Jeffrey S. Lamp. The Greening of Hebrews?: Ecological Readings in the Letter to the Hebrews. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012. Pp. xii + 134.
First, I want to thank James Stock of Wipf and Stock Publishers for a review copy of this book.
With our emerging consciousness of the importance of environmental stewardship, it is no surprise that an emerging field within biblical studies is ecological hermeneutics. The Society of Biblical Literature held a series of Consultations on Ecological Hermeneutics in 2004–2006, out of which was published Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics (edited by Norman C. Habel and Peter Trudinger). Another collection of essays, Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical, and Theological Perspectives, emerged from a collaborative research project at the University of Exeter (the book was published in 2010). David Horrell, professor at Exeter and one of the editors of the preceding volume, is one of the leading voices in ecological hermeneutics, publishing in 2010 two books on the topic: The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology and Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in an Age of Ecological Crisis. To this growing body of literature Jeffrey Lamp, Professor of New Testament at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa Oklahoma, has contributed this ecological reading of the book of Hebrews.
In the introduction Lamp indicates that the book began as a series of papers given at SBL conferences. I personally had attended some of these paper presentations. Lamp states that given the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the writing of Hebrews, it gives him the freedom to engage the text itself (pp. 2–3). Ecological hermeneutics is intentionally an ideological reading of texts that seeks to hear the suppressed voice of Earth “in, through, or even against the text” (p. 3). Lamp chose to do ecological hermeneutics on Hebrews because it seems to give greater significance to the heavenly realm as over against the earthly realm. He states “if an ecological hermeneutic . . . can produce plausible readings that argue for the integrity and intrinsic value of Earth in such a presentation, then it may reasonably do so in less apparently hostile biblical texts” (p. 4).
On pages 4–5 Lamp lays out a definition and six principles of ecological hermeneutics that emerged out of the Earth Bible Project. Since then, these principles have undergone revision. Lamp lays out three criteria that will guide his reading of Hebrews: 1) Suspicion: traditional readings of the text are inherently anthropocentric; humans sees themselves as a separate order of being with respect to the non-human order of creation; 2) Identification: seeking to empathize with the non-human created order; humans must recognized kinship with the earth; 3) Retrieval: seeking to discern how creation speaks in the text (p. 6). His criterion of suspicion will be tempered by three other methodological approaches: the use of intertextuality, consideration of the canonical context, and limited theological readings (p. 7). Lamp rigorously applies these criteria in the studies that follow. Lamp concludes the introduction by laying out the contours of the book. The book is neither a commentary, nor a systematic theology or ethic of creation care, nor an exercise in traditional exegesis, but simply a series of seven studies that will employ the ecological hermeneutic (pp. 8–9).
Chapter 2 is entitled “Creational Christology: Recovering the Christological Voice of Creation (Hebrews 1:2–3a).” Lamp begins with the criterion of suspicion: the voice of Earth has been ignored by both the biblical author and later interpreters. Creation is merely a datum in the author’s christological formulation (pp. 11–12). He then applies the criterion of identification: the quotation of Ps 8 in chapter 2 suggests that the Son shares the same material substance as human beings who were birthed from the Earth; hence the incarnation is one of the strongest affirmations of the intrinsic worth of human beings and creation (pp. 12–13). Lastly, he applies the criterion of retrieval: creation can teach us about the person and work of the Son. The depiction of Wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon 7:22–8:1 shares similarities with the depiction of the Son in Hebrews 1:2–3a. The relationship of these two passages to one another suggests the following: a) Earth and humans have a common origin in the agency of the Son and hence is also an object of divine benevolence as human beings are; b) the incarnation embodies the common experience of Earth and humans, including the common experience of suffering; c) Earth and humans share a common destiny of redemption from death and decay (pp. 13–20). Honoring the world which Christ creates and sustains is an appropriate means of honoring the Son. What is not entirely clear to me from Lamp’s discussion is why Christ’s incarnation is necessary for human beings to identify with creation. It seems to me this connection can be made directly from the creation stories in Genesis without appeal to Christ’s incarnation. What the incarnation does accomplish is to affirm the value of human beings and the rest of the created order.
