Per Caritatem

One in ChristAs I stated in the previous post, the current piece deals with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and both were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As is well-known, St. Paul, in his very short letter to Philemon,[1] devotes significant space to the master/slave relationship. Some scholars have concluded that in his letter to Philemon St. Paul’s position on slavery has changed and changed for the better in comparison to his exhortations to slaves in 1 Cor 7.[2] But has he altered his view in any substantive way?   Perhaps not, if we keep firmly before us the fact the specific appeals regarding the recently converted Onesimus are directed at Philemon, St. Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Christ (Plm 1). In contrast, there is no indication that the slaves addressed in 1 Corinthians had exclusively Christian masters.  Rather, it is more plausible to suggest that at least some, and perhaps even most slaves whom St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians, had non-Christian masters.[3] In Philemon, then, what we have is an impassioned plea to a mature Christian leader to enact in this world the kind of relationships that will characterize the age to come.

As Brown observes, “[t]he letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.”[4] Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had been converted by St. Paul during the latter’s imprisonment (Phlm 9-10).  St. Paul addresses Philemon as a Christian brother and one whose life and works had been a great source of encouragement to him (Phlm 4-7).  Now that Onesimus has been brought into union with the living Christ, St. Paul challenges Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s new status in Christ, not simply in a “spiritual” inner sense, but καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ (“both in the flesh and in the Lord,” Plm 16, NRSV).  In other words, pace Nietzsche’s complaint that Christianity has an exclusively “other-worldly-world” focus, new life in Christ necessarily involves socio-political ramifications.  Thus, St. Paul, in a pastoral and caring manner, encourages his fellow brother in Christ, Philemon, to embody this Gospel in his relationship with Onesimus.  Consider, for example, the strong emotional language Paul employs to urge Philemon to action, “I am appealing to you for my child [in the Lord], Onesimus” (v. 10, NRSV); “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17, italics added, NRSV); “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21, italics added, NRSV).  Acknowledging the strong rhetorical flavor of this letter, we may reasonably conclude that St. Paul expected Philemon to manumit Onesimus—to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Plm 16, NRSV).[5] Even if one were to concede that St. Paul to some degree participated in the cultural blindness of his day by not directly speaking against slavery as an institution (and in part due to his strong apocalyptic convictions), nonetheless, he does call the Christian community to a different standard, as it were, to kingdom values.

Many scholars, of course, are quick to point out that slaves were the economic backbone of Roman society.  For instance, Bartchy writes,

[i]n such an economic context it was virtually impossible for anyone to conceive of abolishing slavery as a legal-economic institution.  To have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.[6]

Though this is no doubt true historically speaking, arguments along these lines have been employed (and sadly enough by Christians) to justify slavery as an institution.[7] As I shall contend in the concluding section, Christians ought to see slavery[8] as a consequence of the fall and, hence, as completely un-natural and inconsistent with God’s ideal for human beings and with human ontology (viz. as free beings).   Bartchy goes on to say that neither Jesus (nor the Twelve) nor St. Paul owned slaves.  By example of their own lives, both Jesus and the pioneers of early Christianity issued a challenge to the “early Christians to conceive of themselves as living already among themselves in an alternative social-legal environment.”[9] Through God’s activity of calling into being these “alternative households,” that is, Christian communities in which the slave/master relationship is relativized and slavery to Christ (the ultimate suffering, foot-washing Servant) is the only form of servitude that will continue into the eschaton, we see the Gospel and St. Paul’s exhortations to kingdom living issuing a threat to the economic structure of Roman society.[10]


