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Humanity's place among the created order serves as a guideline for understanding its purpose. That is to say if one understands their role in the echelons of creation one will have a more refined concept of their identity in the created order. In it says that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." Further, in it says that God told them to "be fruitful and multiply," to "fill the earth and subdue it," and to "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens" and everything else that moves over the earth." These realities form the bedrock of Genesis' understanding of humanity's relationship between the rest of creation and the divine.
In direct contrast to the biblical witness, Provan argues that in ancient Mesopotamia the "cosmos [came] into being along with and for the benefit of the gods" (78). Thus, the cosmos was for the gods and humans simply found themselves swept up in a narrative much larger than they were. Provan goes on to describe how in the cosmos of the gods, temples, and cities were established to reflect the order that the gods were supposed to maintain. Particular to the interest of this study, the temples placed "a cult image [marking] the presence of a particular deity in a particular temple" (78). Furthermore, humanity's role included serving and attending to the cult image in the temple to either please the god or appease the god's anger or indifference. Provan has done the necessary work to show that in ancient Mesopotamia, "sources consistently portray human beings as having been created to work for the gods - to do 'work that is essential for the continuing existence of the gods... that they have tired of doing for themselves'" (78). In the world of the biblical account of Genesis, men and women existed to serve the gods in the form of "slave labor" and were indeed created as an "afterthought to meet the needs of deity" (78).
Photo of ancient Mesopotamian idol vs. a photo of me
Provan has done the necessary work to show that in ancient Mesopotamia, "sources consistently portray human beings as having been created to work for the gods - to do 'work that is essential for the continuing existence of the gods... that they have tired of doing for themselves'" (78). In the world of the biblical account of Genesis, men and women existed to serve the gods in the form of "slave labor" and were indeed created as an "afterthought to meet the needs of deity" (78).
However, the biblical witness portrays an entirely different picture of humanity. In Genesis, "[humanity] is not created... to meet God's needs. God does not have needs, and his presence in his temple-cosmos does not depend on the satisfaction of any needs" (79). Furthermore, Provan notes the distinction between ancient Mesopotamia - where human's operated as divine caretakers to the cult images of ancient Mesopotamian temples - to the Genesis account where the divine images in God's temple-cosmos are humans (80).
Thus, in ancient Mesopotamia, the image of the god is [insert photo of Mesopotamian idol]; whereas the image of god in Genesis is [insert photo of me].
Thus, in ancient Mesopotamia, the image of the god is [insert photo of Mesopotamian idol]; whereas the image of god in Genesis is [insert photo of me].
Provan believes this point to be the central thrust behind the author of Genesis' use of the image of God. Indeed, much of what it means to be made in the image of God (discussed more under the second heading of this essay) is that humanity is given an immense responsibility for the temple-cosmos of God.
And what does this responsibility entail? Lynn White's essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, argues that this responsibility is characterized by humanity’s dominance over creation. He argues that the current debasement of the environment is the consequence of a Judeo-Christian worldview that believes that "God planned [the creation of the world and particularly Adam as the crown jewel of the created world] explicitly for man's benefit and rule. Thus, no item in the physical creation has any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image."[1] For White, Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” and the result is that as a race humanity has exploited nature to serve its progressive goals to the compromise of nature itself.
To be sure, White qualifies his argument by saying that all of the above “may well apply to the medieval West, where in fact technology made spectacular advances.”[2] In his opinion, however, the Greek Orthodox tradition, indeed Greco-Roman mythology altogether, has found salvation in illumination – an intellectual goal. By contrast, the Latin West identified its salvation in moral piety. That is, through “right conduct.”[3] The difference has led the Greek Orthodox religious tradition to value nature as “artistic;” applying the same kind of symbolism that the Old Testament applies to nature and the created order (e.g., observing ants as an expression of hard work rather than scientific study).[4] On the contrary, the Roman Catholic tradition viewed nature as “scientific” and “ceased decoding… physical symbols of God’s communication with man [in nature] and [nature itself became an] effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how creation operates.”[5]
However, is White’s thesis that Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever known true?[6] Provan’s writing proves that in the ancient Mesopotamian world, humankind was created not to serve the images of idol-gods but to serve God by serving creation. With Provan’s thesis, one might deduct that humankind is accountable to God for any responsibility of dominion that might be given from God over His creation. Further, Simkins argues that, contrary to White, the Old Testament is anything but anthropocentric.[7] Indeed, the account in and 2, which is the only text White chooses to engage with, presents humankind as the pinnacle of creation; distinguishing between humanity made in God's image and the rest of nature and the animal kingdom. However, the picture of humanity in other creation accounts, such as ; ; ; and portray humanity as anything but the crown jewel of creation.[8] For instance, consider how seems to present humanity as the crown-jewel of creation when the author says, “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them… [and] have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all [sheep, oxen, beasts of the field and air, and the fish of the sea] under their feet” (). However, in the context of , , and 10 - that speak of humanities inclination towards injustice in terms of “persecutors” (7:1), “enemies” (9:3), and those who “rob the poor” (10:2) - the question remains: how can a race made a little lower than God and crowned by Him be so corrupt? Furthermore, why is such a race given god-like authority when they are so inclined to evil?[9]
Indeed, these same questions are asked in the text of . The people that are made in the image of God are now depicted as being brought from the dust of the earth. As Provan puts it, “Human beings are, in biblical thinking, made from dust and yet destined for glory” (87). However, the rebellious inclination of humans motivated by a desire to be further like God “disrupted the state of creation” in and affected their relationship with both animals and nature.
