In this article Ron Lutjens has looked at the need for a theology of animals. In the article here, Covenant Seminary professor Michael Williams discusses what, precisely, that theology should be.

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life.

–Basil the Great, c. 330-379 A.D.

What a wonderfully high view of animals does the ancient church father, Basil, reflect in this prayer! But just how high are animals—the “beasts,” as C.S. Lewis insisted on calling them—in God’s economy of created things? For what did their Creator make them? How were human beings originally supposed to relate to them—and how did the fall into sin affect that? And—well, what is an animal, really?

These are important questions for Christians in modern democracies, societies that are paying increased attention to the welfare of animals and whose citizens are showing themselves more and more willing to think not only in terms of the legal rights of animals, but also, in some circles at least, of their equality with people. The debate is well under way—which is why hammering out a biblical theology of animals is important in the opening decade of the 21st century.

At one end of the spectrum is the new manipulation of animals, as agribusinesses develop ever more utilitarian—and often inhumane—ways of increasing livestock productivity. At the other end is a new sensitivity to animals as our fellow creatures. Two bumper stickers I saw reflect this new sensitivity in our culture: “STOP! Eating Animals” and “I Care About Animals—And I Vote.”

The elevation of animals is widespread. In casual conversation one increasingly hears the opinion that hunting is, by definition, immoral; and vegetarianism is on the rise, especially among the young—sometimes as a health therapy but often as a moral conviction that it is wrong to kill animals for food, or as a personal protest against their inhumane treatment. Andy Rooney, commentator on the TV show 60 Minutes, reflected current mainstream misgivings when he wondered out loud on a show aired in October 2006, whether 50 years from now civilized people everywhere will regard the killing of animals for food as barbaric and morally repugnant.

WeddingChannel.com offers advice on how to incorporate pets as attendants at weddings; and animal rights organizations are growing and becoming radicalized as they take their stand against “specieism,” a label for the view that human beings are superior to animals and everything else in the order of nature.

If we are Christians steeped in a biblical worldview, we may be inclined to shrug off this view of animals as bizarre—and go on eating our steak. For us it is axiomatic that from the beginning there was a proper hierarchical order of creation in which human beings were charged to rule over creation justly and wisely under God as his vice-regents. And until recently this has been the prevailing view of man and animals in the West, a legacy of the profound Judeo-Christian influence at work for some 2,000 years. But all that has radically changed, and we had better wake up. There is now a growing rejection of this “anthropocentric” view of the world. For instance, philosopher Paul Taylor defends the doctrine of moral equality among species in “Are Humans Superior to Animals and Plants?” a 1984 article in the journal, Environmental Ethics. And feminist Jana Thompson wrote in a 1990 issue of the same journal: “There is no reason in nature why we should regard the qualities that human beings happen to have as making them more valuable than living creatures that do not have these qualities—no reason why creatures who can think or feel should be regarded as more valuable than plants and other nonsentient creatures.”

And if such a philosophical sea change touching the relationship of people to animals only makes you yawn, consider this: One of the most prestigious bioethicists of our time, Dr. Peter Singer, an Australian who teaches at Princeton University, has lent credibility to the idea that animals born healthy have more of a right to life than children born with certain kinds of diseases and deformities.

And all of this gets personal, too. I would like to think I’m not alone as a Christian who struggles to find the balance between having a high view of animals, as God does, and yet having an even higher view of human beings, as God also clearly does, if Scripture is to be taken seriously. On one side, I grew up hunting and have always found it fairly easy to justify the practice from a Judeo-Christian view of man and nature. But as I get older I am finding within myself a greater sympathy for living things and would rather enjoy the rabbit and pheasant in the field than kill and eat them. And yet sometimes that bothers me: am I just getting soft in the head in my old age? On the other side: a few years ago we didn’t hesitate to bring in our dear family pet, our young dog, Honey, for surgery when she got hit by a car. But to this day I have an uneasy conscience about how much money we paid for that operation when there are so many human beings in the world in such terrible need.

