When soteriology and ecology embrace: Howard Snyder’s expansive vision

Howard Snyder
Howard Snyder

“Ecology” is one of those musty words crowded out by more trendy fare, terms like “environmentalism” and “Creation Care.” But if theologian Howard Snyder has his way, ecology will soon be on everyone’s lips.

In Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011; Kindle edition), Snyder – a theologian of mission and John Wesley scholar –  boldly challenges the Church to broaden its narrow conception of salvation to encompass the full panorama of God’s loving concern, as presented in Scripture. If the ideas championed in his book were to take hold, the mission of the Church in the world would look radically different than it has for much of the past 100 years.

John Wesley often structured his sermons in terms of “sickness/cure,” and Howard Snyder adopts a similar methodology. Following Chapter 1, a treatment of the “divorce of heaven and earth” due to a dominant neo-Platonism that prioritizes the value of spirit over matter, Snyder details a “fourfold alienation”  under the heading of the “ecology of sin” (see pp. 68-78):

1) alienation with God;

2) alienation from one another;

3) alienation from ourselves (internal division), and

4) alienation from the land.

Following a time-honored Wesleyan paradigm, Snyder treats sin as a moral disease. Because sin is fourfold in nature , the Gospel as cure must address each aspect of the condition or be incomplete. Snyder argues that evangelical soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) has indeed been grossly inadequate. While we have effectively addressed the first point (alienation from God) – preaching tirelessly about justification and sanctification – we’ve had less to say about points 2 and 3 and until recently were wholly silent on point 4. (Note: Snyder correctly points out that John Wesley himself later in life had much more to say about God’s concern for all creation, not just human beings).

For Snyder, the one biblical concept that covers all four alienations is that of healing. This healing is not a far-off, wholly spiritual prospect reserved for an ethereal “heaven.” Rather, healing is for the here-and-now, an expansive, cosmic restoration of all creation in which the Church – empowered and gifted by the Holy Spirit – actively participates. Snyder argues (p. 38):

But an agenda remains. The church spread throughout the earth but often doesn’t see the earth. The church is still far from realizing its potential to renew and heal the land. Millions of people have been reconciled to God. Yet the full promise of salvation as creation healed is yet to become real and visible worldwide.

Turning from sickness to cure, the book capably unpacks the meaning of the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-15). This first covenant is both everlasting and for the “preservation of creation” (Snyder, p. 55). Importantly, it is a three-way covenant, i.e. between God, humans, and creatures. Snyder observes that it “has never been revoked, and largely defines stewardship on earth” (p. 90). In Chapter 6, “The Groans of Creation,” the reader uncovers what such stewardship means in relation to climate change, the overstressed oceans, and deforestation. At its core, taking care of the earth is a human question since it is poor people who are first and most affected by human practices that throw the earth’s systems out of kilter. Synder rightly observes: “Creation care is pro-life” (p. 83). Later, he concludes: “If we are passionate about people, we will be passionate about their world” (p. 152).

Salvation Means Creation Healed is an ambitious book, perhaps too ambitious. Chapter 11 delves into the nature of the Church, introducing material on worship styles that – while interesting – is tangential to the  main thrust of the book. That central concern is relating soteriology to ecology. Thankfully, Snyder finds his footing once again at the end of Chapter 12, speaking of how the “stigmata” ( the marks of the Church) should be practiced through four principles as related to Creation (pp. 198-200):

1) the earthkeeping principle;

2) the Sabbath principle;

3) the fruitfulness principle;

4) the fulfillment and limits principle.

These four principles provide a positive agenda for how the Church can rectify the fourth alienation, our distance from and poor stewardship of God’s good earth.

Howard Snyder adds his voice to a rising chorus of those who have concluded that the Church’s mission – particularly the modus operandi of its Evangelical branch – has been too other-worldly. His is a clarion call to rediscover the biblical Gospel, the full scope of God’s concern for all creation and our duty under God to care for the land. Since Evangelicals – including the descendants of John Wesley – have placed soteriology at the center, Snyder’s re-casting of ecology in soteriological terms is very welcome. May both his tribe and readership increase.

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Image credit: Greenville College

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