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).

26 thoughts on “Augustine and Scotus on Slavery”

  1. I believe the Stoics generally regarded slavery as against the natural law, though they felt that much else in civilization was too, and perhaps inevitably so; and thus wouldn’t have been particularly inspired to take decisive steps to ensure its total elimination. But in principle they were against it, as I recall.

    About Philemon, I think a strong case can be made that Paul really isn’t accepting slavery as an institution, but is rather subverting it: he is rhetorically indirect, but his claim is to be an agent of a conquering King, and that in this regard Philemon owes him (Paul) his life. This is crucial, for this was one of the principles of ancient slavery, that the survivors of a city taken in war were the property of the conquering city, since they could have been put to death; their lives were forfeit. Paul is making that sort of claim over Philemon, which in effect denies Philemon’s right to “own” anyone at all. .This is corroborated by Paul’s declaration that he could give an order, if he chose to, but that the nomos, as it were, of the new conqueror prefers not to work that way: its way is to appeal to love and free action. Paul also refers to Onesimus as having been “useless” in the political condition of slavery, but says he is “useful” as free. The very substance of ancient slavery is undone here, or so it seems to me.


  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your comment.

    As I recall in my study of Stoic philosophy (which is certainly limited), they, following a general dualism scheme, placed slavery (e.g. Epictetus) in the category of external things outside of one’s control. For instance, what happened to one’s body (being beaten) or what one was commanded to do with one’s body (unwilling sexual acts) was outside of one’s control (if you are a slave); thus, you must not allow yourself to be disturbed or concerned by such things. Rather, “freedom” is a property of the mind, and a slave can have control over his/her thoughts, opinions etc. So one’s “inner” opinions become the focus and locus of freedom, Anything outside your control (e.g., enslavement) is what you must simply accept. Whatever happens, happens by nature, and nothing can happen that is not natural. (Cf. also, Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, pp. 16-18).

    With regard to Philemon, I’ve not studied this book in detail (and am certainly no NT scholar); however, it seems crucial to keep in mind that we are dealing here with two fellow Christians, Philemon, a Christian slave owner, and Onesimus, a new convert to Christianity—apparently a convert of Paul’s while Paul was imprisoned. Prior to Onesimus’s conversion he apparently ran away (and perhaps even stole from Philemon, though the text doesn’t say that directly) from Philemon, which is (at least in part) why he was “useless” to Philemon; yet, now as a convert, he is a brother in Christ, and if he walks in obedience to Christ, would of course be more “useful” in a richer sense (no more running away but more than that the two could mutually encourage one another as believers). Couldn’t one simply say that Paul is in no way calling into question slavery as an institution (I truly wish he was), rather, he is appealing to a Christian brother to show his difference from the world, that is, from worldly masters who lord their status over their slaves and treat them with cruelty. Onesimus’s status in Christ is no different from that of Philemon’s (cf. Gal 3:28), but according to his legal status, he is still a slave—property of another human being (legally speaking). I don’t doubt that the within the Christian community, their was a call to a kind of radical equality with regard to status in Christ and a call to Christian masters to treat their slaves with kindness; but I don’t see anything in the NT that directly speaks to the immorality of the institution of slavery as such.

    Also, if your reading is correct, how do you understand Peter’s command to slaves to be subject not only to good masters but to unjust masters? He doesn’t seem to call into question slavery as an institution. How does Peter’s command here harmonize with your reading of Paul? I’m not suggesting that it cannot, but I’d like to hear your read.

    Best wishes,


    p.s. I’m taking a class that covers Philemon this semester, so hopefully I’ll have more to say in a few months.

  3. Cynthia,

    The Stoics definitely critiqued slavery as against the natural law. What you recall about the Stoics and their external/internal distinction is true with respect to the tactic of resignation in the face of what cannot be controlled: but the Stoics didn’t think that every external event was a product of nature, and certainly felt that philosophers could appeal to natural law to improve deformed civic and juridical situations.

    With regard to Philemon: my argument is that Paul is indirectly arguing that the very conditions of slavery are nullified: Philemon is himself now a “captive” ex-member of a destroyed city (the city of Gentile order), and thus incapable of owning slaves, though, as I said, Paul’s claim is that the nomos of the new conqueror is freedom, and thus aims to elicit free action, rather than “command” things. The master/slave relation, in so far as it remained in that case, would be a mere appearance (cf Agamben in “The Time That Remains” on specious persistence of social forms in Messianic time), a bit of theater, almost (but there was a fatal danger in this, about which more shortly). But Paul is pretty obviously encouraging manumission, even in the legal sense. I continue to think that the Epistle to Philemon is actually a critique of the very institution of slavery.