Still, for serious Christians, the shaping of a biblical theology of animals will begin with our supreme authority, written divine revelation—because that is the road map to reality, since God spoke it and through it speaks to us now. As it teaches, so we should think.
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Patrolling the Border Between Interpretation and Speculation

A proper biblical theology of animals will keep one eye on the all-important distinction between interpretation and speculation. What is explicit or clearly implicit in the biblical text, and what conclusions are really no more than educated guesswork? When can a proposition be said to die the death not of a thousand qualifications but of a thousand inferences? Caution is in order.

Francis Schaeffer, of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, was heard on occasion to say that he didn’t really know what an animal was. He was heeding a warning C.S. Lewis gave in 1940 in his book The Problem of Pain. When it comes to a theology of animals, the Bible is not clear enough to warrant dogmatic confidence. As Lewis writes, “God has given us data which enable us, in some degree, to understand our own suffering: He has given us no such data about beasts. We know neither why they were made nor what they are, and everything we say about them is speculative.”

I think Lewis goes too far in saying that everything we might say about animals from Scripture is speculative, but his caution is salutary, and his chapter there, “Animal Pain,” is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in these questions.

Schaeffer and Solidarity

Schaeffer, in his 1971 book Pollution and the Death of Man, showed a profound grasp of the Bible’s theology of man and nature. Schaeffer argued that at one level, people and animals (and all nature) are on one side of a great divide and God is on the other: God alone is uncreated, infinite, and a pure spirit; people and animals are finite, flesh and blood creatures. But at another level, God and man are on one side and the rest of creation, including animals, are on the other. Only man, among living things, is personal, having been made in God’s image; all other creatures are less than that.

What was so remarkable about Schaeffer was that before it was common for orthodox Christians to show sensitivity to environmental things, he was insisting that we should practice the discipline of feeling some kind of solidarity with created things—and not just with our pets. Listen to what he said about even non-sentient things like trees: “I can say, ‘Yes, the tree is a creature like myself.’ But that is not all that is involved. There ought to be a psychological insight, too. Psychologically I ought to ‘feel’ a relationship to the tree as my fellow creature. It is not simply that we ought to feel a relationship intellectually to the tree, and then turn this into just another argument for apologetics, but that we should realize, and train people in our churches to realize, that on the side of creation and on the side of God’s infinity and our finiteness—we really are one with the tree!”

Francis Schaeffer, the first evangelical “tree hugger”! And I say, praise the Lord for that man and his insight; for his courage to say what only theological liberals and flaming pantheists were saying at the time.

It’s worth noting here that Schaeffer’s contention that human beings and animals stand in solidarity in their finiteness (and on this side of Eden in their mortality, too) is rooted in the wisdom penned by the ancient preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes (3:18-21) some 3,000 years ago: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity [vapor]. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

So as we go to the Scriptures we also need to go back and look at how those who came before us understood what the Bible has to say about animals. We gain insight from theirs; we are not the first to whom the Word of God has come.

Outlining the Story of Animals in Scripture

Redemptive history is one grand story of God’s grace and judgment. So it’s proper to ask: in the overarching story—or, to use the phrase popular now, in the meta-narrative—of God’s redemption of the world chronicled and prophesied in the Bible, what role do animals play? And what is their part in the various acts and scenes in this great unfolding cosmic drama?

Reformed Christians have been taught to think of redemptive history as a drama in four acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration (sometimes called consummation). So it would be helpful for a biblical theology of animals to reflect on how these four historical movements of God’s grace and judgment affect the lives, the purpose, and the destiny of animals.

For instance, are the passages about animals in Isaiah 11 and 65 to be taken literally or figuratively? There we find beautiful descriptions of an all-pervading shalom, a harmony, in the final restoration or consummation of all things when Jesus Christ returns. Are we to look for the lion and the lamb literally to lie down together? Traditionally, commentators have thought, yes.

