Hear the Animals Singing: The Bible and Genetics - Faith & Science Series Part 6

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Nancy Duff: Although there are significant exceptions, Christians have too often believed that because we are made in the image of God and have been given dominion over the earth, we stand far above the rest of the animals and can remain aloof regarding their welfare and indifferent to their suffering. But such a stance is not biblical... 

Peter Wallace: That's the Rev. Dr. Nancy Duff, and today she joins us for our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day 1.

Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life.

Today we continue our exciting series of special programs, and to introduce this week's preacher here's our host Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace: Thank you, Sherrie. Today we continue our special eight-part series of Day1 programs, "Faith & Science in the 21st Century," which is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Over these eight weeks we are exploring together some of the major issues of science today with a goal to facilitate meaningful conversation around these issues especially among people of faith. As we continue on our quest to engage the big questions that have riddled humanity since the dawn of civilization, we're delighted to have with us the Rev. Dr. Nancy J. Duff. Nancy is the Stephen Colwell Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. She earned her Master of Divinity degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia and her Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. An ordained Presbyterian minister, she focuses her research on the theological foundations of Christian ethics. Nancy, thank you for joining us for this important series.

Nancy Duff: It's a privilege to be here.

Peter Wallace: I understand you grew up in a medical family. Did that form your own interest in human life and theology?

Nancy Duff** :** I'm sure that it did. My father was an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and I used to work in his office on Saturdays in the summer when I was a teenager. His brother was an anesthesiologist, his sister was a biologist, and my mother was a registered nurse. Only my sister of the siblings went into the medical profession. She was a nurse practitioner; she worked with the first hospice for people with AIDS. My brother and I went a different route, but when I began to teach ethics, I know that part of my interest in teaching medical ethics sprang from my family's medical history.

Peter Wallace: You've been on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary since 1990. Princeton is, of course, well known as a center for theological thought and training for ministry, and you teach in a theology department primarily around issues of ethics. What are some of the courses you teach?

Nancy Duff: I teach a course on the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another course on the ethics of human sexuality. I've taught for many years a course on medical ethics, and just recently, I've focused that more narrowly on ethics surrounding death.

Peter Wallace: Ethics can have broad applications, and you'll be speaking primarily on the area of genetics today, but in perhaps unexpected ways as we'll hear shortly. But why is it so important to consider the ethics of any scientific endeavor?

Nancy Duff: I think as Christians we need to be open to what science does, the truth science teaches, and the incredible potential for benefiting human life. I'm bothered when the news media and some Christians set Christianity against science. I want to combat that attitude and be appreciative of what science does. But I also think we have to be keenly aware that scientists are looking in a very focused way at what they do and can do, and they can get caught up in their work in a way that they're not always considering the moral issues at hand. Some of them do, and I don't want to restrict what they do, but I think that there needs to be a variety of voices that reflect on what scientists are doing and the potential of their research, and really look very closely at the potential benefit and harm that what they're doing can cause for human beings and, in the case of my topic for today, animals.

Peter Wallace: Do you think churches can be more involved in facilitating some of those conversations between science and faith?

Nancy Duff: I'd really like to see the church involved in a very positive way. Sometimes scientists fear that Christians are going to get involved in a conversation and simply be nay-sayers, tell them they have to limit what they do. And that, as laypeople, we're going to advise them on directions they should and should not go. That's what I'd like not to see happen, but if Christians can be more educated, really look carefully into what scientists are doing and appreciate the various things that scientists are able to do--yes, I think we can be a positive part of the conversation, learning from scientists and bringing a certain perspective to bear on what scientists are accomplishing.

Peter Wallace: How can we as Christians build our ethical beliefs more effectively today? A lot of us really don't know a lot about the scientific endeavors of our times. Is that a part of it?

Nancy Duff: I think that's a huge part of it. I was asked to write a short piece on Dolly the sheep in 1996 when the news of cloning an adult animal was heard by so many of us. I had to scramble to understand the science of it. As a lay person, I really wasn't quite sure why was this so phenomenal and what were the implications of it. And you just can't begin to pronounce your moral reflections supporting or challenging something unless you understand the science to the extent that a lay person can. So I think in a number of matters of what science can accomplish Christians really need to educate themselves, be in conversation with scientists, look at the literature, don't automatically assume the worst of what scientists are going to do. And it's only once we really know the scientific facts to the extent that we are able to understand them, that then we're free to add our reflections on what we think are the moral implications of what's being done.

Peter Wallace: Of course you've written widely in your field of ethics, and you've done a great deal of work on the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom you mentioned earlier. What are you working on these days?

