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.
A farmer was blatantly whipping the pigs in the bed of his truck. When I confronted him, he coolly replied that animals do not have souls. They are, he insisted, merely things, and since God has given man dominion, we’re free to use them as we wish.
Is this a biblical view of animals, and of our proper relationship to them? It’s a question that has been asked frequently in recent months, with NFL star Michael Vick’s guilty plea to charges of dogfighting and animal cruelty.
We see from Scripture that humans, created in God’s image, enjoy a categorically unique place within creation, that there’s a difference of value between humans and animals. Jesus put it in the simplest possible terms: “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). Some Christians see this uniqueness as a difference that not only distinguishes humans, but elevates them above the created order. Mankind, they say, belongs to a higher order of existence.
Others see the difference not in essence or substance. Rather, they see it from a covenantal or administrative perspective. Humans, from this viewpoint, are unique in that they have been called to a particular vocation, one that does not separate them from creation, but that unites and calls them to it. Rather than thinking of humans as different from nonhuman creation, these Christians think of humans as different for nonhuman creation, and God’s purposes in the world.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And is either view biblical?
The best place to begin is, “In the beginning … .” Genesis 1 declares that God has assigned man a place over the rest of creation, but not as a being who stands apart from the world. We share “creature-hood” with the other animals. The human, like the elephant, the moose, and the bear, is a product of the sixth day. Indeed, Adam is a creature from the earth, and we, as author Ray Anderson writes, belong to “the broad continuum of organisms inhabiting the natural world and carrying that indefinable, but absolutely necessary, breath of life.”
The word nephesh, which is often translated as “soul,” is used indiscriminately in the Bible to identify the life of animals and human beings. As to our origin and the stuff from which we are made, the human is no different from any member of the animal kingdom. Francis Schaeffer put it well: “All things, including man, are equal in their origin, as far as creation is concerned.” We are rooted in God’s creation no less than the animals. Ecclesiastes 3 says, “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. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” And Psalm 49:12 affirms the same, sobering point. “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.”
Tending the Kingdom
The uniqueness of man—the one creature made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26)—is not primarily to distinguish him from the animals; rather, it is to call him to a special role as caretaker. We bear God’s image in order to serve His purpose, which is to “have dominion over” the other creatures. As image-bearers, we’re to imitate His governance, ruling over the animals with wisdom, respecting their dignity, and allowing them to function in ways appropriate to their natures.
God’s attitude is to inform ours. And even though He has given man rule of creation, He has not given us ownership. God remains the sovereign Lord, and His claim extends to the animals. “For every beast of the forest is mine … . I know the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Psalm 50:10-11). God cares for His creatures. He provides food for the cattle, the wild donkeys, and the young lions when they call (Psalm 104, Job 38-39). In response, His creatures praise the Lord (Psalms 148, 50), and God is made glad by them.
So this role as caretaker is not absolute mastery. The animals are not ours to do with as we please. Yes, God has given us the right to use them to meet human needs, but we have no right to abuse them. Scripture is packed with instructions for how we are to treat animals. The Sabbath command in Exodus, for example, demands rest not just for humans but for oxen and donkeys as well. Deuteronomy 25:4 commands us to be diligent to feed work animals. And it is inexcusable, according to Scripture, even on the Sabbath, to deny proper care to animals (Deuteronomy 22:4).
The appearance of these laws appear in Scripture tells us that the care of animals is a moral affair. This is exemplified in Proverbs 12:10: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Kindness to animals expresses righteousness. As Jack Collins, author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes, points out, this is because “God Himself cares about the animals.”
We often speak of treating animals in a humane way (thus we have the Humane Society, an institution committed to the well-being of animals). Humane treatment doesn’t mean we treat animals as if they were human; rather, as author Bill Connors points out, we “treat animals as though we are human. When we violate the intrinsic, God-given dignity of animals, we do violence not only to their nature, but to ours.”
The Weight of Human Sin
While the idea of mastering the brutish beast has been a common theme in Western understanding, the Bible shows that it is we—by human sin—who have victimized the rest of creation. The entire creation groans under human sin and looks forward to its liberation from sin and death (Romans 8:21-22). The whole earth, Isaiah says, is mourning, languishing, withering, and being devoured under the defiling effects of mankind’s failure to keep the covenant of creation (Isaiah 24:4-6). Hosea places the responsibility for a suffering land and animal population upon a cruel and careless human dominion—one that has spurned the loving covenant of God (Hosea 4:1-3). “Man,” counsels Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, “love the animals … . Do not pride yourself on your superiority to [them]; they are without sin.”
God instructed Noah to build an ark, to deliver his household, and preserve the animals. Once the waters subsided, God promised never to judge the earth in such a way again (Genesis 8:21-22). Yet, the Noahic covenant was not made between God and Noah alone, or even between God and human beings. Genesis 9 mentions animals no fewer than six times. And there, they’re depicted as beneficiaries of God’s promise, as parties to the covenant. They, and the earth too, are to know the blessings of God’s covenant love (Psalm 136:5-6).
From the first lines of Genesis we see that God is oriented toward His creation. Six times He declares: “It is good.” And by the end of the sixth day, the earth, the sea, and the sky teemed with life. The command to Adam to name the animals suggests that the human task is to recognize and declare the variety of God’s creation. The glory of God is linked to the abundance of animal life and habitats. Thus, the believer has every reason to treat every created thing with respect. To treat animals cruelly, to dismiss them as irrelevant is, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, “to insult the God who made them.”
