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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics What is This? Explores the relationship between the text of the Bible and the development and contexts of ethical frameworks.


Animal ethics inquires into and reflects on the human treatment of the nonhuman, specifically sentient beings. Sentient beings are those beings that have some capacity for pleasure and pain and include mammals, birds, reptiles, and at least some fish. Since the 1970s, there has been increasing literature about the moral status of animals and human duties to animals. At first most of this literature was philosophical and some theological, but now the corpus has extended to include a wide variety of disciplines including history, psychology, literature, political theory, law, feminism, and sociology. This burgeoning literature has led to courses in higher education and institutes, inter alia, in animal ethics, animal law, animals and religion, animals in literature, and human-animal studies.

The main impetus behind this fast-developing field has been the recognition that traditional ethics has unjustly marginalized animals as a moral issue and that such marginalization has been based on a range of anthropocentric assumptions that are no longer rationally sustainable. These assumptions include the idea that animals are here for the primary or exclusive use of humans (what may be termed “instrumentalism”), that humans are the measure of all things morally (what may be termed “humanism”), and that humans are justified in arbitrarily favoring their own interests (what may be termed “speciesism”).

Against these ideas, animal ethicists variously argue that all sentient creatures should matter morally and be included within the sphere of moral consideration. Variously, all sentients should have the right to have their interests considered equally (Peter Singer), that as “subjects of a life” they possess intrinsic value and therefore have moral rights (Tom Regan), and that there should be an ethic of care inclusive of humans and animals (Carol J. Adams). All such ideas have been controversial and heavily debated and refined within the literature, but the majority of ethicists who have examined the issue are now firmly on the side of reforming assumptions and changing practices. It seems that we are slowly experiencing a paradigm shift—a move from the idea that animals are things, tools, commodities, or resources for us to the idea that as sentient beings they have their own inherent value, dignity, and rights. This shift clearly has gargantuan implications for how humans relate to animals, inter alia, as sources of food, objects of sport, and tools in scientific research.

Among the religious, especially Christians, such a change has been largely greeted with perplexity, even alarm. The controversial views of Singer on other ethical issues, such as infanticide and euthanasia, and his resolutely antireligious stance have led to the dubbing of the animal movement as wholly secular, with claims that animal ethics variously denies human uniqueness, dethrones humanity, or results from misanthropy.

And, at first sight, this contemporary debate about animals may appear wholly divorced from, if not opposed to, biblical insights and the concerns of the biblical writers. There are a cluster of traditional readings that buttress this view.

The first may be called “dominionism,” which focuses on the concept of “dominion” (radah) in Genesis 1:26 and interprets it as divinely sanctioned power over animals. According to this account, dominion means little less than despotism. Humans are made gods in creation and animals should serve them. This reading has become so commonplace that it constituted an unchallenged orthodoxy for centuries. When Thomas Aquinas, for example, sought to justify the right of humans to use animals as they wished, he specifically referred to Genesis 1:26 as a proof text (Summa theologica, Q.26, 2d art.).

The second reading focuses on the overarching anthropocentrism of the biblical narrative concerning God and humanity, specifically human fallenness, infidelity, sinfulness, redemption, and eternal life. This “economy of salvation,” as it has been called, thus appears to marginalize all other creatures. Moreover, the doctrine of the incarnation is played as a trump card to vanquish God’s other than human interests. Karl Barth argued: “He who in the biblical message is called God is obviously not interested in the totality of things and beings created by Him, nor in specific beings within this totality, but in man…” (Church Dogmatics, III.4, 1961, p. 337).

The third reading is the practical result of the two others and has become so pervasive that it has seldom been challenged. The approach in question is instrumentalism, the view that animals are here for us and exist as means to human ends. Not, it should be noted, that humans may sometimes use animals and exist in a symbiotic relationship with them, but rather that their sole purpose or telos is the service of the human species. In the post-lapsarian word of Genesis 9:2 all creatures are delivered into human hands; their life and death is of our choosing. In commentary, Martin Luther says: “In this passage God sets himself up as a butcher; for with his Word He slaughters and kills the animals that are suited for food, in order to make up, as it were, for the great sorrow that pious Noah experienced during the flood” (Luther’s Works, 2.133).

