Ancient Teaching

In this section we attempt to bring an anamnesis of an earlier theological understanding of the interconnectedness of creation which is loved and protected by God.  Hitherto Orthodoxy has not elaborated an Eastern Orthodox theology for animals because of a lack of relevant teachings but rather, that for various reasons Eastern Orthodox scholars have not engaged with the theme. This website aims to redress this lack of engagement. We shall use extracts from several sources including, Nellist, C. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering: Ancient Voices in Modern Theology and Krueger, F. A Cloud of Witness: The Deep Ecological Legacy of Christianity.

St. John Chrysostom (347 – 407) 

Love for the creatures 

The saints are exceedingly loving and gentle to mankind, and even to the beasts… Surely, we ought to show them great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but, above all, because they are of the same origin as ourselves.          Homily XXXIX:35 Commentary on Epistle to the Romans 

From creation, learn to admire the Lord 

From the creation, learn to admire the Lord! And if any of the things which you see exceed your comprehension, and you are not able to find the reason for its existence, then for this reason, glorify the Creator that the wisdom of His works surpasses your own understanding. 

                                                                                           On the Statutes 12:7 

 God’s dispensation of creation 

Mark the wise dispensation of God… He has made certain things common, as the sun, air, earth and water, the sky, the sea, the light, the stars, whose benefits are dispensed equally to all as brethren…. And mark, that concerning things that remain common there is no contention but all is peaceable. But when one attempts to possess himself of anything, to make it his own, then contention is introduced, as if nature herself were indignant.                                                    Homilies on I Timothy 

Creation as a means of knowing God 

One way of coming to knowledge of God is that which is provided by the whole of creation; and another, no less significant, is that which is offered by conscience, the whole of which is expounded upon at great length, showing how you have a self-taught knowledge of what is good and what is not so good, and how conscience urges all this upon you from within. Two teachers, then, are given you from the beginning, creation and conscience. Neither of them has voice to speak out; yet they teach men in silence.                                                                                               Homilies on Hannah 

St John Cassian (357? – 435) 

On knowing God from creation 

God is not only to be known in His blessed and incomprehensible being, for this is something which is reserved for His saints in the age to come. He is also to be known from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His providence which governs the world day by day, from His righteousness and from wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation…When we consider that He numbers the raindrops, the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, we are amazed at the grandeur of His nature and His wisdom.            On the Holy Fathers of SketisThe PhilokaliaVol. 1, 1979:97. 

  A rule for self-control 

 A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while you are still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said ‘Make no provision to fulfil the desires of the flesh’ (Romans 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self-indulgence…self-esteem and pride….. 

                On the eight vices. The Philokalia, Vol.1, London, 1979:74. 

Adhering to limits of consumption 

We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to that which exceeds the necessary…Once a man has passed beyond the limits of his natural needs, as he grows more materialistic, he wants to put jam on his bread; and to water he adds a modicum of wine required for his health, and then the most expensive vintages. He does not rest content with essential clothing…            Ascetic Discourses, Philokalia, Vol. 1, pg. 246. 

 Excess consumption is contrary to nature 

 The man who does not set limits on consumption acquires vessels of finer quality, of gold and silver…What need is there to say more about such ostentation…All this is contrary to nature…The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering what God has ordained; but we, who have been honoured with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet? Do they not prefer the original simplicity, eating the herbs of the field, content with whatever is at hand. In this way they diminish sexual lust and do not inflame their desires.                                           Ascetic Discourses                                                                                          

A proper diet as God intended 

All this is contrary to nature, for the Creator has ordained the same natural way of life for both us and the animals. “Behold,” says God to man, “I have given you every herb of the field, to serve as food for you and for the beasts.” Thus we have been given a common diet with the animals; but if  we use our powers of invention to turn this into something extravagant, shall we not rightly be judged more intelligent than they?                                                                                                        Ascetic Discourses, Philokalia, Vol. 1.  

St. Neilos the Ascetic (-430)

Spiritual questions from agriculture 

 “Why do we forsake the pursuit of spiritual wisdom, and engage in agriculture and commerce? What can be better than to entrust our anxieties to God, so that He may help us with the farming? The soil is tilled and the seeds are sown by human effort; then God sends the rain, watering the seeds in soft womb of the earth and enabling them to develop roots. He makes the sun to rise, warming the soil and with this warmth He stimulates the growth of the plants. He sends winds tempered to their development. When young shoots begin to come up, He fans them with gentle breezes, so that the crop is not scorched by hot streams of air. Then with steady winds He ripens the milky substance of the grains inside the husks. At threshing-time He provides fiery heat; for winnowing, suitable breezes. If one of these factors is missing, all our human toil is wasted; our efforts achieve nothing when they are not sealed by God’s gifts. Often, even when all of these factors are present, a violent and untimely storm of rain spoils the grain as it is being threshed or when it has been heaped up clean. Sometimes again as it is destroyed by worms in the granary; the table, as it were, is already laid and then the food is snatched from our very mouths. What, then, is the use of relying on our own efforts, since God controls the helm and directs all things as He wills?” 

