Lutheran Ecotheology from the North

The Climate Programme of the Church of Finland

by Panu Pihkala
The document, translated into English, offers interesting insights into international Lutheran ecological theology.


Background: Scandinavian Lutherans and Ecotheology

Scandinavian Lutherans have an interesting legacy of both creation-oriented and pietistic influences. The stark forces of nature around them have caused Scandinavians often to reflect about nature for example in their hymnology, but as a result of the pietistic tradition, they have for a long time tended to see elements of nature mainly metaphorically. Thus, when Christians started gradually to get more interested about the environment in the 1960s, many Scandinavians argued for the interconnectedness of creation and redemption (Gustav Wingren, Regin Prenter), but it still took a while for them to start to give actual value to non-human creation.


Some American Lutherans, such as Joseph Sittler and H. Paul Santmire, were influential in opening the eyes of Scandinavian Lutherans for the value of nature. Of course, influences went both ways, and for example Scandinavian Luther research and certain ecumenical theologians influenced American Lutherans before the rise of ecotheology. Also, more creation-oriented strands in Scandinavian theology, such as the theology of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872), were rediscovered and re-emphasized. Danish theologians Ole Jensen and the philosopher-theologian K.E. Lögstrup were influential for the rising Scandinavian ecotheology in the 1970s, as well as the German pioneers on the field, Günter Altner and Gerhard Liedke. Nowadays Altner and Liedke tend to be forgotten because they wrote mainly in German, but at the time their influence was felt also in North America, although not even nearly as strongly as in North Europe.


In the 1980s many Scandinavian Lutheran theologians were active in ecotheology, as their churches produced statements on the environment and participated in the ecumenical process on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. However, major works by Scandinavian Lutheran ecotheologians are scarce, especially in English. The German-Swedish theologian Sigurd Bergmann has been active and influential, and is currently chairing a research organization on the field. A few others have also written in English, such as the Danish theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen and the Finnish Seppo Kjellberg. However, there might well be coming a new wave of Scandinavian ecotheology and this time in English, as the contributions to the recent volume edited by Ernst Conradie, Creation and Salvation, Volume 2 (2012, 145–172) show.


Gratitude, Respect, Moderation

The Church of Finland produced its largest and most significant ecotheological document in 2008. Gratitude, Respect, Moderation: TheClimate Programme of the Church of Finland was prepared by a working group consisting of experts in environmental science and theology, and it was approved by the General Synod. Thus, the many recommendations included in the document are actually normative for the millions of members of the Church of Finland, although their implementation has naturally not (at least yet) been that wide. I shall raise up three interesting aspects of the document. The Programme is available on the internet, and while its English translation is somewhat clumsy at times, it is nevertheless easy to understand.


1. The Climate Programme has an emphasis on positive things. Much environmental literature is characterized by an atmosphere of crisis, which is natural considering the state of the planet. The Climate Programme includes information about the dangerous situation regarding the environment, but tries to build upon the “environmental virtues” of gratitude, respect and moderation.


2. Luther’s theology of nature is combined with insights from ecumenical theology and recent forms of ecotheology. In the theological background can be seen the influence of the so-called “New Finnish Luther Research” (Tuomo Mannermaa, Antti Raunio). Luther’s theology of the ubiquity of Christ is applied to ecotheology. In America, H. Paul Santmire has been engaged in a similar effort. These two strands of interpreting Luther are rather independent, but the results are mainly similar; I shall not deal with the nuances here. In addition, included in the Climate Programme are short glimpses of (Finnish) Eastern Orthodox theology of nature and critical appropriations of some arguments from South American ecological theologies of liberation. One of the theologians working for the document was Dr. Pauliina Kainulainen, whose 2005 dissertation (in Finnish) analyzed the liberal ecotheology of Ivone Gebara.


3. The recommendations are relatively strong and wide-ranging. Congregations are recommended to gradually use only renewable energy sources and to make a comprehensive analysis of their environmental impact. The tools for this are found in the Environmental Diploma system of the Church of Finland, where the congregations will go through an environmental audit every four years. In addition to environmentally sound processes, also the worship life and environmental education of the congregations are analyzed. For example, if the congregation participates in celebrating The Sunday of Creation, a voluntary but recommended Sunday focusing on Christianity and the environment in the summertime, it gains audit points. Recommendations are also given to individual Christians and to decision makers in society.


Concluding remarks

The Lutheran mainline congregations in Scandinavia tend to be large and consist of a smaller group of active people and a much larger group of relatively passive members, who most often participate in the life of congregation through baptisms, confirmation schools, burial services and Christmas services. In Finland, currently (2013) the overall percentage of population belonging to the Lutheran Church is around 76 percent, with highs of 95 percent in some countryside areas. Thus, the congregations have significant economic resources and environmental impact.


Lately, a growing emphasis in the environmental work of the Church of Finland has been to motivate Christians to care for the Earth by integrating the basics of faith with environmental sensibilities. In this, Christian environmental education, defined in a wide manner, has been a key concept. Links between the basic mission of the congregations and the environment are sorely needed, for the difficult economic situation in Europe and growing secularization are affecting the congregations. With declining membership rates and income, the congregations hesitate to pay the costs included in becoming more environmentally sustainable, right at a critical time in history.


A sense of a mission for Christians to “be a light among the nations” in being environmentally sustainable is not very widely shared by Finnish Christians, but there are some signs of a growing awareness of this missionary emphasis. The Climate Programme of the Church of Finland did receive relatively strong attention in the Finnish media, and conferences for political decision makers about environmental matters, organized by the Church Council or the Ecumenical Council are not rare. While the Climate Programme is not very widely known internationally, it has received positive attention among the Ecumenical Movement and Lutherans in other parts of the world. It is naturally the hope of Finnish Lutherans that the document could also serve internationally.


Compared to the environmental work done by Lutherans in America, it can be noted that the ELCA, Web of Creation and the Lutherans Restoring Creation group have been engaged in many similar activities than the Finnish Lutherans. There would, however, be considerable benefits in translating some of the English materials into Finnish and vice versa. Especially noteworthy in my view among the Finnish materials not yet translated are Christian environmental education activities, exercises and Bible studies, which combine a theological and biblical emphasis with environmental issues.


Panu Pihkala

Rev. Pihkala is finishing his dissertation on the history of ecological theology in the University of Helsinki and works also in the Christian environmental movement. The focus of his research has been on the influence of Joseph Sittler and a major part of the research has been done in the Sittler Archives in Chicago.


Link to ClimateProgramme