    As for Peter, his counsel is taking into consideration political reality: the (unhappy)sovereignty of Gentile order has been nullified by Christ, but Caesar doesn’t know it yet- and Caesar is very very strong. Peter is dealing with a situation where the only options of counsel available to him is one akin to the Stoic view: control what you can. Peter is certainly not counseling active cooperation in injustice or sin: he is only asking that Christian slaves do their jobs peacefully, even if the master is a tyrant; he is not endorsing the institution of slavery itself, though, not so far as I can see. Peter (and Paul) doubtless expected the time to be very short. And that was part of the later problem: the apostolic expectation seems to have been that the historical parenthesis would be extremely brief. Thus, there was very little apostolic sketching of what an ideal social order actually would like, which allowed sinful Christians, as the years dragged on, to mistake the original apostolic relation to slavery, which was provisional, tactical, and subersive, as being rather a sort of this-world/next-world distinction, thus giving sinful Christians warrant, in their own minds, to engage in slavery. It was one of the very great failures of the early Church that it did not actually forbid slavery altogether among its members. Allowing the legal form of slavery to remain even nominally, allowed for the possibility that the forms could be filled back up again with their original substance, which is exactly what happened in the end. The Church was sadly much more concerned about putting aside concubines before baptism, or wives before episcopal ordination, than with putting aside slavery: though there were voices of protest throughout. But too few.

    Lastly, if I understand what you’re getting at, you seem to be suggesting that a)given a Christian critique of ancient slavery, and b)granting the supposition that ancient slavery was in some important respects disanalogous to modern slavery, namely that c) it comprehended social statuses which were in many respects very much like ancient citizenship but still had the crucial legal disability barring full participation, that therefore d) modern Christians can analogously extend the critique of ancient slavery to current practices which moderns would call by the legal and social category of discrimination. If that’s what you’re saying, I think you’re right. But it might be important to note that reason alone can get to that conclusion: the Stoics thought slavery was bad, and modern Stoic could easily extend the ancient critique to modern practices of injustice which aren’t called slavery, but have much in common with the ancient thing which went under that name. I say this by way of preemptive rejection of any Milbankian conclusions which might (wrongly) be drawn from the prior point.


  4. A quick response (more later when I have time): in which specific works do the Stoics critique the institution of slavery per se (rather than individuals presenting critiques of the abuses of masters or something similar)?

  5. If I recall correctly, Thomas Aquinas holds the same or very similar position in regard to slavery. I believe he holds slavery to be contrary or not mandated by natural law, but imposed by positive law alone. In this latter regard, I think it can be justified under the same conditions that Scotus says, except I don’t believe Aquinas holds that one can legitimately put oneself into slavery (except for grave cause, such as the Mercedarians, ect.).

  6. Hi Al,

    I find Thomas’s answer in Summa Theologiae II-II, 57, 3, ad. 2, somewhat vague and not as “strong” as Scotus’. E.g. Thomas states, “Considered absolutely, the fact that this particular man should be a slave rather than another man, is based, not on natural reason, but on some resultant utility, in that it is useful to this man to be ruled by a wiser man, and to the latter to be helped by the former, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 2). Wherefore slavery which belongs to the right of nations is natural in the second way, but not in the first.” How are we to understand “what is useful” to the slave, who determines who the “wiser man” is? Also, Thomas appeals to Aristotle as an authority here, and Aristotle firmly believed in the so-called “natural” subordination of the so-called “inferior” to the so-called “superior” and lists as supposedly uncontroversial examples, the inferiority of females to males along with the inferiority of slaves to masters–views, which I personally find wholly unconvincing, not to mention bizarre and offensive. Do you take Thomas here to be departing radically from Aristotle, because he claims that slavery cannot be justified by natural reason, whereas Aristotle does of course does? That’s a definite improvement, but it doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments on one male (given Thomas’s day) owning another male or female as property, which seems contrary to natural law. Perhaps Thomas says something more radical in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics (I haven’t read that, so if you have and want to summarize his view, I’d love to read it).