The whirlwind speeches of only further portray humankind in a relatively negative light. The man Job, who demands an answer to the reason for his suffering and God to vindicate Himself for appearing to neglect His duties in ordering and maintaining creation, gets an unexpected response from God. Indeed, the glaring omission of the creation account according to is that humankind is never mentioned![10] Well, to be fair, the making of Job is mentioned but only in comparison to Behemoth: “Look at Behemoth, which I made, just as I made you” (). Indeed, the person of Job pales in comparison to the mighty Behemoth, whom God is just as proud of making.
It may then be concluded that White’s thesis may prove to be untrue in the sense that the Old Testament does not portray humanity to be anthropocentric. Thus, one should not take the temple-cosmos view too far in that one concludes that humanity’s role as being made in the image of God means they are significantly more privileged and entitled to do whatever they wish with the rest of creation. Indeed, taking this view may lead one to believe that he or she can adopt an ethical worldview of what I deem to be dominance rather than dominion. This clarification is essential if one were to take White’s hypothesis for moving forward seriously. White says, “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”[11] Indeed, perhaps we need only to recapture the ancient one.
However, what is the ancient religion? Certainly, it is not anthropocentric. I suggest two principles to summarize the Bible’s teaching on anthropology in its relationship with nature and the animal kingdom. I do not assume that these principles summarize everything the Bible has to say about humanity’s relationship to nature. Rather, I propose that these two principles can help the Christian thinker to evaluate his or her position in relation to the created order in a way that will enable them to move forward from White’s thesis and align both their thinking and practice biblically.
First, I believe Provan’s teaching enlightens us to the reality that humanity is held in the tension between dust and divinity. That is, as quoted earlier, “Human beings are, in biblical thinking, made from dust and yet destined for glory” (87). Furthermore, in contrast to the ancient Mesopotamian world where humanity only lived to serve the idol-gods, humanity lives to serve God by serving creation. In other words, humanity is accountable to God’s world. This turn makes humanity stewards rather than owners of God’s world which is described in scripture as God’s world – created and sustained by Him. It is this accountability that I believe turns humanity’s perceived role of dominance into dominion. Indeed, the words are quite similar, but the former entails exercising control for the sake of the one exercising control, whereas the latter implies exercising control for the sake of the One who gave control in the first place.
Second, as Simkins notes, Christians should consider “the biblical worldview [as] theocentric,” not anthropocentric.[12] At its most basic level, this means that humans share a distinct quality with the rest of the created world – both require the providence of God to provide for the most basic of needs.[13] Plants require sun and water as humans do and God provides all of this. Simkins concludes by saying that “humans may make their own way in the world, but the world is not theirs to make.”[14] Moreover, Simkins goes so far as to conclude that humanity should consider that they have “more in common with the other living creatures than they have differences.”[15] However, while I believe this to be a reputable conclusion, I do think that humanity should consider their relationship with other creatures by God’s decree rather than our perceived similarities and differences with the created world. As David Clough says, “For Christians, fellow animal creatures find their true meaning, like us and all other creatures, in their place in the divine life.”[16] That is, both are accountable to God for their roles and any God-given authority to humanity should be treasured and stewarded appropriately. Humanity’s role in the created world is one of exercising dominion for the sake of the One who gives it. This is, I believe, what it means to consider the world through a theocentric lens.
Second, as Simkins notes, Christians should consider “the biblical worldview [as] theocentric,” not anthropocentric.[12] At its most basic level, this means that humans share a distinct quality with the rest of the created world – both require the providence of God to provide for the most basic of needs.[13] Plants require sun and water as humans do and God provides all of this. Simkins concludes by saying that “humans may make their own way in the world, but the world is not theirs to make.”[14] However, Simkins goes so far as to conclude that humanity should consider that they have “more in common with the other living creatures than they have differences.”[15] While I believe this to be a reputable conclusion, I do think that humanity should consider their relationship with other creatures by God’s decree rather than our perceived similarities and differences with the created world. As David Clough says, “For Christians, fellow animal creatures find their true meaning, like us and all other creatures, in their place in the divine life.”[16] That is, both are accountable to God for their roles and any God-given authority to humanity should be treasured and stewarded appropriately. Humanity’s role in the created world is one of exercising dominion for the sake of the One who gives it.