[1] With Sampley and Witherington, I conclude that 1 Corinthians was composed in Ephesus in the late fall or early winter 53-54 AD. Cf.  Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 777.  Sampley presents his case for this early dating based on Paul’s travel information given in 1 Cor 16:5-9.   In this passage, Paul announces his plan to visit Corinth after a stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the second day of the Passover celebration (p. 776).  This has led some scholars to postulate that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians “in late fall or winter, leaving time for the pre-Pentecost, remaining work in Ephesus to which Paul alludes by the metaphor of the ‘wide door’ opened him there (1 Cor 16:9)” (p. 776).  The question then becomes, which late fall or winter?  According to Sampley, if one gives credence to the Acts 18 account of Paul’s missionary activity (vs. 22-23), coupled with the time needed to secure his mission in Ephesus, one may posit an early date for 1 Corinthians, ca. late fall or winter 53-54 AD (pp. 776-77).  Witherington also opts for an early dating (53-54 AD) of 1 Corinthians, pointing to the evidence of the inscription found at Delphi mentioning Gallio’s name, which corroborates with the Acts 18 account and thus allows us to establish a date for Gallio’s service in Corinth (50-51 or 51-52 AD) (see, Conflict and Community in Corinth, pp. 71-73).   With Brown, I hold that Philemon was also composed in Ephesus in 56 AD, approximately two to three years after 1 Corinthians. See, Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 507-8.  Felder opts for Rome as the place of composition and a later date as well (ca. 61 AD).  If Felder is correct, my overall argument is not diminished and perhaps even strengthened.  See, Felder, “The Letter to Philemon,” p. 884.

[2] Cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 506-7.

[3] Witherington concurs. Cf. Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 183.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 505.

[5] As Lewis highlights, it is curious that Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner of Christ,” rather than a “slave of Christ” (Phil 1:1) or a “slave” and “apostle” of Christ (Rom 1:1) (Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 240-41).  In this letter, Paul is clearly appealing to Philemon as a friend and fellow brother; thus, he refrains from imposing apostolic authority.  Perhaps he avoids the title “slave of Christ,” because his aim is to persuade Philemon to manumit Onesimus and to en-flesh the eschatological reality of Christian relationships that characterize the next aeon in the present aeon.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[7] Cf. Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 156, footnote 3.

[8] That is, human ownership of other human beings in which those owned are considered as “things” and property of their masters.

[9] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[10] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.  Witherington has similar comments, cf. e.g., Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185.


One-in-Christ-229x300The post below as well as the one which shall follow deal with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As many commentators observe, Corinth was a religiously diverse city of considerable socio-economic import. The Corinthian church was a microcosm of the social structures of the larger culture.  “There was no middle class in the Greco-Roman world.  At the top of the pyramid were a few rich persons who were, therefore, automatically persons of power and status.”[1] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where St. Paul states that few of the saints at Corinth were wise according to worldly standards (σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα), few were powerful (δυνατοί), and few were of noble or high birth (εὐγενεῖς). Thus, we can reasonably posit that most in the church at Corinth were of low birth (perhaps slaves), weak or lacking in worldly power (perhaps women, who, in a patriarchal society, generally occupy subordinate socio-political positions), and unsophisticated, non-philosophical individuals (those whom the world considered“foolish”).  To these no-bodys (τὰ μὴ ὄντα, literally, “things that are not,” italics added) by worldly standards, St. Paul speaks words of immense encouragement:  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV).  Yet, to those few in the Corinthian church who were wise, powerful, and high born, St. Paul’s words are meant to convict, to urge them back to God’s system of values, which in the eyes of the world is weakness and foolishness. St. Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose by reminding them who they were and who, by God’s gracious call, they now are in Christ:  “so that no one (πᾶσα σὰρξ) might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29-30, NRSV). As we shall see, St. Paul’s exhortation in this opening chapter to the Corinthian believers to relate to one another in a way that recognizes their mutual equal status in Christ is a theme permeates the letter as a whole and has particular bearing on our focus passage, 1 Cor 7:20-24.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 falls between St. Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of St. Paul’s responses to particular questions, which the Corinthians had raised and sent to him by letter on an earlier occasion (1 Cor 7:1). The focus of the present essay centers on St. Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24. Before explicating the more controversial aspects of my translation and interpretation of this passage, a few preliminary remarks are needed.