    Best wishes,

  7. In know I’m new here, but I feel I should comment anyway. First, in The Feminist Companion to Paul there is an interesting essay on Philemon. The author argues that Onesimus is not a runaway but was sent to Paul by his owner. As I have lent out my copy of the book, I don’t have the bibliographical information. Along the same lines, I have heard (no source, sorry) that one could not enslave one’s brother in ancient Rome. If that is the case, then Paul is overtly encouraging Philemon to free Onesimus. He tells him to receive him as no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother (Phil 16).

  8. Hi Jill,

    Thanks for directing my to _The Feminist Companion to Paul_, I love to read it! It may be the case that Philemon is not a runaway, and perhaps simply came to Paul in prison to seek his advice and help. When you say that a Roman cannot enslave a brother, I take you to mean that a Roman citizen cannot enslave another Roman citizen. That seems quite plausible, but I’d have to do more reading to find out. At any rate, I am working on developing an argument that Paul, being the good student of the OT that he was, has Lev 25 in mind (particularly vs. 42 & 55) and is thus engaging in a Christian reinterpretation of 1 Cor 7:23, so perhaps this might also apply to what we see in Philemon, particularly v. 16. Though I’m not sure how to make sense of what is said in Exodus 21:1-32 and Lev 25:39-55–the former passage appears to deal specifically with Hebrew slaves, whereas the latter passage states that Hebrews are not to be made slaves, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he redeemed from Egyptian bondage (v. 42), however, could we not interpret Paul as engaging in a kind of Christocentric variation on an OT theme? That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslaved their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hand’s of their oppressors and made them his “slaves,” so too Christians, using Paul’s language are “slaves” of Christ, having been bought with a price, Christ’s blood.

    Best wishes,

  9. Aquinas does hold that slavery may be acceptable as a punishment for crimes, but that it is impossible to own a person simply speaking (ST I-II.105.2 ad 10); while you can own them “in things superadded by nature” this is limited, since all human beings are equal by nature (II-II.104.5; Suppl. 52.2). So Aquinas is definitely deviating from Aristotle, but arguably does not have as strong a position as Scotus; however, this is also a rare point on which the Subtle Doctor is undeniably more clear and straightforward than the Angelic Doctor (it’s not even clear, I think, what all counts as ‘slavery’ in Aquinas’s view — the word can be as broad as ‘obligation to serve’ and as narrow as our sense, and I can’t think of any place where he really bothers to pin it down, although he at least once simply identifies it with obligation to serve, without further explanation, and in a few places seems to mean the narrower sense, like the Supplement passage above).

  10. Thanks for this post – helpful summary of some of Augustine’s mentions of slavery. I get your posts RSSd to my blackberry…

    I recently gave an exposition of Philemon in which I suggest that one may be slightly more optimistic than you seem to be about Paul’s attitude to slavery.

    It seems to me that he is starting the argument for freedom, in Philemon, from the only point it can in due time have any hope of success. His failure to challenge the institution of slavery par se (though he hints at it in Timothy) is due to his desire to bring real freedom – which you will know from your study of Augustine, is spiritual, but certainly not restricted to the spirit! Anyway, you may enjoy the exposition, it can be downloaded at:


  11. Brandon:

    You write: “this is also a rare point on which the Subtle Doctor is undeniably more clear and straightforward than the Angelic Doctor” — Really? Hmmm. You should spend some time at this blog: Garrett will set you straight. He’s a Notre Dame doctoral student who is working on his dissertation on Scotus.


    I’m not sure that I’d agree that “real freedom” is only “spiritual”. We are after all psycho-somatic wholes and in the next age when the new heavens and earth are re-created and sin is eradicated, we will live in resurrected bodies from both from sin and free from oppressors. As much as I love Augustine, I do think that he tends to allow his NeoPlatonic influences to affect his theology in many ways.