Nancy Duff: I'm working on a brief introduction to Bonhoeffer's work, looking specifically at his small book Life Together. I want to use his reflections in that book as a way to introduce Bonhoeffer's thought and work at a very introductory level for college students and seminarians.

In addition to that, with a Ph.D. student Ry Siggelkow, I'm putting together a book of essays that were written by Paul Lehmann. Paul Lehmann was my mentor. He was actually one of Bonhoeffer's close American friends when Bonhoeffer was at Union Seminary in New York, and Ry and I think that he still has very much to say to the church and to the academy in theology today.

Peter Wallace: Well, Nancy, for your message today, the sixth in our series, you draw on several scriptures, including a passage from Revelation chapter 5. First, set the context for that passage.

Nancy Duff: John is describing a scene where various hosts of heaven are gathered and all wondering who can break the seal to open the scroll. And the answer keeps coming back, no one. No one can break the seal. And then it's revealed the lion can break the seal to the scroll. But as they all look to see the lion come in, instead, it's a slaughtered lamb that appears. And one reason I love that setting for the part that I'm going to focus on is that it's a complete reversal of power. This reference to the crucified Christ, one would think Christ would be represented by the lion, certainly a powerful image by earthly standards, but instead it's the image of the cross--the slaughtered lamb. So as in all apocalyptic literature the focus is on power, and in this case it's power that is completely reversed. Not the lion but the slaughtered lamb. And in the section I'm going to read from, the angels and then the creatures are praising God and Christ with words that might be used to praise earthly governing authorities, so the message is clear--again about power--that we don't give those accolades to earthly powers but only to God.

Peter Wallace: Would you read it for us?

Nancy Duff:

Revelation 5:11-14: 11Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice: 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!'  13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing: 'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!' 14And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshipped.

Peter Wallace: Nancy, your sermon is entitled, "Hear the Animals Singing: The Bible and Genetics." Thank you for being with us.

Nancy Duff: Thank you. It's good to be here.



"Hear the Animals Singing: The Bible and Genetics"


There is an astonishing array of animals mentioned in the Bible. Some of them readily come to mind: sheep, goats, camels, and perhaps the most beloved animal--the donkey--one that carried Jesus to his place of birth and another that carried him closer to his death. And then there is, of course, the infamous serpent. But others may be a bit surprising: bees and buffaloes, horses, bats, lizards, pelicans, and peacocks all stand among the more than 120 species of animals, by current standards of identification, mentioned in the Bible.[1]

References to animals in the Bible clearly place them under God's providential care:

  • Genesis tells us that "living creatures of every kind" were created by God, who called them good (Gen 1:20-21, 25).

  • God chose to save living creatures of every kind when, in pairs, they joined Noah and his family on the ark (Gen. 5:32-10:1).

  • Animals are included in the commandment for Sabbath rest (Dt. 5:14).

  • And in our passage from Revelation, we hear that at the consummation of the world, along with the angels, "every creature in heaven and on earth" sings praises to God. (Rev. 5:13).

With this kind of positive attention given to animals in the Bible, it should strike us as peculiar whenever Christians seek to maintain a great distance between ourselves as human beings and the rest of the animal world. Although there are significant exceptions, Christians have too often believed that because we are made in the image of God and have been given dominion over the earth, we stand far above the rest of the animals and can remain aloof regarding their welfare and indifferent to their suffering. But such a stance is not biblical: 

  • It is not biblical for Christians to deny that animals hold a significant place in God's creation and even in God's act of salvation.[2]

  • It is not biblical to court indifference regarding the welfare of the animals placed in our care by God.

  • It is not biblical to hold ourselves in such a position of superiority that we are insulted when evolutionary science says we share a common ancestor with other animals.

The Bible, in fact, says we share a common origin with all other animals. Just as God formed Adam from the ground, "so out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air" (Gen. 2.19).

Science affirms this common origin by saying we all sprang from the same DNA.

Although evolution took us in different directions:

  • Humans share 98.5% of our genetic makeup with the chimpanzee.
  • 79% of our genetic makeup is shared with the mouse,
  • and 36% with the common fruit fly.[3]

Dirt from the ground, on the one hand, DNA, on the other: How is one common origin more insulting than the other? Either way, both the Bible and science describe human beings as closely related to other animals.

None of this is to say that human beings are not unique as a species according to science, or unique in relation to God and the rest of creation according to the Bible. We only marginally resemble even our closest genetic relative--the chimpanzee--and we are vastly different from other animals. Mapping the genome, the genetic makeup of various animals--including human beings--has helped science explain why we can be so closely related genetically to other animals and yet look and function in radically different ways.[4]

  • For one thing, even with the 98.5% DNA that we share with the chimpanzee, that 1.5% difference represents billions of encoded messages that we do not share.

