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Paul among the Ecologists: Romans for the 21st Century

Date: September 29, 2018

Speaker: Sigve Tonstad

Position: Dr. Sigve Tonstad, M.D., Ph.D, Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University

Topic: Paul among the Ecologists: Romans for the 21st Century

Venue: Chan Shun Hall

Number of Attendees: 62



Tonstad’s interest in ecology began with The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, who said that “a medical doctor uninterested in nutrition and agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit, is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health.” Tonstad believes that statement applies to how theologians should view ecology.  His recent commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans included a discussion of the ecological aspects of Romans. Tonstad said that his commentary is not primarily ecological, and that ecology is subservient to theology, but he added that theology without ecology is not biblical theology.  We must include an ecological reading of Romans simply to return to the text what earlier interpretations have taken away.   

Tonstad contrasted the Pauline view with the anti-materiality in Platonic thought. He added that the five most important writers on Romans have been Origen, St. Augustine, Luther, John Wesley (the most ecological of them), and Karl Barth.  Tonstad cited a number of passages that speak to ecological concerns, such as Romans 8:19-22 as it speaks of the creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…the hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage… and how the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. The doctrine of Creation has been largely eclipsed in theology, however, having “never attained to the stature of a relevant, independent doctrine” (Gerhard von Rad, 1936).

            Creatures other than humans possess sentience and experience pain, says Tonstad, despite Descartes’ view that animals feel no pain or fear and have no way to know anything.  Tonstad underlined that Paul is not the only Biblical writer concerned with ecology, commenting that Paul and Isaiah are “singing a duet” like the “Simon & Garfunkel of the Bible.” Paul needs the Old Testament – Tonstad hopes to strengthen Christian regard for the Old Testament – and Paul needs readers of Romans to do the long overdue work of returning to the text what was lost due to interpretation.  He predicts that will be the 21st Century story of Romans.

Tonstad cited Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 11 in Romans 15:12 when he referred back to the same chapter where Isaiah says “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb….”  One questioner asked whether Tonstad is overstressing a small sliver of the book, considering that Paul has much bigger things to say in Romans about the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Tonstad responded that he still considers Romans a “huge reset for ecology,” because Paul is speaking in a very material way, which is a significant reinterpretation of Paul.  Romans 8:19-22 could only have been written by someone who had his heart in the issue, according to Tonstad.

            Tonstad spoke of the new perspective on Paul that began with Albert Schweitzer, whereby the main thing with Paul is not justification by faith, which is too simplistic; it is participation with Christ.  But at the very top of our view should be Christ as a figure of revelation.  Tonstad argues that Isaiah is speaking of restoration and inclusion and that Paul’s vision of inclusion is no more radical than Isaiah’s., and that Isaiah actually has done it with more literary finesse as a poet.  In Tonstad’s view, Isaiah and Habbakuk serve as book ends to Romans in how they speak of our relationships with each other and with our natural world.

Tonstad ended by saying that he is “disappointed that the Adventist community is maybe ignorant of the issue or just reluctant to run with it.”  We need to turn this around.

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