The Gospel for St. Paul necessarily affects one’s relationships with others, and, hence, ipso facto affects the broader socio-political sphere.  A believer’s redemption in Christ involves not only the vertical dimension (God and humans) but the horizontal dimension as well (humans and other humans).  In fact, the horizontal, socio-political dimension is precisely where the radical transformation resulting from one’s redemption is embodied and displayed to an on-looking world, for good or for ill.

Though many New Testament scholars often highlight the positive ways in which slaves in the Roman world were treated—some received an excellent education, others gained greater economic security than poor, free-born individuals—nonetheless, slaves were still considered legally the property of another person.  As S. Scott Bartchy observes, “a slave was a res, a thing, a chattel to be owned, bought, and sold.”[2] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself or herself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female but not excluding males) and other abuses by his or her master.[3] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, St. Paul wants the slave to understand who s/he is and to whom s/he now belongs.  Those who currently find themselves under the yoke of human masters are in actuality ἀπελεύθεροι κυρίου (v. 22), who have been “bought with a price” (v. 23), the shed blood and broken body of our Lord.  St. Paul, as one who knows what it is like to be concerned for his own safety and the well-being of others, to be beaten, to be despised and humiliated, is no doubt acutely aware of the daily hardships endured by slaves and exhorts them not to allow their current status as slaves consume them such that they forget who they truly are in Christ.[4] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, St. Paul exhorts these slaves not to allow the cares of this (presently fading) world to consume them, causing them not only to lose sight of their Christocentric identity and mission, but perhaps also to lose hope.  Thus, for those slaves who are not presented with the opportunity to obtain their freedom (manumission was clearly not in their power to decide, as they were not considered persons under Roman law, and consequently, had no legal rights),[5] St. Paul wants to encourage them with the truth that in Christ they have been freed from the bonds of sin, and in Christ their status before God is not less but equal to their (free) fellow-Christians.

St. Paul likewise urges various other groups of believers at the church in Corinth (the married, unmarried, widows, virgins, 1 Cor 7:25-39) not to allow the understandable, legitimate concerns of this life to distract them from their kingdom callings. These exhortations as a whole must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic conviction that the “present world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). In fact, 1 Cor 7:25-31 is permeated with eschatological language, which reflects St. Paul’s belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., he expected the parousia to occur during his own lifetime).  For example, in the pericope immediately following our focus passage, he speaks of the “impending crisis” (1 Cor 7:26), stresses that the “appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), and, as just mentioned, describes the present structure of the world as “passing way” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, 1 Cor 7:31). With St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation and interpretation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, St. Paul states, “[o]n account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  St. Paul has made use of an inclusio to frame this passage; yet, he has also varied his original theme.  In 1 Cor 7:20, we read, ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω, whereas in verse 24, we find two substitutions, (1) ἐν ᾧ for ἐν τῇ κλήσει and (2) ἐν τούτῳ for ἐν ταύτῃ.  Are these variations significant?  More specifically, do the substitutions in the second parallel passage serve both to establish the inclusio structure and yet simultaneously function as a prelude to the explicit eschatological themes in the pericope which immediately follows (1 Cor 7:25-31)? I contend that verse 24 does serve this dual purpose, as it creates an organic connection between the two passages (1 Cor 7:20-24 and 1 Cor 7:25-31)—passages, which must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological concerns and emphases. Moreover, emphasizing the temporal dimension of 1 Cor 7:24 helps us to make sense out of St. Paul’s exhortation in verse 21 (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, “by all means, take advantage of it,” that is, of gaining your freedom).  If we fail to take into account St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic orientation, then his instructions that follow regarding marriage, re-marriage and celibacy can easily be misconstrued as “nay-saying” (Nietzsche) and as espousing a disparaging view of embodiment and life in this world.  In light of St. Paul’s knowledge of the OT teaching affirming the goodness of creation, his high view of the Incarnation, his teaching on the sacraments as a means for sanctification in this life, and his firm belief in our embodied state in the age to come, the principle of charity demands that we seek a more this-world-friendly interpretation.

