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The adult discussion group at church was talking about “Faith and Creation Care.” As expected, the creation stories of Genesis and some of the robust creation psalms (8, 65, 104, 148) were in the mix.

Edith, a spry woman in her 90s spoke up.

I was a kid in the Great Depression. My parents had ten mouths to feed. Sometimes there was nothing to eat. My mother would send me out to the corn crib to gather some ears of hard, dried corn. She’d grind it in the coffee mill and then add water to make corn mush to feed us. So if my father saw a squirrel or raccoon nosing around the corn crib, he had no qualms about shooting the animal on the spot. It was us or him.

Her comments were a helpful reminder, a blast of reality when our discussion might have been getting too romantic and cozy about our relationship with God’s other creatures. Edith’s words reminded me a bit of Karl Barth’s claim that vegetarianism is “wanton anticipation” of God’s coming future of reconciliation and wholeness.

More than Karl Barth, however, Edith brought to mind my own mother. If she were living, she would be about Edith’s age. She too grew up on a farm during the Great Depression.

Of course, there is much I loved and appreciated about my mom. But when it came to animals and creation, she was pretty cold, pretty matter-of-fact. I’m not sure she ever really accepted dogs in the house, but certainly not in bed! I recall her once saying something like, “Why should we care if some frogs or birds go extinct? There are plenty of others.”

It would be easy enough to attribute my mother’s thinking to the harsh realities that her family faced in her younger years. Animals were there to be eaten. Nature was powerful and frightening. If nature wasn’t pushed back and tamed, it would push you back.

Empty Sacraments. Empty Universe?

Our book group went on to explore a “sacramental view” of creation. A sacramental view is said to see creation and objects around us as mediating God, as reflecting, pointing toward, even sharing the divine.

It was then that a light went on.

My mother’s austere and anti-Catholic views barely had a “sacramental view” of the Sacraments themselves. How could she–and thousands of other Reformed folk–ever have a sacramental view of creation? To talk of creation as sacred, to see objects as pointing us toward the divine, was nonsense, if not dangerous.

Sacraments were bare signs, object lessons, empty reminders. If the water of baptism was only tap water, and if the grape juice and Wonder Bread of the Supper simply came from the grocer, then how could amber waves of grain stir the soul, or the love of a cow for her calf remind us of God? (Obviously, this stern outlook couldn’t prevail all the time. Plenty of farmers did see beauty in their fields, goodness in their soil, and love in their livestock.)

In wanting to scrub away any residue of superstition, magic, or anything remotely Roman Catholic, did our Reformed ancestors accidentally scrub the creation clean of any divine presence? Just like the most reckless of capitalists are unknowing Marxists–where money and economics are the only things that matter; so the starkest Reformed minds were unwitting accomplices of cold-hearted positivists and hard-boiled empiricists.

Empty Sacraments lead to an empty universe. There is nothing spiritual or mysterious, or maybe not even of real value, in the created world. It is all just stuff. Chaff for the burning.

Bad sacramental theology produces bad theology of creation.

Have Any Solutions?

Exactly what am I longing and lobbying for? It isn’t a full-on Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation. I’m doubtful that those categories and tired debates are the way forward.

But I do believe that if we allow wonder and holiness, beauty and the inexplicable in the Sacraments, we will see it in creation as well.

What does it truly mean to say that things can be holy? I’m a bit hard pressed to come up with a quick and cogent response. Maybe that the Holy Spirit seems to be unstinting?

All of this is an effort, a good and important effort, to move toward a more Christocentric understanding of creation. As mentioned earlier, most Christian discussions of creation-care center around the Genesis stories and nature psalms. Okay, but shouldn’t we also ask how Jesus and the incarnation change the way we view creation? A sacramental view starts us down this path. Humans are of great value because God became one. This earth is blessed and beautiful because God visited it.

Buy This Book

This is just one of many good things about Jesus Loves You and Evolution is True, a new book by Jason Lief and Sara Tolsma. (Full disclosure, of course, Jason blogs here on “The Twelve.” Jason and Sara are the current editors of the Reformed Journal. Both are longtime friends. I think I knew them both before they knew each other.)

It is a very good book. Accessible, yet never simplistic. In-depth, but never mind-numbing. Even more, it speaks about creation and evolution from a Christocentric, incarnational perspective. Buy it. Read it. Share it. The book is said to be aimed especially at leaders of youth groups. In reality everyone can benefit from it.


I mentioned Karl Barth’s well-known saying about “wanton anticipation,” his claim that vegetarianism, especially as an attempt to live Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom (wolf/lamb, calf/lion, not hurt or destroy…), is undue hastiness, excessive eagerness for the coming of the Kingdom. As a sort-of-vegetarian and a fan of Barth, I’ll also share two long quotes from Barth about the killing of animals. Apologies for the sexist language.

