Nonhuman Animals in Christian Theology

Ryan McLaughlin

The twentieth century saw a dramatic growth in theological considerations of nonhuman animals and the nonhuman world in general. A number of varying perspectives, including ecotheology, animal theology, liberation theology, ecofeminism, creation spirituality, and Indigenous spirituality – to name a few – have helped facilitate this growth and shaped its development. Furthermore, a multitude of disciplines, including evolutionary biology, cosmology, cognitive ethology, neuroscience, and philosophy, continue to provide key insights that impact theological outlooks vis-à-vis nonhuman animals.

This relatively short article cannot adequately address the breadth and depth of these developments. Invariably, even with an extensive bibliography, some voices are either left out or underrepresented. The aim here is to provide a general overview, including a historical background, of the place of nonhuman animals in Christian theology.

1 Animals and the Bible

Hermeneutics is a central issue in animal theology. What does the Bible have to say about nonhuman animals? This question has received treatment by great thinkers in the Christian tradition, including Augustine and Aquinas. However, these treatments fit better in an overview of the historical development of animal theology. In terms of modern theology and biblical scholarship, the question of the animal has been addressed, with varying degrees of rigor, by Douglas John Hall (1986), Andrew Linzey (1994), Mary Douglas (1999) Norm Phelps (2002), J. Richard Middleton (2005), Terence Fretheim (2005), Celia Deane-Drummond (2008), Christopher Southgate (2008), Richard Bauckham (2010b), Ernst Conradie (2010), David Clough (2013), David Horrell (2014), Ryan Patrick McLaughlin (2014a), Hannah Strømmen (2018), Elizabeth Johnson (2019), Randall Otto (2021), and Robert Gnuse (2021), to name just a few.

So, what does the Bible say about nonhuman animals? Often, this question tends toward a more simplistic one: does the Bible present an anthropocentric worldview in which nonhuman animals exist fundamentally for the wellbeing of humans? This essentially ethical question risks missing other theological questions, such as inquiries into how animals exist as creatures who reveal God’s goodness in the world (see Grumett 2011). Nonetheless, inasmuch as theology tends to have ethical implications – an insight delivered from liberation theologians – we may consider these questions linked. In other words, the theological status of nonhuman animals bears significance for their moral status.

We may begin responding to these queries by examining particular texts, in an attempt to derive themes from the biblical literature. This task requires careful safeguarding against confirmation bias, aimed at reducing biblical ambiguity to a singular viewpoint. As the work of scholars such as Strømmen (2018) skilfully demonstrate, the Bible does not appear to yield an obvious biblical view of nonhuman animals. As with many other issues with moral implications, the Bible addresses the question of the nonhuman animal with a level of ambiguity. This ambiguity solicits another task: the identification of the general hermeneutical principle(s) one is applying to the Bible as a canonical book of faith. In other words, in the face of biblical ambiguity, what interpretive principle can be utilized to make sense of this ambiguity for the community of believers? Even with such a hermeneutic in place, it is important for the interpreter to acknowledge that they are developing a biblical view from a subjectively implemented hermeneutic as opposed to the biblical view of nonhuman animals.

1.1 Common passages in the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament

A number of projects have explored particular biblical passages in an effort to discover places where the Bible addresses animals (and the environment). Chief among these endeavours are The Green Bible (2008) and the Earth Bible Project. Individual biblical scholars and theologians have similarly examined the Bible. Frequently cited passages include the creation texts and other primeval narratives in Genesis, the Mosaic Law, prophetic and eschatological texts, wisdom literature, gospel portrayals of Jesus’ life and teaching, and cosmic christologies. Here, we will explore some central aspects of these passages, but also seek to demonstrate the Bible’s ambiguity in reference to animals.

1.1.1 The Hebrew scriptures

Perhaps the most common passages cited in terms of the place of nonhuman animals in Christian theology come from the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. Strømmen notes that, particularly in reference to the Genesis creation accounts, much philosophical work operates under ‘an implicit assumption that the Bible is responsible for the current ideological underpinnings that justify animal abuse’ (2018: 11). While it is assumed that the Genesis creation myths are thoroughly anthropocentric in character (e.g. White 1967; Fellenz 2007), there are elements in these passages that strongly suggest otherwise (Strømmen 2018). For example, humans and land animals share the same day of creation in Genesis 1. Clough (2013) notes that humans are not the sole possessors of the ‘breath of life’ or the attributes of wisdom and language (e.g. the snake in Gen 3). And, while human beings are unique in being made in the ‘image of God’ and given ‘dominion’ over other animals, this dominion is qualified by a vegetarian diet – an implied prohibition against killing animals for food or consuming their flesh (McLaughlin 2017). Furthermore, while the Hebrew word often translated as ‘dominion’ or ‘rule’ (radah) can have violent connotations, such connotations are not always present. At times, radah is envisioned as peaceful, or even as the conditions for peacefulness (McLaughlin 2014a), which appears to be the implication in Genesis 1, especially when considered in its broader cultural and canonical context (Middleton 2005; Bauckham 2010b; Rogerson 2010). Furthermore, as McLaughlin (2017) notes, it is only following the mythic flood story in Genesis 6–9 that humans are permitted to eat animal flesh, and in this re-creation narrative the word ‘dominion’ is suspiciously absent, replaced by the more ominous terms ‘fear’ and ‘dread’.

Other passages from the Hebrew scriptures also challenge the notion that the Bible is fundamentally anthropocentric. Nonhuman animals are included the Noahic covenant (Gen 9:8–17; Bauckham 2010b). Concern for the wellbeing of nonhuman animals is written into the Mosaic Law (e.g. Exod 23:5; Lev 22:8; Deut 22:6–7; 25:4), which includes animals in the rest of the Sabbath (Cohn-Sherbok 2006; Wirzba 2006; Bauckham 2010b). Wisdom literature frequently breaks with anthropocentrism (Deane-Drummond 2008; Dell 2010; Clough 2013). Job (e.g. 38:26) envisions a wilderness where God’s concern and provision extend well beyond where humans exist (see Fretheim 2005; Bauckham 2010b; Dell 2010). Similar claims appear in the Psalms (e.g. 147:8–9). Rachel Muers (2009) argues that the portrayal of the creature Behemoth in Job breaks down the boundary between human and animal, presenting them as common creatures. Proverbs states, ‘The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel’ (12:10), hinting toward the staunch concern to care for one’s domesticated animals emphasized in rabbinical thought. The Psalmist declares that God saves both ‘humans and animals alike’ (Ps 36:6). The book of Jonah ends with a declaration that God’s concern for the great city of Nineveh is not merely limited to the presence of a multitude of humans, but ‘also many animals’ (Jonah 4:11, NRSV). Prophets include animals in their use of redemptive language (e.g. Isa 11 and 65; Hos 2:16–19), envisioning a peace that mirrors the depiction of harmony in the early Genesis creation narratives (see Cohn-Sherbok 2006; Northcott 2009; Bauckham 2010b; McLaughlin 2014a).

1.1.2 The New Testament

Building upon these foundations, the New Testament also presents opportunities to think of nonhuman animals in ways that establishes their theological importance and challenges anthropocentrism. One central place where New Testament studies focuses on animal theology is the life and teaching of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels. Richard Bauckham (1998b) suggests that all modern discussions about Jesus and animals acknowledge Jesus’ Jewish context, in which a concern for the wellbeing of animals was standard. This acknowledgement includes much of what was highlighted above, within which Jesus’ teaching fit quite easily (Bauckham 2010a). Stephen Webb highlights some central examples:

Jesus declared his Father’s love for the sparrows (Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6), portrayed God as feeder of birds (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24) [...] Jesus also states that it is acceptable to pull an animal out of a pit even on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), suggesting that the Jewish law should not get in the way of treating animals with compassion. (Webb 2001: 136)

Additionally, Jesus’ teaching includes parables and analogies that suggest a sacredness in the human-animal relationship. For example, the notion of the ‘good shepherd’ hints at an appropriate disposition of humans toward domesticated animals embodied by Jewish shepherds (Bauckham 2010a). Jesus is also envisioned as the ‘lamb of God’ (e.g. John 1:29), suggesting his sacrificial identification with animals. Webb (2001) views Jesus as the sacrifice that ends all sacrifice. In essence, Jesus takes the place not only of humanity, but also of all nonhuman animals, enabling a new peace between the two (see also Khalil 1990). Such a view has some resonance with René Girard’s critique of the sacrificial system’s scapegoat mentality (see Grumett and Muers 2010).

