Loving our Fellow Creatures

This article by Richard Bauckham is available by kind permission of Scripture Union

Christians and Animal Rights by Richard Bauckham.

Do animals have rights? It is becoming quite common to think so. Talk about animal rights follows on, of course, from talk about human rights. Those who advocate animal rights are proposing we extend the idea of rights from humans to other animals. How should Christians think about this? Does the Bible give us any guidance?

A Biblical Basis
A more biblical sort of question about animals would be this: do we humans have a duty to love animals, just as we have a duty to love our fellow humans? We are commanded to love God and our (human) neighbours, but what about other creatures? Even if the Bible does not instruct us in so many words to love all our fellow creatures, it nevertheless rather strongly implies that we should. ‘Be merciful,’ said Jesus, ‘just as your Father is merciful.’1 God’s mercy is his caring and compassionate love, which he extends not only to humans but also to all his creatures. He ‘is good to all, and his compassion is over all he had made’.2 The psalmist can even say that God, in his love and his righteousness, saves ‘humans and animals alike.’3 So, if we are to love as God loves, surely we must love all that God loves.

This ‘love’ of animals requires recognising that they have value independently of us. They don’t exist just to be useful to us. They have value for themselves and for God. Our treatment of them should respect the value God has given them in creating them. But unfortunately Christians have not always recognised this. In Christian history much damage has been done by misinterpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, with God’s command to humans to ‘have dominion’ over other creatures on earth.4 This has been taken to mean that animals are there for us to make whatever use we wish for our own benefit. But this was a view of animals that came from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible, and was read into the Genesis text.

What does ‘dominion’ imply?
Most Christians now recognise that the special role in creation that God has given to humans is not one of exploitation but of responsibility. Human ‘dominion’ is in the context of, and reflects, God’s rule over his world, which is that caring, compassionate love for all his creatures that we have already noticed in the Psalms.5 The rest of creation is not there just for human benefit (though, of course, we must use our environment to live, as all earthly creatures must). What human dominion over animals means is clarified in some other parts of the Old Testament. In an obviously exceptional but instructive instance, Noah exercises the dominion when he preserves all the species of animals thought the flood. Israelite land Law, with its rules about leaving the land fallow in the seventh year, includes a concern for the effect of agriculture on wild animals.6 These examples are surely precedents for acting to preserve species in what amounts to a contemporary deluge of destruction of species, and for taking care to preserve the habitat and resources that wild animals need, not monopolising the world’s resources for human use.

There is also concern about the treatment of domestic animals. The Sabbath rest is for them as well as for people.7 The ox treading grain should not be muzzled.8 Consideration for their animals is characteristic of the righteous.9 In the terms of our contemporary debate, these duties to animals presuppose the value and the rights of animals. If we have a duty not to inflict suffering on animals, then it follows that they have a right not to suffer human abuse. But as Christians we can add to the contemporary debate that whatever rights animals have are rooted in the value God has given them as his creatures. Just as human rights are ultimately based in the value God sets on each one of his human creatures, so animal rights are based on their value for God.

Fellow creatures
The biblical passage cited all relate to the idea of the human ‘dominion’ over other creatures. They envisage a ‘vertical’ relationship of humans to animals, in which humans are in some sense set ‘over’ other creatures. But the Bible also uses another, complementary way of portraying our relationship to animals. This is a ‘horizontal’ relationship in which we stand alongside other creatures. The key thought is simply that they and we are all creatures of God. This thought is just as prominent in the Bible as the idea of ‘dominion,’ but it has been given less attention. In my view, we shall only get the ‘dominion’ right if we also get the relationship of fellow-creatureliness right too. For example, the covenant God made with Noah was made not just with humans but with all living creatures on earth (Gen 9: 9-10). When God speaks about the whole earth, as he does in this covenant, he thinks of all the living creatures to whom he has given it as home. Humans do not have exclusive rights to the earth. We can see this also in Psalm 104, which surveys God’s creation, noting how God has provided homes and resources for all living creatures. We humans appear only as one such category of creature alongside others (Ps. 104:23). We are not even at the climax of the catalogue – an honour that goes to Leviathan

(v 26). Such passages place us firmly within the community of God’s creation, as creatures who share God’s earth with other creatures.

A passage worth some pondering is God’s answer to Job (especially chapters 38-39). Job’s problem was partly that he thought that all God’s ways should be focused on him (and other humans). And part of God’s answer was to show Job the immensity and diversity of the creation. God has many other creatures to care about and they simply have nothing to do with Job. The notion of human ‘dominion’ over animals had no real meaning in relation to most of the animals God depicts in Job 39. They lived entirely independently of Job. The point is to make Job realise this and put him in his place. Job 38-39 is a good antidote to exaggerated emphasis on human ‘dominion.’ Nowadays humans do influence the lives of animals such as those portrayed in Job 39. We have so dominated the earth that the fates of whole species lie in our hands. But God’s speech to Job powerfully reminds us that we are not the be all and end all of creation. In our contemporary circumstances, the ‘dominion’ should therefore be exercised with considerable restraint. Exercising it responsibly today requires primarily that we learn to let other creatures be.

In my view, the most important way in which Scripture sets us alongside the animals as fellow creatures is its portrayal of the worship of God by all of god’s creation.11 Modern readers of the Bible sometimes take such passages to be mere poetic fancy. Of course, they do not mean that other creatures worship God in the ways that we do. Other creatures worship God just by being themselves. They exist for God’s glory. Their worship expresses the value they have for God.

The best way to learn to value other creatures is to learn to worship with them, to recover the sense, so powerful in the book of Psalms, that our own worship is part of the worship of the whole creation. In worship we do not stand above our fellow-creatures, but beside them and before the God who created us all. The Bible never suggests that we help other creatures to worship. Rather, a passage like Psalm 148 gives the strong impression that they help us to worship. Coming to appreciate the value they have for God raises our hearts and minds in praise to their Creator.

Richard Bauckham

1 Luke 6:36 2 Ps 145:9 3 Ps 36:6, NRSV 4 Gen 1:26, 28 5 Ps 36:5, 6;

145:8, 9 6 Lev 25:7 7 Exod 20:10; Deut 5:12 8 Deut 25:4 9 Prov 12:10

10 Gen 9:9, 10 11 Isa 42:10; Ps 69:34; 96:11, 12; 97:6; 98:7, 8; 103:22; 148; 150:6, Phil 2:1); Rev 5:13


This article appears by kind permission of Scripture Union.

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