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Animal Rights and Imago Dei by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.

Categories Theology Guest Posts

On April 9, 2009, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Nicholas D. Kristof entitled "Humanity Even for Nonhumans" He argued that one of the great historical landmarks of the presidential election in the United States last year was not in the race or the president himself, but it was in "the limits of human dominion over other species."

He was referring to the "stunning passage in California" by an almost 2-to-1 majority, of "an animal rights ballot initiative that [would] ban factory farms from keeping calves, pregnant hogs or egg-laying hens in tiny pens or cages in which they can't stretch out or turn around." This is part of the vast push for animal rights around the world.

Spain is in the process of granting basic rights to apes. How closely those rights will match "human rights" is not clear, nor is it clear how long it will be until the grounds for all human rights, found in the Biblical doctrine of the imago Dei, "image of God," will evaporate in a set of undefined, but guaranteed freedoms to do all that any please, for all creatures great and small!

Kristof credited the "landmark" essay in this matter to Princeton scholar Peter Singer's article in 1973 in The New York Review of Books and later in 1975 to his book Animal Liberation.

There is no question that we as humanbeings do have ethical obligations to not only our fellow beings, but also to those outside our species. That is not in debate, but the question is this: to what level and gauged by what standard of suffering, goodness, or pain do we express that ethical obligation?

Our practice as believers in the Gospel has been to go to Scripture for guidance on such questions. The Scriptures do note the influence of sin on the created order; so much so that the whole creation groans in travail waiting for the release that will come in the Second Advent (Rom 8:20 ff). So final help is one the way! But in the meantime, must we all become vegetarians? And who is to say that plants do not also experience some sort of pain if we are to attribute suffering and pain to all usage of animals for meat as well.

Even if the egg-laying chickens were free-range chickens (meaning not pened up), what about the taking of the male chickens for friers (as in KFC) so that the hens could begin laying with the expenses for their first fifteen weeks paid off by the sacrifice of their male brothers? Must we then give up eating all eggs too! And what about killing cockroches? Other insects? If the imago Dei does not set the boundaries, then where will they be set and by whom? Based on what standard?

Here is an area we must pay more attention to in the coming days, for the gap between mortals made in the Imago Dei and the rest of the creatures of creation continues to become so narrow that one will not be able to set any type of priorities or levels of importance among all the species except for the responsibility of one order of species (mortals) to be responsible to care for all the other levels of creation.

Towards this end I have tried to make an initial contribution in my new book What Does the Lord Require? Preaching and Teaching Biblical Ethics in a chapter on "Factory Farms" and the "Environment." Most of Biblical Ethics have been avoided in the preaching ministry of the Protestant pulpit, but surely here is an area that has been rarely if ever touched. What do you say?

Kaiserw Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (PhD, Brandeis University) is the Colman M. Mockler distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He has taught at Wheaton College and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dr. Kaiser has written over 40 books, including Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching; Hard Sayings of the Old Testament; "Exodus" in the Expositor's Bible Commentary; The Messiah in the Old Testament; A History of Israel; The Promise-Plan of God; and coauthored An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Dr. Kaiser and his wife, Marge, currently reside at Kerith Farm in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Dr. Kaiser’s website is

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