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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Theology’s Challenge: Incest and Apes

I have long told my students that the doctrine of humanity is, by far, the most pressing doctrine of our day, for it is the area of Christian thought that is most challenged by the world in which we live, and the nature of those challenges tend to leave most Christians bereft of any sense of knowing how to respond.


For one, there is no rich historical vein of theological reflection to pull from, at least in terms of our current cultural conversation; find me a reflection from Origen or Athanasius, Luther or Melanchthon, Barth or Brunner, that speaks to stem-cell research, human cloning, or homosexual rights.  Yes, there is much on what constitutes humanity, the nature of humanity in relation to God, and the boundaries of sexual ethics - but the issues of our day are asking questions that leave previous theological discourse sorely lacking.  As the first five centuries hammered out Christology, and later generations tackled everything from the Holy Sprit 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.


And the challenge is real.


Consider the London Times report titled “I used to have sex with my brother but I don’t feel guilty about it” which offered a detailed narrative of a woman’s sexual relationship with her biological brother from the time of 14 to nearly 30, until he met another person and married.  Their sexual trysts were revealed as part of a tale of sibling intimacy and friendship that ended with the ubiquitous reasoning that they were not hurting anyone, so why make it so wrong?  Much was made that her brother, only a year older, never pushed himself on her and that she was a willing participant.  The author’s lament is that something “so lovely and natural to me would be regarded as abhorrent.”


At the time of this writing, it continues to be the most read story on the newspapers website, with the vast majority of the posted feedback I read supportive in nature.


And then there was news of a 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 is 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,” notes USA Today.  So why not treat man’s closest genetic relative with the legal and cultural rights they so genetically deserve?  What else, to the naturalistic mind, would there be to consider? 


A court case from Austria is going further, wanting to actually declare a chimp a person so the animal could have a legal guardian and funds for upkeep.  Sound absurd?  The European Court of Human Rights is now considering an appeal on behalf of a 28-year-old chimp named Matthew Hiasl Pan.  “If Matthew should win,” noted USA Today International, “the case would set a legal precedent across Europe to treat apes with some of the same rights as people.”


“I’d call is a slippery slope-plus,” says Richard Cupp, associate dean for research at California’s Pepperdine University School of Law. 


Such stories represent the two great contests facing the Christian doctrine of humanity:  the boundaries of accepted sexual expression, and the boundaries of accepted human identity.  Granted, we may have been on watch in relation to such matters as euthanasia or infanticide, but the challenge has far more fronts to monitor. 


Such as incest and apes.


James Emery White





“I used to have sex with my brother but I don’t feel guilty about it,” as told to Joan McFadden, times2, The London Times, Tuesday, July 15, 2008, pp. 10-11; the story can be read at at


“Activists pursue basic legal rights for great apes,” Jeffrey Stinson, USA TODAY International. Wednesday, July 16, 2008, p. 2A.  Read online at