Animals as People

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, May 21, 2015

Animals as People

By now you may have heard that a judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will determine whether chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons” in the eyes of the law.

If you hadn’t heard this by now, no, I am not making this up.

The case is trying to determine whether the two chimps are being “unlawfully detained” because they are in cages at Stony Brook University. There are groups that support the idea that some animals, such as chimps, are “legal persons” with the right to “bodily liberty.” 

Critics of such positions contend that nonhuman animals do not have legal rights any more than they have legal responsibilities. 

This is not the first case of its kind.

A Spanish parliamentary committee adopted resolutions that would give great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the right to life, freedom from arbitrary captivity and protection from torture. In other words, the same legal rights as humans. 

The reasoning was based almost entirely on what it means to be human which, according to the naturalistic philosophy in place in our world, is entirely genetic. “Chimps...share 98.5% of human DNA, making them as genetically close to humans as horses are to zebras,” noted an article in USA Today

A court case from Austria went further, wanting to actually declare a chimp a person so the animal could have a legal guardian and funds for upkeep.

So why not treat man’s closest genetic relative with the legal and cultural rights they so genetically deserve? What else, to a naturalistic mind, would there be to consider?

I have often told my graduate students in theology that the most pressing doctrine of our day may very well be the doctrine of humanity. It is the area of Christian thought that is most challenged by the world in which we live – and the one where we have the least to draw from historically.

Find a reflection from Origen or Athanasius, Luther or Melanchthon, Barth or Brunner, that speaks to stem-cell research, human cloning, or transsexualism.

Or declaring chimps to be “persons.” 

As the first five centuries hammered out Christology, and later generations tackled everything from the Holy Spirit to revelation, ours may be the day that is forced to examine the doctrine of humanity in ways that serve the church for years to come.

But we’d better get to it.

Because right now, our thinking seems to be little more than just a bunch of,

(sorry, can’t resist)

…monkey business.

James Emery White


“Judge Orders Stony Brook University to Defend Its Custody of 2 Chimps,” Jesse McKinley, The New York Times, April 21, 2015, read online.

“Chimpanzees Take a Huge Step Toward (Some) Human Rights,” Brandon Keim, Wired, April 21, 2015, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Animals as People