The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Towards the Vegan Ideal of Genesis

From the Winter 1991 edition of The Vegan: 

Dr Robert Hamilton, a teacher of marketing in a university school of management, examines recent Christian teaching on the moral status of creation and discovers some important messages for the modern world

At the time when the Vatican was beginning to speak out on the ecological crisis, in 'Solicitudo Rei Socialis' (1988) and in the Pope's 1990 New Year Message, the World Council of Churches has had a parallel process of consultations on the same subject under the theme 'Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation'. Both the Vatican and the WCC are continuing a long, biblical tradition of prophecy about making true the relationships between God, people and nature. They both revive an all-encompassing vision of God's creation that our contemporary world needs.

In the New Year message, John Paul ll pointed out that the ecological crisis is a moral problem, basically one of solidarity with the whole of creation. In 'Solicitudo'', he had written that one thing we need to do is realize "the appropriateness of acquiring a growing awareness of the fact that one cannot use with impunity the different categories of being, whether living or inanimate - animals, plants, the natural elements - simply as one wishes, according to one's own economic needs. On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system" (para 34). In a recent speech the Pope pointed out that, in The Bible, God's breath is the life not only in humans but also in non-human creation, so undermining the popular, but ill-defined idea that only humans have souls.

Within the WCC, a meeting of theologians in Annecy, France in 1998 considered the moral status of non-human life in more detail. The theme of its report, 'The Liberation of Life', extends "the world-wide plea for peace and justice to all creatures, whom we humans need in order to exist, and who are valuable in themselves and to God."

Two Christian Traditions

The earliest Christian records have a religious vision in which everything is created by Christ and redeemed by Him, for example: "God wanted all perfection to be found in Him [Christ] and all things reconciled through Him and for Him, everything in heaven and everything on earth" (Col 1:19-20). However, another tradition has an exclusive, God-man view: "We have been taught" Justin Martyr says in 150 CE, "that God did not make the World aimlessly, but for the sake of the human race." In this human-centred vision the non-human had no moral stature in itself. As Aquinas writes: "According to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man. Hence, as Augustine says, 'by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our use' ". This has been the dominant vision within Christianity for many centuries.

New Moral Rules

The modern, sorry treatment of animals on farms, in abattoirs, laboratories, sport and entertainments and the linked environmental threats, have prompted a reconsideration of the status of non-human animals. The Annecy report is the first official statement which speaks in detail on the treatment of animals and which offers precise moral rules. Liberation of Life, it concludes, is about the integrity of the eco-system, the maintenance of biological diversity, and justice and peace for individuals, people and animals.

On our relationship with individuals, human and non-human, the report wants Churches to break out of the habit of ignorance and study how animals are treated today and how this treatment departs from the respect due to God's creation. Some ethical guidelines are recommended for Christians. In summary these are:

- avoiding products that have been cruelly tested on animals;

- avoiding clothing, e.g. fur, that involves cruelty;

- avoiding eating meat produced in intensive farm systems;

- avoiding entertainments that demean animals, e.g. circuses

This report gives the WCC the chance to make an adjustment to the pragmatic compromise on meat-eating that goes back to Genesis. It is an adjustment that many people, Christians and others, think is long overdue.

Vegan Ideal of Genesis

The vision of a perfect world at the beginning of Genesis contains the divine command to eat a vegan diet. "I give you all the seed-bearing plants that are upon the whole earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food" (1:29). This moral ideal of Genesis receives modern scientific support in Gill Langley's recent (1988) book, Vegan Nutrition, which brings together the research evidence on vegan nutrition.

Pragmatic Compromise

This ideal is adapted, but not rejected, after the flood. In a society seemingly addicted to meat, personally and socially, the authors of Genesis sought a compromise to allow the eating of flesh "so that", as Calvin puts it, "we might eat it without a doubtful and trembling conscience". Meat eating was permitted, but only if the reverence due to life that God created was maintained by avoiding blood, the symbol of life (Genesis 9:1-14).

This became a religiously and socially approved rule for applying the general vision of Genesis, which is, in the words of Robert Murray, the biblical scholar, that "We are fellow creatures of everything else in the cosmos; we have no right to destroy, but we have duties to all, under God to whom we are responsible".

The rule was important. It is included in the four essential rules for gentile converts laid down by the early Church: "you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication" (Acts 15:29). St Paul seems to disagree with his "of course all food is clean" (Rm 14:20), but whatever his meaning, he was not authorizing cannibalism or disregard for the rules on eating animals. Paul accepted the Genesis compromise though he chose to be a vegetarian: "since food can be the cause of my brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of a brothers downfall" (1Cor. 8-13). Possibly, like Daniel, he opted for a vegan diet (Dan 1:13). In The Bible, eating animals has many moral pitfalls; the vegan ideal avoids all these, and is unconditionally pleasing to God.

New Compromise

Annecy offers a new compromise. As in Genesis, it is based upon observation of the contemporary world. There is still a personal and social addiction to meat, but now the animals are produced in intensive systems as machines, where virtually every natural form of behaviour is thwarted. The systematic deprivation and the cruelty involved is seen by Annecy as devoid of the reverence due to God's creatures. A new rule about eating animals is recommended: to avoid factory farmed animal products and instead eat animal products "from sources where the animals have been treated with respect, or abstain from these products altogether".

This moral rule means it will be very difficult for a Christian in Europe to find acceptable poultry, eggs, veal and pork; beef, fish, milk and milk products will require careful choice. When higher prices are asked for the morally better animal products, as often happens, the choice between God and Mammon is raised in a new way. As a solution to these practical problems Annecy offers the option of abstaining from animal products. Put positively, Annecy suggests the ideal vegan diet of Genesis, which is morally better, nutritionally at least as good and usually cheaper than a meat based diet. There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for us in its hands.

Closer to the Ideal

Annecy's new moral rule can be only the first step. There are imperative reasons for raising our moral sights higher and making the new compromise much closer to the ideal of Genesis. One is the lack of sufficient reason for killing. A second is the need to feed the world's population. A third, linked to the second, is the ecological threat to forests and grasslands from farm animals.

It is very difficult, in Europe, to eat animal products and not support factory farming. It is almost impossible to eat meat and avoid supporting hunger in the world and the ecological destruction. It is impossible in Western countries to have sufficient nutritional reasons for taking the life of any of God's creatures.

For these reasons, there is a need to revise the Genesis compromise that was worked out in a different situation to the world of today. Annecy is in the right direction, but, as stewards of the beauty of God's creation, there is an urgent need for us to move much further along the road towards the vegan ideal of Genesis.


'Liberation of Life'. Consultation Report for the Church and Society of the World Council of Churches, France, September 1988.

Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologia', 2, Question 64, Article 1.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol 3, part 4 ('The Doctrine of Creation'). 352-56. Eds & trans. A T Mackay et alii. T & T Clark, 1961

J Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, vol. 1.

Justin, 2 Apology 4.

G Langley, Vegan Nutrition: A Survey of Research, The Vegan Society, 1988

Reproduced with Thanks to the Vegan Society:

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