What attitude should Christians adopt toward animals? This question has forced itself on the attention of many in Britain by the recent observance of Animal Welfare Year. It marked the centenary of the unamended Cruelty to Animals Act (1976), was supported by nearly seventy animal welfare societies, and aimed to promote more humane behavior toward laboratory animals, domestic pets, farm animals, and wildlife.
God has given to human beings a midway position between himself and the animals. In our physiology we are like them: we breathe like them (“living creatures” is a phrase applied to us both: Gen. 1:20, 24; 2:7), we eat and drink like them, and we reproduce like them (the command to “be fruitful” is addressed to us both: Gen. 1:22, 28). But in our higher faculties, and in the activities that these make possible (thinking, choosing, loving, creating, worshiping), we are unlike the animals and like God. In consequence, we combine the dependence on God that is common to all his creatures with a responsible dominion over the subhuman creation that is unique.
One extreme attitude to nature and to animals has been that of worship. Many ancient religions were pantheistic in tendency, identifying the gods with nature. The Egyptians worshiped the gods of sun, sky, air, earth, and water, and the Canaanites the “baals” or nature gods that were thought to have fertility powers. Both groups represented their deities in the form of either birds or beasts.
Still today popular Hinduism leans toward pantheism, and primitive animists live in dread of the spirits believed to inhabit mountains, forests, rivers, and animals. All such superstition is swept away by the uncompromising biblical assertion that the living God created the sun, the moon and stars, the earth, and the sea, and all creatures, and is supreme over them.
Yet we need to beware of more sophisticated ways of worshiping nature and its animals. The nineteenth-century Romantics were escapists in their back to nature call. Albert Schweitzer, for all his brilliance and dedication, held a quasi-Buddhist view of the inviolable sanctity of all life, so that he would never destroy living creatures, even disease-carrying flies. And pet-lovers sometimes become so sentimental in their attachment to a dog, a cat, or a parakeet that they give it a value belonging to people alone.
At the opposite extreme is the attitude of callous indifference to animals, and even of wanton destruction. True, man has been given dominion over earth and animals, but dominion is not another word for domination, still less for destruction. On the contrary, we are to be good stewards of the animal creation, and are responsible to God for our stewardship.
Can we, then, define more clearly the human attitude to animals taught by the Bible? I think we can. First, we should study them. God’s works are “studied by all who have pleasure in them” (Ps. 111:2). All Christians should take an interest in natural history, especially town dwellers, who have to take greater initiatives to do so. As we study God’s creatures, and so “think his thoughts after him,” we marvel at them.
Scientists have developed hypodermic syringes from the fangs of snakes, aviation from bird flight, and radar from bats. There are moral lessons to learn as well. For animals shame us that they do by instinct what human beings should do by choice. Thus industry and forethought can be learned from ants (Prov. 6:6–11), repentance from migratory birds that fly away but always return (Jer. 8:4–7), obedience from the ox and donkey (Isa. 1:3), and faith from sparrows (Mt. 10:29–31, cf. 6:26).
Secondly, we may use them. God has given us permission to domesticate the animal creation, so that we may use their strength to carry our burdens (cf. Num. 7:1–11), their skins to clothe us (cf. Gen. 3:21), and their flesh to feed us (cf. Gen. 9:1–3; Mk. 7:19).
A few years ago I received a letter from a lady who attributed the world’s ills to “the unhealthy and unnatural diet which man has chosen, namely the flesh of murdered animals,” whereas (she argued) “the Bible repeats so many times thou shalt not kill.” She failed to see that this was a prohibition of murder, whereas the Bible also permits the killing of animals for food and clothing.
Thirdly, we are to be kind to them. Kindness to animals is enjoined in Scripture. For God himself created and sustains them, as he created and sustains us: “men and animals are in your care” (Ps. 36:6, Good News Bible). So in the Old Testament animals were to be given their day’s rest on the sabbath as well as humans (Ex. 20:10; 23:12), bird’s-nesting was restricted (Deut. 22:6, 7), and oxen were not to be muzzled while threshing com (Deut. 25:4). In brief, “a good man takes care of his animals” (Prov. 12:10, Good News Bible).
How are we to apply these biblical principles to modern problems? Certainly if we have domestic pets, we must feed, house, and exercise them properly.
What about so-called factory farming? I think we should agree with the report of the Brambell Commission that any intensive farming should be outlawed (whatever its economic advantages) if it involves “a degree of confinement of an animal which necessarily frustrates most of its major activities which make up its natural behaviour,” for “an animal should at least have sufficient freedom of movement to be able without difficulty to turn around, groom itself, lie down and stretch its limbs.”
Probably the most controversial area of animal welfare has to do with vivisection, that is, experiments on living animals. Most of us would probably agree that such laboratory experiments are morally justifiable if they are absolutely necessary for medical research, and if they are conducted with the minimum of pain. What is now disturbing the British public is the fact that of the more than five million such experiments reported for 1975, over three and a half million were for non-medical purposes, namely for the development of commercial products ranging from food flavorings, detergents, and weedkillers to tobacco substitutes and cosmetics. It is encouraging that, in response to a memorandum on this topic submitted by a group chaired by Lord Houghton of Sowerby, the Home Secretary last year accepted the need to tighten up the administration of the law on animal cruelty. A Committee for the Reform of Animal Experimentation has also been formed.
A distinguished international group is proposing to submit to UNESCO in October this year a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Animals. The draft does not seem to me to recognize with sufficient clarity the uniqueness of what it calls “man as an animal species.” Nevertheless, Christians should gladly affirm that “all animals have rights” under their Creator.
Finally, the Bible recognizes that all nature now “groans with pain” (Rom. 8:22). But we confidently look forward to the day when it will be liberated from its present bondage. Only then will all predation cease, and wolves and sheep, leopards and goats, cows and bears, calves and lion cubs will feed together, while even little children will care for them without any fear or danger (Isa. 11:6–9).
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."
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