Part I: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?

One of the central issues of the early church was whether or not Gentiles qua Gentiles-that is, uncircumcised Gentiles who did not adhere to typical Jewish ceremonial, liturgical, and dietary practices-should be full participants in the Christian community (cf. Acts 10, 11, and 15, Galatians).  As Raymond Brown observes, “[t]his was not detectably an issue solved by Jesus in his lifetime since he showed little interest in Gentiles.”[1] Should we therefore interpret Jesus’ primary focus on the Jews during his earthly ministry and his apparent disinterest in the Gentiles, as a moral failing on Jesus’ part or perhaps evidence of an overall lack of love and concern for Gentiles?  Neither the Gospel writers nor the Apostle Paul make such an inference, as they agree unanimously that Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the cross was an expression of his love for all humankind, Jews and Gentiles alike.  Brown goes on to say, “[i]f Jesus did not solve the most fundamental question of the Christian mission, we may well doubt that his recorded words solve most subsequent debated problems in the church.”[2]

Could not a Christian[3] claim, mutatis mutandis, neither do the recorded words of Paul nor the other authors of the New Testament have the final or definitive word on a number of important socio-political and ethical issues-issues that moderns and postmoderns, believers and atheists consider central concerns relevant to all human beings?  Slavery, it seems, is one such issue.  Questions such as whether or not the institution of slavery is inherently evil and whether or not Christians in the early church and in subsequent eras should join in efforts seeking to abolish slavery are questions, which the Bible[4] does not directly address.  Nonetheless, if one believes that Scripture still speaks to us today, then perhaps Scripture is not entirely silent on these issues.  Although there is strong evidence in the Bible itself that Jews[5] and Christians accepted the institution of slavery as a given state of affairs and did not directly call for its abolition in any of the texts of Scripture, it does not follow (1) that slavery with all of its concomitant assumptions and assertions is morally acceptable to God,[6] (2) is a “natural” state of human beings, (3) is compatible with natural law, (4) that the Gospel message and Paul’s exhortations to masters and slaves did relatively little to challenge the socio-political structures in place then but instead were primarily “spiritual” in nature, and (5) that Christians today should not actively seek to eradicate slavery in its various manifestations.   To sufficiently engage and defend (1)-(5) is beyond the scope of my present purposes.  However, in the concluding section, in footnotes and as specific issues arise over the course of the essay, I shall point to Scriptural principles, possible hermeneutical trajectories and later developments in the tradition that support my claims in (1)-(3) and (5).   My principal focus, however, is (4), that is, to answer whether or not the proclamation of the Gospel, and specifically, Paul’s application of the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection challenges the master/slave relationship.  And if so, is the institution of slavery at least indirectly subverted in the process?

Slaves and the slave/master relationship are mentioned in numerous books throughout the Old and New Testaments.[7] I shall enter into a very limited discussion of slavery, focusing primarily on 1 Cor 7:20-24.  After contextualizing and interpreting the passage, I shall discuss other related passages, principally, Philemon.  In the final section of the paper, I (briefly) consider by way of Duns Scotus some of the moral difficulties of slavery from an overtly philosophico-theological perspective.  It is my contention that biblical theology (that which focuses chiefly on exegesis and historia salutis) and systematic theology, as well as philosophical theology, can mutually benefit and complement one another, and in fact, need one another. Thus, in the concluding section, I shall attempt to set forth a trajectory of sorts, which takes into account further Christian reflection on the subject to which Christians might appeal and develop in discussions of the ethics of slavery.   With this overview in mind, let us turn to a general outline of 1 Corinthians, followed by a more detailed analysis of 1 Cor 7:20-24.


[1] Brown,  An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 330.

[2] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 331.

[3] By the term “Christian,” I have in mind a person who affirms what is set forth Niceo-Constantinoplian Creed and who views Scripture as authoritative.

[4] I am using the term “Bible” to denote the books contained within the Old and the New Testaments.

[5] Perhaps a partial explanation as to why we do not see whole scale condemnations of slavery in the Old Testament is because, God, who knowingly spoke into history at a particular time and to a particular culture, was acutely aware of the shortcomings of the cultural consciousness with regard to slavery (as well as polygamy) in those particular phases of human development and accommodated to their situated-ness and limitations in a way analogous to his speaking in ANE mythic language in the book of Genesis (the raqia).