Wrapping up my exegetical discussion of this pericope, to what does the “this” refer in the phrase which I have translated, “on account of this” (ἐν τούτῳ, v. 24)?  In verse 23, St. Paul commands the currently enslaved believers not to become slaves of human masters. Why?  Because they have been “bought with a price” (ἀγοράζω (agorazō),[6] Christ’s blood, whose value infinitely outweighs any monetary amount offered for the purchase of a human being.  Consequently, the only true Master for a Christian is Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion and unyielding submission.[7] The Christian community then must exhibit kingdom relationships to the on-looking world—relationshipscharacterized not by the arbitrary, self-serving, exploitative standards of unregenerate human beings, but by mutual respect and recognition of the equal status of all believers before God.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).

In the next post in our series, I shall bring the 1 Cor 7 passage into dialogue with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.


[1] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 814.

[2] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[3] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.  Bartchy acknowledges that slaves were considered property and things; yet, he seems at times to present an overly romanticized view of slaves in the Greco-Roman world, emphasizing the varied roles slaves had, depending on to whom they belonged.  Bartchy adds that slaves in the NT period constituted   a “logical” and a “juridical” class but not a social class (p. 544). I find this a somewhat confusing claim.  If such were the case, why would the apostle Paul feel the need to address gender and social status issues, as he does in our current passage as well as other crucial texts such as Gal 3:28?  For a less romanticized view of slavery in the Roman period, cf.  Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity.   Cf. also A.A. Rupprecht’s discussion of the use of the ergastulum to house slaves who worked in chain gangs (“Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background,  p. 881) and J.A. Harill’s comments on the severity of the physical torture of Roman slaves by means of the flagellum (“Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 1125).

[4] It is also worth highlighting that in 1 Cor 7:18-19, two verses immediately prior to our focus passage, Paul relativizes the circumcised verses uncircumcised distinction.  Thus, we have in close proximity two of the three distinctions annulled in Gal 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).  In light of Kenneth Bailey’s thesis that women in the Corinthian church had misconstrued Paul’s message and were engaging in anti-male sexism, perhaps the absence of the relativization of the male-female distinction in Christ was purposed by Paul. If so, once again, the cultural-historical and occasional nature of the letter must be stressed, and one must resist a “timeless truth” application of Paul’s commands to women in the Corinthian church (e.g., in 1 Cor 14:34-36) to our contemporary, ecclesial situation (cf. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 6ff.).

[5] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 184.

[6] The same verb is used in 1 Cor 6:20, where Paul exhorts the believers to, glorify God with their bodies, since they were “bought with a price.”

[7] The following goes beyond my competence, but I propose it as “food for thought.”  In contrast with the Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33) and Deuteronomic (Dt 12-26) Codes, the Holiness Code in Lev 25:39-55 explicitly forbids the enslavement of fellow Hebrews, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he delivered from Egyptian bondage (Lev 25:42).  Is it possible that Paul has Lev 25:39-55 in mind and is engaging in a Christocentric variation on an OT theme?  That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslave their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hands 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, and ideally are not to be the slaves of other human beings.  Brown, for example, notes that Paul “betrays his Jewish roots” in his outcry against the sexual immorality condemned in 1 Cor 5:1-2; “for marriage within such a degree of kindred was forbidden by the Mosaic Law” (Lev 18:8; 20:11) (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 518).  Sadly, American slaveholders in the South appealed to Lev 25 to justify their proslavery position, claiming that just as God permitted the Hebrews to enslave other people groups, so too, they, as God’s chosen people, have a divine sanction to enslave African Americans (cf. Martin, “The Haustafeln,” p. 215).