Bauckham (1998b; 1998a; 2010a) views Mark’s portrayal of Jesus ‘with the wild animals’ (Mark 1:13) as an eschatological nod to an ‘ecotopia’ – a peace between humans and wild animals. This inclusion of wild animals is juxtaposed with the notion that domesticated animals are already part of the human community and under human care (Bauckham 2010b). In line with this depiction, it is also worth noting the strikingly peaceful portrayal of the relationship between Jesus, domesticated animals, and wild animals in non-canonical works (Hobgood-Oster 2008; McLaughlin 2014a).

Another central place of New Testament studies for animal theology are the christologies and eschatologies developed outside of the gospels. From very early on in Christian history, these visions opened spaces to include nonhuman animals in theological consideration. For instance, Irenaeus (see 1996) quotes Romans 8 and claims that the dominion of humanity will result in the deliverance of all creation from decay.

In line with this tradition, Bauckham argues that Paul’s eschatological vision in Romans 8 draws on a twofold prophetic theme in biblical literature. First, whereas wisdom literature envisions creation as praising God alongside humanity, the prophets often view creation as lamenting and mourning in the face of ruin caused by human sin (e.g. Hos 4:1–3; Jer 12:4). Second, this mourning is met by a hope that creation will experience a redemption, in this case an eschatological redemption which sets it free from its very ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:21). For Bauckham, Paul’s vision provides an impetus to approximate peace ‘and repair damage to God’s creation as far as possible’ (2010b: 100). Whereas Bauckham hesitates to think of Paul’s vision in terms of a cosmic ‘fall’ in need of redemption, Brendan Byrne (2010) argues that the broader context of the Romans letter suggests just such a view. This disparity notwithstanding, both Bauckham and Byrne arrive at the same eschatological conclusion the nonhuman creation (including animals) participating in the future salvific action of God, a participation which has moral implications for the present.

The cosmic christologies of Colossians and Ephesians have been explored as important texts for ecological and animal theology (see Cobb 1998; Deane-Drummond 2008; Balabanski 2010; Bauckham 2010b). Bauckham sees in the Colossians hymn (Col 1:15–20) an affirmation that the incarnation event, including the resurrection, mirrors the narrative of the entire created order. Thus, the present suffering in the animal creation, whatever its origin, will be remedied in eschatological redemption. Deane-Drummond (2008), who envisions certain nonhuman animals as possessing a limited moral capacity, suggests that the Colossians hymn portrays them as recipients of Christ’s atonement.

1.1.3 An ambiguous picture

Also worth considering is Cyril Rodd’s claim that the biblical view of animals is ‘highly ambiguous’ (2001: 208). This claim is borne out by the biblical literature and attested to by other scholars (e.g. Strømmen 2018). Norm Phelps (2002) includes, in his work, The Dominion of Love, a helpful appendix of passages highlighting the ambiguity. This suggests that perhaps the most honest way of approaching the Bible is to say that it contains a sic et non (‘yes’ and ‘no’) with reference to modern concern for animal welfare.

In the biblical flood narrative, nonhuman animals are wiped out alongside humanity. On the one hand, this demonstrates that the fates of humans and animals are closely bound, highlighting a potential area of kinship (Bauckham 2010b). On the other hand, there appears little moral concern in the text for the wellbeing of the animals lost in the flood, demonstrating an anthropocentric tendency.

God’s covenant with Noah includes nonhuman animals – indeed, ‘all flesh’. Yet this covenant is prompted, at least in part, by the pleasing smell of the burning flesh of ritually clean animals (Gen 8:21). The tension highlighted here raises a more general question about animal sacrifice in the Bible (see Sacrifice and the Old Testament). The sacrificial system of the Israelite religion is predicated in no small part upon the slaughtering of animals – a slaughtering that is codified by divine command. However, a number of scholars have argued that, once this practice is understood within the broader cultural context of Israel, including the preparation of the animal from birth to sacrifice, it is possible to develop a nuanced (and even animal-positive) reading of the practice (see Rogerson 1998; Douglas 1999; 2001; Webb 2001; Klawans 2006; Morgan 2010). Indeed, Grumett and Muers (2010) convincingly argue that a recovery of the concept of ritual sacrifice might be an important way to combat the inhumane nature of contemporary slaughterhouses. From a similar perspective, Jonathan Klawans questions ‘the selective denigration of sacrifice by moderns who use animals without living with them’ (2006: 74–75). Rodd argues that, on the contrary, while there is criticism of the sacrificial system in the Hebrew scriptures: ‘[n]owhere in the whole Old Testament is the criticism of animal sacrifice based on the welfare of animals’ (2001: 214). Rodd’s analysis however does not reflect rabbinic interpretation of such laws, especially the general principle of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim – a concern for ‘the suffering of living creatures’ (see Cohn-Sherbok 2006; Kalechofsky 2006).

Returning to primeval history, while McLaughlin (2017) argues that Genesis 9 represents a negative turn in human-animal relations, Strømmen argues that the text represents neither a full affirmation of the human right to kill animals nor an absolute lament of lost innocence. Rather, the juxtaposition of the permission to eat animal flesh with the clause about accountability for taking life (Gen 9:4–5), and the inclusion of ‘all flesh’ (Gen 9:15) into the divine covenant, signals (in a single canonical narrative) a profound ambiguity in the human-animal relationship, evoking ‘a radical tension in the text’ (Strømmen 2018: 44).

Regarding the inclusion of animals in the Mosaic law, one may ask (as the apostle Paul did; 1 Cor 9:9–10) if such laws reflect ethical concern for the animals or (as Rodd argues; 2001: 217–225), have their foundations elsewhere. Phelps acknowledges Paul’s position, but argues that it must be overturned as ‘the last remaining vestige’ of a discredited moral hierarchy (2002: 167).

In the biblical prophets, there are occasions of animal inclusion in peaceful imagery. The question remains whether this inclusion expresses an intrinsic concern for the wellbeing of animals or whether, as in many examples where animals serve as metaphors for humans, the concern remains human-centred (see Rodd 2001).

Regarding Jesus’ life and teaching, it is generally accepted that Jesus was not a strict vegetarian by modern standards (Bauckham 1998a; Webb 2001). He also likely participated in the sacrificial system (Bauckham 1998a). While his teachings did not completely ignore nonhuman animals, they were nonetheless predominantly focused on humans.

1.2 Hermeneutics, animals, and the Bible

Biblical ambiguity need not render all positions equally viable. In the face of the ambiguity highlighted above, we might ask if it is possible to establish what McLaughlin calls an ‘animal-friendly hermeneutic’ (2017: 145). Such a hermeneutic might resemble the interpretative lenses employed by liberation and feminist theologians such as Leonardo Boff (1987) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1983). Indeed, ecofeminists such as Laura Hobgood-Oster (2008) see the human-animal binary as one example among many of oppressive binaries, including male/female and white/nonwhite (see also Case-Winters 2007).

In light of this ambiguity, what strategy should be employed? Liberation theologies have tended to argue that the Bible is on the side of the poor and marginalized, while feminist theologians have tended to argue that the Bible was written in a patriarchal context and must be critically retrieved from that context (Conradie 2010). These alternate strategies also apply to an ecological or animal-friendly hermeneutic. Horrell (2014) differentiates between, on the one hand, ‘apologetic’ or ‘recovery’ strategies and, on the other hand, ‘suspicion’ and ‘resistance’ strategies. The former attempt to defend the Bible against accusations that it has contributed to ecological degradation, and the latter acknowledge the negative aspects of the Bible regarding ecology and reject them in light of our current ecological context. Horrell and others highlighted these strategies in 2010, when T&T Clark published a series of essays – as part of The Exeter Project (lasting from 2006 to 2009) – addressing ecological questions from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives. In the introduction, Horrell (2010) explores the hermeneutical approaches of two projects seeking to explore the Bible from an ecological perspective. The first, The Green Bible (originally published in 2008), attempts to demonstrate that the Bible has a positive message regarding environmental concerns, but that this positive message has been distorted in Christian history and must be retrieved. The second, The Earth Bible Project, initiated in the late 1990s by Norman Habel, takes a more critical approach to the Bible. This project begins by establishing a set of six ecological principles emphasizing, among other things, the intrinsic worth of the nonhuman world, the interconnectedness of all things, and the role of the Earth as a character in God’s creative activity. The Bible is then filtered, as a whole, through this ecological lens.

The Exeter Project attempts to locate its hermeneutical strategy between these two basic approaches. This strategy, according to Horrell, is ‘an attempt to construct an ecological theology which, while innovative, is nonetheless coherent (and in dialogue) with a scripturally shaped Christian orthodoxy’ (2010: 8–9). In other words, the aim is to avoid reading the Bible as if it provides a clear and unambiguously positive view of the nonhuman world while simultaneously avoiding the imposition of a ‘critical ecojustice hermeneutic’ (2010: 8) upon the text without due concern for the authority of the Bible in its own right.

1.3 A biblical view amidst biblical ambiguity

Given what has been said above about the position of the Bible on nonhuman animals, the pursuit of an animal-friendly hermeneutic should avoid oversimplifying the complexity of the Bible by reducing it to a single unambiguous message (i.e. ‘the biblical view’). Anyone utilizing an animal-friendly hermeneutic should acknowledge that their reception of the text is influenced by their socio-historical context, traditional readings of the text, as well as ‘interpretive interests and ideological distortions that influence each of the other aspects’ (Conradie 2010: 299). Such a hermeneutic should also avoid a rejection of the biblical material as anthropocentric or in need of a radical critical retrieval, in which the reader unconsciously replaces previous doctrinal assumptions with new ones.

Between these two strategies, Conradie suggests a hermeneutical approach that is constituted by a complex set of convictions, visions, values, virtues, stories, priorities, and practices. These are shaped by the scriptures and in turn shape the interpretation of scripture, and may well be in tension with each other, vying for certain priority, but together they represent where ecumenical Christianity stands (Conradie 2010: 311).

Such a view opens the door for an animal-friendly hermeneutic. However, the implementation of such a hermeneutic should be self-aware and conscientiously applied. The same goes for critiques of such a hermeneutic. For example, when considering Linzey’s text, Animal Theology (1994), biblical scholar Mark McEntire argues that its central claims ‘seem utterly foreign to the Old Testament’ (2005: 99). Linzey (2005) responds to McEntire (and others) by arguing that affirmations of the moral worth of animals and practices such as vegetarianism are consistent with portions of the Bible – and so not ‘utterly foreign’ to it – but Linzey also notes that the Bible does not provide a singular voice on these issues.

2 Historical considerations

A discussion of the animal within Christian theology is well-served with a brief overview of the history of Christian engagement with animals. This engagement may be organized into three basic categories: animals as revelatory to humans; animals as subjects of communion with humans; animals as resources to be used by humans. These themes provide a foundation upon which to explore contemporary discussions in animal theology, which tend to revolve around the constitution of animals (especially in relation to human uniqueness) and the moral status of animals.

2.1 Animals as revelatory to humans

One central way nonhuman animals functioned in Christian history was as theological resources for revelation to humans. The content of this revelation could be moral (e.g. as examples of virtue and vice), apologetical (e.g. as evidence against heresies), and theological (e.g. as symbols of God’s goodness). This section explores these three aspects of the revelatory nature of nonhuman animals.

Classical Greek writings on animals (for example, Aristotle’s Historium Animalium) provide a backdrop for later Christian bestiaries (illustrative compendiums of animals, both real and mythical). While considerations of animals and their natures were not absent in early Christianity, such compendiums became more abundant in medieval Christianity (Baxter 1988). A key example is the treatise on animals written by Albertus Magnus (2020) – the patron saint of scientists. Magnus’ compendium gathers numerous classical texts, most notably those of Aristotle, and integrates them into a coherent whole.

Magnus’s opus notwithstanding, Ron Baxter (1988) argues that many Christian bestiaries showed more concern for the revelatory and moral lessons Christians could learn from animals – even mythical animals – than anything akin to modern zoological depiction (also Kienzle 2006). A central example of such a work is the anonymously composed Physiologus (2009), which, as Michael Curley notes in his introduction to his translation of the text, Christianizes the rich pagan tradition of using animal imagery to make moral points. There is precedent for such focus in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures, which presents animals as images of virtue for humans (e.g. Prov 6:6). The goal of such texts was often to encourage particular virtues (or discourage certain vices) among humans.

Aside from exemplifying virtue and vice, animals also provided a fuller vision of the world which permitted apologetical reflection against heresies. Beverly Kienzle (2006) notes how animals were depicted in ways reminiscent of heretics, thereby discrediting the heretics. On the other hand, for theologians such as Irenaeus (1996) and Augustine (2002), animals provided a stark point of differentiation between ‘orthodox’ Christianity and various world-denying ‘heresies’. Two common points of reference here are the ancient beliefs of Gnosticism and Manicheism. In his refutation of various forms of Gnosticism, Irenaeus (1996) rejected the Gnostic idea that the material world, including animals, was evil or corrupt. Rather, he said, the material world, including animals, was good. Similarly, Augustine (2002) rejected the world-denying views of Manicheism and affirmed the goodness of creation. In Augustine’s case, the affirmation of the material world included a willingness to embrace humanity’s superior place within it. In particular, Augustine was critical of the stringent food laws in Manichean thought, including vegetarianism (Grumett and Muers 2010).

Another important way animals served to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy was through the practices of orthodox communities, particularly with regard to diet. David Grumett and Rachel Muers (2010) explore this point, noting how Christian communities often differentiated themselves from surrounding cultural expressions through their diet. In many cases, these surrounding cultural expressions were meatless, but the rationale behind them varied.

In conjunction with the notion that animals reflected the goodness of creation, there is a longstanding tradition in Christian theology which views animals as sources of revelation to humans (see Schaefer 2009; McLaughlin 2014b). For theologians as diverse as Irenaeus (1996), Augustine (1996), Maximus the Confessor (2003), and Aquinas (1946), animals – along with the rest of the created order – revealed God’s power and goodness. The idea that animals served a revelatory purpose for humans was not absent in the Western church, but its force was lessened by the narrowing of sacramental theology to exclude animals in response to the Protestant Reformation (Martos 2001). In Eastern Orthodoxy, however, sacramental theology consistently presented animals as sacraments, and as part of the goodness of God’s creation (Chryssavgis 2006; Theokritoff 2009).

Finally, Hobgood-Oster notes that when animals are viewed as revelatory – as objects or passive symbols of something for humans to see – ‘they can be relegated to the powerful but disempowering category of symbol’ (2008: 15). As a remedy to this, she highlights the error of assuming that the place of animals is always symbolic or revelatory (in a passive sense). She also finds ways to see the animal anew, as an empowered subject in its own right. For instance, she notes how, in hagiographies (biographies of saints), animals are revelatory to the saints not as passive symbols to be observed but as active subjects in communion – ‘messages of the divine to human beings’ (2008: 15). Such forms of communion merit further exploration.

2.2 Animals as subjects for communion with humans

While the hagiographies of medieval saints include negative interactions between saints and animals (see Gilhus 2006), more frequently they include depictions of the saints living in harmonious relationship with animals in the wild (Hobgood-Oster 2008). This harmonious living exemplified the holiness of the saint, by signifying either a return to an Edenic state of human righteousness (and the peaceful relationships among species that this state entails) or an anticipation of future eschatological peace (Vivian 2003). In other words, the peace between saints and animals demonstrates the righteousness of the saints, by connecting them to the protological state of Adam in Eden or the eschatological state of glorified humanity in the new creation (McLaughlin 2014b).

Examples of these saintly interactions with animals include Anselm (Alexander 2008) and Silouan the Athonite (Ware 1995), both of whom display compassion for animals by weeping at their sufferings. Other saints, such as Denis and Giles, protect animals against human hunters (Jackson 2007). Other saints administer healing practices toward animals – for example, Jerome removes a thorn from a lion’s paw and in return receives the creature’s faithful service (Jackson 2007). Macarius not only heals a hyena’s cubs by making the sign of the cross, but also later instructs her to not harm other creatures and to eat only carrion (Vivian 2003). Tim Vivian (2003) maintains that such narratives portray saints as embodiments of eschatological peace between humans and animals. Other scholars argue for a more pragmatic reading of the hagiographies. For example, Alexander (2008) maintains that the narratives function as fantastical allegories serving to solidify the status of the saint in an effort to garner socio-political influence.

2.3 Animals as resources to be used by humans

Many theologians in the Christian tradition use animals as a foil against which the uniqueness of human beings takes shape. A number of philosophers, biblical scholars, and theologians see this understanding of the animal pervading Christian history (see Hall 1986; Linzey 1994; Steiner 2005; McLaughlin 2014a). This tendency appears particularly prominent in Western theology, but is not absent from Eastern thought (McLaughlin 2014b). Two prominent and influential Western examples are Augustine and Aquinas.

While Augustine does not explicitly use the Latin equivalent of the term ‘hierarchy’ to describe the created order, his notion of a divinely-established organization in creation is saturated with the concept of a hierarchical order of beings (Augustine of Hippo 1948; Lovejoy 1963; O’Daly 1991). For Augustine, human beings are categorically superior to nonhuman creatures due to their rationality, which Augustine (1948) links to the ‘image of God’. Augustine assigns animals value to the extent that they aid humanity’s progress toward God (a hierarchal order in creation is further evident in Augustine’s delineation of the terms ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’, see Clark 2000).

Aquinas’ embrace of the hierarchy of creation, which he derives in large part from Aristotle (see Berkman 2009), is explicit. Aquinas’ theology is greatly indebted to Augustine. Like Augustine, he delineates a hierarchal order in creation. With regard to the physical creation, humans are the apex of that order. Also like Augustine, Aquinas (1946) posits that beings at the lower end of the hierarchy are, by God’s design, at the service of those above them. Therefore plants, which have a non-sentient soul, exist for the benefit of animals. Animals, which have a sentient but irrational and material soul, exist for the benefit of humanity. Humans, which have a rational and immaterial soul, exist for the glory of God (as to do all creatures).

There are ethical implications to this vision of nonhuman animals in relation to the human. The Christian tradition is largely anthropocentric. Such is the position in Lynn White’s (1967) now famous (or infamous) essay, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. For White, the Christian tradition constitutes a religious apex of anthropocentrism. However, White also provides a reassessment of Christianity’s potential contribution to an understanding of the environment, by turning to figures like Francis of Assisi instead of figures such as Aquinas.

White’s analysis is not without difficulties. It is based in part on a dubious reading of the Genesis creation narratives, for example conflating Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In addition, scholars have noted that White places too much emphasis on the Bible as the root cause of ecological degradation (Blenkinsopp 2004; Camosy 2013). White furthermore does not pay adequate attention to other factors that contributed to the ecological crisis, such as philosophical worldviews predating Christianity and later developments like the industrial revolution (see Hanlon 2020) and other technological advancements (see Merchant 1993).

Clough (2013) notes another issue with White’s argument, and subsequent arguments based on it: in defining Christianity as ‘anthropocentric’, one must be clear about the meaning of the term. Clough offers varying definitions, ranging from the notion that all human perspective is anthropocentric (by virtue of being a human perspective) to the notion that humans have the only valid claim to direct moral concern (in order words, they are worthy of moral consideration for their own sake, not because of their usefulness to others). McLaughlin (2014a) likewise differentiates between meanings of the term ‘anthropocentrism’: there is a ‘functional anthropocentrism’ (in which humans bear a central functional role in the cosmos, for the sake of other creatures) and an ‘ontological anthropocentrism’ (in which humans bear a distinctive status, rendering them uniquely qualified for direct moral concern).

The claim that Christianity is at least partly complicit in what Clough refers to as ‘ethical anthropocentrism’ or what McLaughlin refers to as ‘ontological anthropocentrism’ is not without warrant. A number of scholars (Linzey 1994; Yamamoto and Linzey 1998; Steiner 2005; Hobgood-Oster 2008; McLaughlin 2014a) find Christian history to lean heavily in this direction. Likewise, many scholars (Linzey 1994; Clark 1998; Yamamoto and Linzey 1998; Steiner 2005) argue that the views of Augustine and Aquinas bequeathed this problematic anthropocentric legacy to Christian theology, especially in the West. In response to such negative readings, a growing corpus of theologians have argued for a more sympathetic reading of Augustine and Aquinas – and the Christian tradition in general – which interprets them generously within their own historical contexts (see Deane-Drummond and Clough 2009). Such a reading permits a critical recovery of these theological giants, as opposed to what some perceive as a dismissive demonization of them. These approaches tend to suggest that Augustine and Aquinas be read through a theocentric (God-focused) lens rather than anthropocentric (human-focused) one (Berkman 2009). A fine example of a critical retrieval of such historical figures comes from Jame Schaefer (2009), who aims to emphasize positive ecological concepts in the Christian tradition. In pursuit of this, she highlights themes which provide potential foundations for an embrace of the similarity between animals and humans, as well as for the moral welfare of animals. Her research draws deeply on Augustine and Aquinas, as well as John Chrysostom, the Cappadocian fathers, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, and many more.

Of the all the figures in Christian history, perhaps no one is debated on this point as much as Aquinas. It therefore makes sense to consider the debate about his moral considerations of animals at greater length, to provide an example of how such debates tend to unfold. Many philosophers, both within and beyond the animal rights movement, have expressed severe criticism of Aquinas and his theological legacy (Singer 1975; Ryder 1989; Wennberg 2003; Steiner 2005; Evans 2005). A number of theologians have also levelled accusations against Aquinas (Santmire 1985; Linzey 1987; 1994; Benzoni 2007). More recently, Christopher Steck (2019) has argued that the ‘Thomistic framework’, which denies animals rights and values them only inasmuch as they are useful for humans, has shaped Catholic theology in a detrimental manner. It should be noted that Steck focuses his criticism not on Aquinas’ work itself, but rather on interpretations of his work in the Catholic tradition.

In response to such pejorative interpretations, a number of theologians have sought to provide a more positive perspective on Aquinas’ potential contribution to a theology that takes animals (and the nonhuman world in general) seriously (Clifford 1996; French 1993; Deane-Drummond 2008; Jenkins 2008; Schaefer 2009). Mark Wynn (2010) offers a particularly nuanced reading of Aquinas, exploring his anthropocentrism within the context of his theocentrism. Wynn presents Aquinas as viewing all individual creatures as part of a holistic good which exceeds humanity, so that one cannot limit the purpose of nonhuman creatures to human ends. Wynn thus maintains that Aquinas cannot be understood as simplistically anthropocentric.

While Wynn’s view is favourable toward Aquinas, McLaughlin (2014b) offers a reading that is less favourable, at least so far as the wellbeing of individual animals is concerned. McLaughlin argues that, on the one hand, Aquinas’ critics tend to miss his theocentric and sacramental understanding of the nonhuman world, and the manner in which this understanding places severe limits on human use of animals. On the other hand, Aquinas’ defenders often too easily sidestep his anthropocentric tendencies and ‘sanctify’ his work with an appeal either to context or theocentrism. Ultimately, McLaughlin argues that Aquinas’ theology cannot provide direct moral concern for individual animals without betraying its own foundational claims. However, a Thomistic worldview can provide a deep sense of indirect moral concern for animals, which can lay the groundwork for an ethics of conservation (for the sake of humans) but not for anything akin to animal rights.

Leaving Aquinas aside for a moment, there are influential thinkers in Christian history who, in the wake of Aquinas, provide a more prominently anthropocentric view of the world. Examples of such thinkers include René Descartes (1988), who argued that humans were separated from all other animals by virtue of their ability to use language and, as a result of this ability, by their possession of rationality. For Descartes, this difference carried profound ethical implications, including a stark lack of direct moral concern for animals (see French 1993; Plumwood 1993; Johnson 2014). Immanuel Kant established a definitive divide between humans and animals based on rationality. He maintained that, as rational creatures, humans were ends in themselves, but that animals, as irrational creatures, were means to the ends of humans (see Fellenz 2007). Francis Bacon demonstrated a radically objectifying view of the nonhuman world, viewing it as a locked source of knowledge for humans that must be penetrated and plundered (see Merchant 1993). Again, such voices are not without interpretative controversy (see Harrison 1992; Clough 2013).

There are also voices in Christian history that provide a much less anthropocentric understanding of the world. Examples of such sources include John Wesley, Humphry Primatt, and Albert Schweitzer (see Linzey and Linzey 2023).

The question of how best to read the Christian tradition with regard to issues involving animals remains. This point aside, there appears to be a trend in the Christian tradition of using animals as a foil against which human uniqueness can be measured. At least in some cases, this trend aligns with an anthropocentric ethic. At any rate, all of these voices have helped to pave the way for deeper conversation about the place of animals in contemporary and constructive theology.

