Animal Welfare in the Bible

Often when I read Christian arguments for animal welfare, they quote the Old Testament. For example, they describe the Garden of Eden as a vegan paradise, which they consider to be God’s ideal. Christian anti-speciesists seem to quote much less from the New Testament, which of course focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus.

As an animal activist operating in a predominantly Christian country, I am interested in these arguments. If I’m being honest, however, I’m also interested because I’m culturally a Christian and there’s a part of me that wishes there was a more inclusive version of Christianity.

So I decided to ask Christian activists, scholars and theologians – who are interested in animal ethics – if they thought the Old Testament had more to say on the subject than the New Testament, and if they saw that as a problem. Here is what they said.

For Christopher Southgate, professor of Christian theodicy at the University of Exeter, all this was not a question. “The NT writers assume the content of the OT (which they often quote as scripture, and sometimes reinterpret),” he said. “So they wouldn’t have found it necessary to supplement occupational therapy education in most areas.”

Michael Gilmour, who teaches biblical literature at Providence University College, agreed with Southgate. “The positive statements about creation and animals that we find in Genesis, Psalms, Jonah and elsewhere inform the worldview of the apostles,” Gilmour said. “They knew these texts, as did most of their readers. They are presupposed, part of the bedrock on which their religious worldview rested.

Gilmour, however, did not concede that the New Testament had less to say about animals than the Old Testament. “They’re still there, between the lines, so to speak,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves if ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and other similar passages refer only to people as is so often assumed. I’m not sure they do. If correct, the New Testament has much to contribute to specifically Christian animal ethics.

Christian Animal Rights Association president Matthew King argued that the Old Testament was more about the welfare of non-humans. “It’s important to remember that the NT only comprises about 25% of the Bible, while the OT comprises around 75%,” he said. “Therefore, the OT is much longer and has more opportunities to discuss the matter.”

It didn’t concern King. “I believe there is a lot of continuity between the wills,” he said. “A widespread method of biblical interpretation known as premillennial dispensationalism teaches a strict discontinuity between the testaments. I believe this interpretation is wrong.

Grace Kao, visiting professor at Loyola Marymount University, struck a familiar note. “The Hebrew Bible covers ground that the NT assumes,” she said. “The New Testament assumes much of this material and also contains material and imagery not found in the Old Testament…As a Christian, I believe that the whole Bible contains material to teach us and guide us.”

David Clough, a professor at the University of Aberdeen, told me the same thing, making me wonder if my questions were embarrassingly ignorant. “Together, the Old Testament and New Testament make up the Christian Bible,” he said. “Christians have no reason to be concerned that different books of the Bible have different emphases, when it comes to animal welfare or any other subject.”

Taking a different approach, Christian Vegetarian Association president Stephen Kaufman questioned the accuracy of the New Testament. “I think Keith Akers in his book Disciples makes a very compelling case that Jesus was most likely a vegetarian,” Kaufman said. “If Jesus’ vegetarianism had been part of canonized literature like the New Testament, it likely would have had a profound impact on animal welfare.”

But, ultimately, Kaufman agreed with the point made by everyone I interviewed. “Given that Christians revere the Hebrew Scriptures,” he said, “it wouldn’t be problematic for me if someone insisted that the case for animal welfare is stronger in the Hebrew Scriptures than in the New Testament”.

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