Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Souls and Stewardship: Do Animals Have Souls?

In his recent article, Woof'n Worship?, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. presents a case against the inclusion of animals in worship. Let me say up front that I am in full agreement with the thrust of his editorial. In support of his view, he offers eight points that are generally quite good and biblical. In his second point, however, he diverges from biblical revelation to philosophy when he says,

As the image-bearers of God, humans alone have the capacity to know and to worship the Creator. Animals reflect the glory of God, but only human beings can see the glory of God and know the Creator. Animals may possess consciousness, but they do not have souls. They lack the capacity to know the Creator.

With all due respect to Dr. Mohler (and I respect him very much), the purpose of this response will be to set the record straight on this point from a completely biblical perspective.

Scripture is completely silent on whether animals have any concept or practical form of worship. All we can do is make educated guesses concerning the matter. In this area, Scripture is, by nature, biased. Scripture is God's self-revelation to mankind. It concerns itself with the salvation of humans and not animals. It does not indicate that God revealed himself personally to animals or that he requires any response from them, save from their obedience to his prescribed will. There is also little indication that animals have any choice in the matter. In Genesis 1:20-25, God spoke and created animals according to all their kinds. They came obediently with God before Adam to be named according to Genesis 2:18-20. Some gave up their lives for clothing and sacrifice (Gen 3:21; 4:4). And finally, they reacted in obedience (willfully or not) to the command of God, in Genesis 9:2-3, to fear man.


Even so, not every animal follows the will of God in fear of man. We see this in the pages of Scripture (Ex 21:28-32; 1 Kings 13:23-28) as well as in our experience of the world. Yet God demands an accounting for the bloodshed of man by any animal (Gen 9:5-6). When animals kill people we have a special kind of fear because we know, instinctively, it is unnatural; it goes against the way God has ordered things.

Is it impossible for animals to see God's glory or know their creator? I think that argument is doubtful. If we believe all of Scripture as inerrant, we must come to terms with Balaam's donkey. This donkey not only saw the angel of the Lord standing on the path when Balaam didn't, but she lay down before him. Obviously, it was God's will to open the eyes and the mouth of the donkey, but the donkey acted rightly when confronted with holiness.

Dr. Mohler gets it very right when he says that animals possess consciousness. Some even possess human-like higher reasoning. It is not merely a matter of intelligence that separates humans and animals. If that were the case, the implications are that the mentally-handicapped and vegetative would not hold the image of God and would somehow be less than human. That cannot be! There must be something else as a measure beside cognitive capacity.

Dr. Mohler then makes a definitive and yet unsupported statement, "animals have no souls." Here is where the center of my disagreement with him lies. Most have heard this statement before and many believe it to be true. Where does it come from and what are its implications?

The term that we usually translate as "soul" is the
Hebrew nephesh, which is related to the word for breath and wind. In Genesis 2:7, God breathed into man and gave him life (a soul). The soul, in this understanding, is the enlivening force within man. Yet Scripture shows no differentiation between this breath of life in man and that of animals. All creatures that live also have the same nephesh as humans (Gen 1:30). Although there are some who have adopted that there is a third or "tripartite" piece of the human person, there is no indication in Scripture that God gave any other spiritual presence or being to humans in general to separate them from the animals.

The idea that animals have no souls is actually an extra-biblical philosophical construction. The Catholic monk
Thomas Aquinas believed that Aristotle's philosophy and logic were consistent with biblical revelation. He tried to square the two in his classic work, Summa Theologica. It was within this work that he introduced his "Scala Natura," or "Chain of Being". Within it, he sees animals as "sensitive" beings, operating by their senses or instincts, whereas he sees humans as rational beings operating by cognition, the realm of the soul. His Chain of Being introduced a redefinition of the soul into Christianity, a definition not developed directly from the Bible, but mainly from Aristotelian pagan philosophy. This philosophy has trickled down to us.

So, if we are to be truly biblical in our understanding of animals, we must reject Aquinas' view and admit that animals have souls. But before those people who love to anthropomorphize their pets get too excited, we must also admit that the Bible indicates a clear separation between animals and people. While not at the level of the soul, there is a difference. In Genesis 1:26, Scripture tells us, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over . . . all the earth. . .'" If we are consistent with looking at Scripture in context, we should see that in the immediate context, each time God speaks of creating man after His own image, it is directly related to man's role in rulership over the rest of creation (Gen 1:26-28; 9:2-6).

In the broader context, the role of man in rulership comes not by the nature of man as created (the mistake of the Thomists among others), but by the word of God. When God speaks, events happen and things are established. God said that man was created in his image and was set up as rulers over the rest of creation and so it came to pass. The existence of animals as pets, therefore, is not sinful - it is merely one manifestation of man's rulership over creation. Where man sins is in denying his God-mandated role in rulership and stewardship over creation, abdicating his throne, and elevating other creatures to or even above his own position.

Each mistake, to relegate animals to walking automatons, or to see them as noble equals, is to abandon God's revealed Scripture. The frequent result of the former mistake is to take advantage of and abuse stewardship over creatures that depend upon righteous human rule. The result of the latter mistake opens us to many horrendous actions including lowering humanity to an animal level, looking to animals as guides for behavior, justifying evil human behavior based on animalistic tendencies, and even improper human-animal relationships. Neither mistake is acceptable. We should agree with Dr. Mohler's overall argument: that pets do not belong in worship; but we should catch the small phrase with the huge implications. Let's not let human philosophy rob us of any part of the Gospel.

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