Men without Chests

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, December 12, 2013

Men without Chests

It was only a matter of time.

An animal rights group has filed what it claims is the first U.S. lawsuit seeking to establish the “legal personhood” of chimpanzees.

At issue is a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy.  A New York State court is being asked to declare Tommy “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

It is not, however, the first case of its kind worldwide.

Consider the Spanish parliamentary committee which 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

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? 

Then there was the court case from Austria wanting to actually declare a chimp a person so the animal could have a legal guardian and funds for upkeep.  The effort to declare the chimp (named Matthew Hiasl Pan) a person was not successful, but it was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.  “If Matthew should win,” noted one reporter, “the case would set a legal precedent across Europe to treat apes with some of the same rights as people.”

There can be little doubt that cruelty to animals should be deplored, but that is not what is ultimately at hand in such cases. 

What is at hand is the very definition of human identity.

Which is our soul.

To be human is to be made in the image of God, which in essence is the ability to respond to and relate to God.  We talk of being “magnanimous,” and often define it as being noble in intent.  But the word literally means “high-souled,” for only through a soul can there be such nobility.

Or as C.S. Lewis put it, to have “chests.” 

As Lewis explains, there is intellect, and there are appetites.  Between them, for humans, lies something utterly distinct:

“The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments…It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”

Removing this would create “Men without Chests.”

But that is precisely how our world views human beings.  We have intellect, and emotion, and appetite, but not soul.  As a result, why not declare a chimp a person?  They have everything required to be so deemed.

Of course, this creates a bit of a social dilemma.

As Lewis ends his essay,

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

That doesn’t work with chimps.

It doesn’t even work with humans.

James Emery White


James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).

“US lawsuit demands 'legal personhood' for chimpanzees,” Bonnie Malkin, The Telegraph, December 2, 2013, read online.

“Activists pursue basic legal rights for great apes,” Jeffrey Stinson, USA Today International, July 16, 2008, p. 2A, read online.

C.S. Lewis, “Men without Chests,” The Abolition of Man.

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 newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Men without Chests