Chapter 3, “What’s With Cutting up All Those Animals?,” attempts to read the sacrifice of Christ in Hebrews from the perspective of the animals. Lamp briefly surveys the biblical depiction of animals and concludes that the portrait is an ambivalent one (pp. 22–24). The biblical witness values animals as the objects of care and concern, but also affirms the superiority of human beings over animals. Humans exploit animals for food and sacrifice. In discussing the inadequacy of animal sacrifices in Hebrews 9:11–10:18, the author differs from the OT prophets in his critique of the sacrificial cultus (pp. 24–27). The prophets’ critique was not that the sacrifices were ineffectual but that the people failed to live in obedience to God’s commandments; God prefers obedience over sacrifice. Hebrews, however, charges that sacrifices were in fact ineffective to accomplish forgiveness of sins and cleansing of conscience. Lamp claims that Hebrews has an anthropological and christological bias when discussing the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (p. 27–28). The voice of the animal world may be heard in three ways. First, the animals may “respond in the protest that they are the innocent victims in the human drama of sin and redemption, and to critique them is to diminish them for their role in a system not of their own device” (p. 22; see pp. 28–30). Second, animals are also objects of Christ’s redemptive work. Christ’ sacrifice makes the shedding of animal blood unnecessary (pp. 30–31). But animals are also redeemed in a larger sense as part of the created order when Christ will redeem all things (p. 31). Third, since animals are co-recipients of redemption with human beings, then human beings have the ethical obligation to treat animals with dignity (pp. 32–35).
This chapter raises many questions for me. Since the author’s anthropological and christological bias has led him to argue that Christ’s blood is superior to animal blood, might the animals protest that Christ’s blood is no more precious than animal blood? And if so, what does this do to our understanding of the redemptive value of Christ’s death? Does Lamp see any qualitative difference between humanity and animals? Do animals have souls? Will they experience an afterlife? Are they redeemed in the same way that humans are redeemed? While Lamp says that he does not intend to give an exhaustive treatment of animal ethics (p. 33), if animals are equal in dignity to human beings, what kinds of implications might follow? Should Christians become vegetarians or even vegans? Should Christians refrain from using insecticides? Is it unethical to hold animals in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and game farms? Is it wrong to use animals as pack animals or to plow a field? Should scientists stop using animals as test subjects?
Chapter 4 is entitled, “The Promise of God’s Rest (Hebrews 4:1–11): Joshua, Jesus, Sabbath, and the Care of the Land.” Lamp uses the criterion of suspicion to reveal a number of biases that the author of Hebrews (and his interpreters) has about the land in 4:1–11. First, the author has “restricted the consideration of the land to the possession of the land only” and not for the care of the land (p. 39). The promise of God’s rest is not fulfilled in the possession of the land, but in the Son. Second, there is a spiritualization of the promise of the land; there is “a reinterpretation of the promise of the land that denies any place to the literal fulfillment of the promise in terms of geography” (p. 39). A third bias is found in a minority interpretation of Heb 4 that discerns a literal fulfillment of the promise as possession of the land, but that this fulfillment only serves “anthropologically determined ends” and does not consider the land in its own right (p. 41).
While the author of Hebrews has used the concept of Sabbath to remove the significance of the land from consideration in the promise of rest, Lamp tries to reverse this interpretive move by using the Sabbath as the point of identification with the land. Lamp appeals to OT passages that deal with the relationship of land and Sabbath. The land belongs to God but is given in trust to the Israelites who are to work the land in accordance with Sabbath regulations, that is, the land is supposed to experience the benefits of Sabbath rest, and this rest is brought into connection with the Sabbath rest experienced by the Israelites (p. 43). Lamp further notes that the “Sabbath establishes a context for human care for the land, and human righteousness and sinfulness have consequences for the land” (p. 45). His final move is to bring in the servant passages of Second Isaiah, which speak of the renewal of the land preceding the appearance of the servant, to suggest that when the author of Hebrews says that the Sabbath rest of God is found in the Son, that the land is also included in this rest (pp. 45–46). Lamp suggests several ways in which the voice of the land can be retrieved (pp. 46–49). According to Lamp, the land calls us “to live out our identification with the land and so expand our understanding of the promise of God’s rest to include the land, and indeed, the whole of creation” (p. 50).