Dominionism, anthropocentrism, and instrumentalism are perhaps best summed up in this remarkably confident statement in the Catholic Catechism: “God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him” (p. 71; para 299). All other nonhuman creatures it seems are subservient to this overarching purpose. The effect of all this is to engender a theological disposition that can be easily summarized: If God doesn’t care for other creatures (cf. 1 Cor 8:9–11), why should we? Given the weight of traditional readings of the Bible and their prevalence within popular (and academic) settings, it might seem a hopeless task to inject animal concerns into the Christian tradition or to interpret the biblical tradition in an animal-friendly way.

And yet the irony is that these dominant readings obscure a range of biblical insights that are indisputably animal-friendly, indeed so much so that many seem shocked to discover or be reminded of them.

Let us outline a few of them. The specialness of human beings is a biblical insight that cannot be gainsaid, but equal to it is the insight that humans are wicked and violent in a way that no other creature can be. Indeed, the entire biblical narrative can be read as a story of human failing, infidelity, and sinfulness, so much so that God is sorry to have made them (Gen 6:6). The claim of human specialness can and should be read in another way, as the capacity of humanity to degrade themselves beyond all other creatures. In Job, for example, God takes delight in demonstrating human limitations and in puncturing their hubris. God’s interests extend beyond the human species (chs. 38–42).

Again, while almost all Christians remember that humans are made in the image of God and given dominion, very few recall that in the subsequent verse (Gen 1:29–30) humans (and indeed all creatures) are given a vegetarian diet. This suggests that an entirely different reading of the first saga in Genesis is required. God creates a species in the very “image of God” that is commissioned and equipped to care for the world, but this is a dependent, derived authority under God to be carried out as God intended. Herb-eating dominion is hardly a license for tyranny (Linzey, 1987). Indeed, Pope Francis’s words that subjugation “does not mean to exploit it [creation], but to cultivate and guard it, to care for it with their own labor” represents a crucial elaboration, in fact correction, of doctrine (Message on the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker, 1 May 2013). In one line, the tradition of interpreting dominion and subjugation in nonmoral terms is dispensed with.

The insight that God originally intended a peaceful world, as indicated by the universal vegetarianism in the first creation saga, is remarkable given the context in which the early Hebrews wrote. They were not vegetarians, pacifists, against capital punishment, or even opposed to genocide. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of the manifold ways in which animals were used for work, clothes, and food. The insight, then, that God originally willed a non-violent world was deeply countercultural, indeed morally self-accusatory. The subsequent fall and flood, and the ambiguous permission to eat meat, can best be understood as a departure from God’s original design due to human wickedness (Gen 9).

Moreover, the goal of the first saga is not the creation of human beings (as many in the tradition have supposed) but the sabbath rest (Gen 2:2–3). All creatures dwell together in harmony and peace, and it is that creation that God describes as “very good.” Sabbath rest thus prefigures (or pastfigures) the final restoration of all things in the peaceable kingdom (Murray, 2007).

Some animal advocates may still recoil from the notion of humans having God-given power over other creatures. But the underlying ministerial, diaconal, meaning becomes clearer in the second saga in which, after the garden is created, humans are appointed to till and serve it (Gen 2:15). In other words, what is given in Genesis 1 and 2 is not absolute, unlimited power, as many have previous supposed, but a power to care. Indeed, when read Christologically, the nature of this power is even better rendered as service, since the power of God in Christ is paradigmatically expressed in diaconal terms in katabasis, humility, releasing individuals from physical and spiritual oppression, and washing the dirty feet of his disciples. Thus it has been claimed that the better reading is that humans should be understood not as “the master species but the servant species” (Linzey, 1994).

