
Oxford University Press, 2009
338pp +xvi

Academic tomes have a tendency to be boring, inaccessible to non-specialists, without cultural relevance beyond the ivory tower and have unaesthetic covers. This book defies the stereotype in every way. Despite being the product of a Cambridge PhD, under Katherine Dell, it is readable, accessible, and will have an impact within and without the academia - and has a great cover to boot!

Hilary Marlow has been associated with most British evangelical organisations. She is a director of Director of the John Ray Initiative, has been involved with  A Rocha for over a decade, until recently she was a Research Associate in Theology and Science at the Faraday Institute, has written for the Jubilee Trust  and Grove Books and is at present involved in a project with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based at Tyndale House, Cambridge. She has also found time to complete her PhD and this book is the product of that.

The first chapter takes an overview of creation in church history, it is a broad brush view but is full of insight - I made a long list of further avenues to explore as a result of it. She starts - rather predictably - with Lynn White Jr's critique before looking at some theological perspectives on creation. This stems from the early church with its Greek influences to Calvin via the Cappodocians and Aquinas. She mentions that Irenaeus sees Adam typologically, but I'm not certain that this is a true picture.  Tony Lane argues that 'Irenaeus's theology is undermined more than most others by the suggestion of a non-historical Adam' (Darwin Creation and the Fall p. 141). This, of course is a minor quibble. 

She draws upon a number of important secondary sources including Glacken, Harrison, McGrath, Santmire.

Chapter 2 takes the historical perspective on from the sixteenth century. She looks at the divide between history and nature. Von Rad and Eichrodt are singled out for their Hegelian influences which allows them to set up a dualism of nature and history. Following Brueggeman, Marlow agrees that this led to an abandonment and marginalisation of serious thinking about the creation in biblical theology.

Two theologians helped to reverse this trend: Bernhard Anderson and Claus Westermann. As a result many others challenged the setting up of history over creation. Theodore Hiebert, Ronald Simkins and William Brown an three that Marlow briefly focuses on. She rightly notes that these three have helped towards a corrective reading of the Old Testament.

The developoment of an ecological hermeneutic is the subject of chapter 3. Here Norman Habel's Earth Bible Project (EBP) is examined. Taking a cue from feminist theologies the EBP stands with the oppressed Earth in dialogue with the text.

The emphasis on methodology and the methodoogy itself is criticised. As Marlow points out Bouma-Preideger comes up with a similar but more biblically robust set of guidelines. Following Christopher J. H.  Wright's hermeutical triangle God (Israel/humanity and Land/ earth) she forms an ecological triangle: God at the apex and a base of humanity and the non-human creation. It is the interrelationship between these three vertices that are examined in the next three chapters. Three important questions are also posed (p. 111):

1. What understanding of the non-human creation does the text present
2. What assumptions are made about YHWH's relationship to the created world and how he acts in it?
3. What effect do the actions  and choices of human beings have on the non-human creation and vice versa?

Chapters  4-6 look at Amos, Hosea and Is 1-39 in light of these questions and the ecological triangle.  She provides a detailed exegesis and analysis of key passages from these prophets. In Amos the non-human creation plays an important role, 'the natural world engages in a "dialogue" with its creator' (p 157). In Hosea it has less of a role and the emphasis is on God and humanity, but this relationship when broken does have a marked effect on the earth.  Finally, in Is 1-39 there is a link between humanity, God and the rest of creation in that 'natural' disaster is a consequence of disobedience to God and this broken relationship is shown in metaphors and parables of the natural world.

The final chapter looks at the implications of the foregoing for an environmental ethic. Here she starts by providing a broad overview on using the Bible in ethics. The issue of how we move from the scriptures to any ethic is problematic. I was suprised to read a criticism of  Walter Kaiser, she writes 'His study is based on a high view of biblical authority, and this theological perspective colours his selection and interpretation of texts' (p. 248).  All theological perspectives are coloured, theology is never neutral. It left me wondering what is Marlow's view of the authority of scripture and how has that has shaped her choice of passages?

She then turns to environmental ethics in particular. She looks at some key issues; including: what is the value ascribed to the non-human creation? Is it intrinsic or instrumental? Is nature a stable entiry or in flux? and the tension between nature and culture.  She concludes that the prophets recognise instrumental value but also give the non-human creation a value that is greater than any utilitarian one. She does not address the issue of how anything can have intrinsic value,  unless it is value given to it by God - and in which case it is not intrinsic. For the other issues she sees an ambiguity in the prophets.

Few other books have examined the Old Testament in the light of the current environemtal issues. Two other books are by Cyril Rodd Glimpses of a Strange Land  (T&T Clark, 2001) which deals with some individual texts and Chris Wright's Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP, 2004) which takes a broad brush approach. Marlow's book is an example of how to interpret scripture in the light of contemporary issues and how to understand contemporary issues in the light of scripture. It shows that we have not exhausted the scriptures in what it can say to  environmental ethics. As Marlow concludes:

'it is vital that the church be better informed of the rich contribution of its own scriptures to a positive understanding of the creation as a basis for raising awareness of environmental issues and promoting good practice amiong its own members and the wider community'.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Foreword by John Barton
1: Creation in Church History
2: Nature Versus History: An Artificial Divide
3: Ecological Hermeneutics: Meaning and Method
4: Who Can But Prophesy? Creation Dialogue in the Book of Amos
5: The People do not Know: Covenantal Failure in the Book of Hosea
6: The Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts: YHWH, the People and the Land in Isaiah 1-39
7: The Old Testament Prophets and Environmental Ethics: A Dialogue

Publisher's website

Available in the UK from:
book depository

No comments: