Noblesse oblige : theological differences between humans and animals

, par Pierre

and what they imply morally

Ryan Patrick mcLaughlin
Department of theology at Duquesne university, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The author reviews the work of select theologians, ethicists, and biblical scholars who suggest that the difference between humans and animals should serve not solely as an ascription of a special status to humans but also as the foundation for a responsibility that humans bear toward animals. As an added re ection, the author explores com- mon categorical differentiations in systematic theology : God and creation, human and nonhuman, elect and non-elect. In the rst and last of these categorical differentia- tions, unique identity entails both a special status and a responsibility. The latter is normatively directed to those who are categorically different. As such, the categorical difference between humans and animals establishes a foundation for moral concern.

Key words : animal welfare/rights, image of god, Andrew linzey, creation, ecology, theological anthropology, hierarchy, christianity, theology

©Jean-Yves Brélivet

In a scene from the popular movie Braveheart, William Wallace addresses the scottish nobles after a successful battle against the English. the nobles claim it is time to declare a king and begin to argue over which clan should provide an heir to the throne. Wallace reproaches the wealthy scotsmen, saying, “there is a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. i think your position exists to provide the people with freedom. And i go to make sure they have it” (Wallace, 1995). At its core, this scene represents a disparity in how to view hierarchical power and position. for the nobles, identity is primarily a status that is maintained at the expense of those with a lesser status. the lesser exist to provide position for the greater. for Wallace, any status derived from identity constitutes a responsibility to lead those without his power and position to their proper end. the greater exist to provide bene ts for the lesser.

In this article, i attempt to contribute to a perspective—already delineated by careful thinkers—that honors a traditional differentiation between humans and animals and at the same time avoids viewing the nonhuman creation strictly in terms of utility. in order to reach this goal, i argue that, theologically, unique identity entails two inseparable dimensions : status and responsibility. i begin with a brief historical consideration, showing how christians have established human identity in contrast to that of nonhumans. After delineating this dominant historical view, i pose the pertinent questions about the path i hope to take regarding the meaning of our unique human identity. it is in this section that i engage others who have provided the foundation for this project. i then explore the theme of differentiation in systematic theology. from this exploration, i suggest that both the relationship between God and creation and the relationship between the elect and the non-elect establish a paradigm for how humans ought to relate to animals.
the position in this article is not new. my primary goal is to review select relevant material from theology, ethics, and biblical scholarship and present the various contributions as a coherent whole.


throughout christian history, many theologians and philosophers have attempted to draw a sharp boundary around humanity. Kant (1785/1998) predicated the category of “person” on what he believed were uniquely human qualities. Before Kant, Descartes (1637/1985) argued that humans have a rational mind that separates them by nature from the mechanistic bodies of nonhuman animals. humans are capable of expressing thoughts through communication. for Descartes, “this shows not merely that the beasts have less reason than men, but that they have no reason at all” (p. v). Before Descartes, Aquinas (1265–1274/1946) stated, “the intellect or mind is that whereby the rational creature excels other creatures” (i.93.6). Before Aquinas, Augustine (trans. 1948) wrote, “God, then, made man in his own image. for he created for him a soul endowed with reason and intelligence so that he might excel all the creatures of the earth, air, and sea, which were not so gifted” (Xii.23). Before Augustine, Jesus comforted his disciples in luke 12:7 (new revised standard Version), saying, “Are not ve sparrows sold for two pennies ? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight . . . Do not be afraid ; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Before christ, the authors and redactors of Genesis 1 differentiated humanity from the rest of creation by ascribing the image of God to human beings alone (Genesis 1:26–28).
Although this desire to maintain a disparity between human and nonhuman crea- tures is more pronounced in the West, it is not wanting in the East. irenaeus (182–188 cE/1868) stated that humanity, “being endowed with reason, and in this respect like to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself the cause to himself” (iV.4.3). Ephrem the syrian (trans. 1990) wrote that animals were not permitted to approach the outer area of Paradise. saint Ephrem also said,

Even though the beasts, the cattle, and the birds were equal [to Adam] in their ability to procreate and in that they had life, God still gave honor to Adam in many ways : rst, in that it was said, God formed him with his own hands and breathed life into him ; God then set him as ruler over Paradise and over all that is outside of Paradise ; God clothed Adam in glory ; and God gave him reason and thought so that he might perceive the majesty [of God]. (Ephrem, trans. 1994, ii.4)

in a similar manner, Gregory of nyssa (trans. 1988) claimed that human beings were unique among the physical creation in that they bore a similarity to the divine on account of their rationality and intelligence (16.9).
there are exceptions to this focus on the disparity between humans and nonhumans, especially in contemporary theology. however, believing that humans in some way tran- scend the merely physical creation is historically normative. how should christianity deal with this issue in an age of heightened ecological awareness ? should we abandon the belief that humans differ from all nonhumans in essence ? should we strengthen our resolve and reassert a hierarchical view in which anyone who or anything that is less than human is at the complete service of a human overlord ? fortunately, these are not the only two options.

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