R. Douglas Whitfield earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University and his Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently serving as an assistant pastor in Washington, DC. His interests include biblical studies, African-American history, and race.


How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament that appear to permit slavery? On my reading, it seems that the most fruitful way for the Christian community to interpret passages in the Old Testament vis á vis slavery is to employ a hermeneutic with a redemptive trajectory which continues to advance the call of the text beyond its historical context and into the world of post-resurrection reality and expectation. Put another way, the Christotelic flowering of the indicatives of the gospel provides the resources for a transformation in our understanding of the imperatives that we encounter in the Old Testament text concerning slavery. Careful attention to the contours of the divine meso-narrative of Scripture, along with a dynamic understanding of the two-age structure of Scripture can manumit the interpreter from bondage to static modes of interpretation that have been used to defend or justify slavery.

To begin with, the reader must see the series of movements within the Biblical texts. The first movement to be detected is the movement from the historical-cultural context to the pronouncements of the biblical text. When the two are placed beside one another, there is a redemptive trajectory at work wherein biblical texts improve upon cultural norms of the time, albeit, in a subversive and developmental manner. Though the development of these texts is commensurate with the development of the culture, the biblical ethic is always ahead of the prevailing culture.

The next movement to detect is the trajectory between the biblical text, in its particular redemptive-historical location, and the telos of the text as it is to be consummated in the eschaton. This is where the resurrection and the two-age structure must determine our reading, advancing the call of the text beyond its historical-cultural borders. There is an inextricable relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives in Scripture. It is the indicative of God’s redemptive activity that drives the imperatives that are given to the community of faith (cf. Exod 20). Where there is a heightening and development in the indicatives, there is a heightening and development in the imperatives. With the resurrection comes the consummate indicative that carries nothing less than an eschatologically charged hermeneutic and ethic. Put another way, the resurrection demands new age interpretation and praxis- the type of interpretation and living that introduce the life of God’s new creation into the present brokenness. This kingdom-present behavior and hermeneutic must come to the fore, particularly in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized.

The resurrection overturns the brokenness that was introduced into human relationships, bringing restoration. The pride and entitlement that would lead one to believe that they have proprietary authority over another human being is dealt a lethal blow by the resurrection. Disregard for the human rights of fellow image bearers is no longer conscionable in the new age that has been ushered in by the resurrection because one of the primary goals of the resurrection is the restoration of the image. This restoration is both individual and corporate in its scope, shaping the ways in which fellow image bearers relate to God and to one another. The Lordship that Christ demonstrated in his resurrection produces people who recognize only one sovereign who rightly holds determinative authority over other people.

The love that the resurrection produces in renewed people will not rest content with a foot on the neck or fear in the hearts of the weak. The resurrection introduces a drastically different vision of human relationships. However, these realities come to fruition in the community of faith only inasmuch as they allow the all-encompassing significance of the resurrection to permeate their interpretation and living. The Christian community must adorn the gospel with functionally and interpretively.

The resurrection has massive interpretive implications. However, if the reality of the resurrection does not inform one’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament slavery texts, then the biblical text will always appear to be lagging behind contemporary culture, ethically speaking, and resurrection realization will be stunted (as it was in the antebellum south). The reason why many interpretive approaches to these texts are unsatisfying (and down right disturbing) is because some interpreters are content with a static read of the indicatives and imperatives. They are unwilling to go where the resurrection boldly takes us. The redemptive trajectory present in the text remains undetected and the contours of the text are flattened out with the hammer of literalism and dislocation. The result is that these contemporary interpreters provide a read that is regressive with respect to contemporary culture because they take texts that were progressive in their redemptive-historical location and freeze them in time in order to carry them into contemporary culture. They fail to follow the trajectory to its proper end. This resurrection-less, old-age interpretation has the appearance of biblical fidelity and accuracy because it carefully measures words, grammar and syntax in order to draw contemporary equivalents. The problem is that it denies the interpretive, social and ethical power of the resurrection, failing to understand how this sweeping reality is woven into the narrative of Scripture in all of its culturally polyvalent glory. These texts are treated atomistically, permitting the old-age imperatives to stand precisely because the consummate, new-age indicative is ignored. These readers fail to understand that exegesis does not equal interpretation.

