Despite the veritable forest of trees in Scripture, most people today have never heard a sermon on trees. This was not always the case. Glance at a few of Charles Spurgeon’s sermon titles and you’ll see an indication of what people were hearing from the pulpit during the mid- to late 1800s:
“Christ, the Tree of Life,” “The Tree in God’s Court,” “The Cedars of Lebanon,” “The Apple Tree in the Woods,” “The Beauty of the Olive Tree,” “The Sound in the Mulberry Trees,” “The Leafless Tree,” and so on. Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” had no difficulty seeing both the forest and the trees in Scripture.
The disappearing forest
Not only have trees gone missing from our sermons, they are disappearing from Bibles as well. On my shelf sits a King James Study Bible, published in Spurgeon’s day, that contains over 20 pages on the subject of trees and plants, including multiple full-plate illustrations of trees. In 2013, the same publisher released an updated printing that leaves out all these pages of commentary. In the index, it lists just three references under “tree”; the index of another, even more recent study Bible on my shelf contains no tree entries at all.
If trees were once commonplace in sermons and study Bibles, they were also fixtures in Christian literature. If we reach back over 1,000 years to one of the oldest pieces of English literature, The Dream of the Rood, we will hear the story of the Passion told from a tree’s point of view.
Even in more recent times, Christian fiction writers like George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis have infused their work with biblically rooted tree theology. Whether it is MacDonald’s picture of heaven in At the Back of the North Wind, Tolkien’s tree haven Lothlórien in Middle Earth, or how trees respond when Aslan is on the move in Lewis’s Narnia, each author paints a picture of shalom among the trees. The good guys live under, in, and around trees. They value, protect, and even talk to trees. In contrast, evil characters like Tash and Sauron are clear cutters of trees – even talking trees!
What explains the increasing absence of trees from the modern Christian imagination? The reasons are many and complex, but it most likely centers on the resurgence of the first-century heresy of dualism: God’s created world is bad, and only spiritual things reflect the glory of God. One of the chief flaws with this philosophy is that it disparages all the things God called “good” in creation. As Paul said to the Romans, you’re without excuse for believing in God if you’ve been for a walk in the woods. Through nature, we are confronted with unmistakable evidence of God’s power and glory (see Rom. 1:19-20). If trees and the rest of God’s world are inherently corrupt, Paul’s assertion is erroneous. Read more in part 3.
This story originally appeared in – and is run with permission from – Christianity Today.