I was probably the only person who thought of theologian Wayne Grudem while watching Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s controversial epic now flooding DVD players (spoiler alert). Grudem involuntarily came to mind when Tubal-Cain, the villainous ark stowaway, jarringly bites into a sleeping reptile. A dumbfounded Ham says, “The beasts are precious. There are only two of each!” Tubal-Cain, chewing away, confidently replies, “And there is only one of me.” The much better looking Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society, had similarly jarred me two years before when, speaking at a fundraising dinner ostensibly focused on the stewardship of creation, he smilingly advocated the extinction of a species to satisfy human appetites.
The delta smelt is a small fish found only in the large estuary that feeds San Francisco Bay. An indicator of overall ecosystem health, it was abundant just a century ago but now teeters on the brink after the government dramatically re-engineered the delta. Giant pumps can now reverse the flow of rivers and move water uphill to arid land farms that have become key cogs in our nation’s not-so-local industrial food system. The Endangered Species Act means those pumps run less frequently, helping smelt and salmon that have also been decimated. This makes some farmers and pundits mad and some environmentalists, Native Americans, and commercial fishers a bit happier.
For many it is a complicated situation, but Grudem knows what Jesus would do. Noting that Christ told his disciples they were “of more value than many sparrows,” an upbeat Grudem declared, “I think Jesus would say you are of more value than thousands of delta smelt as well.” Not many others in the audience gathered by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation were taken aback. Though its website features pretty pictures of the outdoors, Cornwall’s primary focus is criticizing the Christian “creation care” movement and environmentalism in general, which they literally demonize as “the Green Dragon.”
Grudem was not just shooting from the hip. He devoted several hundred words to the better-off-dead delta smelt in his ambitiously titled Politics According to the Bible, which contains a sixty-six page chapter on the environment that was distributed to all at the Cornwall event. Jesus, we are told, “would get the water running again” because “productive farmlands are much more valuable than an insignificant three-inch fish.” He concludes its demise would be a “tiny loss (of no significant measurable economic value)” as though economic value were the only value that counts.
Surprisingly, in his book’s section on “species loss,” Grudem does not include any discussion of the ark or of God’s stated desire that the animals “be fruitful and increase in number.” Noah is only mentioned in the chapter to highlight that after the deluge God opened up the possibility of a carnivorous diet. Really, was that the full significance of the ark, to serve as a mobile meat locker? Tubal-Cain would seem to agree.
Noah has drawn a mix of boos and ahhs from believers for its inventive adaptation of the limited text. Yet, the basic eco-theology question the film raises—how should humanity approach the dominion mandate—is quite valid, even if the discussion would benefit from more options than Aronofsky’s ultra-soft footprint Noah or his exploitative industrialist Tubal-Cain, who agrees with Grudem that creation is here “to serve us.” Somewhere in the middle lies our true stewardship calling to be creative caretakers serving God.
It is no movie-making stretch to see divine provision for two of every animal as an indication that the Creator values his rich diversity of species regardless of their utility to people. This is not an isolated theme in scripture. As the Psalmist says in a beautiful litany celebrating God’s connection to all the life he has made and sustains:
How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. . . .
living things both large and small (Psalm 104:24-25).
Elsewhere, this wise God revels before Job in the great creatures that no person can tame and the places where “no man lives.” In Colossians 1, the Apostle Paul says of Christ that “all things were created by him and for him” (not just for us), and by his blood Jesus reconciles “all things.” This, Paul says, is good news for “every creature under heaven.” As with the ark, Grudem makes no mention of these passages or the groaning creation of Romans 8 waiting in “eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed,” looking to Christians for signs of liberation not obliteration.
What Grudem does mention are sparrows, and the fact that Jesus told his followers they were worth many of them. While this indeed might offend some activists who wrongly declare that “all animals are equal,” it does not provide much of a mandate for extinguishment. If anything, Jesus seems to be saying that what humanity overlooks as insignificant (two to the penny) the Father treats as quite worthy of his attention. Thus, disciples of even more value can live confident of his provision for them as well.
Grudem’s other massive work Systematic Theology is well respected, partly because he takes pains to note potential objections and the variety of thought within the evangelical world. Unfortunately, these safeguards were not applied to the species loss discussion in Politics According to the Bible. Indeed, Grudem apparently failed to follow his first step in the systematizing process: “Find all the relevant verses.”
Thankfully, others see value in species protection. Billy Graham has said, “To drive to extinction something He has created is wrong. He has a purpose for everything.” Creation care pioneer Cal DeWitt calls the Endangered Species Act “the Noah’s ark of our day,” and Peter Illyn, who leads the Christian conservation group Restoring Eden, bluntly summarizes, “Extinction is not stewardship.”
I agree with many of Grudem’s theologically driven positions, such as his call to legally protect pre-born children, but when it comes to some of God’s other unique creations he seems to have missed the boat, or the ark as it were. Such are the risks when one reads the Bible according to politics.
John Murdock now writes from his native Texas after working as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. for over a decade. He serves on the board of directors for the newly formed Earth Stewardship Alliance and exists online at johnmurdock.org.