N.T. Wright helps us to frame our understanding of resurrection implications when he says, “The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.”[1] If Bishop Wright were speaking to this discussion, I believe that he would say that we must go and work out the implications of the resurrection in our own particular contexts- beginning with our Bible reading.

Slavery will have no place in the new age that is characterized by the resurrection, and it is this resurrection life that shapes the narrative of Scripture. As more Christian communities begin to read the Old Testament with these redemptive lenses, social restoration will begin to rise to the surface. This is not a hermeneutical silver bullet, but it seems to me the most helpful way to begin dealing with the difficulties that Old Testament slavery texts present. To summarize, we must move away from the old wineskins of static interpretation that flatten the dynamic trajectory of the Biblical text, exchanging them for the new wineskins of redemptive trajectory hermeneutics that take into account the canonical contours of Scripture and the transforming power of the resurrection.


[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 581.


“The renunciation of the ‘form of God’ and the taking on of the ‘form of a slave’ with all their consequences do not Resurrection Icon_Russianentail any alienation within the Trinitarian life of God.  God is so divine that by way of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection, he can truly and not just in seeming become that which as God he already and always is.  Without under-estimating the depth to which God stooped down in Christ, but perceiving that this ‘supreme’ abasement (John 13, 1) formed, with the exaltation, one single reality, for the two movements express the self-same divine love, John was able to apply to both the categories of ‘exaltation’ and ‘glorification’:  yet in a way which is, (to use the language of the Chalcedonian Definition) asynchtōs, achōristōs; ‘without confusion’, ‘without separation’ (DS 302).  In this integrated vision, it is no longer contradictory for John to ascribe to the Son who died and was raised by the Father the power not just to give his life but also to take it up again (10, 18; 2, 19), as well as, thought this power, to raise up (11, 25) the dead both in time (12, 1, 9 and 17) and at the end of time (5, 21; 6, 39 etc., auto-anastasis ‘the Resurrection itself’ one might call him, imitating Origen’s celebrated neologisim).  In fact, the Son’s absolute obedience ‘even unto death, the death of the Cross’ is intrinsically oriented to the Father (otherwise, it would be meaningless, and not in any case an absolute, divine obedience).  Resting on the Father’s power, which is itself identical with the Father’s sending of his Son, the Son allows himself to be reduced to the uttermost weakness.  But this obedience is so thoroughly love for the Father and by that very fact is so altogether one (John 10, 30) with the Father’s own love that he who sends and he who obeys act by virtue of the same divine liberty in love—the Son inasmuch as he allows the Father the freedom to command to the point of his own death, the Father inasmuch as he allows the Son the freedom to obey right down to the same point.  When, accordingly, the Father grants to the Son, now raised into eternal life, the absolute freedom to show himself to his disciples in his identity with the dead Jesus of Nazareth, bearing the marks of his wounds, he gives him no new different or alien freedom but that freedom which is most deeply the Son’s very own.  It is precisely in this freedom of his that the Son reveals, ultimately, the freedom of the Father” (Mysterium Paschale, 209).


