The Dignity of Plants?

Colson's Misunderstanding of the Goodness of All of Creation

In today's Breakpoint Commentary, "The Silence of the Yams: The Dignity of Plants?", Chuck Colson laments how a new film and the parliament of Switzerland seem to be raising the dignity of plants up to the level of human beings.

"One country appears to have taken the threat from plants seriously enough to sue for peace with the plant kingdom. That’s Switzerland. How? By enshrining the "dignity"—their word, not mine—of plants in their constitution. A molecular biologist at the University of Zürich...had to satisfy government officials that (a scientific) trial 'wouldn’t "disturb the vital functions or lifestyle" of the plants.

Dignity? Lifestyle? Of plants?

...Last spring, the parliament asked a panel of “philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians” to determine how this requirement applies to plants. The panel’s report concluded that people do not have “absolute ownership” over plants and that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” Therefore, they concluded, “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger.”

Plant community?

Unfortunately, the damage from this worldview isn’t limited to making Alpine countries look silly or creating more paperwork for researchers. While some of the sought-after parity between man and the rest of creation is achieved by raising the status of animals and plants, most of it comes through lowering our status as humans.

That’s where the real danger lies. Research that could help feed countless millions is made more difficult and even impossible because of concerns over plant “dignity.” Even worse, carrying the logic to its conclusion, the sanctity of human life becomes a matter of what you can do, not who you are—that is, someone created in the image of God. (read or listen to the entire commentary here)

I respect Chuck Colson. I've been reading his books and columns for over 20 years. He was the plenary speaker at CCO’s Jubilee Conference last year.

He is certainly right when he says, “While some of the sought-after parity between man and the rest of creation is achieved by raising the status of animals and plants, most of it comes through lowering our status as humans. That’s where the real danger lies.”

The line of thinking that Colson is espousing is correct, as long as we remember not to swing the pendulum again in the other direction by LOWERING the status of animals and plants in our effort to RAISE the status of humanity. Historically, the Christian church has been guilty of exploiting the rest of Creation, using the "image of God" (imago Dei) as our rationalization – we have basically said that animals and plants do not have dignity because they do not have the imago Dei. This is a pendulum swing too far the other way.

The biblical worldview places humanity as the pinnacle of the Creation; the only created thing with the imago Dei. Absolutely.

However, the biblical worldview also at least implies that all of Creation has “dignity” in that it all declares the glory of God.

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Psalm 19:1-4).

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:20).

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (Rev. 4:11).

Further, the biblical worldview goes on to refute the idea that humanity is supposed to exploit the Creation. Rather, we have the duty of responsible dominion – instead of being lords over Creation, we are meant to be good stewards of the Creation.

As Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes in Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, “In the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, dominion is never ‘lording over’; it’s more like ‘lording under’ by way of support. In the Kingdom of God, to have dominion is to care for the well-being of others. To have dominion is to act like the mediator of creation. This means that a human steward of God’s good creation will never exploit or pillage; instead, she will give creation room to be itself. She will respect it, care for it, empower it. Her goal is to live in healthy interdependence with it. The person who practices good animal husbandry, forest management, and water conservation shows respect for God by showing respect for what God has made.” (p. 31)

The first ontological distinction that has so often been made by Christians has been that humanity is the special creation of God (the imago Dei), and that all else is irrelevant. How I’d like to hear this articulated differently is this: the ontological distinction is that we are a part of the entire creation, and God is the only one that is wholly different. We, however, are the pinnacle of the creation, meant to care for the rest of Creation because we are made in God’s image. God's purpose in Christ is to redeem not only humanity but the entire created order.

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross" (Col. 1:19-20).

"The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8: 19-23)

I am a supporter of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which has an excellent way of stating these things. They especially have a great statement answering the question, “How are we to treat non-human creation? Are not people more important?”

Again, to reiterate, Colson is correct that Switzerland is not basing their concern for plants on a Christian Worldview. However, I think that a Christian Worldview could also conclude that “plants have an inherent worth.” Contrary to the conclusion of Switzerland’s parliament, humanity does have the authority to “use them just as we please.” God has placed us in dominion over the plants to use for the good of all beings, especially for humanity. If we responsibly use plants and animals for the common good, for the shalom of the entire earth, then we are righteously operating dominion. However, we must never use our authority as a rationale to exploit the creation for our selfish desires - especially for our materialistic and consumeristic desires, as so often happens.


Great Googly Moogly! said...


I really appreciate your effort in this area. Within the past year I've been learning much about our realtion, as human beings, to the rest of the creation. Cornelius Plantinga has become a favorite author of mine and through him I've become acquainted with other authors who are concerned with a "Christian" view of Man and creation.

It's so easy as Christians to think so highly of ourselves as "image-bearers" and participants in the New Creation in Christ that we forget that we are also a part of this creation. This is one of the reasons why I like Plantinga's material (and other's like him) so much; he brings us back to see that we are a part of this creation and we are to care for it as stewards. Shalom does not exist without a proper relationship between all aspects of creation (another reason why redemption is cosmic, extending to all of creation).

I've been reading Wittmer's book: Heaven is a place on earth. He is helping me to understand our place in this world without being of this "world". As Christians we don't really think about the fact that this world will be our home for eternity; not only because we were made for this earth, but because our Lord will dwell here Himself--and where our Lord is, there is home!

Can you list some other titles that speak to these issues? I'd like to fill out my library in this area as well as have a nice selection to lend and suggest to others.

Thanks again, Bob.


Bob Robinson said...


Here are some highly recommended titles:

The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View by Brian J. Walsh and Richard Middleton

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert M. Wolters

Heaven Is Not My Home: Learning to Live in God's Creation by Paul A. Marshall with Lela Hamner Gilbert

There are more. Check out Byron Borger's recommendations here. And PLEASE buy your books from Byron (Hearts & Minds Bookstore). Tell him I sent you and he'll maybe give you a discount!

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Bob. Great post. Amen.

I'd be surprised if Colson doesn't concur with what you're saying here, only if so, he should have expressed that in the article or interview he did, while still making his point, I would think.

Great Googly Moogly! said...

Thanks Bob,

I'm making my Christmas list now. Hopefully Mrs Moogly will be generous to me this year!

Bob Robinson said...

The angle from which Colson is looking at the imago Dei is the classic one of asking, "How are we different from the animals?"

As our friend Scot McKnight highlights in Embracing Grace (pp. 31ff), when all we do is see the imago Dei as making the distinction between animals/plants and humanity (that we are superior to them), then we are in danger of missing what the idea of imago Dei is seeking to really teach us: That we are like God in some way.

And, I would add that Colson's defining the imago Dei simply as that which makes us distinct from the rest of creation erases the fact that we are ALL a part of the creation meant to glorify God. The Human distinction is that we glorify God in a more pronounced way than the rest of creation in that we alone are made in the imago Dei.

What inevitably happens when we follow the line of thought advocated by Colson is that we lower the dignity of God's good creation (providing the rationalization to exploit it for our selfish desires), and thus besmirch the glory of God found there.

What do you think?