[6] For instance, the assumption or claim that certain human beings may justly be treated as “things” and hence bought, sold, and dispensed with in the same manner that that one might treat without any moral misgivings inanimate tools.

[7] Cf. Gen 15:13, 16:1, 6, Exodus 6:5, 21:1-32, Lev 25:39-55, 1 Cor 7:21-24, Gal 3:28, Eph 6:5, Col 3:22, 1 Tim 6:1, Titus 2:9, 1 Pet 2:18 (This list is by no means exhaustive).

John Paul II on Slavery as Intrinsically Evil

In my research for a paper I’m working on, “St. Paul and Slavery:  Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?”, I came across an amazing passage in Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80, in which the late Pope John Paul II condemns slavery as an “intrinsically evil” act.  My respect for JPII continues to increase!

"Convoi de Femmes" by Alphonse Levy (1843-1918)

“Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’ [Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (December 2, 1984), 17: AAS 77 (1985), 221; cf. Paul VI, Address to Members of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, (September 1967): AAS 59 (1967), 962].  The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator’ [Gaudium et Spes, 27].” (accessed February 25, 2009).

Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and The Difference of Phenomenology

In his article, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” Jeremy Weate employs Frantz Fanon’s insights and critique of Merleau-Ponty to argue for a phenomenology that saves difference.  As Weate states,

“[i]n order to challenge a universalist approach to phenomenology and open up a philosophy of race, I shall display one of the profoundest critiques of phenomenology offered this century, that of Frantz Fanon in his paper The Lived Experience of the Black. […] As I shall show, in fact Fanon’s critique of phenomenology quickly exposes the core of its problematic relation to difference.  Fanon’s text therefore in my view provides a corrective to phenomenology, at the same time as showing how the theorization of lived experience that is its source can reveal the key issues at work between agency, history and the world, and perhaps most fundamentally, the possibilities for justice” (170).

Weate points to Merleau-Ponty’s “inclusive notion of ‘world'” as the locus of Fanon’s criticism, which in turn serves as a source for Fanon’s own radical phenomenology of difference.  Weate begins by drawing our attention to the first few pages of Fanon’s text, in which Fanon immediately brings us into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty by substituting the latter’s “notion of ‘corporeal schema’ (schéma corporel),” first with his own “‘schéma historico-racial'” and second with his “‘schéma épidermique racial'” (170).  Briefly stated, Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema describes the way in which the body’s agency makes manifest the historical world.  For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are not objects in space, rather they inhabit space and through them we experience the world and the other.  The relationship between body and world is one of mutual transformation, of “reciprocal transfer” (171).  While one can certainly engage in theoretical reflection on the interplay between body and world (as I am right now), Weate directs our attention to the pre-theoretical interplay between the two that occurs in our everyday engagements in the world and which “engenders a coporealized conception of freedom” (171).  In so far as the body is able to participate in and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.[1] As Weate explains,

“Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the corporeal schema leads implicitly to a conception of history as characterized essentially by difference.  Each moment of a culture’s transfer across time through the agency of bodies is at the same time the site of its own differentiation.  Moreover, there is therefore no ‘originary’ moment to any culture:  every culture that attempts to assert its sameness across time has to repress the difference at work in its origin in very present” (171).

According to Weate, Merleau-Ponty’s general point seems to be that “the relation between agency and historical freedom” is intimately related to our habituation.  That is, “it is a matter of habit and habituation that we perpetually contribute to the differentiation of our historical world (our “habitus”), from one moment’s action to the next” (171).

With this background in mind, we turn to Fanon’s text in order to explain why he substitutes schéma historico-racial and schéma épidermique racial for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of schéma corporel.  Fanon argues that a phenomenology of blackness-the experience of skin difference and of being the black other-can only be understood in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white imagination (171).[2] That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was “content to intellectualize these differences”; however, once he entered the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” he experienced his otherness and became aware of pre-theoretical racial attitudes that up to that point had not existed for him (Fanon, 90).  Fanon continues, making his first explicit references to Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema:

“In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema.  The image of one’s body is solely negating.  It’s an image in the third person.  All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty. […]  A slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world-such seems to be the schema.  It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world-definitive because it creates a genuine dialectic between my body and the world” (Fanon, 90-91).