                                                      Ascetic Discourse, Philokalia, Vol 1, 1979:213.  

Why monks seek the wilderness 

Neilos, writing to monks, says that the solution to the problems of a life with many uncertainties is to return to a way of being in which priorities are shaped by a spiritual integrity in which we do not seek to avoid sufferings at the expense of spiritual virtue of truth. Wilderness, he says, is the place where this can be found. 

 Let us avoid staying in towns and villages. It is better for their inhabitants to come and visit us. Let us seek the wilderness and so draw after us the people who now shun us. For Scripture praises those who ‘leave the cities and dwell in the rocks, and are like the dove’(Jeremiah 48:28).John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and the population of entire towns came out to him. Men dressed in garments of silk hastened to see his leather girdle; those who lived in houses with gilded ceilings chose to endure hardships in the open air; and rather than sleep on beds adorned with jewels they preferred to lie on the sand. All this they endured, although it was contrary to their usual habits; for in their desire to see John the Baptist and in their wonder at his holiness they did not notice the hardships and discomfort. For holiness is held in higher honour than wealth; and the life of stillness wins greater fame than fortune. How many rich men were there at that time, proud of their glory, and yet today they are quite forgotten; whereas the miraculous life of this humble desert-dweller is acclaimed until this day, and his memory is greatly revered by all. For the renown of holiness is eternal, and its intrinsic virtues proclaim its value…. 

                                                   Ascetic Discourse,  Philokalia, Vol 1, 1979:214. 

Other spiritual benefits from wilderness 

In order to escape vice, the saint fled from the towns and avoided meeting large numbers of people, for they knew that the company of corrupt men is more destructive than a plague. This is why, indifferent to gain, they let their estates become sheep-pastures, so as to avoid distractions. This is why Elijah left Judea and went to live on Mount Carmel (cf. 1 Kings 18:19) which was desolate and full of wild animals; and apart from what grew on trees and shrubs there was nothing to eat, so he kept alive on nuts and berries. Elisha followed the same mode of life, inheriting from his teacher, besides many other things, a love for the wilderness (cf. 2 Kings2:25). John too dwelt in the wilderness of Jordan, ‘eating locusts and wild honey’ (Mark 1:6); thus he showed us that our bodily needs can be satisfied without much trouble, and he reproached us for our elaborate pleasures... 

In short, this is why all the saints, ’of whom the world was not worthy,’ left the inhabited regions and ‘ wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth,’ going about ‘in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (Hebrews 11:37-38). They fled from the sophisticated wickedness of men and from all the unnatural things of which the towns are full, not wishing to be swept off their feet and carried along with all the others into the whirlpool of confusion.  They were glad to live with the wild beasts, judging them less harmful than their fellow men. They avoided men as being treacherous, while they trusted the animals as their friends; for animals do not teach us to sin, but revere and respect holiness. Thus men tried to kill Daniel, but the lions saved him, preserving him when he had been unjustly condemned out of malice (cf. Daniel 6:16 – 23); and when human justice had miscarried, the animals proclaimed his innocence. Whereas Daniel’s holiness gave rise to strife and envy among men, among the wild animals it evoked awe and veneration. 

Ascetic Discourse,  Philokalia, Vol 1,  1979:240 – 241. 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315 – 386)

                        Perceiving the Divine through the creatures

The Divine nature is impossible to see with eyes of the flesh: but from the works, which are Divine, it is possible to attain to some conception of His power, according to Solomon who says, “For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionately the Maker of them is seen” (Wisdom 13:5). For God appears the greater to every man in proportion as he has grasped a larger survey of the creatures: and when his head is lifted up by that larger survey, he gains withal a greater conception of God.

Catechetical Lectures IX:2

St. Basil the Great (329 – 379)

                        Magnifying the Lord through creation

He magnifies the Lord who observes with a keen understanding and most profound contemplation the greatness of creation, so that from the greatness and beauty of creatures he may contemplate their Creator. The deeper one penetrates into the reasons for which thongs in existence were made and were governed, the more he contemplates the magnificence of the Lord and, as far as it lies in him, magnifies the Lord.  Homily 16:3

St. Jerome (341 – 420)                                                                                                                              The mind of Christ in animals    

We admire the Creator, not only as the framer of heaven and earth, of sun and ocean… but for bears and lions, and also as the Maker of tiny creatures: ants, gnats, flies etc. So the mind that is given to Christ is equally earnest in small things as in great, knowing that an account must be made in the end for even an idle word.

