Ancient Teaching

In this section we attempt to bring an anamnesis of an earlier theological understanding of the inter-connectedness of creation which is loved and protected by God.

A LOVING AND COMPASSIONATE GOD

It is not our intention to discuss the history of the interpretation of Genesis[1] but we can restate the Patristic consensus that Genesis is a theological revelation of God. [2] This is crucially important for the subject of animal suffering; for the health of the planet and for human salvation, for there is also Patristic consensus that we as Image of God, are to reflect that image in our daily lives.

We can also state that the early Church Fathers had no reason to offer a systematic theological view on the position of animal suffering, for Church history informs us that they were far too concerned with fighting the many heresies of their times, developing the various tenets of Christian doctrine and establishing a universal interpretation of Scripture which focused on the role of humankind in God’s creation. This does not mean that they were indifferent to the rest of Creation. Biblical and Patristic commentary is pregnant with material which can be used to formulate a universal, compassionate and merciful theology that specifically helps us understand our relationship with animals and our treatment of them. To help us achieve this we can focus our attention on some common themes within Patristic biblical exegesis:

God is in loving relationship with His Creation;

God is both transcendent and immanent in and through all of His creation.

God is the source of all goodness and virtue;

God created all beings to live in harmony, peace and free of violence and suffering;

God created human creatures in the Image of a loving and compassionate God;

We as Image should strive to reflect the Archetype in our lives.

We can be confident that Patristic commentary teaches us that God creates in order to be known and to share His Love with His Creation. The Fathers also confirm the biblical teachings outlined in the first chapter of Genesis which acknowledge that all created beings are blessed, given the ‘breath of life’ and described by God as good and very good:

Then God said, “Let the waters bring forth creatures having life, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of heaven’s firmament. It was so.  Thus God made great sea creatures and every living thing that moves with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind.  God saw that it was good.  God blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on earth.” (Gn, 1:20-22)…Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: the quadrupeds, the creeping things, and the wild animals of the earth according to their kind.” It was so. So God made the wild animals of the earth according to their kind, the cattle according to their kind, and all the creeping things on earth according to their kind.  God saw that it was good.” (Gn. 1:24-25) 

In Genesis 9: 9-17, we also learn that God extends His spiritual blessings by bestowing His Covenant to flourish on all created beings and it would appear that just in case we do not understand this message, He repeats this Covenant seven times in eight verses. This emphasis by repetition must surely be of significance, particularly as it extends beyond the Fall. This is again important for the subjects of animal suffering, ecology and human salvation.

In addition to God’s blessings of life and flourishing, we are also taught that in His providential care, all created beings were given provisions and instructions to eat a vegetarian/vegan diet.  This we are taught indicates the peaceable, violence-free nature of the original and ideal relationship between all of God’s created beings:

Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed: to you [humans] it shall be for food.  I also give every green plant as food for all the wild animals of the earth, for all the birds of heaven, and for everything that creeps on the earth in which is the breath of life.” It was so. Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good…” (Gn 1:29-31). 

The instruction to eat a diet free of violence is God’s choice and another revelation on what God determines is most suited to our needs and for the existence of a world free of violence and abuse. In later articles, we shall examine the suffering experienced by animals involved in producing the animal-food based diet and the human and environmental harm it causes.

In Genesis chapters seven and eight there is also evidence of an equivalence of care and protection from harm in God’s desire to save a remnant of each animal species from the Flood. Importantly, this includes animals that we believe are of little or no use to us but are nonetheless, important to God. This should, at the very least, bring into doubt any philosophy or theology which teaches that everything was created solely for the human creature.

Saint Athanasius summarises the traditional Patristic teachings outlined above:

[The Logos] extends [its] power everywhere, illuminating all things visible and invisible, containing and enclosing them in [itself], [giving] life and everything, everywhere, to each individually and to all together creating an exquisite single euphonious harmony.[3]

In conclusion, these are the structural dynamics within which we first come to comprehend a loving and compassionate God and the essential goodness of all created beings who share God’s created realm in violence-free existence.

References:

[1] We refer the reader to one monograph and one online teaching for those wishing to explore this aspect: Bouteneff, P. Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (2008).

[2] Papavassiliou, V. (2013) Theology of Genesis [online] available at: http://gocas.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=39%3Alessons-in-orthodox-faith&id=113%3A280112-the-theology-of-genesis&Itemid=114.

[3] Thomson, Robert W., ed. Athanasius: Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione. Oxford: Clarendon Press, (1971) p. 115.