As Weate explains, Fanon initially agrees with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that both the self and the world are constructed through the corporeal schema.  However, it becomes evident that when applied to the “interracial encounter of black bodies in the west,” the corporeal schema fails.

“Beneath the body schema I had created a historical-racial schema.  The data I used were provided not by ‘remnants of feelings and notions of the tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, or visual nature’ [Jean Lhermitte, L’image de notre corps, Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Critique, p. 17] but by the Other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” (Fanon, 91).

Here Fanon claims that Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, unified notion of the corporeal schema through which the self and world emerge in fact exhibits an asymmetry and disunity with regard to whites and blacks in their experience of and active participation the world.  As Weate explains,

“In the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin difference closes down the possibility of free agency.  A with mythos inserts itself between the black body and its self-image, becoming the ‘elements used’ in a reflexive understanding of black subjectivity.  In contesting the terms of Merleau-Ponty’s account of bodily freedom, Fanon provides a genealogy of the existential unfreedom of the black body in the racialized encounter” (172).


[1] Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a reified way; however, body should not be understood as a res, but rather as a crucial aspect of the psychosomatic whole, which constitutes a human being.

[2] “As long as the black man remains on his home territory, except for petty internal quarrels, he will not have to experience his being for others” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.  Rev. ed. Trans., Richard Philcox.  (New York:  Grove Press, 2008):  89.

Part II: R. Brown and L. Keck on Paul’s Letters and Their Nature as Epistolary Writings

In light of Paul’s calling as an apostle of Christ Jesus, not only to preach the Gospel but also to strengthen, encourage and exhort the fledgling converts, we may understand the aim of his epistolary writings broadly speaking as letters written for the purpose of persuading.[1] Thus, we may understand Paul’s letters as rhetorical in nature, crafted and designed to make an impact on its hearers and to inspire and move them to action of some sort.[2] Regarding the structure of the letters, Brown observes that just as Greco-Roman letters typically exhibit a clear format, so too New Testament letters reveal a clear structure.[3] In the format of the New Testament letters, four parts are distinguished:  (1) an opening formula (praescriptio), (2) a thanksgiving section, (3) the body of the message, and (4) a concluding formula.

Typically, there are three elements in the opening formula:  (a) the sender (superscriptio)-e.g., “Paul and Timothy servants of Christ” (Phil 1:1), “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:1) , (b) the addressee(s) (adscriptio)-“to the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2), and (c) the greeting (salutatio)-“grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”  (Phil 1:2).[4] In the Greco-Roman personal letter, one finds in the opening section a wish for good health; however, excepting 3 John, New Testament letters typically dispense with this element. Yet, as Brown notes, New Testament letters expand aspects of the opening formula with descriptions of the believers’ blessings and status in Christ.[5] For example, in 1 Cor 1:4-9, Paul enumerates the ways in which the believers at Corinth have been enriched in Christ with spiritual gifts, which are of course to be used for God’s glory.

In the thanksgiving section, we find phrases such as, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phil 1:3), which, in contrast to the Hellenistic norm of giving thanks to a god for deliverance from situation x or person y, the thanksgiving is expressed for the faithfulness of the saints.  Keck also notes that “the thanksgiving paragraph often modulates into an eschatological chord,”[6] reminding the believers of their already-not-yet situation in salvation history.  In addition, important themes are presented in the thanksgiving section-themes that will be further developed in the body of the letter (cf. Rom. 1:11-17).[7]

As just mentioned, in the body of the letter, the major themes are elaborated, and here again we find certain fixed patterns and structures.  Brown divides the body of the letter into three parts:  (1) the Body-Opening, (2) the Body-Middle, and (3) the Body-Closing.  In the Body-Opening section we typically find (a) an expression of joy of the news of the addressees’ well-being etc. (Phil 1:4; 2 Tim 1:4), and (b) a petition or request, which is a transition to the main message. Regarding (b), Brown enumerates five set properties:  (i) “a background for petition is usually given first as a prelude, often in terms of joy over the state of the addressee”; (ii) “The petition itself is expressed in terms of one of four verbs of asking”; (iii) “The addressee is written to directly in the vocative”; (iv) “There is an expression of courtesy”; (v) “The desired action is described.”[8] (pp. 416-17).