  • Also, scientists have discovered that a gene in one species combines with other genes in a vastly different way to control very different things than that same gene does when found in another species.

Science is not saying that we are anything less than human or that we are not different from other animals in significant ways.

The Bible also speaks of the difference between human beings and the rest of the animal world:

  • We alone were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).
  • We alone were made a little less than the angels (Ps. 8.5).
  • We alone were given dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:26).

But rather than encouraging indifference, these biblical descriptions of our distinctiveness actually put us closer to animals.  

  • Because God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is relational, being created in the image of God means we were created to relate to others, whether the wholly Other, who is God, or other human beings, or other animals who share our world.

      Our encounter with animals--those very much like us and those vastly different from us--remind us of the limits God has imposed on us to make us human. And as we have been blessed by God, so we as human beings are called to be a blessing to the animals.

  • And though we have dominion over the earth, (Gen. 1:26), the power we have over animals is meant to reflect God's care for them. Not one word in the Bible gives us leave to take advantage of that power by being cruel or indifferent to the lives animals lead or to the suffering and deaths they endure sometimes at our hands. No such cruelty or indifference is found in God.

Given the responsibility God has placed upon human beings for the welfare of animals, we are called to be mindful of both the promise and the threat that genetic science poses.

Genetics is an amazing science that can sound like science fiction to some of us. For instance, since the 1970s scientists have been able to produce "transgenic animals," where the gene from one species is incorporated into the germ cell of another. These transgenic animals carry remarkable potential for human welfare:

  • When scientists in Scotland cloned Dolly the sheep, one of their goals was to clone a herd of transgenic animals that could produce milk that included a human protein that would benefit premature newborns.

But the threat of human cloning became the lead story, while the promising goal of helping premature babies was left out of the news. Both the promise and the threat of scientific possibilities demand our attention.

  • Transgenic mice can help scientists track various diseases. In a "knockout mouse," for instance, an existing gene in the mouse is "knocked out" by being replaced with foreign DNA. Scientists can see how the loss of that gene causes changes in appearance and behavior. Knockout mice have led to advances in research into cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson, and many others.[5]

But for all their promise, these experiments also carry a threat to the well-being of animals that are turned into bio-factories and sometimes suffer--not for their own benefit--but for ours. Some Christians have been quick to mock the claims of animal rights activists, who believe that all experimentation on animals should come to an end, while failing to acknowledge that God has made us responsible for animals; and even if we support genetic research, we cannot remain indifferent to their suffering.

Karl Barth warned against "our astonishing indifference and thoughtlessness" toward animals, insisting that we keep in mind:

  • that killing an animal is not the same as harvesting a plant.

  • that we cannot justify cruel treatment of animals by looking to nature where animals seem cruel to one another, because unlike any other animal, we alone were created in the image of God and given dominion over the earth. We do not look to nature but to God, to define our relationship with the animal world--and God has given us responsibility for them.

  • Finally, Barth reminds us that animals belong not to us but to God[6]--a claim that should make Christians question the practice of filing for patents on genetically modified animals as if they were no different than machines that belong to their inventors.

Only with a sense of gratitude for the animals that God created to populate the world along with us, and only by acknowledging the limits God has placed on our power and freedom to use animals for our benefit, can we take responsibility for their welfare in a manner consistent with being made in the image of God.

The book of Revelation tells us that John heard "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" join the angels in singing praises to God. They sang: "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!' Since the Bible describes animals in this magnificent act of praising God, there is no reason for you and me to be uncomfortable when we hear how closely related we are to non-human animals, and there is no reason to be indifferent to their welfare. Since the Bible tells us:

  • that non-human animals share a common origin with us,
  • that God created the animals and called them good,
  • that animals are protected in the commandment for Sabbath rest,
  • and that animals can praise God,
  • and since science confirms that we are genetically related to all the creatures of the earth and very closely related to a few of them, there is no reason for us as Christians to put distance by way of indifference between us and the other animals that belong to God.

Today is All Saint's Day. Although I could never consider my quirky little dog as standing among the saints, some of us have pets we would recommend for sainthood because of their exemplary lives of service and love. We don't, of course, count animals among the saints. But perhaps today we can take our lead from St. Francis, who was the patron saint of animals and extend the same kind of love and concern toward animals that he did.