    Best wishes,

  12. Aquinas really isn’t more clear in his commentary on the Politics. He is trying to be faithful to Aristotle, but he clearly downplays the nature of slavery. As a consequence, it focuses a great deal less on any “ownership” of another person, but only on the conclusion that, “ergo naturale est et expediens quod unus principetur et alius subiiciatur.” This is the basis for division of labor and specialization in society, but there is no further mention of slavery as moral or immoral. Aquinas refrains from assenting to most of the problematic passages in Aristotle you quoted, but he does seem to agree with the conclusion that slavery, in the sense of some sort of indentured servitude or serfdom, is permissible on the basis of economic necessity as forming positive law.
    In De Regno, Aquinas seems to consider the tyrant to be morally abhorrent insofar as he makes men slaves, “For if the man who despoils a single man, or casts him into slavery, or kills him, deserves the greatest punishment (death in the judgment of men, and in the judgment of God eternal damnation), how much worse tortures must we consider a tyrant deserves, who on all sides robs everybody, works against the common liberty of all, and kills whom he will at his merest whim?” Slavery as such is an intrinsic evil, opposed to the good of the person.
    In ST, Aquinas makes a few remarks on slavery, but nothing like a detailed treatment of the question. In particular, the passages quoted by you showed that he placed the positive proscription of slavery into the realm of the positive right of nations, or something like national/inter-national law. The most important part in Aquinas, where he more or less deliberately upholds Augustine’s position, is in his treatise on the state of man in innocence, where he notes that slavery was introduced by sin, “And since every man’s proper good is desirable to himself, and consequently it is a grievous matter to anyone to yield to another what ought to be one’s own, therefore such dominion implies of necessity a pain inflicted on the subject; and consequently in the state of innocence such a mastership could not have existed between man and man.” Only the “division of labor” sort of dominion is truly natural, for Aquinas. Slavery as ownership of another person is introduced into positive law after original sin, but is only permissible in the sense that Augustine permits it (it is tolerated, but not approved). It would seem his toleration of slavery is no less or no more strict than Augustine.

  13. Hi Al,

    You may be right about Augustine and Aquinas, but I do think that Scotus’s position is clearer and comes down so to speak “heavier” on slavery than Augustine’s or Aquinas’. The Subtle doctor brings the evils of slavery out front and center.

    Best wishes,

  14. Cynthia,

    Sorry- I did not say that freedom is ‘only’ spiritual, as you misquoted. I said it is ‘certainly not restricted’ to the spiritual. The exclamation mark I added was intended to underline that I most certainly think freedom is not only spiritual, and was a subtle attempt at irony. It also was intended to include a note of ironic compliment, as I assumed you would agree with me that freedom is indeed more than spiritual. They say it is a form of humour that does not cross the Atlantic well…
    The issue you raise about neo-platonism is a much misunderstood issue, but without going into that I’d want to underline that I would not at all suggest freedom is only spiritual.

    All the best. P

  15. Cynthia,

    The OT scholar Gordon Wenham has written on the “gap between law and ethics” in the Pentateuch. The idea being that although there are creational ideals, after the fall these are not always enforceable by law for various reasons. Thus the Mosaic law is not the ceiling of ethics but merely the floor of enforceable rules. The Israelite after God’s own heart was to go beyond this. Think Matthew 19 where Jesus notes that God allowed divorce (which he hates) because of the hardness of the Israelites hearts.

    Wenham’s primary example is polygamy. It is not a creational ideal, yet it is part of the culture of the day and thus tolerate to an extent. In the end, however, the stories of Genesis (and the downfall of the later monarchs) shows how it is against creational norms by the large amount of pain it causes, well, everyone. Rivalry between wives, concubines, sons, etc.

    Wenham identifies slavery as another example but does not spend the time on it as with polygamy. Rather, from what I’ve learned from Chris Wright (another OT scholar specializing in the Pentateuch and OT ethics) is that slavery’s pervasive nature in the Ancient Near East would have made outlawing too difficult. Instead, slaves are humanized in Israel. He cites an Akkadian text where “man is the shadow of a god, slave a shadow of man”. Yet in Israel a master who kills his slave can face the death penalty (Ex 21.20–lit. “he will be avenged”). Slavery is undermined in two ways. One, slavery of fellow Hebrews (Ex 21; Dt. 15) is functionally indentured servitude and was a means of preventing long-term poverty for individuals and families. Second, the chattel slave owned by Israelites (Lv 25:44-46) were from neighboring populations. These were always landless peoples who had no hope for livelihood except as workers on other people’s property. For them to be under a Hebrew owner, who himself was a slave YHWH (Lv 25:55) and bound by the humanizing reforms for the Law, was much better than to be a mere piece of property under other ANE peoples. In Israel, the slave was ruled by his master–but at least he was recognized as made in the image of God and even accorded rights! For God to have proscribed any slavery at this point would have left many landless peoples “unemployed” and thus on the verge of death. Think about how Joseph is commended by the Egyptians he enslaves for feeding them and keeping them alive (Gn 47:25 and other passages).

