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

In this final section, I shall address from a theologico-philosophical point of view claims (1)-(3) and (5) of the opening division of my essay [Part I].  In article 1 of Ord 4, d 36, q 1, John Duns Scotus, in stark contrast to most of his ancient (e.g., Aristotle) and early medieval predecessors, argues that slavery (as described by Aristotle in bk. I of the Politics)[1] is incompatible with natural law, “not good but bad for the slave,” and is introduced “only by positive law.”[2] Scotus further states that there are only two instances in which this kind of slavery can be just:  (a) voluntary servitude (e.g. to pay a debt), and (b) in the case of hardened criminals who might otherwise harm themselves or others.  Yet, he is quick to qualify his claim regarding (a) voluntary servitude, as it still may go against the law of nature. Scotus’s argument is rooted in his view of the will as a self-determining active power.  A sufficient explanation of his view of the will is beyond the scope of this essay; however, for our purposes, I shall present his position in broad strokes.  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 (i.e. natures operate necessarily and wills operate contingently, that is, freely).  If one claims that the will acts necessarily,[3] then it ceases to be a will and is transformed into a nature.  For Scotus, the will cannot be determined from anything outside of itself, lest it cease to be a will and hence, forfeit all claims to acting as a moral agent.  A person who acts necessarily and hence cannot act otherwise cannot justly be held to be morally responsible for his or her actions. Consequently, to willingly reduce oneself to the status of property-a position that could justly be occupied only by an animal or an inanimate object given Scotus’s distinctions-is according to Scotus “foolish.” It is to attempt, as a being created with a free will, to act as if one were an un-free, determined nature.  Freedom, for Scotus, is an essential component of our humanity and is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.  Thus, any endeavor to nullify that freedom, whether voluntary or involuntary is a violation not only of God’s design for human beings but also of the very ontology of human beings as well.  Lastly, to Scotus’s philosophical-theological arguments against slavery, we may add a further theological point:  the introduction of slavery is a consequence of the Fall.[4] Using Gordon Wenham’s phrase, slavery is not “creational-ly ideal.” In Gen 1:26-30, God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the animals, plants and the created order as a whole, excepting one another of course.[5] Adam was not commanded to dominate (or enslave) Eve, nor was Eve to dominate (or enslave) Adam.

In sum, Scotus’s condemnation of slavery as inherently unjust, coupled with the Augustinian theological claim based on Genesis that slavery is a result of the Fall and does not reflect God’s telos for human relationships, provides us with substantive building blocks for a case against (1) the charge that owning human beings and treating them as property is morally acceptable to God, (2) that slavery is a “natural” state of at least some human beings (Aristotle), and (3) that slavery is compatible with natural law.

As we have seen with the 1 Cor 7 passage [Part II, III], careful exegesis demands attentiveness to the occasional, as well as, the historico-cultural context and apocalyptic vision of the early church.  Failure to do so has resulted in shameful, inhumane, sub-Christian treatment of African Americans under the banner of Christ and by way of specific appeal to St. Paul’s writings.[6] Each new generation of Christian thinkers and activists must confront the particular moral and ethical issues of their day, which requires wisdom, seeking truth wherever it can be found (whether in divine revelation or elsewhere), and instruction from the Holy Spirit working through his people in the context of the church, “not by appeal to a previous blueprint by Jesus [or the New Testament writers] for the church.”[7] Such an approach requires wisdom, which is, of course, never easy but always worth the struggle.   To the question, should Christians today actively seek to eradicate slavery-the practice of reifying human beings and reducing them to the status of property-I answer with a resounding “yes.” For the Christian today, I see no moral imperatives in Scripture compelling support for the institution of slavery.   Just as Paul called the Christian communities of his day to live out its kingdom values, we too must live and act in such a way that challenges the injustices of society.  Our historical and cultural situation is of course different from that of Paul and the early church.  Nonetheless, the Church would do well to reflect on Paul’s subversive strategies, to recall Scotus’s condemnation of slavery, and to work towards developing a position in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II, in which the enslavement of human beings is once and for all condemned as an “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum) act.[8] The faith and eschatological-ly grounded hope of our African American brothers and sisters serve as an exemplar for all Christians of striving for justice and standing for the dignity of all human beings.  Will we follow with an appropriate response of (active) love?

Bibliography/Works Cited/Consulted

Aland, Barbara, Aland, Kurt, and Black, Matthew et al. The Greek New Testament, 4th ed., Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993, c1979.

Augustine.  De civitate Dei, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Bailey, Kenneth E.  “Women in the New Testament:  A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters Vol. 6, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2000):  1-11.  [An online version of this article is available at: ].

Bartchy, S. Scott. “Slavery,” in Vol. 4, Q-Z of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, eds. Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al. (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1988):  539-46.

Brown, Raymond E.  An Introduction to the New Testament. New York:  Doubleday, 1997.

Felder, Cain Hope.  “The Letter to Philemon,” in Vol. XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000): 883-887.

Finley, M. I.  Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York:  Viking Press, 1980.

Garnsey, Peter.  Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Glancy, Jennifer A.  Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.

Harrill, J.A.  “Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 1993):  1124-27.

Hays, Richard B.   First Corinthians. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Lewis, Lloyd A.  “An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” in Stony the Road We Trod:  African American Biblical Interpretation. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991):  232-246.

Martin, Clarice J.  “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ and ‘Subordinate Women,'” in Stony the Road We Trod:  African American Biblical Interpretation. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991):  206-231.

Rupprecht, A.A.  “Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background, eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 2000):  881-83.

Sampley, J. Paul.  “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in Vol. X of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002):  773-1003.

Witherington III, Ben.  Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1995.

Wolter, Allan B. (trans.) and Frank, William A. (ed.),   On the Will and Morality. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997.


[1] Scotus describes Aristotle’s view of slavery as found in book I of the Politics as that “according to which the master can sell the slave like an animal, for cannot exercise acts of manly excellence, since he has to perform servile actions at the command of his master.  {Addition:  And this servitude or enslavement is such that an individual loses all his legal rights to another person, which is something not to the good of the slave, but to his detriment, and this slavery is what Aristotle talks about when he says a slave is like an inanimate instrument, neither can he be good or virtuous.  This kind of slavery, as we said, is not good but bad for the slave, and therefore the Apostle says:  ‘Know that you are free and do not make yourself subject to any man’}” (Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, p. 325).

[2] Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, p. 325.

[3] The language used here tends to reify will.  When Scotus uses the term “will,” he means a person who possesses a genuine will that is free.

[4] Augustine likewise appeals to the Fall of Adam as the causal origin of slavery; however, he seems to employ this claim as a way to justify the continuance of the institution. “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.” Augustine, De civitate Dei, 19.15, p. 943. Cf. also Garnsey’s detailed analysis of Augustine’s position on slavery in Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, pp. 206-19.

[5] Cf. also, Augustine, De civitate Dei, 19.15, p. 942.

[6] Cf. Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms produced by Christians in the Antebellum South, The Spirituals and the Blues, pp. 22-23.

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

[8] In Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80, Pope John Paul II states, “[r]eason 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).

3 thoughts on “Part IV: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?”

  1. Cynthia,

    This was a very helpful series of post. This is a subject that I have considered for doctoral work (i.e. Paul and slavery). It appears these post were a paper before they become posts (?); if so, would you be willing to let me have a copy?

  2. Hi Brian,

    I uploaded the paper as a word doc under the “papers/publications” tab. It’s a few years old, and I’d probably change some things now. Oh well, so it goes : )

    Best wishes,

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