  • how closely related we are genetically to other animals,
  • given the promise and threat posed by genetic research,
  • and given that according to the psalmist God saves humans and animals alike (Ps. 36:6)

each of us as Christians can become the protecting saint of the creatures God has entrusted to our care. And together, we can join "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" in praising God who has created all creatures and called them good.


Let us pray: We thank you, God, for creating all that dwells within the world--and for calling it good. Give us the wisdom to preserve what you have created. We thank you for giving us dominion over the earth. Help us to wield the power that is ours with grace and compassion. We thank you for sending your Son to set creation free from its bondage to decay. Teach us to join all living creatures in praising your holy name, singing: "To you be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever."  In Christ's name we pray, Amen.



Peter Wallace: Nancy, you've offered a fascinating overview of the role of animals in creation and in our lives. You noted the great deal of positive attention given to animals in the Bible, and you said it should strike us as peculiar whenever Christians seek to maintain a distance between ourselves as human beings--made in the image of God--and the rest of the animal world. You maintain that such a stance is not biblical--why do you think people tend to take that stance?

Nancy Duff: I've given that some thought, and I'm not exactly sure why. Because I think there are people who love their pets; they love animals, they're not cruel people, they aren't people who would directly, intentionally hurt animals. But when it comes to things like the ways animals are treated in factory farms, the way the animals we eat are being raised and slaughtered, I think we just don't want to know. We enjoy what we eat, if we're not committed to vegetarianism. We can be very defensive about the treatment of animals--how they're raised, how they're slaughtered--before they come to our grocery store. And without wanting to instill guilt in people, I think we need to stop that sort of indifference, that not wanting to know, and make wiser choices when we buy the meat that we serve at home.

Peter Wallace: Of course this isn't to say that human beings aren't unique as a species, according to science or the Bible. You pointed out that we alone were created in God's image, made a little less than the angels, and given dominion over the rest of creation. These biblical affirmations you said actually set us in closer relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom. Would you say more about why that is?

Nancy Duff: Having been made in the image of God, if you interpret that as Karl Barth did to mean that because God is eternally in relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our being made in the image of God means we're created to be in relationship. That can mean a relationship to God and certainly to other human beings, but I'm suggesting that it also means being put in relationship with other animals. And what I want to affirm about that is that when we encounter animals that are very much like us or very different from us, they put a limit on who we are; and that's a God-given limit. God put limits on us to make us human, not less than human, but limits make us more human. And encountering animals can be a reminder of the human beings God intended us to be.

Peter Wallace: What's one thing from your message today that you hope our listeners will keep in mind this week?

Nancy Duff: I'd like Christians not to feel insulted when science--evolutionary science--says that we are closely related to some animals and rather rejoice in how God has put us in such close relationship to the primates, and science affirms that we share a great deal of DNA with them. But I'd also like people to consider that even the strangest animals that live at the bottom of the deepest sea, that we will never actually encounter, are also part of God's creation. So that everything we do that has to do with the environment has to do with the other creatures that God has made and called good. So in a very positive way I would like us to be encouraged to lead our lives so that we do less harm to God's creation and, most specifically, the animals.

Peter Wallace: And join with all of them in the praise of God.

Nancy Duff: Exactly. I think it's remarkable that the Bible says that the animals praised God.

Peter Wallace: Nancy Duff, thank you for being with us!



[1] For examples of passages that mention these animals see the following: bees (Dt. 1:44; Ps. 118:12; Judg. 14:8;), buffaloes (Gen. 41:18), horses (Isa. 28:28; Job 39: 19-25), bats (Lev. 11:19; Isa. 2:20), lizards (Lev. 11:30), pelicans (Lev. 11:18; Dt. 14:17) and peacocks (I Kings 10:22; 2 Chr. 9:21).

[2]Paul tells us, the whole world groans as "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8.19-23). See also Psalm 36.6: "You save humans and animals alike, O Lord."

[3] http://genetics.thetech.org/ask/ask309

[4]Animal geneticist Jonathan Beever, quoted in "Human to Pig Genome Comparison Complete," in National Hog Farmer, 9-15-05: http://nationalhogfarmer.com/news/human-to-pig

[5] Some mice are named "according to their physical characteristics or behaviors. The knockout mouse, "Methuselah," is characterized by longevity; "Frantic" is used for studying anxiety disorders. See: "Knockout Mice," National Human Genome Research Institute: https://www.genome.gov/12514551

[6] Reference to Karl Barth on animals can be found in Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan, eds., Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, New York: Cross Roads, 191-193. For the original, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4, The Doctrine of Creation, G.W. Bromiley, ed., Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1961, 348ff.




The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.


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