St. Clement of Rome (37? – 101)

The third bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter, Clement of Rome is the author of Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians which was considered part of the canon of scripture in Egypt and Syria for several centuries. His emphasis regarding creation is that there is no separation in the law of God: the law which governs the heavens is the same law which governs the oceans and winds and all parts of creation. He provides artistic descriptions of a world in harmony with itself and the Creator. The legacy of Clement is that he demonstrates that teaching about creation have been part of Christianity from its beginning in the first century.

The Lessons in a Harmonious Creation

Let us turn our eyes to the Father and Creator of the universe, and when we consider how precious and peerless are His gifts of peace, let us embrace them eagerly for ourselves.

Let us contemplate his purposes in creation and consider how free from all anger he is toward his creatures and the total absence of any friction that marks the ordering of His whole creation.       Letter to the Corinthians 1:19

The heavens as a servant of God

The heavens, as they revolve beneath His government, do so in quiet submission to Him. The day and the night run the course He has laid down for them, and neither of them interferes with the other. Sun. moon and starry choirs roll on in harmony at His command, none swerving from its appointed orbit.                                             Letter to the Corinthians 1:20

The heavens as a servant of God (alternate translation)

By his order the heavens moving in the world obey him day and night, they perform the movement determined for them …….The sun and the stars shine following in harmony the ways determined by Him without deviation …..The unlimited sea, by his will united in great water masses, does not go beyond the limits established by him …. The ocean impenetrable for man, the worlds behind it, are administered by the same orders of God. The seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter – peacefully replace each other. The winds determined for each season, perform their ministry without obstacles. The inexhaustible sources created for delight and health provide water necessary for human life.

Letter to the Corinthians 1:20, translation Early Fathers of the Church series, Brussels 1987, p.p.55-56.

The earth as a servant of God

The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter give way to one another in peace. The winds blow from the north, east, south and west as he calls them, and springs of water break through the rocks to supply drink for animals and men. God in all his creation willed that there should be prefect peace and concord, without any attempt to alter even the least of his decrees. Laws of the same kind sustain the fathomless deeps of the abyss and the untold regions of the underworld.     Letter to the Corinthians 1:21

The waters and other elements as servants of God

Nor does the illimitable basin of the sea, gathered by the operations of His hand into its various centres, overflow at any time the barriers encircling it, but does as He has bidden it …. for His words was, Thus far shall you come; at this point shall your waves be broken within you. The impassable ocean and all the worlds that lie beyond it are themselves ruled by the like ordinances of the Lord.

Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter succeed one another peaceably; the winds fulfil their duties, each from its own quarter, and give no offence; the ever-flowing streams …. and even the minutest of living creatures mingle together in peaceful accord. Upon all of these the Great Architect and Lord of the universe has enjoined peace and harmony of all alike, and pre-eminently, for the good of ourselves who have sought refuge in His mercies through our Lord Jesus Christ.                           Letter to the Corinthians 1:21

The good and the transgressors

It is just and holy, then, brethren, that we should be obedient to God rather than follow those who in vaunting and disorder are leaders in abominable jealousy. For we shall incur no ordinary harm, but rather great danger, if we wantonly entrust ourselves to the wills of men who aim at strife and sedition, to alienate us from what is good. Let us be kindly to them according to the compassion and sweetness of him who created us. For it is written, “The kindly shall be inhabitors of the land, and the innocent shall be left in it: but the transgressors shall be destroyed from off it.” “Keep innocency and regard uprightness; for there is a remnant of the peaceable man’”                                                                                        1 Clement 14:1-4

Christ, the Creator of the World

For thou did make manifest the everlasting constitution of the world through the forces set in operation. Thou, Lord, did create the world ….

1 Clement 60:1

The basic principle of creation

Grant us, Lord, to hope on His name, which is the basic principle of all creation, opening the eyes of our heart to know thee, who alone at highest of the highest.                                                                          1 Clement 59:3

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (129 – 203)

This early theologian is sometimes described as the first biblical theologian. He lived during the first generation after the apostles. His emphasis is on the importance of mystic experience as a fortifying aspect of faith. Irenaeus was called the “Apostle of Unity between the Churches” for his efforts to preserved harmony within the Church. He serves as Bishop of Gaul (France) from the city of Lyons and wrote against the doctrines of the Gnostics.  “To reveal their doctrines is to defeat them”, he wrote, regarding his effort to preserve the revealed truth of Jesus Christ. His opposition to the Gnostics was based upon their denial of the presence of God in the natural creation. His writings have continuing ecological relevance because they affirm the divinity in the world and because they depict the providential activity of God alive everywhere in the natural order. More because God’s loving presence permeates its every part.