Some Modern Implications

Karl Barth recognizes the “ethical attention Christians need to give to fellow animal creatures, stating that animals belong to God, not to human beings and that therefore any treatment of other animals must be ‘careful, considerate, friendly and above all understanding.’”[17] What does it then mean to treat animals in such a way? Does the current trend in farming illustrate humanity’s dominance or dominion of God’s creation in the animal kingdom?
The Christian world has debated its treatment of animals on many levels since the early Church. Indeed, Jesus taught that what goes into the body does not defile it, and Paul clarified that for the Christian church, no foods are to be considered off-limits. Anyone can eat meat whether offered to idols or not and do so with a clear conscience (; ; ). The monastic movement emphasized dietary fasting and restraint, but Martin Luther and the proceeding Reformation movement took Paul’s stance on eating meat and believed that “neither eating nor fasting counts for anything.”[18]
However, none of these movements had to contend with the current state of ethical eating. Much of the world of the New Testament till’ the Reformation was much different than the modern world in terms of what goes in our mouth. Indeed, the “first large-scale rearing of farmed animals exclusively for meat was in England in the late eighteenth century: up to that point meat was largely a by-product of keeping animals for other reasons, such as milk, eggs, and wool.”[20] In effect, the world of breeding broiler hens through “intricate multi-generational programmes to reach slaughter weight at only 35 days old,” where “their young legs [are] unfit to support their unwieldy bodies, living the entirety of their lives in warehouses with artificial day and night, automated feeding and climate control, with human interaction restricted to a daily patrol to remove the dead, and finally stuffing them into crates for transport to slaughter” is very different than the world of the New Testament.
However, the world of the New Testament was much different than the modern world. Indeed, the “first large-scale rearing of farmed animals exclusively for meat was in England in the late eighteenth century: up to that point meat was largely a by-product of keeping animals for other reasons, such as milk, eggs, and wool.”[20] In effect, the world of breeding broiler hens through “intricate multi-generational programmes to reach slaughter weight at only 35 days old,” where “their young legs [are] unfit to support their unwieldy bodies, living the entirety of their lives in warehouses with artificial day and night, automated feeding and climate control, with human interaction restricted to a daily patrol to remove the dead, and finally stuffing them into crates for transport to slaughter” is very different than the world of the New Testament.
Furthermore, we must ask the question whether confining pigs to “monotonous and crowded indoor sheds with slatted floors for the entirety of their lives… confining sows to crates in which they cannot even turn around” all so that we can eat bacon at a lower price is exercising dominance or dominion. Indeed, Tolstoy’s question must be raised: if a man or woman can live and be healthy without killing animals for food and participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his or her appetite – is not so doing immoral? For Christians, the question of taking animal life for food may be justified. But is forcing the animal to live under inhumane conditions for the sake of one’s mere appetites and convenience a sign of our dominion or dominance?
The implications of such a discussion abound. However, they do provide an example of how Christians can choose to reject White’s notion that Christianity is primarily anthropocentric and will use the rest of the created order to serve its own means at the expense of the world around it (both animals and nature). Further, such a concern as ethical eating is an example of how Christians can adapt to the Bible’s perspective of being accountable to God for their role in the created order.
[1] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
[2] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
[3] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
[4] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
[5] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
[6] To be sure, Christianity adopted the Old Testmant into its own movement. For the purposes of this essay, I will not distinguish the lines between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian faith to clearly. I will, however, deal with the Old Testament text on its basis as an rebuttal to White’s thesis.
[7] Ronald A. Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism: Putting Humans in Their Place”
[8] Ronald A. Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism: Putting Humans in Their Place”
[9] Ronald A. Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism: Putting Humans in Their Place”
[10] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Of Stars and Sea Monsters: Creation Theology in the Whirlwind Speeches”
[11] Lynn White, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis
[12] Lynn White, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis
[13] Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism”
[14] Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism,” 411
[15] Simkins, “The Bible and Anthropocentrism”
[16] David Clough, “Consumer Animal Creatures”
[17] David Clough, “Consumer Animal Creatures”
[18] David Clough, “Consumer Animal Creatures”
[19] David Clough, “Consumer Animal Creatures”
[20] David Clough, “Consumer Animal Creatures”
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