Reinforcement for this view can be located in an unlikely source, namely the practice of animal sacrifice. While interpreting a practice that spanned more than a thousand years is problematic (J. W. Rogers in Linzey and Yamamoto, 1998), it has to be said that not all theological understandings necessarily presuppose a low view of animals, especially since the very act of sacrifice consists not in the gratuitous destruction of the victim but in its liberation to be with God (Linzey, 1987). Sacrifice makes no sense unless there is an offering involved and a gift received, which in turn presupposes a life beyond this for the animal concerned. Nevertheless, and significantly, Jesus did not perpetuate the system of sacrifice requiring mercy rather than blood (e.g., Matt 9:13), and the early church rejected the practice, seeing Jesus alone as the one true sacrifice for all. Jesus, then, typified as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), becomes the true lamb that makes the sacrifice of other lambs otiose. The sacrifice of blood is surpassed by the sacrifice of love.

A Jesus-shaped ethic can be best characterized as a paradigm of inclusive moral generosity that privileges the poor, the weak, the outcast, and the innocent (Linzey, 1994). Jesus identifies himself, and God’s cause, with the hungry, the thirsty, and those in prison (Matt 25:40). It is difficult not to see the relevance of this to the cause of suffering innocent animals. Indeed, there are some hints in the gospels that this was the case as exampled by Jesus’s time in the wilderness “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13), which according to Richard Bauckham was a foretaste of messianic peace with animals: “Mark’s image of Jesus with the animals provides a Christological warrant for and a biblical symbol of the human possibility of living fraternally with other living creatures, a possibility given by God in creation and given back in messianic redemption” (in Linzey and Yamamoto, 1998). Also, Jesus’s view that even sparrows (strouthia, “little birds”)—probably little bits of meat sold in the market—were “not forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6) underlines their value as more than economic commodities.

Not least of all, the traditional view of salvation as consisting in the saving of human souls is a caricature of the biblical understanding of redemption. Specifically, God’s plan in Christ is to unite “all things” in him (Col 1:15–20; Eph 1:9–10), not just the human species. The doctrines of creation, incarnation, and redemption are here brought together: all things come through Christ (John 1:3), are made for him, not for the service of human beings (Col 1:16–17), God’s love affair with the flesh (incarnation) symbolizes the community of creaturely embodiment (John 1:14), and thus the Logos is the source and destiny of all created beings.

None of this means, of course, that the Bible is ubiquitously friendly to animals, still less that it is a textbook of animal rights. Neither a doctrine of animal rights, nor of human rights for that matter, can be unambiguously read from its pages. But what is there is remarkably more animal-friendly than even biblical scholars or animal advocates often suppose. What we need is scholars and exegetes to search for the “lost coins” that have been buried under years of neglect. Among the issues that need to concern future scholars are the teachings of Jesus as they relate to animals, the diaconal role of humans within creation, and the meaning and nature of redemption for animals.




  • Birch, Charles, and Lukas Vischer. Living With the Animals: The Community of God’s Creatures. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1997.
  • Clark, Stephen R. L. The Moral Status of Animals. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
  • Linzey, Andrew. Christianity and the Rights of Animals. London: SPCK; New York: Crossroad, 1987.
  • Linzey, Andrew, and Tom Regan, eds. Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings. London: SPCK, 1988; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2008.
  • Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. London: SCM; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
  • Linzey, Andrew, and Dorothy Yamamoto, eds. Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics. London: SCM; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
  • Linzey, Andrew. Animal Gospel: Christian Faith as if Animals Mattered. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999 Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2000.
  • Linzey, Andrew. Why Animal Suffering Matters: Theology, Philosophy and Practical Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Murray, Robert. The Cosmic Covenant: Biblical Themes of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. London: Tigris, 2007.
  • Webb, Stephen H. God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • The Catholic Catechism. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994.

Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey

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