The Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.

The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.

These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.

Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.

The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.


The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.

The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:

“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)

If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.

The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.

Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.

Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.

The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Mapping Your Academic Career - A Review

As a PhD student (No, my dissertation is not done. Yes, I should be writing it now.) there is a mysterious land beyond the portals of graduation called “an Academic Career.” I have witnessed that this land exists, because my professors are all experiencing it. However, until recently, I have encountered very little information that can help me understand the challenges that may be ahead. (Of course, as I write this, I am an administrator at Oklahoma Baptist University. My academic career as a professor is likely to remain a secondary concern to my role in the administration.)

Gary Burge pulls back the curtain on a career in academia, using his decades-long experience and some psycho-social categories to frame a discussion of the progression of individuals through the jungles of higher education. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, so this volume has the flavor of Christian higher education. However, the text applies to all contexts, whether “secular” or “religious.”


According to Burge, there are three main stages of an academic career. He excludes the Pupal stage, which is an indeterminate but often lengthy period before hooding occurs. These stages are divided into cohorts that are bounded by landmark events rather than age.

Cohort One is the phase where faculty are seeking tenure. This is really a pursuit of security. A quest for the knowledge that one’s academic work has been truly accepted and the brand sponsorship of a university or college has been achieved. Cohort One is characterized by frenetic activity in the scholarly realm: books, conference papers, articles, and book reviews. The young scholar is seeking to be validated and achieve sufficient clout within the academy that his or her peer vote him into the club. This is also the time when teaching skills must be gained, for often they are neglected in the road to earning a terminal degree. The absence of classroom skills has a greater potential to undermine faculty success than publishing opportunities, yet it gets much less attention than it deserves. Burge champions a meaningful mentorship process, where an older faculty invests concern and effort into the young scholar who may be struggling to connect in the classroom or even simply figure out how to put meals on his meal card.

Cohort Two is characterized by chasing success. The faculty (and perhaps the Board of Trustees) have affirmed the scholar’s ability through tenure. Now priorities can shift. Burge notes that there are basically three directions a career can take in this phase. First, individuals can achieve tenure and get distracted or lazy. They may stop publishing, stop keeping up with their field and coast to retirement. Often any success such individuals had in the classroom fades as they lose expertise in their field. Another tendency is to privatize research endeavors and to withdraw from the surrounding community in hopes of publishing a “definitive” work in the field. The third option is the golden mean, which includes publications, professional activities, pursuit of teaching excellence in relatively balanced proportion. At its best, Cohort Two closes with a sense of achieved excellence both in the classroom and in the academic field.

At the tail end of a scholar’s career is Cohort Three. This time in life has a loose beginning point. About the time earlier mentors retire, you wonder who let their kids come to the faculty meeting with voting power, and restaurants begin to give you a senior discount without asking you will have entered Cohort Three. This is the phase of professional development when some administrators consider professors a lost cause and, indeed, some of them are. This cohort usually ends in retirement, but that can be preceded by withdrawal from participation in the community, a sense of despair because no friends remain, or sometimes veneration by peers and younger scholars. At its best Cohort Three entails a shift in emphasis toward lower energy activities, opportunities to mentor younger faculty, and continued personal growth until retirement.


Burge’s book is a quick read that would be good for many seminary and university administrators to read. It would also be useful to put into the hands of an institution’s faculty because of the helpful advice about navigating some of the pitfalls of academic life.

Based on my experience (limited as it may be) in academic life, Burge’s cohorts are a reasonable way to describe the progress through the scholarly lifecycle. As he described both the successes and the potential pitfalls, there were individuals that I know that fit those roles.

The weakness in these cohorts is that there are not clear points of delineation between some of them. For example, it is difficult to tell whether one is in Cohort Two or Cohort Three. However, this does not undermine the overall explanatory power.

This would be a useful text for both religious and non-religious audiences. However, it may have been beneficial to discuss some of the spiritual dimensions of some of these cohorts instead of relying on mainly psychological categories. Perhaps another text would be more apt for that purpose, but a deeper discussion of changing spiritual disciplines over an academic career would have been beneficial.