    So I think the “unnatural” objection of Augustine/Scotus is rather biblical. But maybe Scotus is too strong on slavery as a means of economic survival. Slavery is not a creational ideal, but it is permitted so long as the slave is accorded basic protections due to all humans and no conditions exist for giving that slave his own land/trade/etc.

  16. Relatedly, if Scotus means that sell oneself into slavery is foolish because one shouldn’t be going into debt in the first place, he is naive in supposing all poverty/debt is voluntary or preventable. Much is but not all. In ancient Israel, one bad crop and your family could be in bad trouble… Again, see the Egyptians and Joseph in Gn 47.

  17. Thanks for your comment, Barrett. I appreciate Wenham’s insights and his distinction between “creational ideals,” the limited function of the law and what he have to “put up with” in a postlapsarian state. A number of things bother me, however, about his and other OT and NT scholars’ overly positive account of slavery in the OT and NT. First of all, would an Israelite, a faithful Torah observer have concluded that YHWH’s law was less than adequate? I doubt it. That seems to be a Christian re-read of the OT (I agree with that very Pauline Christian re-read, but it’s certainly not how the faithful Jews saw the Torah). Second, the claim that slaves were “humanized” in Israel and treated better by Jewish law than other ANE laws. If a slave was considered property, an “object” bought with a price, which ranged from 10-60 shekels depending upon the epoch (and s/he was in the OT, see Ex 21:1-11, and here as well as in Deut 15, the slaves are fellow Hebrews), then in what genuine sense can we say that slaves are treated as humans or “humanized”? Third, it is not always the case that the OT law codes treat slaves better or give them better options that other ANE law codes. E.g., in the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1725 BC), debt-servitude was limited to three years, whereas in the Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes it was six years (Ex 12:12; Dt. 15:12). Fourth, there are three different OT law codes: The Covenant Code (Ex 21:1-11), the Holiness Code (Lev 25:39ff) and the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 15:1-18). So to which do we adhere? The Holiness Code is the only one that states that Hebrews are not to enslave fellow Hebrews, since YHWH has delivered them from their bondage. Yet, the Holiness code says does allow for Hebrews to be made “hired servants,” (sakir) and it permits the enslavement (as ebed) of other non-Hebrews, and there are no provisions or “humanizing rights” spelled out for them. Are they not human beings too, humans created in the image of God? The Deuteronomic and Covenant Codes, in contrast, allowed Hebrews to be enslaved. In Ex 21:20, we are told that if a person beats his male slave or female slave/concubine (amah) to death, then he will be punished, yet the punishment is unspecified. However, in Ex 21: 12, we are told that if one does the same to a non-slave “man” which I take to mean human being (iysh), he will be put to death. So a slave is being treated as a non-person, something less than a human being, like an animal, or a piece of property—here we are dealing with Hebrew slaves! But my point, following Scotus, is that slavery of any human being, Hebrew or not, is unnatural, it violates natural law and (as Augustine points out) it goes against the creation mandate.

    I am certainly no OT scholar and this is really the first season in my Christian life so to speak that I’ve thought more deeply about these kinds of issues. Personally, I’d like to see more emphasis by Christian scholars on the fact that slavery is unnatural and immoral (instead of the sugar-coating that is so often presented), as it reduces a human being to the level of property. I imagine that African American scholars (or others who have experienced the horrors of slavery) tend not to highlight only the positives, when it comes to slavery. I grant that there are significant differences between the slavery that occurred in ancient days and that which occurred in America (see note 3 of my post); however, the common element of reifying another human being and treating them as property is still (at least to me) quite problematic.

    Whether or not only agrees with every aspect of what is stated below, the following paragraph is worth pondering: “What, however, of the enslavement of man by man? In life slavery was the most despicable and shameful condition that humans could experience. Slaves, legal slaves, were at the bottom of the social heap, and the quintessential master/slave relationship was one of fear. How could the Church Fathers’ lofty view of divine sonship coexist with this grim reality? Christian spokesmen did not neglect legal slavery altogether, and more than Stoics did, but their attitude was conformist. Paul and Seneca advised masters to be humane to their slaves, and Paul instructed slaves to obey their masters (and wives their husbands) as if they were serving God. Such quietism was born of the conviction that physical slavery was a matter of no importance alongside virtue (for the Stoic) and salvation (for the Christian). It is deeply troubling that people with a positive view of human nature and its potential were unable to resolve, once for all, that slaves were persons and not things. Inconsistency, as Vernsel has reminded us, is part of the regular fabric of history. This particular inconsistency has understandably evoked embarrassment and condemnation from modern observers of ancient society” (Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 19).