Because Brown devotes little attention to the Body-Middle section, I shall go directly to discuss the Body-Closing section.  Here we have (a) a statement regarding the motivation of the letter (that is, an explanation of why the letter was written; e.g., Rom 15:14-16), (b) expectations of confidence regarding the desired response of the addressees (e.g., Phlm 21), and (c) travel plans, possible visits, and further forms communication are announced as well (e.g., Rom 15:22-29).[9] Lastly, in the concluding formula, Paul again deviates from Greco-Roman conventions, as he never includes a wish for good health or a farewell.  Paul does, however, retain an expression of greetings in this section (e.g., “The churches of Asia send greetings,” 1 Cor 16:19).  In addition, Paul’s concluding formula also at times has a doxology, a benediction (e.g., “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you,” 1 Cor 16:23), and the idea of greeting with “a holy kiss” (e.g., “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss,” 1 Thess 5:26).[10] As Keck brings to our attention, Paul will at times “add a final note” in his own handwriting (1 Cor 16:21-24), which is likely an indication that his letter was dictated.[11] In sum, Paul’s letters are both like and unlike Greco-Romans letters.  Both share certain basic structural similarities, but there are clear examples in which Paul departs from convention, and, as Wall puts it, “baptizes” the literary conventions in order to communicate and express distinctively Christian ideas and ways of being.[12]

Works Cited/ Consulted

Brown, Raymond E.  An Introduction to the New Testament. New York:  Doubleday,

Keck, Leander E.  “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” in Paul and
His Letters.
(Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1988):  16-32.

Wall, Robert W.  “Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible,
Vol X.  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002):  369-391.


[1] As Brown states, “[t]he NT letters, particularly the Pauline letters, were meant to be read aloud in order to persuade” (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 411).  Wall reminds us as well that Paul writes as a pastor “seeking to nurture his flock,” not as a scholar (“An Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” p. 381).

[2] Congruent with and Brown’s observations, Keck adds that Paul’s letters “embody Paul’s intense personal involvement in the issues but they were also designed to be read (aloud) in the congregations (1 Thess. 5:27; Philemon 2).  Paul apparently wrote these letters as ‘stand-ins’ for his own presence. When a letter from Paul was read, it was as though Paul himself were speaking” (“The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 21). Keck has a helpful discussion of ancient rhetoric and how Paul’s letters correspond with the major parts of ancient discourses (exordium, narratio, peroratio) (cf. pp. 23-24).

[3] Cf. also, Wall’s discussion of the formal structures of epistolary literature, “An Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” pp. 380-83.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 413.

[5] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 414-15.

[6] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 22.

[7] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 22.

[8] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 416-17.

[9] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 417.

[10] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 418.

[11] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of His Letters,” 22-23.

[12] Wall, “An Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” p. 382.  For example, Paul’s typical greeting, “grace” (charis) and “peace” (eirēnē) involves not only a departure from the Hellenistic salutation, chaire (“greetings”), but it also introduces a common Jewish greeting, shalom (“peace”).  As Wall explains, “[t]he rhetorical effect of the salutation is two-fold:  It addresses the audience as beneficiaries of God’s universal salvation and prefaces the subject matter of the letter by the essential promise of Paul’s gospel-that salvation is entered into by ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ with God is the result” (p. 380, italics added).

