Barth on the Animal


“We must refuse to either build either ethics as a whole or this particular part of ethics on this view and concept of a life which embraces man, beast and plant” (CD III/4, 349).

Barth quotes Albert Schweitzer here, “Just as the housewife who has scrubbed the room is careful to see that the door is shut lest the dog should come in and ruin the finished job with its footprints, so European thinkers are on their guard lest animals should intrude into ethics” (349). Barth points out that for Schweitzer life itself is “holy” (349). However, Barth criticizes Schweitzer’s reverence for Life that would dissolve the man/animal binary because the incarnation was God’s self-revelation to man specifically. This binary is thus reinforced Christologically. Hence, man’s special place in creation gives him the lordship over them and “he takes precedence of them [animals]” (351). Andrew Linzey in his work Animal Theology poses a challenge to this conclusion. If God in Christ was reconciling all things to Himself, and the Logos is through whom all things came to be can we really so arrogant in maintaining such a sharp distinction between man and animal? Linzey puts it pointedly, “Barth’s theology too easily severs the connection between the Revealing Word and the cosmos in which that Word is revealed” (Animal Theology, 11).

Barth goes on to take his cues from Genesis that although animals and plants ultimately belong solely to God, man still has the command to have dominion over the earth but he must do so responsibly. He also recognizes that the killing of animals in contrast to plants is simply “annihilation” (352). In fact, Barth detects that the slaughter of an animal is “something which at least very similar to homicide” (352). Next Barth mentions that in both creation narratives (and in J prior to the fall) there is no indication that man will ever kill a fellow animal. He makes the astute point that if lordship over the animal meant simply to capture or kill in what way was man to have lordship over birds and fish? Of course after the fall God finds favor in Abel’s blood offering but not on Cain’s offering of produce. Furthermore, in Genesis 9 (after the flood) God not only permits but also commands that man eat beasts. Unsurprisingly, Barth interprets animal offering as an atoning blood sacrifice that man offers to God and “he renounces its use for his own sustenance and enjoyment and surrenders it to God as a representation of that which God in His grace is really for him.” (354).

Barth urges us to that man can only kill an animal “under the pressure of necessity” (354). He encourages us to realize that this action is far from normal or natural and it should only be taken up with a grave sense of responsibility. The distinction is then made that a sin only occurs if man ‘murders’ an animal but that in some circumstances it might be permissible to ‘kill’ one. It is only a killing if man recognizes that he does so only under God’s authority, and that the animal belongs to God alone.

This becomes a deeply theological discussion insofar as man can only do this act when he understands it as a “priestly act of eschatological character” (355). Barth writes that “[i]t can be achieved only in recollection of the reconciliation of man by the Man who intercedes for him and for all creation, and in whom God has accomplished the reconciliation of the world with Himself” (355).

What about vegetarianism? Barth concludes this section with these reflections:

“Yet is not only understandable but necessary that the affirmation of this whole possibility should always have been accompanied by a radical protest against it. It may well be objected that against a vegetarianism which presses in this direction that it represents a wanton anticipation of what is described by Is. 11 and Rom. 8 as existence in the new aeon for which we hope. It may also be true that it aggravates by reason of its inevitable inconsistencies, its sentimentality and its fanaticism. But for all its weaknesses we must be careful not to put ourselves in the wrong in face of it by our on thoughtlessness and hardness of heart (355-6).

I think Linzey’s criticisms are fair, and I’m wondering if some of Barth’s weaknesses are inherent in his doctrine of atonement. I guess I’ll wait in see as I begin reading CD IV starting next week.

Also I’d recommend Linzey’s work. Has anyone read his work or any other works on animal theology?


5 Responses to “Barth on the Animal”

  1. Dave Mesing Says:

    I haven’t read it, but you’ve got me interested. I did a good bit of reading on the philosophy side of things for one of my last undergrad papers. I’ll be checking out Linzey’s work soon(ish…trying to move, start grad school, etc., is time consuming).

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I think Linzey may be the only one really doing work in this area. There is a guy, the one who wrote the “de Lubac Guide for the Perplexed”, who was working on a project about Christianity and vegetarianism, but I got the impression it was somewhat shallow in terms of ethics.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah check out Linzey’s work. I did spend some time searching around his text on Animal Theology and was impressed by his knowledge of theology from the church fathers all the way up to Barth.


    I think you’re right. I found a book online called Animals on the Agenda that Linzey edited. However, I think the other contributors are most Biblical scholars.

  4. Ben DeVries Says:

    Jeremy, thank you for this excellent post. I appreciate the high responsibility which Barth communicated when it comes to the taking of animal life, it’s a value our current society and food providers could use a great deal more exposure to. But I also agree with you that Linzey pushes in an important direction as well. The concept of a theocentric perspective is an important one here I think, which correlates to Linzey’s concept of theos-rights. I completed my MA capstone project at Trinity Evangelical on a biblical-theological foundation for animal welfare, which became the basis for an online effort called Not One Sparrow, a Christian voice for animals. I’d be happy to copy you or dialogue with your further about either, if you’d be interested (link and email are included in my commenter profile). Thank you again for this post, and for bringing attention to an often neglected issue in the process. best wishes, Ben DeVries

  5. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah I was also impressed with the care Barth gave animals in CD (can’t say the same for homosexuals, unfortunately). I have yet to read Linzey, but I did read some chapters from his book when writing this post. Here’s another project that looks promising:

    Your project looks pretty cool. I’ll admit having no real expertise (I dabble with theology but I’m training to become clinical psychologist). I’ll be sure to shoot you an email when I get a chance to read more on the topic, and thanks for dropping me a line.

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