    Best wishes,

    p.s. I wouldn’t be too to judge Scotus “naive”. I’m interested in this conversation so long as the tone stays civil, otherwise I’m happy to sign off.

  18. Cynthia,

    Since I was perceived as Scotus-bashing, I’ll speak to that first. The statement was conditional and meant to evoke a correction or affirmation of the prodosis. I can see now that I should have just phrased it as a question. I certainly did not mean to offend your respect for theologians of the past who took their work seriously. Still, did Scotus expect people to starve before working as indentured servants or debt-slave?

    As for Wenham’s gap: if one holds to it, then one does not want to see a return to any kind of slavery anymore than one wants to see a return to polygamy or divorce. I find slavery to be intrinsically unnatural and am very glad that it has been abolished in the modern West. I have been deeply disturbed to hear of men, women, and children in slavery now, especially in Easter Europe and Asia. Most are in awful, even unspeakable, situations that anger God and he will inflict vengeance. When Babylon the Great falls in Revelation 18, one of the reasons appears to be the presence of the slave trade. May he end it soon!

    I don’t remember positing that no pagan legal codes afford some limitations on slavery. Still, even the Hammarapi laws afford no basic rights to a slave while a slave! Hammurapi §282 allows a slave owner to mutilate a slave for disobedience. Compare with Ex 21.26-27, where a master must release a slave (doesn’t specify debt- or chattel-) if he causes mutilation or maiming. The only laws against harming or killing slaves in Hammurapi deal with harming someone else’s slave (§116, 199). In Ex 21, however one interprets it, a master does not have absolute sovereignty over his slaves. In Hammurapi §16 (and see the following laws), harboring a runaway slave would result in death. In Dt 23.15-16, Israel is commanded to protect runaway slaves. I stand by my statement that the Law is “humanizing” in its ANE context. Israel’s own history as slaves at several points (and in various places in the Pentateuch) is invoked as their motivation to treat aliens, Hebrew brethren, and slaves well.

    (By the way, do you have a citation for debt-slavery being three years long? I tried looking for it quickly but couldn’t find it.)

    I respect that you’re taking the tensions between the CC, HC, and DC seriously. Can they not be harmonized, though? CC and DC speak of debt-slavery of fellow Hebrews, meant for a limited duration. HC speaks of slavery as the chattel type while speaking of debt-slavery in different terms (Lv 25.39-40 as you noted). Why does that require us to pit them against one another? I could be misunderstanding you. Please let me know if I’m not quite grappling with what you’re saying.

    Is your fundamental objection to slavery that if it is intrinsically evil, why would God tolerate it in any form? If so, how is this different than divorce or polygamy?


  19. Thinking about Scotus some more:

    I can now understand why he would say “foolish”. After all, Paul commands freedmen and freemen to “not become slaves of men.” Fair enough. I suppose a modern German Christian might substitute “slave” for “prostitute” in Scotus’ evaluation, thinking about that poor unemployed mother a few years back who was denied unemployment benefits because she refused to work as a prostitute.

    Still I am hesitant to say that indentured servitude was “foolish” at the stage of the game in the ANE, especially if your master was someone like Joseph or a law-abiding (and law-transcending?) Israelite and you and your family would otherwise perish.


  20. PS – (I know, I’m being a comment factory) There is a monograph by a guy named Gregory Chirichingo called “Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East”. JSOT supplement series. Didn’t have time to read it all but looked very good.