3 Animals in contemporary and constructive theology

Theological interest in nonhuman animals has greatly increased over the past sixty years. There seem to be several reasons behind this development. First, the rise of environmental awareness has facilitated a general uptick in theological interest regarding the nonhuman world (see Rolston 2020). Second, developments in the natural sciences coupled with a growing attentiveness to Darwin’s theory of evolution have provided theologians with the tools and impetus to consider nonhuman animals more closely (e.g. Teilhard de Chardin 1971; Peacocke 1993; Delio 2013; Johnson 2014). Third, the pioneering work of philosophers such Peter Singer and Tom Regan coupled with the novel theological contributions of Andrew Linzey (1976) have helped to launch issues of animal welfare and animal rights into the theological sphere. Fourth, theological movements such as process theology have highlighted the importance of animals by embracing insights from the natural sciences and challenging the worldviews of classical theism (see The History of Science and Theology; Cobb and Griffin 1976; McDaniel 2006a). Fifth, philosophers and theologians who emphasize the importance of living in harmony with the land have provided important insights about agriculture, food ethics, access to water, and wild nature (see Leopold 1987; Berry 1981; Wirzba 2006). Sixth, the writings of continental philosophers such as Jacques Derrida (2008) have facilitated a rethinking of the nonhuman animal (see Calarco and Atterton 2004; Painter and Lotz 2007; Strømmen 2018). Seventh, feminist philosophers and theologians who developed early feminist thought toward ecofeminism and ecofeminist theology (see Plumwood 1993) have challenged traditional assumptions about animals and provided new perspective on the place of nonhuman animals in philosophy and theology (for philosophical resources, see Adams and Donovan 2007; Adams and Gruen 2014; for theological sources, see Ruether 1992; LaCugna 1993; Johnson 1993; McFague 1993; Deane-Drummond 1997; Keller 2003; Case-Winters 2007; Hobgood-Oster 2008). Finally, rather than remaining in the context of a Western worldview, a number of philosophers and theologians have sought to emphasize indigenous wisdom that speaks to the radical interconnectedness of the world (see Kyung 1994; Tinker 2008; Magesa 2013; Conradie 2016; Scheid 2016).

Impacted by such influences, an increasing number of theologians have explored nonhuman animals as a part of their theological projects. The result has been considerations of animals in reference to various theological loci. Clough (2013) frames these considerations in terms of ‘creation’, ‘reconciliation’, and ‘redemption’. Following a similar approach, the current article categorizes theological questions about nonhuman animals according to the various stages of creation: creatio originalis (the original creation), creatio continua (the continuing creation), and creatio nova (the new creation) (for similar approaches, see Moltmann 1993a; Johnson 2015). However, before addressing specific theological loci, it is important to note that, in exploring the place of nonhuman animals in theology, theologians have had to address difficult questions about what an ‘animal’ is and how science should inform the task of considering animals theologically.

3.1 Defining the ‘animal’

One prominent question that pervades contemporary works in animal theology is: What exactly is the ‘animal’? On the one hand, there seems to be an implicit assumption that ‘animal’ theology addresses all nonhuman animals from a theological perspective. On the other hand, a theology of animals may assume a narrower definition, emphasizing only certain groups of nonhuman animals such as mammals or vertebrates. These assumptions raise questions about the rhetorical function of definitions in philosophical and theological writings. They furthermore raise questions about the role of science in theology, in the sense that the taxonomical kingdom of animals includes humans as well as non-mammals and invertebrates.

Marc Fellenz captures the issue of such assumptions in his discussion of the ‘ambiguity of the animal’. For Fellenz, many who debate the status of animals

have overlooked the ambiguity of the animal, perpetuating the longstanding person/thing dichotomy even as they attempt to forge a new animal ethic. This problem can be seen on both sides in the debate: The commodification of animals is justified by concentrating on their otherness, and the extension of moral protections to animals is justified by noting the similarities they share with human persons while whimsically ignoring the differences. (2007: 129)

As Fellenz highlights, the definitional assumptions at work in the term ‘animal’ are problematic in a few fundamental senses. First, definitions that lump all animals together, as a foil against which the essentially unique human can be seen in sharp relief, tend to ignore the biological kinship between human animals and nonhuman animals as well as the points of relevant similarity between some nonhuman animals and humans. As already noted, such assumptions were common in Christian history, and the history of Western philosophy in general (see Plumwood 1993; Rasmussen 2015).

Second, definitions that over-generalize the animal into a single category tend to gloss over the vast diversity among nonhuman animals (Linzey 1994; Northcott 2009). It is significant to note the continuing trend of chapters, articles, and books on creation and animal theology which treat all nonhuman animals in a single category. As McLaughlin (2024) notes, discussions of ‘animals’ often perpetuate the issue of over-generalization when they assume that a single theology of animals is sufficient to address everything from flatworms to bonobos. The question remains whether such an approach does justice to the unique shape a ‘theology of flatworms’ might take in comparison to a ‘theology of bonobos’.

As a remedy to both forms of over-generalization, John Berkman calls for a shift from ‘theological speciesism’ to ‘theological ethology.’ Theological speciesism emphasizes one species and thereby fails to acknowledge the diversity of God’s creatures and the ways in which those creatures, as unique species, demonstrate God’s goodness. Theological ethology, on the other hand, is ‘the discipline that seeks to understand each species in light of its own authentic natural and supernatural good, understood as flourishing according to its nature’ (2014: 33).

Third, at times the term ‘animal’ singles out only a certain subset of animals, ignoring creatures that are less similar to humans in favour of creatures that are more similar (Fellenz 2007; Clough 2013). In classifying approaches to environmentalism, Robert Wennberg (2003) describes one category as ‘sentientism’, which emphasizes creatures with the capacity to feel pain or suffer. Linzey (1987) embraces a position of ‘mammalocentricity’ (which has a great deal of overlap with Wennberg’s category) in his earlier work on animal theology. In his later work, however, Linzey (2009) acknowledges that one of the challenges of animal theology is how to advance terms that do not perpetuate oversimplification or denigration of nonhuman creatures.

The issue of over-generalization is likewise present – in a different manner – in the work of other theologians. Lisa Sideris (2003) and Holmes Rolston III (2020) argue that animal theologians tend to ignore the difference between wild and domesticated animals, which leads to unclear moral obligations. Rolston summarizes this point well: ‘To treat wild animals with compassion learned in culture does not appreciate their wildness’ (2020: 83).

It follows from these definitional issues that a nuanced theology of animals should take these questions and issues into consideration, and provide a methodological explanation of its definitions and approach to ‘animals’ (for a good example, see Clough 2013).

3.2 Science, theology, and animals

As noted above, the definitional question of the ‘animal’ raises the issue of the proper relationship between science and religion, particularly with regard to the range of capacities in nonhuman creatures. Taking a cue from the work of Ilia Delio (2008; 2013), this article bypasses discussions about the age of the Earth or the possibility of an original creation that was starkly different from the present one. Virtually every theologically-informed scientist accepts a few basic claims about creation which shed light upon the human/nonhuman relationship. It makes sense to delineate these claims here, rather than dwell on popular controversies that are not, in actuality, controversial in most theological discussions.

Denis Edwards (2006a) and Elizabeth Johnson (2015) provide a helpful overview of these basic claims. Cosmological and geological evidence suggests the cosmos is roughly 13.8 billion years old. During the evolution of the cosmos, elements such as carbon and iron formed in the nuclear reactors of stars and scattered across the universe when those stars exploded. Every creature on Earth owes their existence, at least in part, to this process. For example, mammals – including humans – are carbon lifeforms with iron in their blood. Through a tumultuous and violent narrative, Earth became conducive to life. The earliest life forms, which developed roughly one billion years into the Earth’s history, oxygenated the atmosphere, paving the way for later life. Through the mechanisms of evolutionary development, the complexity of life rapidly increased during the Cambrian period. As life stumbled through subsequent periods, a number of mass extinction events violently directed the biological narrative. As one instance, the extinction of dinosaurs paved the way for the flourishing of mammals, who evolved in various directions. About 55 million years ago, primates arose on the biological scene. Hominids appeared roughly six million years ago, evolving into modern humans around 200,000 years ago.

Drawing on this shared narrative, theologians such as Edwards (2006a), Deane-Drummond (2009), Clough (2013), Johnson (2014), Rasmussen (2015), and McLaughlin (2024) maintain that the term ‘animal’ signifies a continuum of which human beings are a part. One does not need modern science to find such claims. As George Tinker highlights, the Lakota prayer mitakuye oyasin signifies the belief that all living things are related, and that human morality should reflect this by acting ‘for all my relations’ (2008: 48–49). Stan McKay (1994) likewise emphasizes the importance of a cosmic familial bond. M. Adebisi Sowunmi (1994) provides a helpful synthetic analysis of indigenous wisdom, scientific evidence, and biblical data.

Humans share common ancestors with nonhuman others in Darwin’s tree of life. Like all other animals, humans experience mortality. Human instincts, including the propensity to live in structured society, does not appear magically on the biological scene, nor do human capacities such as intelligence and sentience; they develop out of the shared narrative of emerging life. As Delio (2013) suggests, humans are simultaneously decentred and intricately intertwined among the many strands of the tapestry of life.