Creation reveals God as the Creator

Through creation itself the Word reveals God the Creator. Through the world He reveals the Lord who made the world. Through all that is fashioned he reveals the Craftsman who fashioned it all.                                                                                           Against Heresies

 A new heaven and a new earth

Neither the structure nor the substance of creation is destroyed. It is only the “outward form of the world” (1 Corinthians 7:31) that passes away, and that is to say, the conditions produced by the fall. And when this “outward form” has passed away, man will be renewed and will flourish in a prime of life that is incorruptible, so that it is no longer possible for him to grow old anymore. There will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21.1); and in this new heaven and new earth, man shall abide, forever new and forever conversing with God.                                                       Against Heresies

God’s immanence oversees every part of creation

He it is who fills the heavens, and views the abysses, who is also present with every one of us. For He say,” Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off? If any man is hid in secret places, shall I not see him?” For His hand lays hold of all things, and that it is which illumines the heavens, and lightens also the things which are under the heavens, and trieth the reins and the hearts, is also present in the hidden things, and in our secret thoughts, and does not openly nourish and preserve us.                                                                                                                           Against Heresies 4:19.2

Creation reveals Him Who formed it

That God is the Creator of the world is accepted even by those very persons who in many ways speak against Him, and yet acknowledge Him, styling Him the Creator…while the very heathen learned it from the creation itself. For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The universal Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles themselves. Against Heresies, Book ll, ch.9:1

The Maker and Framer of the Universe

God exercises a providence over all things, and therefore He also gives counsel, He is present with those who attend to moral discipline…The Maker and Framer of the universe is good. “And to be good,” no envy ever springs up with regard to anything; thus establishing the goodness of God, as the beginning and the cause of the creation of the world.

Against Heresies, Book lll, ch.25:1,5

Knowledge of God comes from God

For the Lord taught us that no man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught of God; that is, that God cannot be known without God; but that this is the express will of the Father that God should be known.

And for this purpose did the father reveal the Son, that through His instrumentality He might be manifested to all, and might receive those righteous ones believe in Him into incorruption and everlasting enjoyment…The father therefore has revealed Himself to all, by making His Word visible to all; and, conversely, the Word has declared to all the Father and the Son, since He has become visible to all…For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God, the Creator; and by means of the world does He declare the Lord as maker of the world; and by means of the formation of man, the Artificer who formed him.         Against Heresies, lV, ch.6:6

How knowledge of God comes through creation

Wherefore the prophets…(and) the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth, should confer with them, and should be present with His own creation, saving it, and becoming capable of being perceived by it, and freeing us from the hands of all that hate us, that is, from every spirit of wickedness; and causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days, in order that man, having embraced the Spirit of God, might pass into the glory of the Father…For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.           Against Heresies, Book IV, ch.20:1-7.

The Word as the Creator of the world

The Creator of the world is the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon a tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself.                                     Against Heresies 5:18.3

Nothing is without symbolic meaning

With God nothing is empty of meaning and nothing is without symbolism.

Against Heresies, quoted in Ronda De Sola, Quotable Saints, Servant Books, Ann Arbor, 1992, pg. 92

God’s laws maintain creation’s stability

The whole of the heavenly host offers glory to God the Father of all. With, and by, the Word He has created the whole world, including the angels, establishing laws, so that every creature keeps within his proper bounds and does the work appointed for him by God.

The Preaching of the Apostles 10 Patrologia Orientalia

The glory of God in creation is a man beholding God

For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists of beholding God. For if the manifestation of God, which is made by means of creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who seek God.                                     Against Heresies 4:20.7                                  

The future of the world

Neither the substance nor the essence of creation will be annihilated, but the “fashion” of the world passes away.                  Against Heresies 5: 36:1

The eternal Word underlies creation

In an invisible manner (the eternal Logos) contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs all things.                                                                                              Against Heresies 5:28.3


This is an interesting collection of quotes and icons from Fred in the US.

The first photo is St Paul of Thebes, the first Christian monastic. The second (set) is St. Hubertus (Germany) with his red deer. The final photo is of St. Sergius with his bear.

Several quotes from the Early Church are also attached.

Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

Other men, indeed, live that they may eat, just like unreasoning animals; for them life is only their belly. But as for us, our Educator has given the command that we eat only to live. Eating is not our main occupation, nor is pleasure our chief ambition. Food is permitted us simply because of our stay in this world, which the Word is shaping for immortality by His education. Our food should be plain and ungarnished, suitable to children who are plain and unpretentious, adapted to maintaining life, not self-indulgence.                                             Christ the Educator, Book II:1-2

Origen of Alexandria (185-254)

The world in all its diversity is composed not only of rational and diviner natures, but of dumb animals, wild and tame beasts, of birds and of all the things which live in the waters…. Seeing there is so great a variety in the world, and so great a diversity among rational beings themselves, what cause ought to be assigned for the existence of the world? But God, by ineffable skill of His wisdom, recalls those very creatures which differ so much from each other in mental conformation to one agreement of labor and purpose, so that although they are under the influence of different motives, they nevertheless complete the fullness and perfection of one world, and the very variety of minds tends to one end of perfection.