In chapter 5, “A Whispered Voice in the Choir,” Lamp attempts to move toward an ecological pneumatology in Hebrews. After briefly surveying all the passages in Hebrews that mentions the Holy Spirit (pp. 52–56), Lamp concludes that Hebrews has an anthropocentric bias. This bias favors Christology over pneumatology, and in particular, by showing how Christ’s saving work benefits humanity. Moreover, all the references to the Spirit are used in support of the christological and soteriological emphases of the discourse (p. 58). They key passage for Lamp is 9:14, which contains the phrase “through eternal spirit.” He believes this phrase refers to the Holy Spirit, rather than to Christ’s divinity, or the realm or mode in which Christ’s sacrifice was made (p. 59). The phrase suggests that the presence and power of the Spirit sanctifies Jesus for his dual ministry as priest and sacrifice (p. 60). Since Christ’s sacrifice involves the physicality and materiality of his body and blood, and since his offering is made in connection with the Holy Spirit, then “a connection between human beings and Earth is forged” (p. 61). Hence, the relationship between the Son and Spirit does not only bring redemptive benefits for human beings but for all material creation (p. 62). In order to hear the voice of Earth, one must recover the biblical emphasis of the role of the Holy Spirit in creation (pp. 63–65). Lamp declares, that the “Spirit, by virtue of its presence in all phases of creation . . . is central to the redemptive work of Christ that entails all of creation” (p. 66).
Chapter 6 is entitled, “‘He Has Prepared a City for Them’ (Hebrews 11:16): Escapist Eschatology or Ecological Expedience?” According to Lamp, Heb 11:8–16 has been used to justify an “escapist eschatology that minimizes attention on the present order and its afflictions in favor of a rather singular focus on the world to come” (p. 69). The dangers of such an idea are that it can lead to disregard care for the created order in the present and to the exploitation of creation for economic gains (p. 70). Lamp finds two trajectories in the eschatology of Hebrews. The first is the trajectory of “rest” (4:1–11; 10:19–25; 12:22–24); in these passages earthly realities are usually spiritualized into heavenly realities (pp. 71–72). The second trajectory (1:10–12; 11:8–16; 12:18–29) deals with the “transience of the created order” (p. 72). Creation is thus viewed as something from which one escapes and is something that will eventually be destroyed (p. 76). With the help of the work of N. T. Wright, Lamp turns to the allusion to the resurrection in 11:17–19 to attempt to bring about an identification of humanity with creation (pp. 76–79). He explains that “the resurrection of Jesus is that which connects the present order to its redemption in the future. It does so by bringing together heaven and earth in the glorified man Jesus and through the encroachment of the coming kingdom into the present. But because human beings are connected to the man Jesus by virtue of a shared humanity, which includes a shared connection with creation, human beings are further identified with an Earth that is not to be abandoned but is rather awaiting its full redemption in the future” (pp. 78–79). The voice of Earth may declare that 11:8–16, then, is not inconsistent with an ecological agenda, and Hebrews itself has some balancing passages (p. 79–81). Moreover, the concept of a “resident alien” does not preclude one from living beneficially in the present. After all, resident aliens do have a vested interest in the lands in which they live (p. 81).
Chapter 7, entitled “‘We Have an Altar’ (Hebrews 13:10),” is concerned with the reclamation of the Eucharist for ecological responsibility. Lamp discerns a non-Eucharistic bias in Hebrews which suppresses liturgical traditions that might have proved useful for an ecological agenda. Lamp turns to the interpretation of the controversial passage of Heb 13:10. He notes that many scholars deny that there is any connection with the Eucharist in this passage and some scholars even discern an anti-Eucharistic emphasis (pp. 86–90). Lamp supposes that a latent anti-sacramentalism has led some scholars to reject any Eucharistic interpretation of this passage. Of course, one could respond: perhaps scholars do not see a Eucharistic reference in this passage because it simply is not there and those scholars who do discern a reference to the Eucharist do so from a pro-sacramental bias. At any rate, Lamp is heavily dependent upon the work of Denis Edwards who develops “an ecological theology of the Eucharist” (p. 91) in order to forge an identification of humanity with the created order. Lamp then turns to the discussion of Melchizedek in Heb 7. The author of Hebrews has omitted any reference to the bread and wine that Melchizedek brought out to Abraham in Gen 14, thus revealing his bias against the Eucharist (pp. 92–93). However, patristic writers have claimed that the bread and wine was a prefiguring of the Eucharistic meal. Hence, according to Lamp, the employment of the story of Melchizedek “forces the Eucharist into consideration in the minds of a church so powerfully shaped by Eucharistic devotion” (p 95). In order to hear the voice of Earth, Lamp suggests that instead of applying traditional historical-critical exegesis, we resort to a “history of effects” approach to 13:10, which in the history of the church has had powerful influence on Eucharistic consciousness. Moreover, the “history of effects” approach would also appeal to the patristic interpretations, which see a Eucharistic prefiguration in the Melchizedek story (pp. 95–97). Earth’s voice might also urge us “to integrate a more conscious identification with Earth in our practice of Eucharistic devotion, with the result that such an identification might shape a more robust ecological awareness as part of a Eucharistically-shaped life in the world” (p. 97). Lamp once again turns to the work of Edwards to indicate how this might be accomplished (pp. 97–98). In a footnote on page 110, Lamp also indicates that the same approach applied in this chapter could also be applied to show how baptism also brings about a human identification with the Earth.
