In his commentary on Genesis (1554), John Calvin, well-known theological reformer and the college’s namesake, laid out the beginnings of a stewardship ethic:
“The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that, being content with the frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain … let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses.”
Around 350 years later, in To Be Near Unto God, Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper expanded on John Calvin’s foundational thoughts when he wrote: “From of old the church has pointed to nature and to the Bible as the sources of knowledge of God … the Reformed confession truly and beautifully declares that all creation is as a living book, the letters of which are the creatures … God himself is behind nature … In everything that lives in nature, rustles, throbs and stirs itself, we feel the pulse beat of God’s own life … In nature also everything is for the sake of religion, to reveal to us in it the glorious presence of God, to bring us the fostering sense that in nature everywhere the living and almighty God is with us on every side, and to fill us with the sublime impression of his Power, Divinity and Majesty.”
The writings of Calvin and Kuyper, two of the most historically influential thought leaders in Reformed theology, exhibit a clear commitment to creation care. In 2017, that commitment continues, not stemming from the contemporary hype about global warming or the latest green trend, but rather rooted in our rich heritage and mission.
In addition, Reformed theology has always been supportive of scientific investigation, one reason why many notable scientists have been Calvinists (historically and currently). We recognize that just as theologians and historians help us better understand scripture, so also scientists help us better understand creation. While discernment has always been a hallmark of Reformed thinking, carefully done and substantiated scientific work can be and should be trusted.
Wellspring for initiatives
With such rich creation-affirming theology, a place like Calvin College would be expected to have produced distinct expressions that embody this type of Christian faith. And indeed, Calvin has been a wellspring for initiatives that have emerged from deep convictions that creation care is integral to our identity as Christians. One example is the benchmark book Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources, which introduced Christian environmental stewardship to the broader ecumenical community. Shortly after this publication Calvin put words into action by establishing the Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve, dedicated as a place where the creation would enjoy a perpetual Sabbath. The Preserve’s Helen Bunker Interpretive Center was opened in 2004 as west Michigan’s first LEED Gold-certified building.
The Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) arose out of the Service Learning Center in 1997, uniting faculty from diverse disciplines to direct student learning to better understand the campus environment. It was through several CEAP projects that the idea for Plaster Creek Stewards emerged in 2009, a watershed initiative in which Calvin joins with local churches, schools and other community partners to restore health and beauty to Plaster Creek. Around the same time Calvin began one of the first campus green revolving funds (Calvin Energy Recovery Fund), which to date has saved the college $200,000 and over 1,000 MTCE (metric tons carbon equivalent) in emissions. Many other creation care activities and programs have been woven into the fabric of the campus, several of which are highlighted in the timeline on the right.
Calvin has been a wellspring for initiatives that have emerged from deep convictions that creation care is integral to our identity as Christians.
All of this provides an important backdrop for understanding President Le Roy’s decision to sign the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Reformed tradition’s embrace of science as a reliable means for understanding God’s general revelation, together with scientists’ virtually unanimous assessment that earth’s warming is mostly due to human activities, compels us to want to do something.
In addition, the warming climate is compromising the ability of many parts of God’s creation to flourish as he intended them to do. Not knowing the precise outcomes of this dangerous trajectory shouldn’t change our sense of personal and institutional responsibility to take action. And here at Calvin, it hasn’t.
Making a commitment
In 2007 two Calvin faculty learned about the Presidents’ Climate Commitment at a conference hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (aashe.org). After returning from the conference they asked Gaylen Byker, president of Calvin at the time, to sign the commitment. This commitment would require the college to develop a plan for how it will become a carbon neutral campus (secondnature.org/who-weare/network/). Since that time, a sustainability ad hoc committee (under President Byker’s leadership) and a sustainability charter task force (under President Le Roy’s leadership), comprised of Calvin staff and faculty, have conducted in-depth analyses and have both filed reports that urge the college to become a signatory. It is in response to this most recent report that President Le Roy has decided to sign the commitment.
While the many hours of analyses and years of deliberations over this issue have been frustrating at times, the process itself shows that Calvin takes its commitments seriously. Both presidents made it clear they did not want their signing to be an empty gesture or a media charade. Instead, they needed to be convinced that carbon neutrality is a realizable goal for our campus and that it fits clearly within Calvin’s mission. The signing of this commitment will mark Calvin’s most recent illustration of its long-held commitment to creation care; it is a contemporary expression of our heritage that is solidly grounded in Reformed theology.
Several years ago while he was leading a worship service on one of my interim trips, a student said that he envisions every time creation is approached by people, it must cower in fear, thinking, “What are they going to do to me next?” But his hope was that the church would come to embody its stewardship responsibility to such an extent that as creation cowers at the approach of humans, it will suddenly relax and feel safe when it recognizes the approaching people are Christians.
“For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). The commitment that Calvin is making to become a carbon-neutral campus is one small way we are telling creation, “It’s OK, we are here to help.” It also provides fresh evidence that at Calvin, creation care is foundational to who we are and what we do.
Want to advance your commitment to creation care? Learn about practical steps you can take at calvin.edu/go/sustainability