If there is a freedom of man to kill animals, this signifies in any case the adoption of a qualified and in some sense enhanced responsibility. If that of his lordship over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to express his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity. Far less than all the other things which he dares to do in relation to animals, may this be ventured unthinkingly and as though it were self-evident. He must never treat this need for offensive and defensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking or conduct.” (CD III.4, 352)


The slaying of animals is really possible only as an appeal to God’s reconciling grace, as its representation and proclamation. It undoubtedly means making use of the offering of an alien and innocent victim and claiming its life for ours. Man must have good reasons for seriously making such a claim. His real and supposed needs certainly do not justify it. He must be authorised to do so by his acknowledgement of the faithfulness and goodness of God, who in spite of and in his guilt keeps him from falling as He saved Noah’s generation from the flood and kept it even though it was no better as a result. Man sins if he does it without this authorisation. He sins if he presumes to do it on his own authority. He is already on his way to homicide if he sins in the killing of animals, if he murders an animal. He must not murder an animal. He can only kill it, knowing that it does not belong to him but to God, and that in killing it he surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from Him as something he needs and desires. The killing of animals in obedience is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in face of the One who is the Creator and Lord of man and beast. (CD III.4, 354-55)

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This was most marvelous. You’ve just offered someone the idea for a dissertation, or for eight dissertations. Of course, I would tend more toward a more Pneumatalogical approach than Incarnational, that is, fully Trinitarian while being Christocentric. I’m thinking of Van Ruler’s little gem, translated into English, God’s Son and God’s World, but also of Eugene P. Roger’s astounding and more recent book, After the Spirit, in which he offers a Doctrine of the Spirit drawn from Eastern Orthodox sources. And those sources definitely make “things” holy. So does Schmemann in For the Life of the World. Most stimulating, Stephen. Thank you. And, oh yes, I memorized Psalm 65 for my 65th year, and I use it many mornings as my Invitatory instead of the Venite.

  • mstair says:

    “Okay, but shouldn’t we also ask how Jesus and the incarnation change the way we view creation? ”

    Your blog happened to coincide with devotions reading from Acts this morning:

    Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ (Acts 11: 4-7)

    Sounds a lot like Genesis 9:

    2The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. 3Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    Great post. I think Protestants in general struggle with holding a sacramental view of creation/cosmos, not just Reformed folk.

    We get a bit too hung up whether things have practical utility OR “spiritual” value. Then we monetize it. The (platonic) dualism is the first problem. Giving in to consumer-spirituality is the second.

    I think a right understanding of the world begins with a more wholistic (non-dualistic), sacramental (immanence of the Divine), and trinitarian (relational) theology.

    Thanks for writing Steve.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      My problem with broadening “sacramental” to any “immanence of the Divine” then empties the word “sacrament” of its special meaning. I think there are better ways to get at “God-filled” physical reality, and that by the Holy Spirit.

  • Ann Weller says:

    We older folks really get weary of having the word “spry” attached to us, apparently assessing our fitness to do and be….what? Please, just drop it.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you for this, Steve! Especially appreciated the Barth quotes.

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    I guess I WANT to be called spry. And I’m (only) just as good as 69 years old. Many day I don’t think I look very spry anymore.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your take on the nature of animal life. What constitutes sacrament? Is all of life holy or sacred? Historically, Christians have said human life is sacred because humans are created in the image of God, therefor different from the animal kingdom. That is why Christians have stood against abortion in all instances; human life is not just valuable, but sacred. But now it seems that you want to include animal life as sacred similar to that of humans. And therefor the taking of animal life for anything other than sacrifice to God is to be considered wrong. But as “mstair” points out there are Scriptures showing that God condones the eating of animals for food. Does that include the eating of a prime steak at a classy restaurant? What about the putting down of animals (farm animals, pets, over populated field animals (deer), or nuisance animals (like rodents)?

    You see, Steve, there is such a variety within the Christian religion as to the value or even sacredness of life, such as human life. And they all use the Bible as their source of authority. But then there are also a multitude of religions that look at life differently from the Christian religion. And they all use their divinely inspired Scriptures (like Christians) to come to completely different conclusions. Whereas Christians don’t think of animals as having souls, the Hindu religion does, even down to insects. For them the soul, of even insects, returns to God at death. So historically their regard for life (all of life) has been much more significant than that of Christians. Are you wanting to go in that direction? Just as every other religion (based on their inspired Scriptures) down plays the nature of Jesus, so they have different views about life and its value. For instance, the Jewish religion, which is the bedrock of Christianity, has never thought of Jesus as divine, either before or after his death. Religions differ all over the place.

    You, Steve (and perhaps Lief and Tolsma), have a less than practical view of life. It would seem that God has given animals for sustenance, just as animals eat other animals and always have. Even the God of the Old Testament seemed pleased with the smell of meat being cooked over the grill. Portray your narrow view to the Christian community and it will have an even more devastating effect on the life of the church than does the homosexual issue. It seems to me that the view presented in this article contributes too much to the superstition of Christianity.

    Thanks Steve for this contribution. It is good fodder for thought. I realize you think Christianity has all the answers to a meaningful life. To most, that seems a little narrow. But I guess that is the point of Christianity. So thanks for your perspective.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The only Christians who think that animals don’t have souls are those Christians who have adopted the Hellenistic understanding of the human soul as an immortal soul. The Biblical soul is not immortal by nature, and is connected with the breath, with breathing, and animals (not plants) were more often than not considered to have souls.

    • RLG says:

      Thanks, Daniel, for the clarification. In that animals have life, it may be true that many Christians believe they have a soul. Many other Christians do not equate having life to having a soul. But within classical Christianity, most believe if they do have a soul it is different from that of the human soul and is not immortal. Hence a big difference of Christianity from Hinduism and the value of animal life for each system. I was merely pointing out the differences among the multitude of religions.

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