Chapter 8 is entitled, “Creational Christology Redux: Angels, Torah, Son, and Creation (Hebrews 2:1–4).” In his examination of Heb 1, Lamp again concludes that the author has a bias against the Earth (pp. 102–6). First, the author chooses “to pursue a christological rather than a creational agenda” (p 103). Second, in the catena, the author contrasts the transitory nature of the created order with the eternal nature of the Son, hence relegating the importance of the Earth “as an entity of intrinsic worth and consideration in itself” (p. 105). Third, the author shows the superiority of the Son over Torah, which in Second Temple Judaism was associated with Wisdom which was the agent of creation in the OT (p. 106). For Lamp, Wisdom again functions as the means to bring together humanity and creation. Since Jesus is identified with Wisdom, and his wisdom is superior to the wisdom of the Torah, then as superior Wisdom, Jesus provides the appropriate means for caring for the Earth (pp. 106–7). In order to retrieve the voice of Earth, Lamp examines the larger context of the quotation in 1:7 of Ps 104:4. Psalm 104 is a hymn of celebration of creation and God’s work as creator and sustainer (p. 109). The voice of Earth urges us to consider the full message of the psalm: “first, to convince us that God indeed finds joy in the creation brought into being by the creative and sustaining agency of the Son, and secondly, to adopt the stance of the psalmist in assuring that God continues to find pleasure in creation as faithful human beings praise God for creation and seek God’s guidance in battling the degradation of the ecosystems God has established on the Earth” (p. 111).
Chapter 9 is the conclusion which sums up the results of this study. The end matter includes a bibliography and indexes of authors and ancient documents.
I am certainly sympathetic to Lamp’s project. I do not endorse an ideology that believes that since God will soon bring about a new earth, we should then be unconcerned about taking care of the environment. The earth, though vast, does not have limitless resources. If we consume and pollute all of our planet’s natural resources, we really have no other viable options for sustaining life. God has entrusted humanity to be stewards of the earth. In many ways, humans have been poor stewards as we have, often unwittingly, done irreparable harm to our planet. But now that we have become more aware of our impact upon our world, we should seek ways to become better stewards of our planet. And so I am all for doing things like the conservation of natural resources, recycling, the preservation of endangered species, the pursuit of cleaner forms of energy, and the like.
One can certainly admire Lamp’s ingenuity; he has managed to take passages that have nothing to do with environmental care and turned them into texts that support an ecological agenda. However, one does wonder if biblical texts can be made to support any agenda if the interpreter has enough ingenuity. Environmental and ecological matters are very much a modern concern and we should be careful about retrojecting these ideas back into ancient texts or expect that ancient authors would have the same concerns that we have. It is perhaps, then, a bit unfair when Lamp accuses the author of Hebrews of having a bias against the Earth or against animals. The author had other purposes for his writing and he certainly did not have the ecological consciousness that a modern person has. Perhaps this is the way that the criterion of suspicion works: the interpreter assumes that the author of the texts one is studying has an agenda that is hostile to one’s own biased agenda. Lamp was certainly quite creative in finding ways to get around what he perceives is the author’s inherent bias against ecological concerns. There are certainly other biblical texts that are more conducive than Hebrews in supporting an ecological agenda. At best, I believe, Lamp has shown that at least Hebrews is not inconsistent or opposed to an ecological agenda. Lamp has certainly provided some provocative essays on this important trend of the ecological interpretation of Scripture.