Animals possess dignity because God created them. And while Scripture warns us against worshiping creation (Deuteronomy 4:19), we must recognize it for what it is: the handiwork of God. If man’s role is to reproduce God’s attitude toward His works, then we should treat His possessions with honor. As Schaeffer once declared, “Loving the Lover who made it, I have respect for the thing He has made.” Conversely, to abuse, pollute, and destroy the natural order is to trample on the goodness of God reflected in creation.
Under our porch, a mother raccoon recently gave birth to two pups. The squeals now can be heard by anyone walking through the yard, and our youngest son and two German Shepherds have taken serious interest in the whole thing. How should I respond? Shouldn’t I be reminded that “the birds of the air are fed by the God of heaven and earth (Matthew 6:26), that He cares for all His creatures, and that they in turn, worship Him (Nehemiah 9:6)? Nehemiah suggests that the pups’ squeals are a praise service for the Maker of heaven and earth. My response as God’s image bearer—as a caretaker—should give evidence of God’s love for His creation. How we treat the earth and the animals, Chris Wright says is a “reflex and measure of our relationship to the Creator.”
The raccoons serve no apparent human end. Yet, in the Genesis 1 creation narrative God, not Adam or Eve, gave the affirmation that “it is good.” He spoke it before He created human beings. This divine affirmation suggests that the earth has an intrinsic value to God. Walter Harrelson, commenting on Psalm 104, notes that the world’s wonders include God’s provision for creatures: “God planted the cedars and … waters them fully. …[He] made fir trees for the storks to nest in, and He made storks to nest in the fir trees. He made high, inaccessible mountains for the wild goats to run and jump upon, and He made wild goats to do the jumping and cavorting. He created the … rock-covered earth … for rock badgers …and he created rock badgers for the rocks. Storks, goats, and badgers do not serve mankind. They do what is appropriate to them, and God provided a place that fulfills its function when it ministers to the needs of its special creatures. God has interest in badgers and wild goats and storks for their own sakes. He has interest in trees and mountains and rock-cairns that simply serve non-human purposes” (“On God’s Care for the Earth: Psalm 104,” Currents in Theology and Mission).
“A Theater of His Glory”
The Shorter Catechism opens by reminding us that human beings exist to glorify God. But such is not merely the “chief end of man,” a point John Calvin made when he wrote that God “created the whole world for this end, that it may be a theater of his glory.”
Calvin is famous for his contention that the diversity of life provides a “most grand theater” of God’s goodness and majesty. All creatures, he said, bear the stamp of God’s glory. In every part of the world, God has written the glory of His power, goodness, wisdom and eternity. “For all creatures … could be witnesses and messengers of His glory to all men, drawing them on to seek Him and, having found Him, to do Him service and honour.”
Yet Calvin suggests a function for the world of nature beyond revelation. It does not simply exist instrumentally; it bears, he says, an inherent dignity. “While we contemplate in all creatures, as in a mirror, those immense riches of His wisdom, justice, goodness, and power, we should not merely run over them cursorily … with a fleeting glance. [We] should ponder them at length, turn them over in our mind seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly.”
There is a beauty to utility. According to Psalm 104, the grass grows for the livestock, and we cultivate plants to feed our families, and make wine, oil, and bread. Animals serve utilitarian ends, too. We eat their flesh and warm ourselves with their hides. My family’s German Shepherds guard no flocks, but their presence makes our home more secure—a utility that is a bonus to their roles as pets and companions. Yet there is a beauty—and perhaps a utility too—that has nothing to do with human ends. The hawk’s eyesight, the dog’s ability to smell and hear, the bat’s radar, the whale’s sonar—these are ways of apprehending the world that not only outstrip man’s, but exceed our imagination. But each is worth our attention and contemplation as we stand in awe before the wonders of God’s world, and praise the One who made it.
Echoing Augustine, Jack Collins writes that “the world is a delightful and fascinating place, expressing God’s creativity in so many ways; and these expressions are delightful, even if we never use them or see them.” Proverbs 30 comes to mind, where the writer praises the Creator and speaks of things that are too wonderful for him, things he does not understand, things that are small but exceedingly wise, that are stately in the way they stride the earth. Most of his examples come from the animal world. Along with the ant, locust, and lizard, the writer notes the rock badger as small—almost beneath the notice of human beings—but wise in God’s economy of nature.
Psalm 96 calls upon all creation to exalt the Lord for His loving rule: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.” Raccoons and wild goats, the fish and rock badgers will join in the joy that will greet the Lord when He comes to set all things right.
God’s redemptive work lays claim to “all things,” so the hope of God’s people is not simply one of our presence with the Lord, but the restoration of mountains and oceans, the beasts and the trees. The whole creation, including animals, looks eagerly for the time when God’s redemption brings an end to the regime of sin and death, to the day when Christ brings harmony and righteousness to all of God’s creatures. Christians, for more reasons than anyone else, should seek to live lovingly and justly with all God’s creatures.
Michael D. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. Williams is the author of Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption, and co-author, with Robert Peterson, of Why I Am Not An Arminian.
From Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 8:
“We may, it is true, infer from this how dreadful is the curse which we have deserved, since all innocent creatures from earth to heaven are punished for our sins. It is our fault that they struggle in corruption. The condemnation of the human race is thus imprinted on the heavens, the earth, and all creatures … .
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 … .”
In this article Covenant Seminary professor Michael Williams discusses what a theology of animals should be. In the article here, Ron Lutjens looks at the need for a theology of animals.