Dominion and communion: Patristic theology and the ethics of humanity's relationship with animal creation

Ian Charles Jones, Fordham University


The aim of this dissertation is to read a range of ancient Christian sources in terms of their explicit and implicit theological understandings of animals and human dominion over them, and to put these sources in conversation with modern thought on animal ethics. The ancient texts selected are primarily fourth-century homilies and treatises on Genesis by the preeminent Greek and Latin patristic authorities of the era, together with pre-Schism hagiographies from East and West depicting interactions between saints and animals. The modern texts are works by theologians David Clough and Andrew Linzey, and by philosopher Roger Scruton. While the ancient texts reflect the traditional Christian affirmation of human uniqueness and superior creaturely value owing to creation in the imago Dei and reception of dominion, they do so in a way that situates this privileged status in a matrix of other traditional Christian affirmations, including the moral imperative of compassion and mercy, and the related ascetic imperative of rational control of the passions. In this broader context, even the most “anthropocentric” assertions in the patristic sources do not lend support to the institutionalized cruelty upon which the modern industrial farm and research laboratory are founded. These two scenes are the most ethically significant today, because of both the magnitude of their effect on animals and the character of human attitudes regarding the proper reach of our prerogatives. Broad consensus can be seen in the ancient and contemporary sources that such practices run contrary to the position and vocation with which God invested humanity. Greater divergence may be found with respect to older practices of a more agrarian and less industrial or technological character, such as traditional hunting, fishing, and farming. Interestingly, these cases show Scruton more frequently aligning with the substantive arc of the traditional sources than do Linzey and Clough, despite the use of ancient Christian sources by the latter two in support of their arguments. But the alignment is not clear-cut in every respect, and all of these sources have much to contribute to a Christian understanding of the proper exercise of human dominion in today’s world.

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Recommended Citation

Jones, Ian Charles, "Dominion and communion: Patristic theology and the ethics of humanity's relationship with animal creation" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10013400.