De Principiis, Book II:1-3

St. Basil the Great (329-379)

You have then heaven and earth adorned, earth beautified, the sea peopled with its own creatures, the air filled with birds which scour in every direction. Studious listener, think of all these creations…, think of all those which my narration has left out to avoid tediousness; recognize everywhere the wisdom of God; never cease to wonder, and through every creature, to glorify the Creator.

Hexaemeron VIII, “The Creation of Fowl and Water Animals,” 7

St. Nilus of Ankyra (365-430)

The man who does not set limits on consumption acquires vessels of finer quality, of gold and silver…. What need is there to say more about such ostentation…. All this is contrary to nature…. The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet? Do they not prefer the original simplicity, eating the herbs of the field, content with whatever is at hand.

Ascetic Discourses

St. John Climacus (509-603)

Nothing is without order and purpose in the animal kingdom; each animal bears the wisdom of the Creator and testifies of Him. God granted man and animals many natural attributes, such as compassion, love, feelings… for even animals bewail the loss of one of their own.”

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Paulist Press, New York, 1982, p. 238.

St. Columbanus (543-615)

Columbanus was walking alone through the forest as night began to fall. He somehow began to reflect on what he would chose if he had a choice between suffering death at the hands of robbers, or being devoured by savage wild beasts. He concluded that he would prefer to suffer the ferocity of wild beasts because that was not sin on their parts. Just as he came to this conclusion, he heard a pack of wolves running through the forest. They spotted him and came right toward him and soon stood about him on the right and left sides, and he could only stand motionless in their midst, saying, “O God, look to my help, and make haste to help me!”
The wolves put their muzzles on his clothes, sniffed him, and while he stood unshaken, ready to face death, if need be, they abruptly turned and left him here and continued on their forest ranging.

Vita St. Columbae, C.15, as retold by Helen Waddell, Beasts and Saints, Constable & Co., Toronto, 1934.

St. Isaac the Syrian (640?-eighth century)

‘And what is a merciful heart…the burning of the heart unto the whole creation, man, fowls and beasts, demons and whatever exists. So that by the recollection and the sight of them the eyes shed tears on account of the force of mercy which moves the heart by great compassion…Then the heart becomes weak and it is not able to bear hearing or examining injury or any insignificant suffering of anything in creation…And therefore, even in behalf of the irrational beings and the enemies of truth and even in behalf of those who do harm to it, at all time he offers prayers with tears that they may be guarded and strengthened: even in behalf of the kinds of reptiles, on account of his great compassion which is poured out in his heart without measure, after the example of God.”[1]
In this teaching, St. Isaac draws us back to the key point of Image of God – mercy, love and compassion “are after the example of God.’
To ensure the correct translation, I sought advice from the expert on Syriac studies, Dr. Sebastian Brock who confirms that ‘compassionate’ is the closest to the original Syriac meaning.
[1] Isaac, Mystic Treaties, Ch. 1, Homily 7.

‘The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as to their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They sense as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming.’

Ascetical Homilies 77: 381-382

St. Hubertus (650-727)

The saint’s attitude toward animals as “beings” rather than just sporting targets for hunters is still reflected in Germany. At his death, Hubertus’ last words were, “Stretch the “pallium” (a clerical vestment) over my mouth, for I am going to give back to God the soul which I received from Him.

The Story of St. Hubert

Image result for Icon of Saint Hubertus of germany, images    or            or     

St. Guthlac (673-714)

Brother, hast thou never learned in Holy Writ, that with him who has led his life after God’s will, the wild beasts and wild birds are tame?
Felix’s Life of St. Guthlac

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)

The things and possessions that are in the world are common to all, like the light and this air that we breathe, as well as the pasture for the animals on the plains and on the mountains. All these things were made for all in common solely for use and enjoyment; in terms of ownership they belong to no one.

Catechesis 9:107-116

St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392)

St. Sergius’ disciple, Epiphanius, who chronicled his life, explains a meaning in the relationship of saints to the animals. “it should astonish no one, for it should be known with certainty that when God dwells in a man and the Holy Spirit rests in him, all is subject to him, as all was subject in the beginning to Adam before the transgression of God’s commandment.

Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, “St. Sergius of Radonezh,” 1952, reprinted by SVS Press, 1989, p. 128

Photo: St Sergius and the bear, Holy Trinity-St. Sergius monastery


St. David of Garesja (497-569?)

St. David was born in the rugged Caucasus mountains of Eastern Georgia, along the rim of the Mesopotamian valley of Assyria. He was baptized as a youth into the Syrian Church which is today part of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is probable that St. David was a Monophysite as virtually all of his countrymen along with the neighboring Armenian and Caucasian Churches had rejected the Council of Chalcedon. He lived in dry and desolate places so that by ascetic striving he might win for himself eternal bliss and rest everlasting. St. David is revered as one of the Syrian Fathers, most of whom are distinguished by their keen love of animals. St. David epitomizes the character of Syrian Christian care for creation. He is know for befriending the local deer who learned to take refuge from predators in his wilderness cave and eventually allowed his monks to milk them for food. To the people of Georgia, he is their St. Francis.

