In his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes, Gregory of Nyssa takes up the issue of slavery. Ecclesiastes 2:7 says, “I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.” Gregory’s subsequent comments regarding the text arise from an argument informed by a specifically Christian anthropology. He calls such a statement a “boast” and a “challenge to God.” Relating back to creation in Genesis 1, Gregory points to the creation mandate of man ruling over animals. In regards to slavery he states, “Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which even footless things?” It is only “irrational beasts” who are to be the “slaves of mankind.” Gregory notes the absurdity of man enslaving man, declaring that man has been dividing into two species, causing “it to be enslaved to itself.”
Nyssen’s polemic against slavery is a remarkable piece of historical anomaly. The New Testament, while maintaining that believers (including slaves) are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28), never sets forth a parameter for institution emancipation. Paul’s encouragement to slaves who where believers “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Eph 6:5; cf. Col 3:22). To masters Paul exhorts, “[Treat] your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1). While the New Testament avoids any sort of institutional emancipation language, the message of the gospel radically reorients one’s perspective on how to treat others, especially those in your care or those who have authority over you. An argument can easily be made, however, that even though the Apostle Paul did not call for abolishment, he nonetheless did not promote the practice nor goodness of slavery (see the 1 Tim 1:10; see also the letter to Philemon where Paul implores to Philemon not only to gracious receive Onesmius back but to do even more than he says, probably alluding to his desire to see him freed).
With this in mind, the Greco-Roman understanding of slavery was one of societal necessity and dominance. One was a slave to pay off debt (as an indentured servant), or one was a slave due to military conquest. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle conjectured that one was a slave based on nature. Those with a lesser nature necessarily occupy a lesser position in society. Christian ethics informed how one was to treat one in such a position, based on the message of the gospel. Though early Christians did not advocate for the abolishment of such a culturally entrenched institution, Christians held to a higher standard on treatment of slaves. There are examples of Christians freeing slaves in their care, but ultimately did not seek radically to demolish the social structure of Greco-Roman slavery. Gregory’s own sister, Macrina, convinced her mother to free her slaves in order to enter a monastic lifestyle. Gregory’s brother Naucratius essentially freed his own slave to become a monastic disciple. Clearly the ideal of slavery in Greco-Roman context was pliable within Gregory’s own household.
To this end, Gregory continues in his homily informed by a distinctly Christian anthropology. Humanity is made in the image of God and therefore is ultimately God’s property, not belonging to another person. God himself, though he is the proper master of mankind, does not subject persons to slavery. Gregory states, “God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?” Gregory deplores the idea of allowing a piece of paper (a contract to purchase another man) to take the place of man’s image-bearing characteristics. Gregory can see no difference between the slave and owner, for both derive “from the same ancestors” and share the same “pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death.” After death, both return to dust. A contract cannot distinguish the differences between one man and another.
Gregory — regrettably — holds a unique place among the early church as one who vehemently denounces the practice of slavery. Though the New Testament does not pronounce a wholesale abolishment of the Greco-Roman culture of slavery, it does establish a trajectory of radical redefinition of the slave-master relationship. Gregory takes this redefinition to its logical conclusion. His is a deeply theocentric and anthological argument. What God has created and endowed with his image, no other person should boast of owning. The existence of sin in the world does not excuse the ongoing practice of slavery. In this way, Gregory is refreshingly unique for his time.
About the Author:Coleman M. Ford
Coleman is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and on pastoral staff at the Village Church. His dissertation focuses on spiritual friendship and pastoral care in Augustine of Hippo. His other research interests lie in pastoral care and theology, patristic exegesis, and patristic spirituality.