  21. Hi Barrett,

    Oh you know you were (and still are) Scotus-bashing, but I’ll address your question anyway. (This should be perceived as a bit of American “in your face” humor, since we are less sophisticated than you folks across the pond : ). Scotus’s argument is rooted in his view of the will as a self-determining active power. (If you want a detailed account of Scotus’s notion of the will along these lines, I have a multi-part series which begins here: ). In short, for our purposes, we might simply state that according to Scotus,
    both natures and wills are active powers, yet the two are distinguished in terms of the mutually exclusive modalities in which they operate (operating either necessarily [nature] or contingently [will]). If one claims that the will acts necessarily, then it ceases to be a will, as will qua will (that is a person with a genuine will that is free) for Scotus cannot be determined from anything outside of itself, lest it cease to be a will and lose all claims to acting as a moral agent. One who acts necessarily and hence cannot act otherwise, cannot justly be held to be morally responsible for his/her actions. Much more could be said; however, hopefully, this will suffice. To willingly reduce oneself to the status of property (which is a position that could justly be held only by an animal or an inanimate object, given Scotus’s distinctions), is according to Scotus “foolish.” This makes a good deal of sense to me. Scotus is addressing the issue from a predominantly philosophical perspective. He is not addressing the other issues that you mention. So there is no way that I can answer the questions that you address from what Scotus says in the text. Perhaps he addresses the kinds of questions that you raise elsewhere.

    The citation from the Code of Hammurabi is §117, ANET, p. 170f, as cited in S. S. Barthchy’s entry on slavery in the ISBE. Bartchy also notes that if a freeman had children with a slavewoman, “the Code of Hammurabi required that all the children have a share [in the inheritance] if the father ever declared his children by a slave ‘my children,’ i.e., if he had changed their social status” (§ 170; ANET, p. 173). So if we claim that some of the OT codes exhibit “humanizing” elements given their ANE context, so are some of the pagan law codes. Yet, there are also de-humanizing elements in the OT laws as well. E.g., Ex 21:4, “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.” The husband could of course choose to remain with his family, but then he forfeits his freedom. Bartchy notes other difficult texts. In Deut 21:10ff, an Israelite male may take a female captive of war for his wife. “Neither the woman nor her family had any say about the marriage; thus the slave-master relationship took precedence over kinship rights. Furthermore, the man could divorce her without just case” (ISBE, Vol 4, Q-Z, p. 542). With the last example, the Hebrews do not seem to be treating foreigners humanely, or do women simply not count?
    You ask, can the CC, HC, and DC “be harmonized?” Perhaps they can, I simply do not know the OT well enough to be able to answer that. If they can, I’d love to hear how, as that would be great news to me (and I mean that quite seriously).

    To your final question, my only stab at a decent, in process answer at this time is that (1) none of what you’ve mentioned (slavery, polygamy, divorce) would have come about had the fall not occurred. (2) Moreover, since none of these are creational-ly ideal (to use your Wendham phrase), then they are un-natural, as they go against God’s telos for what humans are, how they are to be treated, and how they are relate to one another (both in marriage and society). (3) Perhaps the reason why we do not see whole scale condemnations of slavery in the OT and so much detail given in the OT concerning slavery is because, God, who knowingly spoke into history at a particular time and to a particular culture, knew exactly where human beings “were” morally speaking with regard to views of slavery, and accommodated to their situatedness and limitations—in a way analogous to his speaking in ANE myth language (the raqia in Genesis etc.). Not sure if works, but it’s my stab at an answer at this point.

    Best wishes,

    p.s. I do think that it’s easier to build a case for the problematic nature of polygamy in the OT, that it is to do the same for slavery, which is probably why Wendham focuses on it : ) I may not be able to respond much after this exchange (or I may be very slow in getting back to you), as I am behind on my reading of the Iliad (though I would much rather engage in this conversation).

  22. Cynthia,

    I agree that slavery is addressed in an “accommodating” fashion, like polygamy. Neither were meant in creation and neither will be present beyond the eschaton. As for the harmonization of Pentateuchal laws, I was thinking specifically about the laws on slavery. Some scholars have balked since there is no evidence that Israel actually practiced the Sabbath year and there is a text that points the seems to say the opposite (2 Chr 36:21). That God would give contradictory law doesn’t quite do it for me; but I might be open to development (still, Lv as written allows for not much time between its events and those of Ex). I seem to remember Chirichingo dealing with it well but forgot what he said because it wasn’t my interest at the time.

    Also, I’m American. I heard about the German mother through the Reuters or some other news source. It just struck me at the time since it was so tragic. Not German. Or British.

    Thanks for the bit about Scotus. I’m starting an independent study on natural law and need to understand thomism, scotism, nominalism as the philosophical backdrop for the Reformed tradition’s appropriation of natural law. If the book I’m reading now doesn’t do it for me, I will definitely check out your series.

    Have fun with the Iliad. Now there are some deities who went way beyond morally accommodating that culture…


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