While the shared narrative of humans and nonhumans highlights their interconnectedness, so also does current human existence. Clough (2013) notes the extreme level of genetic similarity – ranging from around 75% to 98.9% – between humans and nonhuman animals. Humans remain deeply interdependent with the world of nonhuman creatures. Jacob Kohlhaas and McLaughlin (2019) note that, beyond the scientific kingdom of animals, humans are biologically dependent upon the bacterial world (also, Rasmussen 2015). With regard to both nonhuman animals and the environment in general, humans are part of the interconnected ecosystems of the Earth. As Clough (2018) highlights, current practices in the meat industry, the energy industry, and the fishing industry – and the related issue of climate change – reveal human action toward nonhuman animals impacting the entire planet, often in ways that devastate other animals, but also humans. Delio (2015) captures the extreme interrelatedness of creation in her concept of ‘catholicity’, which entails human consciousness seeing the whole of the cosmos moving together as an interconnected whole.

In this sense, cosmology and evolutionary biology have raised some serious questions about the essential uniqueness of humans. These questions are intensified by the contributions that cognitive ethologists and neuroscientists have made to considerations of animal capacities. Cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff (2007) argues that the ‘behavioural flexibility’, entailed in animal expression and awareness of emotions, demonstrates the presence of subjective consciousness in certain nonhuman animals. A wide range of animals practice capacities that suggest a sophisticated mind at work (see Andrews 2020). Elephants, primates, and dolphins exhibit complex emotional ranges as well as mental capacities (Safina 2016; de Waal 2017). A number of animals, including greater apes and birds, can use, teach, and even develop complex systems of communication (see Hixson 1998; Pepperberg 2002; Morell 2013). There is evidence of ‘episodic-like’ memory in some mammals and birds (Clayton et al. 2001; Allen and Trestman 2020), suggesting that the capacity to mentally time travel may have deep evolutionary roots (Allen and Fortin 2013). However, the manner in which such memory occurs might be different between birds and mammals (Rattenborg and Martinez-Gonzalez 2011). A recent study has also found evidence that bumble bees engage in playful activity for their own sake (Dona et al. 2022).

Given these insights, the claim that most nonhuman animals are conscious, and experience various degrees of pain and suffering, is well-accepted within the scientific community (see Birch, Schnell, and Clayton 2020). It should be noted, however, that a few scientists remain agnostic about whether nonhuman animals possess subjective consciousness (e.g. Dawkins 2012). Furthermore, a number of philosophers question whether the observations of ethologists and the claims of neuroscientists demonstrate a kind of consciousness that is akin to that of the average adult human. For example, in light of his ‘higher-order-thought’ theory of consciousness, Peter Carruthers (2019) argues that animals lack ‘phenomenal consciousness’ (i.e. a subjective experience of their own lives).

Some theologians, including C. S. Lewis (1962), have questioned whether animals actually possess the ability to suffer in morally relevant manners. They take a Neo-Cartesian approach to suffering in nonhuman animals, maintaining that, while animals experience pain, they are not aware of their own experiences (see Harrison 1991). In many cases, these arguments are offered as part of a theodicy aimed at exonerating God in the face of the violent aspects of evolutionary emergence and the continued presence of pain in the animal kingdom. Drawing upon higher-order-thought accounts of consciousness, Michael Murray (2008) maintains that, because there is no solid proof for sentience in nonhuman animals, it is possible that nonhuman animals do not suffer in a manner that reflects negatively on God’s goodness. Kyle Keltz (2020) develops a Thomistic theodicy in the face of animal pain, arguing that animals lack both rationality and self-awareness. He furthermore argues that scientific evidence supports Aquinas’ understanding of animal souls.

It is clear from this brief exploration that the exact nature of nonhuman animal capacities (and their relevance for theology and ethics) remains debated. The positions range from claims that animals possess rationality, consciousness, and the ability to sin (see Clough 2013), to claims that animal suffering creates no problems for theodicy or ethics because animals lack a subjective experience of their own pain. Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, there is general agreement that, at the very least, the average adult human possesses mental capacities in a much greater degree than even their closest primate relatives (Suddendorf 2013; Rasmussen 2015; Laland 2017; Rolston 2020).

3.3 Theology proper

In the twentieth century and beyond, a number of theologians have drawn upon the notion of the ‘social trinity’, the idea that God’s oneness is constituted by the intimate relationships of the three persons. Using this, they emphasize the relational nature of the world, highlighting that humans are intricately connected to the world and form a community of living beings. Grenz (2007) has traced this development well (see also LaCugna 1993; Dünzl 2007). As with the idea of an animal-inclusive eschaton, the social trinity also finds consistent roots in Eastern Christianity (see Zizioulas 1985; Ware 1995). Theologians such as Karl Rahner (2005), Catherine LaCugna (1993), and Jürgen Moltmann (1993c) have been instrumental in the development a social understanding of the trinity in the West.

A number of theologians, including Leonardo Boff (1988), have drawn on the concept of the social trinity to argue for an egalitarian human society. In terms of animal theology, LaCugna (1993) specifically develops a social doctrine of the trinity to ground a communion of creatures, which in turn discourages humans from acting destructively toward nonhumans. Moltmann (1993c) and Linzey (1994) provide a similar outlook (for an overview of both, see McLaughlin 2014b). Clair Linzey (2022) criticizes Boff’s Christology and trinitarian theology for neglecting nonhuman animals, and makes efforts to expand them to remedy this neglect. An emphasis on the social trinity and its import for animals is also developed in the work of Edwards (2006a), Ware (1995), Theokritoff (2009), Southgate (2008), Schaab (2012), and King (2016). Given the impact of many of these authors, the turn to relationality in theology proper through an emphasis on the trinity may be responsible for some of the most important work in animal theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

3.4 Animals and the original creation

With regard to creatio originalis, there are at least two prominent areas of theological exploration, both related to developments in cosmic and evolutionary biology. First, because the narrative of evolution is intrinsically violent, Christian theologians have been pressed to address the viability of a cosmic ‘fall’ from some original state or, if such position is not viable, to contribute to a theodicy that accounts for the necessary and inevitable suffering of nonhuman creatures. Second, given the evolutionary continuity between human and nonhuman animals, the question arises of how to account for the uniqueness of humans in terms of the ‘image of God’.

A number of theologians (Linzey 1994; Boyd 2009; Messer 2009b; Clough 2013) maintain that the doctrine of a fall is important to creation theology and should not be abandoned. These theologians are particularly concerned about the idea that God has brought about the immense suffering of nonhuman animals evident in evolutionary history. Other theologians (Rolston 1994; Southgate 2008; Sollereder 2020) maintain that, given the natural sciences, a nonhuman fall is no longer a viable option for Christian theology. Rolston embraces the goodness of creation’s violence, arguing that nature is redeemed through evolutionary processes in a manner that reflects Jesus’ violent death on the cross. Southgate is less keen to embrace the goodness of creaturely suffering, but nonetheless views it as part of a ‘package deal’ alongside the goodness of creation. This debate highlights how animal suffering in an evolutionary context has raised a unique issue for the problem of evil (see Southgate 2008).

Another area of inquiry is the ‘image of God’. For most of Christian history, humans were thought to be the sole possessors of the image. This tendency is not without reason, as Genesis 1 only applies the concept to humans. However, given humans’ place in the evolutionary narrative, it is unclear when the image of God actually appeared in the ‘human.’ Did other species in the homo genus bear the image? Furthermore, if the image of God is tied to particular capacities (e.g. rationality), as it was for Irenaeus, Augustine, and Aquinas (see Grenz 2007), does evidence that such capacities extend beyond the human species suggest that humans are not the only one who bear the image?

These questions highlight the manner in which evolutionary biology has facilitated a rethinking of theological anthropology (see Creegan 2007; Case-Winters 2007; Horan 2019). In response, theologians such as Clough (2013) and Horan (2019) argue that the image of God should include nonhuman animals as well as humans. Linzey (2009) and McLaughlin (2014a), drawing on the work of biblical scholars such as J. Richard Middleton (2005), maintain that the image of God is uniquely human. However, they also say that it entails a functional calling to represent God to the nonhuman world, rather than grounding an anthropocentric worldview in which humans have the right to cause nonhumans suffering and death to meet specific needs. Steck (2019) holds a similar position, labelling it ‘covenantal anthropocentrism’.

3.5 Animals and the continuing creation

McLaughlin (2024) has argued that two of the central theological issues pertaining to creatio continua are the moral status of animals and the nature/capacities of animals. The latter question has already been addressed in this article. The question of morality has also been addressed from a historical perspective. It will be addressed as an issue in contemporary theology in a separate section below. These two points of consideration aside, three other central areas of focus for theologians within the context of creatio continua have been the relevance of christology, pneumatology, and sacramentology for nonhuman animals.