The Hunters and the Milking Deer

Some hunters from Kakheti came near St. David’s cave looking for wild goats and deer. The deer saw them first and scrambled up to the hermit’s cave where they took refuge. The hunters were amazed that deer would run into a cave and climbed up the hill after them to catch them in the close confines of the cave.
When they reached the cave entrance, they saw the deer behind St. David and his disciple, Lucian, was milking them. The hunters were amazed and struck with fear. They asked him, “How is it, holy father, that these deer, wild animals of the field, are so tame and more peaceful than sheep brought up from a domestic farmyard?”
St. David said to them, “Why are you so astonished at the glories of God? Do you not know that He tamed lions for the Prophet Daniel and saved the three children from the fiery furnace? So what is so wonderful about these deer? Now go and hunt other game, for these animals are granted by God for our feeble flesh.”

Quoted by David Marshall Lang, Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1956. pg. 86-87.

The Hawk and the Partridge

One morning when St. David was praying in front of his cave, he saw a barbarian from the district of Rustavi out hunting. The barbarian’s falcon brought down a partridge which fell to the ground near St. David, and the partridge took refuge by the hermit and perched at his feet and the falcon landed and also perched nearby. The story says that this was by divine intent so that the hunter should himself be hunted by the grace of God. Then the hunter hurried up the hillside to take the partridge from the falcon.

When he saw the saint standing in prayer, and the partridge sitting by his feet, he was amazed, and said, “Who are you?”
David replied in the Armenian language, “I am a sinful man, a servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I am imploring His mercy, to forgive me all of my sins, so that I may leave this transitory life in peace and quietness.”

The hunter asked again, “Who looks after you and feeds you here?”
David replied, “He whom I believe in and worship looks after and feeds all His creatures, to whom He has given birth. By Him are brought up all men and all animals and all plants, the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea. Behold, this partridge which was fleeing from your falcon has taken refuge with me, the sinful servant of God. Now go away and hunt other game, for today the partridge has found a haven with me, so that it may be saved from death.”
The barbarian replied, “I intend to kill you, so how do you expect to save the partridge from death.” But St. David replied, “You can neither kill me nor the partridge, for my God is with me and He is powerful to protect.”

At this word of the saint the barbarian, who was on horseback, drew his sword to strike St. David on the neck. When he raised his arm, suddenly it became withered and stiff like wood. Then the barbarian realized his wickedness, and got down from the horse and fell at the hermit’s feet and begged to be rescued from the error of his ways.
St. David had pity on him and besought the Lord, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, our God, who didst come down to give life to the human race, Kind and Merciful One who didst cure the hand that was withered, likewise, O Heavenly King, so cure the arm of this barbarian that he may understand and recognize Thee and glorify Thy name.”

Quoted by David Marshall Lang, Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1956, pg. 88-89.


This is an interesting post from the Orthodox Christianity website:


Wasn’t Elisha being cruel when he sent those bears against those children who were teasing him about being bald in 2 Kings 2:23-25? And why was it precisely two she-bears? Fr. John Whiteford talks about the incident near Bethel, when St. Elisha cursed the gang of disrespectful young men.The impression that these were toddlers is a false impression, and it should be noted that the Prophet Elisha is not said to have called for the bears to attack the children, but rather to curse them. And it may well be that he was pronouncing the curses of the Covenant for those who disobey:

And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate (Leviticus 26:21-22).

Here is more background on this story from another post:

This event is often construed very negatively:

“How can I believe in a God who would send bears to devour little children for innocently teasing an old man whose appearance probably was unusual even for that day?”

But a closer look at the passage show that most of the assumptions in that position are false, and that other elements (not explicit in the words, but present in the historical situation) illumine the situation.

First, the passage itself:

He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

Now, let’s look at some of the elements of the historical background, and the various players in the event:

1. First of all, they weren’t “little kids”!

“‘Little children’ is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression neurim qetannim is best rendered ‘young lads’ or ‘young men.’ From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old. One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14-15… These are young men ages between twelve and thirty.” [HSOBX]

2. Elisha wasn’t “old”—he was the same age as they were!

“But was Elisha an old man short on patience and a sense of humor?”