This is well worth the time and money. If you are looking for a text for a professional development discussion group, to work through in a mentorship relationship, or for personal enrichment as an administrator in higher education, this volume would be a good choice.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided with no expectation of a positive review.

Is Charles Finney the Prototype for Evangelicalism?

With the recent publication of the second edition of a book from the 1970’s, Douglas M. Strong has repackaged Donald Dayton’s theory that evangelicalism is defined by faith experience and right living, rather than by doctrinal fidelity. 

 Dayton’s book uses Charles G. Finney and those closely tied to him as the exemplars of this trend. While it cannot be denied that Finney preached the gospel (or at least a form of it) widely and pointed many to Christ, there is significant doubt that Finney’s belief system is a viable foundation for a sustainable Christian faith, much less being at the heart of historic evangelicalism.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

 Finney’s intellectual hubris was his theological undoing. As a trained lawyer, and by all accounts a very intelligent man, Finney assumed that he could, without cultural influence, rightly interpret Scripture. Based on a likely limited library at his teacher’s house, Finney rejected all historical Christian teachings because he did not like the way they were argued. Instead, he committed himself to a “no creed but the Bible” approach, without the aid of theological conversation with contemporary or historical peers. This unfortunate confidence was enabled by Finney’s quick wits and premature promotion to public ministry. In truth, Finney’s belief that he could rightly interpret Scripture without any external influence affecting the outcome rests very close to what is known as the “fundamentalist fallacy.”

Misunderstanding the Atonement

 In his autobiography, Finney records his opportunity to debate with a Universalist while he was still in his ministerial training. His teacher was ill and Finney stood in, ostensibly to defend orthodoxy. Finney writes,

I delivered two lectures upon the atonement. In these I think I fully succeeded in showing that the atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense in which the Universalist maintained; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under the obligation to save anybody; that it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom he died deserved to suffer; that no such thing as that was taught in the Bible, and no such thing was true; that, on the contrary, Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of God’s forgiving sinners, so as to render it possible for him to proclaim a universal amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation that instead of having satisfied retributive justice, and borne just what sinners deserve, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honoring the law, both in his obedience and death, thus rendering it safe for God to pardon sin, to pardon the sins of any man and of all men who would repent and believe in him. I maintained that Christ, in his atonement, merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying for the indebtedness of sinners. (Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography [Westwood, N. J.: Barbour Books], 38)

Finney rejected the notion of election, divine calling, and substitutionary atonement in Christ’s death on the cross.

In truth, Christ’s death on the cross as a human in human form was only necessary because it is substitutionary. If all Christ did was make possible salvation in a general way, it could have as simply been done by fiat as by self-sacrifice. Without extending this post with further discussion on the atonement, it is clear that Christ came as a redeemer not as an enabler. Even taking a thematic view of Scripture, rather than pursuing a verse by verse defense, it does not seem that Finney’s perspective on the atonement is helpful. In short, even without accepting a fully Calvinistic theological paradigm, Finney’s reasoning seems better suited to win an argument against Universalism than to be considered biblically faithful.

An Unsound Foundation for Evangelicalism

 In all this, I am not making the claim that Finney was not converted, nor that he did not have a profound impact on many people. Finney preached a form of the gospel that enabled many to come to faith in Christ through repentance of sin. He was also instrumental, as Dayton and Strong rightly argue, in ending the evils of American slavery.  All of these things could have been, and were otherwise, done while still maintaining doctrinal integrity.

 By basing their image of historic evangelicalism on individuals on the fringe of orthodoxy, more subject to their culture than to Scripture, Dayton and Strong have undermined their own case.

 In fact, most of the organizations and theological movements cited in this volume have tended to cut their mooring to Christian orthodoxy in the years since Finney’s influence. Wheaton University has maintained fidelity to its evangelical doctrine. On the other hand, the Salvation Army is no longer concerned with salvation in any meaningful sense. Oberlin College, where Finney was president, is no longer distinctly Christian.

The track record of Finney’s theology demonstrates a failure to thrive in the long term. In the first generation, the theological content is assumed, in the second it is unknown, and by the third it is rejected.

This should point present day evangelicals toward the need to be active in pursuing social justice while adamant about maintaining the doctrinal orthodoxy of our Christian heritage.