Contemporary Christology has undergone expansions of inclusiveness. For example, the incarnation has become a symbol of God’s identification with marginalized humans (see Boff 1988; Cone 1997). Without denying the significance of these claims, a number of theologians have argued that the incarnation should include all of creation. Boff (1995), for example, has made strides in this direction. However, Clair Linzey (2022) argues that Boff’s Christology is too anthropocentric and requires revision. Clough (2013) makes the same case regarding the Christology of Karl Barth. Clough also notes that atonement theology has traditionally been anthropocentric, a point echoed by Johnson (2015).

As a supplement to anthropocentric Christologies, a number of theologians have pressed for a more inclusive Christology. Biblically, this move is supported by the cosmic christological passages of the New Testament, for example Col 1:15–20 (Deane-Drummond 2008; Clough 2013; Johnson 2014). Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this inclusivity is Niels Henrik Gregersen’s concept of ‘deep incarnation’ (for a high-quality collection of essays on this concept, see Gregersen 2015). Gregersen (2001) argues that, in the incarnation, God experiences the depth of creation’s reality, including its evolutionary suffering. This concept has been taken up and developed by Southgate (2008), Deane-Drummond (2009), Johnson (2014; 2015; 2019), and Edwards (2019). Moltmann maintains that Jesus’ resurrection signals a restoration of all the living: ‘Christ died the death of all the living in order to reconcile them all (Col 1:20) and to fill them with the prospect of eternal life’ (Moltmann 1996: 92–93).

Moltmann’s position highlights another christological question: how do Christ’s person and work relate to evolution? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1971) maintains that Christ is the apex, or omega point, of evolution, a position that tends towards a close identification between creation and redemption. Moltmann (1996), on the other hand, understands Christ as the ultimate victim of evolution, which entails a rejection of the goodness of evolution and the necessity of its redemption. For nonhuman animals, the question at stake here is deceptively simple: is evolution, with all of its inevitable and necessary harms, a redemptive process or a process in need of redemption? Drawing upon and developing the work of Teilhard, Delio (2008) provides something of a via media, emphasizing Christ as the centre and destiny of the created order.

Johnson (2014) argues that the concept of a deep incarnation provides a necessary corrective to the anthropocentric theories of atonement (e.g. that of Anselm) which limit Christ’s redemptive work to human beings. Johnson also argues for the concept of a ‘deep resurrection’, which highlights the eschatological hope of all creatures. She writes:

In Jesus Christ, the living God who creates and empowers the evolutionary world also joins the fray, personally drinks the cup of suffering, goes down into the nothingness of creation, and emerges victorious. Therefore, the world’s affliction even at its worst does not have the last word. (2015: 114)

While Clough (2013) does not draw on the notion of deep incarnation or the work of Gregersen, his outlook on incarnation and atonement are similar to that of Johnson. The exception is that, as part of his embrace of the fallenness of nonhuman animals, Clough embraces the possibility that nonhuman animals can act out in rebellion against God’s desires – in other words, they can sin (see also Deane-Drummond 2008 and Moritz 2014).

Claims about God’s co-suffering alongside creatures highlights a manner in which theology proper has been explored in tandem with animal theology: the rejection of divine impassibility (the doctrine that God does experience pain or joy as humans do). Moltmann (1993b) provides perhaps the most well-known critique of divine impassibility, maintaining that a good God must suffer with suffering creatures. A number of theologians, including Polkinghorne (2005), Southgate (2008), and Linzey (1994), have echoed Moltmann’s sentiments. The importance of God’s passibility is also a consistent theme in the work of process theologians such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin (1976).

Claims about God’s co-suffering are not limited to Christology. As Johnson has eloquently highlighted, pneumatology provides fertile grounds to consider God’s ‘compassionate solidarity’ (2015: 87), his presence in the world (see also Edwards 2004; Deane-Drummond 2008). For Johnson (2014), the divine Spirit is the ‘giver of life’ who is perpetually present in all creation, empowering life to be and to flourish. But the Spirit also experiences the suffering and death of all creatures.

Johnson’s view has roots in the work of Moltmann. For Moltmann (1992), the Spirit is the principle of life and the ongoing presence of God for all living creatures, constituting a ‘community of creation, in which all created things exist with one another, for one another and in one another’ (1992: 10 [original emphasis]). Furthermore, as the presence of God in a world subjected to the futility of evolution, the Spirit is ‘God’s empathy, his feeling identification with what he loves’ (1992: 51 [original emphasis]). Finally, the Spirit serves as an anticipatory sacrament of eschatological redemption.

For Johnson, God’s indwelling presence in all creation highlights the sacramental quality of the cosmos, including animals. This claim highlights another area in which contemporary theology includes nonhuman animals in its purview: sacramentality. Sacramentality refers to the broad notion that the human experience of God is mediated through something in the world, such as the water of baptism of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Recently, Catholic and Protestant theologians have called for a renewal of a broader sacramental theology. Kevin Irwin (1998) argues that all specific sacraments find their foundation in the sacramentality of the world in general. Dorothy McDougal (2003) – who draws on the work of Thomas Berry – makes similar arguments, as does John Hart (2006). Protestant theologians such as Theodore Runyon (1980) have also embraced the sacramentality of creation. These claims of sacramentality carry ethical implications. For example, Kevin O’Brien (2010) builds part of his argument for preserving biodiversity on the notion that the variety of life is a form of divine self-expression and therefore has an intrinsic value to God. It does not follow that all loss of biodiversity is wrong (O’Brien maintains that natural extinctions are not morally wrong), but it does follow that human-caused extinctions are.

Southgate (2018) provides a helpful concept to the sacramentality of nature by emphasizing the concept of God’s glory. For Southgate, this concept entails an embrace of the mysteriousness of God’s presence in the world. It is not reducible to beauty, but rather signifies a pressing importance that demands response. In this sense, Southgate suggests that God’s glory in creation – a notion that aligns with sacramentality – can accommodate the ambiguity of the created order, including suffering and extinction.

An emphasis on the sacramentality of the cosmos is most prevalent among Eastern theologians. Radu Bordeianu (2009) argues that Maximus the Confessor demonstrates Orthodox theology’s consistent commitment to the sacramentality of the cosmos. The work of Maximus has been taken up and developed by contemporary Orthodox theologians (Schmemann 1973; Lossky 1976; Ware 1995; Chryssavgis 2006). Lossky parses this notion in terms of nature and grace: ‘[t]he Eastern tradition knows nothing of “pure nature” to which grace is added as a supernatural gift. For it, there is no natural or “normal” state, since grace is implied in the act of creation itself’ (1976: 101). Ware maintains that the Eastern position is panentheistic, seeing God as present in all things (panentheism) without being equated with the sum total of all things (pantheism).

The Orthodox view of the sacramentality of creation carries ethical implications for nonhuman animals and the nonhuman world in general. Chryssavgis suggests living by a ‘sacramental principle, which ultimately demands from us the recognition nothing in this life is profane or unsacred’ (2006: 92–93). In short, the nonhuman creation, including animals, is to be reverenced as a gift from God; but more than that, humans bear a calling to live peacefully toward nonhuman animals, a calling that is best exemplified in the hagiographies of the saints.

3.6 Animals and the new creation

With regard to creatio nova, theologians have addressed a number of important issues. First, is the eschatological redemption of nonhuman animals as essential aspect of a theodicy that takes their suffering seriously? Second, what is the scope of eschatological redemption? Finally, how does an eschaton that is inclusive of nonhuman animals affect how humans live in the present?

Both Augustine and Aquinas were adamant that plants and nonhuman animals would not participate in eschatological fulfilment (see McLaughlin 2014b). Contemporary thinkers, including Rolston (1994) and Sideris (2003) reject the idea that nature requires eschatological redemption. However, there is a substantial strand of history in Christian thought, especially in Eastern theology (see Louth 2008), that maintains nonhuman animals will participate in eschatological redemption.

In line with this strand of tradition, and often as part of a response to the problem of animal suffering (Ward 1982), a number of thinkers have challenged the exclusion of animals from the eschaton on both biblical and theological grounds (Balthasar 1988; Linzey 1994; Moltmann 1996; Webb 1996; Polkinghorne 2002; Edwards 2006b; Theokritoff 2009; Johnson 2014; Russell 2008; Southgate 2008; Bauckham 2010b; Clough 2013; McLaughlin 2014b). They maintain that, at least in some manner, nonhuman animals participate in eternal life. Pope Francis includes individual nonhuman creatures in his eschatological purview, writing:

Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. (Pope Francis 2015: section 243)

One fundamental difference between these thinkers is the extent to which nonhuman animals might participate in eschatological redemption. Moltmann (1996), Russell (2008), Johnson (2014), and McLaughlin (2014b) argue that all living creatures might (or should) participate in the eschaton through a universal resurrection of the flesh. Polkinghorne (2002), however, maintains that at least some nonhuman animals might be represented by tokens of the species rather than a resurrection of all the individual creatures who have ever lived.