According to Nietzsche in his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,”[1] what we take to be knowledge involves two metaphors.  Here metaphor is understood in a broad sense, namely, as transference.  First, we have a transfer that occurs from a nerve stimulus caused by the external world, which is then translated into an image.  Secondly, that image is then transferred into a sound, that is, it becomes language.  Nietzsche’s point is that we construct our knowledge at a distance from (here at least two steps) the flow of life.  For example, when I look out the window and see a tree, a series of brain and nerve activities occurs, but these neural stimulations bear no intrinsic similarities to the tree “out there.”  Thus, we have the first metaphoric-ization or transference.   Then, having received this stimuli, I translate this information into a word, into language, which provides the second transference. From this picture, Nietzsche concludes that there is no natural connection between what is perceived in the external world and knowledge.  Rather, the relation between what is out there and my claims to know it is purely conventional.  According to Nietzsche, language is not a reflection of essences.    Our knowledge does not reflect the deep structures of reality; rather, it is a mere human construct.

Failure to recognize this state of affairs is, for Nietzsche, one of the central problems with the scientist or rational human being in contrast with the artist or intuitive person. That is, the scientist, who, of course, also constructs metaphors, takes his metaphors to be the truth, the way things really are.  According to Nietzsche, the scientist takes his metaphors too seriously; he ossifies them, whereas the artist recognizes their fluidity and transiency.  To be sure, these metaphors do serve practical and pragmatic purposes.  They help us to affirm ourselves and aid in our self-preservation to some degree.  However, when we forget about their provisional nature, we come to believe that our conceptual edifices are immovable.  When this occurs, the metaphors harden, they ossify-rather, we ossify them, and turn them into columbaria.   (A columbarium is a Roman vault for funeral urns!)  So the rational human being has lost touch with the metaphorical origins of human knowledge and lives his life constructing conceptual systems that display “the regularity of a Roman columbarium” (112).  According to Nietzsche, our (rationalistic) tendency to forget the earthy, metaphorical rootedness of human knowledge, moves us to increasing levels of abstraction-abstractions which we then take to be reality.  These systems of abstractions are likened to a columbarium; they are life-denying and lead to death.  (By the way, I think his critique of the scientist also applies to the philosopher and the theologian).

Clearly, Nietzsche values the flow of life and wants us to remain close to our, so to speak, humble origins.  His warnings against taking our conceptual edifices to be the reality and the one and only way to truthfully describe and explain the world are compelling and worthy of our reflection.  Part of his critique also involves cautioning against pride and calling us to acknowledge our finitude-two points that Christians ought to take seriously.  Yet, as a Christian, there are certain matters, which are central to the Christian narrative and understanding of reality, which Nietzsche fails to consider.  For example, according to the Christian tradition, the created order is now not as it originally was.  In fact, St. Paul, employing a number of earthy metaphors, tells us that creation has been subjected to futility and eagerly awaits its eschatological renewal.

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (NRSV, Rom 8:19-25).

So there is a sense in which, for the Christian, life and the world as now experienced involves a struggle against the natural world-a natural world, which groans and awaits a final release from its dislocation and disintegration.  In other words, something more than a return to the flow of life or even a recognition of the metaphorical origins of knowledge is needed to overcome the prideful tendencies of which Nietzsche speaks.  According to the Christian narrative, a kind of cosmic redemption is needed-a redemption that not only saves us from our pride but also transforms and renews the present state of creation itself.  This is of course precisely what St. Paul claims Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection accomplished and is accomplishing.  St. Paul doesn’t deny that our life in-between Christ’s advents is a life of eschatological tension both within ourselves and with creation as a whole.

In addition to St. Paul’s use of metaphors, we should also consider the use of metaphor and mythical language in the Genesis creation account.  For example, the author of Genesis speaks of a solid dome upon which fixed stars hang (the raqia).  This mythical description, of course, doesn’t square with contemporary science and our current understanding of the sky, stars etc.  Nonetheless, God chose to condescend to the then-current conceptual categories and to use this mythical language to speak of his creation, as his point was not to give us a scientific account of the universe but to proclaim himself as the Creator.  So perhaps we could say that God himself is more like the artist, who plays with metaphor and recognizes its inherent limitations.  Yet, he is unlike the artist (at least the artist in Nietzsche’s description) in that he is in fact trying to teach us something about reality itself, the reality that he himself brought into being and the reality which he is.