Listen to what the Reformation pastor and teacher John Calvin said about the apostle Paul’s great prophecy in Romans 8:18-25, touching the future glory of the animal kingdom under the rule of redeemed humanity in the life of the world to come: “Paul does not mean that all creatures will be partakers of the same glory with the sons of God, but that they will share in their own manner in the better state, because God will restore the present fallen world to perfect condition at the same time as the human race. It is neither expedient nor right for us to inquire with greater curiosity into the perfection which will be evidenced by beasts, plants, and metals, because the main part of corruption is decay. Some … commentators ask whether all kinds of animals will be immortal. If we give free rein to these speculations, where will they finally carry us? Let us, therefore, be content with this simple doctrine: Their [the animals’] constitution will be such, and their order so complete, that no appearance either of deformity or of impermanence will be seen.”

Scripture and Science

A biblical theology of animals will commend good scientific study of animals and will weave that into the larger picture of Scriptural teaching. God reveals truth about the nature of reality in His world as well as in His Word. Here’s an issue that begs further examination: Last year there was a remarkable article about what we might call “personality” in animals in the New York Times Magazine (January 22, 2006). Researchers are claiming to find predictable personality traits not only in creatures like primates, but in the giant Pacific octopus and even in lower life forms. While we should always be cautious about scientific claims and shouldn’t rush to embrace the latest one, we must also be careful not to claim more for the Bible than it intends to affirm. The great divide between man and animals, according to Scripture, is that human beings are made in the image of God, while animals—all the way up and down the scale of complexity and similarity to us—are not.

Graciousness in Disagreement

If Lewis was right and there is danger in being too dogmatic in putting together a theology of animals, then we should take great pains to be charitable and gracious to other believers if we disagree about this or that part of the total picture. One area where there is disagreement is on the question of whether animal and human predation (that is, humans killing animals and animals killing each other for food) was part of the original glory of God’s creation or whether it is the result of the intrusion of sin into God’s world. Many earlier theologians believed the latter. For instance, the effects of the catastrophe in Eden upon the world of nature is summed up sadly by Kentigern (circa 518-603 A.D.), a missionary to Scotland and the first bishop of Glasgow: “Before human beings rebelled against their Creator, not only the animals but the elements obeyed them. But now, after the fall, because everything has taken to enmity, it is usual that the lion should tear, the wolf devour, snakes bite, the water swallow up, the fire turn to ashes, the air rot, the earth—often hard as iron—starve, and—the height of everyday evil—humans not only rise up in anger against other humans but ravage themselves through sin.”

But this view that lions only learned to tear flesh after the fall into sin—which is my view as well—is not held by all. Notable commentators have rejected it, as do professors Michael Williams [see his article on a theology of animals] and Jack Collins, both at Covenant Theological Seminary, and both friends of mine. But these are the kinds of questions that need to be argued out, and we should do that disputing with humility, charity, and goodwill toward each other, anxious most of all to understand the Scriptures, zealous not to go beyond them, and sensitive to the degree of doctrinal importance they themselves attach to different matters.

So let us study with both enthusiasm and carefulness what the Word of God teaches us about animals. Then the pastors among us can expound better when they preach, our poets write better verse about nature, the vegetarians among us abstain, and the hunters hunt with more insight, and then all of God’s people can appreciate more, and exercise a wiser stewardship of, those mysterious creatures that come from His divine imagination—those creatures we call animals. And God Himself will be praised in that.

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:2)

Suggested Reading:

Anyone who doubts the urgency of the question about animals and the moral order should read The Unnatural Idea of Animal Rights, an excellent overview of the debate by Michael Pollan. This was the cover article in the November 10, 2002 New York Times Magazine.

Next, I would suggest reading the Bible with an eye open to the many places animals are mentioned. And to begin to see what others are thinking, you might read Westmont College theology professor Robert Wennberg’s book, God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (2003).

A caveat here: even though I have been thinking and writing on this theme since 2001, I feel like I’ve just gotten started. Through increased dialogue on this topic I hope to persuade better minds than my own to see the gaping hole of need in this area of Reformed ethics, and then start to fill it.

Ron Lutjens holds a M.A. in New Testament studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a M. Div. from Covenant Seminary. In 1981 he was the founding pastor of Old Orchard Church (PCA) in St. Louis and continues to serve there.

In this article Ron Lutjens has looked at the need for a theology of animals. In the article here, Covenant Seminary professor Michael Williams discusses what, precisely, that theology should be.

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