Another difference is the possible nature of the eschatological experience of animals. These differences ought to be couched within a general acceptance, voiced by Edwards, that the eschatological ‘future of creation remains obscure and shrouded in mystery’ (2006b: 117). They should furthermore reflect the notion that most theologians embrace a tension between continuity and discontinuity in creatio continua and creatio nova, a tension that Edwards (2006b) and Deane-Drummond (2008) astutely highlight in Jesus’ own resurrection.

Theologians such as Johnson (2014), Edwards (2006b), and Southgate (2008) tend to lean in the direction of continuity. In an effort to honour the nature of earthly creatures, both Johnson and Southgate embrace the vision of James Dickey’s poem in which predators continue to hunt prey in the eschaton. Others, including Linzey (1994), Clough (2013), McLaughlin (2014b) envision more discontinuity, favouring a peaceful existence among nonhuman animals. One criticism of such discontinuity is that it rejects the goodness of the world as it is (Rolston 1994; Sideris 2003; Jenkins 2008; Berry 2009). Rather than embracing evolution, those who hold discontinuous views hope for - for example - a vegetarian lion. Such a lion, Sideris and others maintain, is not actually a lion. However, Clough (2013) and McLaughlin (2014b) have argued that such critiques overlook Christian claims about the discontinuity of humans, who become immortal and unbound by certain laws of nature.

The differences in eschatological outlooks outlined above correlate roughly with a debate about how eschatology should impact human action in the present. For Rolston (1994) and Sideris (2003), eschatological hopes violate the integrity of nature (especially wild nature). But it should be noted that virtually all theologians who embrace eschatology as a viable foundation for ecological or animal ethics do not claim that humans can perfectly embody or bring about eschatological peace. Rather, they encourage a respect for the natural world (especially wild animals) coupled with a place for eschatological witness to the ultimate peace of creation within that world, perhaps especially among domesticated animals (see Clough 2013; McLaughlin 2014b).

3.7 Theological ethics and nonhuman animals

When it comes the question of ethics, the nonhuman animal provokes stark divisions among theologians, divisions that are mirrored in philosophy. With the rise of environmental consciousness during the twentieth century, a gap arose between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics. In what Rolston (2020) refers to as ‘the environmental turn’, many philosophers and theologians questioned the philosophical and religious assumptions underlying anthropocentrism in the midst of a heightened awareness of environmental degradation. A number of ethical frameworks have sprung from of the environmental turn, including the land ethic, deep ecology, ecofeminism, biocentric egalitarianism, and animal rights/liberation (for examples of these positions, see Pojman, Pojman, and McShane 2016; see also Ecological Ethics).

Some of these ethics are ‘extensionist’, meaning they seek to extend direct moral concern to nonhuman animals by arguing that certain species have capacities which warrant their inclusion in the moral community. These approaches reject anthropocentrism by arguing that the moral community should include all sentient creatures (sentiocentrism) or even all life (biocentrism). Singer and Linzey embrace sentiocentrism. Examples of biocentrism include Albert Schweitzer’s (1946) ethic of ‘reverence for life’ and Paul Taylor’s (1986) biocentric egalitarianism.

Other approaches challenge the emphasis on extending the moral community, and instead suggest a radical revision of morality based on a thoroughly relational understanding of the world. Examples include ecocentric approaches such as Aldo Leopold’s (1987) land ethics. They also include forms of ‘deep ecology’, which tend to posit that all interconnected life has intrinsic value and should be preserved for its own sake (Naess 2010), and various feminist arguments, which tend to reject dualistic and hierarchal structures of the world because of their roots in Western androcentric and patriarchal worldviews (see Ruether 1992; Plumwood 1993; Case-Winters 2007; Hobgood-Oster 2008; Johnson 2015).

While these approaches share a critique of anthropocentrism, important divisions have developed among them. One is between sentiocentric and ecocentric philosophies. Proponents of these ethical theories often disagree about what should constitute the primary unit of moral consideration, advocating for individual sentient animals or holistic systems (e.g. ecosystems) respectively (Cowdin 2000).

Sideris criticizes theological systems which attempt to embrace both holism and individualism, noting that the ecotheological ‘interpretation of interdependence fails to recognize that the good of the parts and the good of the whole cannot be harmonized’ (2003: 265). Sideris’ criticism is well stated, and seems to apply well to theologians such as Moltmann (see McLaughlin 2014b).

A number of theologians fall squarely on the holism side of this divide. Creation spiritualists such as Thomas Berry (2009) and Matthew Fox (1991), for example, embrace holism. Fox embraces a ‘Eucharistic Law of the Universe’ in which all things eat and are eaten – such is part of the beautiful order of creation. Wendell Berry (1981) offers a similar view. Rolston (1994; 2020) likewise embraces an emphasis on holistic systems of life over and against individuals, maintaining that individual creatures suffer in a ‘cruciform’ manner inasmuch as their sacrifices facilitate new life in the evolutionary narrative. Cowdin (2000) and Sideris (2003) both fall on the holistic side.

Other theologians, including Webb (1996), Linzey (1994; 2009), Messer (2009a), McLaughlin (2014b), and Clough (2013; 2018), emphasize the wellbeing of the individual. This emphasis tends to entail an appeal to an eschatology in which each creature will participate in redemption. Whereas holistic approaches tend to permit practices such as sustainable hunting and domestication of animals for meat, these individualistic approaches usually argue that practices which witness against violence, for example, vegetarianism, are at least preferable (if not obligatory).

Balancing this tension is difficult, if not impossible. McLaughlin (2014b) argues that the tension should be left unresolved, leading to an eschatological ethics of ‘preservation and protest’. For McLaughlin, humans must on the one hand preserve natural systems which inevitably entail suffering and death and, on the other hand, ‘protest’ such systems by developing a character that laments nature’s suffering and by taking reasonable actions that embody peace (e.g. vegetarianism). Southgate (2008; 2018) expresses deep concern for the suffering of individual creatures and yet maintains that killing and eating can be part of a healthy community of creation. Jay McDaniel (2006b) argues that humans should proclaim ‘good news’ (gospel) to animals by ‘practicing the presence of God’ toward them, which in part requires a balance of holistic ecological justice, concern for individual animals, and social justice among humans.

Two particularly promising areas of exploration with regard to addressing this tension are feminist views of nature and insights from indigenous wisdoms. Theologically, the former tend to embrace something akin to what Johnson (2015) calls a theocentric paradigm of the ‘community of creation’ that prioritizes healthy (and just) ecosystems but can also embody particular concern for individual creatures. Such a view can embody lament for individual suffering creatures while also acknowledging that such suffering is part of the evolutionary narrative in which all creatures, including humans, participate. Indigenous wisdoms tend embrace a radical kinship between humans and the nonhuman world (see Tinker 2008; Conradie 2016). However, this kinship does not preclude activities such as hunting, provided that such violence is accompanied by a sense of lament and thanksgiving.

4 Conclusion

An article such as this one is not intended to provide a definitive theological view of nonhuman animals. Rather, the aim is to provide an overview of central questions and issues that arise in the pursuit of such a theological view. A few things seem clear from this overview. First, there are a number of tensions at work in developing a theology of nonhuman animals. Questions regarding the interpretation of tradition and the application of theological claims to ethical practice reveal significant divisions among Christian theologians. Second, regardless of how one answers these questions, it seems that a viable theology of nonhuman animals will be interdisciplinary. Biblical passages and theological claims should be considered alongside scientific evidence regarding the spectrum of capacities of nonhuman animals and the interconnectedness of all creation, including human animals. Finally, nonhuman animals will continue to press upon theological projects, challenging old assumptions and demanding, by their very presence, appropriate consideration.


Copyright Ryan McLaughlin (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bauckham, Richard. 2010b. The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
    • Clough, David. 2013. On Animals: Systematic Theology. Volume 1. New York: Bloomsbury.
    • Deane-Drummond, Celia, and David Clough (eds). 2009. Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. London: SCM Press.
    • Johnson, Elizabeth. 2014. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London/New York: Bloomsbury.
    • Linzey, Andrew. 1994. Animal Theology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
    • Schaefer, Jame. 2009. Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
    • Steck, Christopher. 2019. All God’s Animals: A Catholic Theological Framework for Animal Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
    • Steiner, Gary. 2005. Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
    • Theokritoff, Elizabeth. 2009. Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
    • Waldau, Paul, and Kimberly Patton. 2006. A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.
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