Part I: R. Brown and L. Keck on Paul’s Letters and Their Nature as Epistolary Writings

Paul’s letters constitute approximately one-half of the New Testament corpus and are typically classed by scholars as protoPauline and deuteroPauline letters.  ProtoPauline letters are judged with a large degree of certainty to have been written by Paul.  According to Raymond Brown, these letters are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans.[1] The deuteroPauline group is thought not to have been written by Paul himself.  These letters are 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, 1-2 Timothy.[2] As Brown observes, though in the canonical order of the New Testament, both the Synoptic Gospels and Acts appear prior to Paul’s letters, and the latter were likely the first New Testament letters to be written.  We must also keep in mind that these letters were addressed to specific communities (and individuals), at specific geographical locations, and deal with particular issues that have arisen within the community.  In other words, Paul’s letters were occasional letters.  Consequently, we must exercise caution when interpreting the letters, taking care not to turn particular, cultural and often crisis-inspired instructions into timeless truths to be applied in the very same way in all times and all places.[3] Yet, as orthodox Christians and those who believe in the incarnational analogy of Scripture as the work of both human authors and a divine Author, neither ought we view Paul’s writings (or the Bible as a whole) as entirely culturally and contextually bound such that it must remain silent in the past, having nothing whatsoever to say to us today.

At this point we should ask, what is an epistolary writing, and is there a difference between an epistle and a letter?  A. Deissmann, for example, offers the following criterion as a means to distinguish between an epistle and a letter.  An epistle is “an artistic literary exercise, generally presenting a moral lesson to a general audience, and intended for publication,” whereas, a letter is “a nonliterary means of communicating information between a writer and a real correspondent separated by distance from one another.”[4] If one accepts Deismann’s distinction, then Paul’s writings are letters rather than epistles.  However, many scholars find this classification too rigid and either qualify it with their own refinements or simply reject the schema altogether, highlighting the fact that “ancient rhetorical handbooks show a wide range of Greco-Roman letter types.”[5] As we shall see shortly, Paul’s letters both reflect aspects of his cultural context, yet they also expand and add new features to the typical structural format for such letters.   Before discussing the structural details of Paul’s letters, we should say a few words about the editorial aspects of Paul’s letters.

Both Keck and Brown note that Paul’s letters were in fact edited.  In a few instances, such as the varied placement of the concluding benediction of Romans, the manuscript discrepancies lead us to conclude that editorial work has occurred.[6] However, in most cases, editorial work comes to light via internal evidence.  Keck provides the following example:  “Phil. 1:1 mentions bishops and deacons.  Since it appears that our Philippians is a compilation of shorter letters, one suspects that here the editor has updated the greeting to include church officials.  Apart from this reference, there is no indication that such offices existed during Paul’s own time.”[7] Two common indicators of editorial work are tensions in the content itself and awkward transitions.  Keck points to Phil 3:2-21 as an example of an abrupt interruption of the theme of joy, which begins at Phil 3:1 and resumes at Phil 4.[8] As to an example of a tension in the account, Keck cites 2 Cor 8 and 9, “both of which deal with the collection of funds for Jerusalem, but from different points of view.”[9] In short, generally speaking, Paul’s letters were in a very real sense co-authored by way of editorial additions[10] and deletions and scribal interpretations.[11] Nonetheless, one should also emphasize God’s providence over the entire process, which of course includes redaction and editorial work, the choice of certain amenuenses and so forth.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament.  (New York:  Doubleday, 1997), p. 419.

[2] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 419.

[3] Leander Keck, in his chapter entitled, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” in Paul and His Letters.  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1988):  [16-32] provides a helpful discussion along these lines on p. 20.  See also Wall’s discussion of Paul’s letters as occasional correspondences in “An Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol X.  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002):  [369-391], p. 371.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.

[5] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.

[6] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[7] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[8] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[9] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 18

[10] Keck divides assertions into two kinds:  “interpolations (new material) and glosses (interpretive comments originally made in the margin, then incorporated by a copyist” (“The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 18).  For example, 1 Thess 2:14-16 is an interpolation in which the most likely referent, the fall of Jerusalem, is explained “as God’s punishment on the Jews for killing Jesus and persecuting Christians” (Ibid., p. 18).

[11] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.

