The Distinction Between Humans and Animals: Make Way for “Non-Human Persons?”

by Ben DeVries

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Humpback whale underwater

"I want them to thrive and survive and show the glory of God in every sea and ocean." (image courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Wikimedia commons)

Lauren Merritt recently pointed me to a post from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent theologian and writer in his own right. The post is titled “NewsNote: Make Way for ‘Non-Human Persons’?”, and draws a faith-informed distinction between humans and even highly intelligent animals like whales and dolphins, while at the same time demonstrates an admiration for those animals.

It also touches somewhat on the question we’ve been asking on the Not One Sparrow blog: “What about conflicts between animal and human welfare?” Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Mohler’s piece:

Having just observed the magnificent sight of humpback whales cavorting off the coast of Hawaii, I am all the more aware of just how incredible these mammals really are. While there may be any number of reasons why they act as they do, I find it very hard to believe that they are not having a bit of fun. Beyond this, the more we learn about the whales the more we understand their complex brains and social behaviors. They are highly intelligent animals with a grandeur all their own. I admire them greatly. I thank God for creating them. I want them to thrive and survive and show the glory of God in every sea and ocean.

… I support an end to all commercial whale fishing because it is no longer necessary and because these animals are or at some point have been threatened with extinction. My point is this—whales are magnificent creatures that I desire to protect and admire, but they are not human beings. Any confusion about this does not raise whales to a new status. Instead, confusion about the distinction between humans and animals serves to threaten human dignity.

I echo Dr. Mohler’s concern and his desire to defend the unique human quality being made in the image of God, which is a biblically rooted foundation in Christian theology. Christians, including those who have a hard time understanding how the Bible has much to say about animals in the first place, but also those of us who advocate on behalf of animals from a biblical perspective, should be concerned to hear about animals being put on the same plane as humans. Not only does it compromise the witness of Scripture, but ironically it also undermines our cause in the long run, because only as God’s unique image-bearers and stewards can we ever hope to fully engage the redemption and care of God’s creatures as He designed us to.

That said, Mohler questions assigning “personhood” to animals (as opposed to “personality,” which he readily agrees animals posess). And I think there’s something to be said for seeing animals, as I believe God does (Luke 12:6), as individual beings with an individual raison d’être, before him and before us as his stewards. It’s possible to draw more attention to the individual nature and dignity of animals and still not see them as human beings.

After completing a final master’s degree project on the Christian foundation for animal welfare at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Ben DeVries founded Not One Sparrow, which seeks to represent God’s concern for animals and the responsibility he’s given the church to care for them. This post was originally published on Not One Sparrow’s blog.

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