This charge is also distorted, for Elisha can hardly have been more than twenty-five when this incident happened. He lived nearly sixty years after this…” [HSOBX]

3. Elisha had JUST FINISHED doing a mercy-miracle for the entire city of nearby Jericho!

“The chapter closes with two miracles of Elisha. These immediately established the character of his ministry—his would be a helping ministry to those in need, but one that would brook no disrespect for God and his earthly representatives. In the case of Jericho, though the city had been rebuilt (with difficulty) in the days of Ahab (1 Kings 16:34, q.v.), it had remained unproductive. Apparently the water still lay under Joshua’s curse (cf. Josh 6:26), so that both citizenry and land suffered greatly (v. 19). Elisha’s miracle fully removed the age-old judgment, thus allowing a new era to dawn on this area (vv. 20-22). Interestingly Elisha wrought the cure through means supplied by the people of Jericho so that their faith might be strengthened through submission and active participation in God’s cleansing work. (EBCOT)

4. This event took place around a cult city (somewhere between Bethel and Jericho, a distance of approximately 10 miles), a center of anti-YHWH worship:

“Elisha’s sweet memories of Jericho received a souring touch at Bethel (v. 23). The public insult against Elisha was aimed ultimately at the God whom he represented. Indeed Elisha’s whole prophetic ministry was in jeopardy; therefore the taunt had to be dealt with decisively. The sudden arrival of the two bears who mauled forty-two youths to death would serve as both an awful sentence on unbelievers—and thus, too, on Jeroboam’s cult city—and a published reminder that blasphemy against the true God and his program would be met with swift and certain consequences (v. 24).” [EBCOT]

5. The harmless “teasing” was hardly that—there was a direct confrontation between the forces of Baal and the prophet of YHWH that had just healed the water supply (casting doubt on the power and beneficence of Baal!). This was a mass demonstration (if 42 were mauled, how many people were in the crowd to begin with? 50? 100? 400?):

“As Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel several dozen youths (young men, not children) confronted him. Perhaps they were young false prophets of Baal. Their jeering, recorded in the slang of their day, implied that if Elisha were a great prophet of the Lord, as Elijah was, he should go on up into heaven as Elijah reportedly had done. The epithet baldhead may allude to lepers who had to shave their heads and were considered detestable outcasts. Or it may simply have been a form of scorn, for baldness was undesirable (cf. Isa. 3:17, 24). Since it was customary for men to cover their heads, the young men probably could not tell if Elisha was bald or not. They regarded God’s prophet with contempt… Elisha then called down a curse on the villains. This cursing stemmed not from Elisha pride but from their disrespect for the Lord as reflected in their treatment of His spokesman (cf. 1:9-14). Again God used wild animals to execute His judgment (cf., e.g., 1 Kings 13:24). That 42 men were mauled by the two bears suggests that a mass demonstration had been organized against God and Elisha” [Bible Knowledge Commentary].

6. There may have been elements of public safety involved:

“A careful study of this incident in context shows that it was far more serious than a “mild personal offense. It was a situation of serious public danger, quite as grave as the large youth gangs that roam the ghetto sections of our modern American cities. If these young hoodlums were ranging about in packs of fifty or more, derisive towards respectable adults and ready to mock even a well-known man of God, there is no telling what violence they might have inflicted on the citizenry of the religious center of the kingdom of Israel (as Bethel was), had they been allowed to continue their riotous course” [EBD].

7. Elisha didn’t actually call out the bears—he merely pronounced judgment on these demonstrators. God decided what form the response took:

“Perhaps it was for this reason that God saw fit to put forty-two of them to death in this spectacular fashion (there is no evidence that Elisha himself, in imposing a curse, prayed for this specific mode of punishment), in order to strike terror into other youth gangs that were infesting the city and to make them realize that neither Yahweh Himself nor any of His anointed prophets were to be threatened or treated with contempt” [EBD].

8. This curse/judgment was part of the covenant stipulations—it was a reminder of Israel’s responsibilities (and opportunities for blessings, as well):

“Elisha pronounced a curse similar to the covenant curse of Lev 26:21-22. The result gave warning of the judgment that would come on the entire nation should it persist in disobedience and apostasy (see 2 Ch 36:16). Thus Elisha’s first acts were indicative of his ministry that would follow: God’s covenant blessings would come to those who looked to him (vv. 19-22), but God’s covenant curses would fall on those who turned away from him [NIV Study Bible notes, in loc.].

“If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. 22 I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.” (Lev 26.21f)

9. This visible display of YHWH’s power and reality (like the previous display of His kindness and activity for them) was designed to avert a far greater calamity:

“The savagery of wild animals was brutal enough, but it was mild compared to the legendary cruelty of the Assyrians who would appear to complete God’s judgment in 722 BC. The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly sever divine judgments that followed it. But instead of turning back to God, Israel, as would Judah in a later day, ‘mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy’ (2 Chron 36:16)” [HSOBX].

