Evangelical Christianity

Lord of Creation or Animal among Animals? Dominion, Darwin, and Duty

Authored by: Philip Sampson

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138592728
eBook ISBN: 9780429489846
Adobe ISBN:


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The Christian doctrine of dominion is widely held culpable for the instrumental use of animals and its associated cruelties. Lynn White’s familiar thesis that it is a ‘Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man’ is applied especially to our dominion over animals. By contrast, Darwin is said to have reinserted humans into the family of all animals, subverting this arrogant axiom. In support of this perspective, Calvin and Aquinas are read as condign representatives of the two principal Western traditions; Calvin was led astray by his over-reliance upon the Bible; and Aquinas by his synthetic dependence upon Aristotle. The story is familiar in both the popular debate and the technical literature. However, it is also widely recognised that Christians pioneered animal-welfare legislation before the twentieth century, and it is increasingly acknowledged that they were in the vanguard of the new understanding of animals which emerged in Northern Europe from the seventeenth century. To be precise, certain kinds of Christians led the field, those whom Keith Thomas first systematically identified as including Puritans, Methodists and associates of the Evangelical Revival. Yet these very Christians were no slouches when it came to the biblical doctrine of dominion. And, as Thomas observed, it was the Bible, not classical authors, which was most often cited. Surprisingly, this seeming paradox has been little explored. Rod Preece notes it, referring to the irony that it was evangelicals and not Darwin’s ideas which, in practice, did most to protect the interests of animals in the later nineteenth century. I have discussed the philosophical context for this elsewhere. This paper argues that the contributions of evangelicals was not an ‘irony’, but was the practical outworking of their distinctive theology. By contrast, contemporary evangelicals have betrayed both the work and doctrine of their forebears.

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