Augustine and Scotus on Slavery

One would be hard pressed to deny that slavery as an institution was widely accepted in the ancient world.  Both the Old and New Testaments, participating in the cultural consciousness of their day, also appear to accept slavery as an institution (cf. Exodus 21:1-32; Lev 25:39-55; 1 Cor 7:21ff; Philemon; 1 Pet 2:18).  (By the way, I am very open to any readings of these texts that would argue otherwise.  If you happen to have commentary suggestions or know of exegetically-based arguments that have been published in scholarly essays, please send them my way).  However, I find it not insignificant that at least two premodern Christian theologians/philosophers, concluded (1) that slavery as such is immoral (Scotus) and (2) that slavery is never a “natural” condition but one that has arisen as the result of sin (Augustine).  For example, in De civitate Dei, St. Augustine says,

The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage:  a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice.[1]

Augustine goes on to state,

By nature, then, in the condition in which God first created man, no man is the slave either of another man or of sin.  But it is also true that servitude itself is ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disruption.  For if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been no need for the discipline of servitude as a punishment.  The apostle therefore admonishes servants to be obedient to their masters, and to serve them loyally and with a good will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they can at least make their own slavery to some extent free [cf. Eph 6:5].  They can do this not by serving with cunning fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness shall cease, and all authority and power be put down, that God may be all in all [1 Cor 15:24, 28].[2]

In addition to Augustine, Duns Scotus in article 1 of Ord 4, d 36, q 1, argues in stark contrast with his ancient (e.g., Aristotle) and early medieval predecessors (excepting Augustine) that slavery (as described by Aristotle in bk. I of the Politics) is incompatible with natural law, is “not good but bad for the slave,” and is introduced “only by positive law.” Scotus goes on to say that there are only two instances in which this kind of slavery can be just:  (1) voluntary servitude (e.g. to pay a debt) and (2) in the case of hardened criminals who might otherwise harm themselves or others.  Yet, he says that (1) is “foolish” and still may go against the law of nature (Wolter/Frank, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, pp. 325-6).

I often hear the claim made that convictions such as (1) human beings should not be considered the “property” of another human being and (2) slavery per se is morally reprehensible are simply  modern/postmodern sensibilities created and propagated by political liberalism (which is not a jab at political liberalism).  I have to admit that I am deeply suspicious of this claim and find it rather unconvincing.  After all, there were at least two premoderns (Augustine and Scotus and imagine many others of which I am unaware) who claimed that slavery was un-natural (contra Aristotle) and that it violated natural law. (Augustine does, however, seem to offer more of a justification for the institution that might not be in the end very helpful for seeking to abolish slavery.  Scotus’s position, in contrast, might provide a stronger argument for the injustice and moral wrongness of all forms of slavery wherein one human “owns” another as property).

Among other questions that one might raise, what role do the following play:  (1)  cultural blindness (and I’m not denying cultural blindness and biases in our own day) and (2) an oppressive system that prohibits or seeks to suppress voices which speak against the acceptance of slavery as an institution? Relating these questions to the texts of Scripture, should we understand what appears to be an acceptance of slavery as a given state of affairs as an example of cultural blindness on the part of the human authors of Scripture?  (I’m not willing to say that the Bible explicitly promotes slavery).  Lastly, if it turns out that slavery in the ancient world (OT times and the Greco-Roman period) is in many ways significantly different from the various manifestations of slavery in the modern world,[3] might these dis-analogous aspects provide a basis for a strong condemnation by (modern/postmodern) Christians of any form of slavery (or related oppressive practices) driven by racial hatred or an elitism in which one group considers itself ontologically superior to another and thus denies equal educational, employment, housing and so on to the putative inferior group?


[1] Augustine De civitate Dei, 19.15; ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998), 943.

[2] De civ. Dei., 943-44.

[3] For example, many New Testament scholars (S. Scott Bartchy) stress that some slaves of the Roman period were wealthy, well-educated, owned other slaves, and were more economically secure than many free peasants.  In addition, Bartchy claims that slaves in the NT period did not constitute a social class but rather a “juridical class.”  Bartchy adds, “In outward appearance it was usually impossible to distinguish among slaves, freedmen and free persons.  Neither the slave’s clothing nor his or her race revealed a legal or social status.  Patterns of religious life, friends, or work did not separate slaves from freed persons or freeborn workers” (“Slavery” in Vol. 4, Q-Z of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1988): 544).  A number of other scholars, however, argue vehemently against such overly positive presentations of ancient slavery (cf. Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery From Aristotle to Augustine).