So, this was hardly the atrocity that it is often construed as—the historical data casts the event into a TOTALLY different light. It WAS a very significant event for the religious fortune (and therefore, future welfare) of the Northern Kingdom … and it called for decisive revelation from God about the severity of the people’s condition and situation…

But to answer the question regarding the meaning of the two she-bears, St. Caesarius of Arles has a very interesting explanation:

“Now according to the letter, dearly beloved, we are to believe, as mentioned above, that blessed Elisha was aroused with God’s zeal to correct the people, rather than moved by unwholesome anger, when he permitted the Jewish children to be torn to pieces. His purpose was not revenge but their amendment, and in this fact, too, the passion of our Lord and Savior was plainly prefigured. Just as those undisciplined children shouted to blessed Elisha, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead,” so at the time of the passion the insane Jews with impious words shouted to Christ the true Elisha, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” What does “Go up, you baldhead” mean except: Ascend the cross on the site of Calvary? Notice further, brothers, that just as under Elisha forty-two boys were killed, so forty-two years after the passion of our Lord two bears came, Vespasian and Titus, and besieged Jerusalem. Also consider, brothers, that the siege of Jerusalem took place on the Paschal solemnity. Thus, by the just judgment of God the Jews who had assembled from all the provinces suffered the punishment they deserved, on the very days on which they had hung the true Elisha, our Lord and Savior, on the cross. Indeed, at that time, that is, in the forty-second year after the passion of our Lord, the Jews as if driven by the hand of God assembled in Jerusalem according to their custom to celebrate the Passover. We read in history that three million Jews were gathered in Jerusalem; eleven hundred thousand of them are read to have been destroyed by the sword of hunger, and one hundred thousand young men were led to Rome in triumph. For two years that city was besieged, and so great was the number of the dead who were cast out of the city that their bodies equaled the height of the walls. This destruction was prefigured by those two bears that are said to have torn to pieces forty-two boys for deriding blessed Elisha. Then was fulfilled what the prophet had said, ‘The boar from the forest lays it waste, and the beasts of the field feed on it [Psalm 79:14 [80:13]],’ for as was indicated, after forty-two years that wicked nation received what it deserved from the two bears, Vespasian and Titus” (Sermon 127:2).[1]

[1] Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V: 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 149f.


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:

Behold, I am establishing My Covenant with you and with your seed after you, and every living creature with you: the birds, the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, of all that came out of the ark with you. (Gen 9:9-10)

Just in case we do not understand this revelation, God 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.


[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:

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


Whilst I acknowledge that it is possible to have differences in the interpretation of biblical texts in this brief commentary, I follow the interpretation of the Fathers who express a theology grounded in the concept of an inclusive and all loving God. I attempt to give a glimpse – an anamnesis – of an earlier theological understanding of the inter-connectedness of all creation which is loved and protected by God. As previously stated the early Church Fathers had no reason to offer a systematic theological view on the position of animal suffering.  This does not mean that they were indifferent to the rest of Creation as Irenaeus’s teaching here indicates:

Now, among the “all things” our world must be embraced.  It too, therefore, was made by His Word, as Scripture tells us in the book of Genesis.[1]

Whilst the non-human creation was not their primary focus importantly, the Fathers did recognise that only humans had sinned and that only humans were in need of instruction and repentance.  Irenaeus is clear:

While all things were made by God, certain of His creatures sinned and revolted from a state of submission to God, and others, indeed the great majority, persevered, and do still persevere, in [willing] subjection to Him who formed them.[2]

Athanasius affirms this recognition:

Nothing in creation had gone astray in its notions of God, save the human being only. [3]

There is also a Patristic tradition of recognising that through Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection and via the Eucharistic offering, creation is sanctified. [4]  Cyril of Jerusalem elucidates:

And do not wonder that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf.[5]

The Fathers taught that Christ sanctified the Creation through everything He touched. For example we are taught that Christ ‘sleeps in order to bless sleep’, ‘weeps in order to make tears blessed’ [6] and explicitly, the Fathers link Christ’s baptism with the sanctification of the baptismal waters.[7] Basil of Seleucia for example, taught that Christ saved the world and liberated the earth[8] and recounts all the benefits of salvation including ‘a principle of purification for the world’ and a ‘renewing of nature’. [9]  Importantly, modern commentators like Theokritoff (2001, 2009) and Gschwandtner (2012) inform us that we may find similar teachings in many ecclesial texts.[10] In summary, I have presented some evidence of an Eastern Orthodox tradition which is sympathetic to the notion of animal suffering and salvation.

[1] Irenaeus, op. cit., Against Heresies, 2.2:5 p. 9.

[2] Ibid 2.18.7, p. 81; See also 3.9:1, p. 19 ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’ and 4.4.3, p. 14

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 43:3, CANNPNF2-04.

[4] Irenaeus, op. cit., 4.18.6, p. 50.

[5] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Homily 13:2; See also 13:35 & 15:3.

[6] Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 37.2 On the Words of the Gospel CANNPNF2-07.

[7] Ibid, Oration 29.10 The Third Theological Oration. On The Son; also Oration 39.15-16 Theophany On the Holy Lights.

[8] Basil of Seleucia, Third Homily on Pascha, SC. 187:209

[9] Ibid, SC. 187:215.

[10]  E.g. 5 January, Matins, Canon 9.2, Menaion, p. 302 cited in Theokritoff, E. ‘Creation and Salvation in Orthodox Worship’ Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment January 2001, Vol. 5, Issue 10. pp. 97-108.