Lastly, perhaps participating in liturgical life provides a way to properly acknowledge our finitude and to combat modernity’s “columbaric” tendencies which Nietzsche so aptly describes.  For example, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, as the priest marks our foreheads with ashes, s/he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Of course, for those in Christ, there’s more to story. We, who are in Christ, shall be resurrected in glorified bodies).  In addition, participation in the Eucharist reminds us through humble material means (bread and wine) of our need for spiritual nourishment, that is, our need to be nourished by Christ’s resurrection life. Confession of sin reminds us of our weakness, our proclivity to idolatry and our continual, moment-by-moment need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The preaching of the word keeps us rooted in the Christian story and challenges us to submit to God’s, as it were, “interpretation” of reality.

How fitting on this Easter Sunday to allow Nietzsche to teach us about the power and relevance of the Christ-event.  Whether ancient, stone columbariua or modern, conceptual columbaria, neither are able to contain Christus Victor.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!


[1] All citations are taken from an anthology edited by Lawrence E. Cahoone, From Modernism to Postmodernism:  An Expanded Anthology, 2nd edition, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).


“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, ESV).

Below are selected moments from Tom Wright’s commentary on this passage.

“The resurrection of Jesus was the moment when the one true God appointed the man through whom the whole cosmos would be brought back into its proper order. A human being had got it into this mess; a human being would get it out again. The story of Genesis 1-3—the strange, haunting tale of a wonderful world spoiled by the rebellion of God’s image-bearing creatures—is in Paul’s mind throughout this long chapter” (Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p. 212). After rehearsing a kind of mini redemptive-historical narrative, St. Paul begins to discuss the coming of God’s kingdom. Many Jews of St. Paul’s longed for the coming of God’s kingdom—for the day when “God would become king over the whole world, restoring Israel to glory, defeating the nations that had oppressed God’s people for so long, and raising all the righteous dead to share in the new world” (p. 212). For St. Paul, with the resurrection of Christ, this day had in a very real sense been inaugurated, yet, in a way that took him totally by surprise. “Instead of all God’s people being raised at the end of history, one person had been raised in the middle of history. That was the shocking, totally unexpected thing. But this meant that the coming of God’s kingdom was happening in two phases” (p. 213). When St. Paul speaks of each occurring “in his own order,” he has in mind both the order of events and God’s final ordering (p. 213). The former, viz., the order of events, speaks of Jesus’ present reign as the risen Lord and King. Yet, the “purpose of this reign—to defeat all the enemies that have defaced, oppressed and spoiled God’s magnificent world, and his human creatures in particular—has not yet been accomplished. One day this task will be complete: the final enemy, death itself, will be defeated (verse 26), and God will be ‘all in all’ (verse 28)” (p. 213).

Then we move to the final ordering where we have a picture of a world “put back to rights.” Here St. Paul appeals to two psalms, and weaves together a Messianic mosaic manifesting to us what we as imago Dei were created to be and do. “Psalm 110, quoted in verse 25, is about the king whom God will place at his right hand until all his enemies are brought into subjection. This, Paul declares, is now being fulfilled in Jesus. Psalm 8, quoted in verse 27, belongs closely with this, speaking of God ‘putting all things into order under his feet’ [Wright’s translation]. But instead of talking about the Messiah, as Psalm 110 does, Psalm 8 talks about the human being. This role, of being under God and over the world, is not just the task of the Messiah; it’s what God had in mind from the very start when he created human beings in his own image. This is how Paul ties the passage tightly together: the achievement of the Messiah, and his present reign in which he is bringing the world back to order, is the fulfillment of what God intended humans to do (see verse 21). The story told in Genesis is completed by the story told in the Psalms” (p. 214). Our enemy, death, of course plays a crucial role in this story; however, death does not have the final word. Rather, the Final Word has the final word and death is silenced. He is Risen!