Slavery in Gregory of Nyssa as a Wound that We Inflict Upon Christ

In 2009, David Bentley Hart made bold claims about Gregory of Nyssa as the first in the ancient world to denounce slavery in utterly uncompromising terms. This was in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). While Hart does not provide much by way of footnoting or defense in his book, his claims about Gregory from 2009 were grounded in an article that he published on the topic eight years earlier in the Scottish Journal of Theology while on the faculty of Duke’s Divinity School (“The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa’s Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology” on February 2001 from pages 51 to 69). My very light commentary here is really just an excuse to reproduce extended portions of this piece from an academic journal that would rarely ever be read or shared. Hart starts by throwing down the gauntlet:

Nowhere in the literary remains of antiquity is there another document quite comparable to Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth homily on the book of Ecclesiastes: certainly no other ancient text still known to us—Christian, Jewish, or Pagan—contains so fierce, unequivocal, and indignant a condemnation of the institution of slavery.

Such bold assertions invite criticism. Jerry Toner’s book How to Manage Your Slaves (2015) is one example. Here is how Tim Whitmarsh summarizes Toner’s case against Gregory of Nyssa in his recounting of Toner for the London Review of Books (December 2015):

For those trying to find evidence of a transformation of attitudes, Exhibit A is the fourth-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whose Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes contains an attack on the buying and selling of human lives, on the grounds that we are all made in God’s image. The passage is almost always taken out of context: it is not a polemic against slavery as an institution but against the hoarding of wealth. Gregory’s rhetorical point is that worldly goods, among which he counts slaves, are vain and an affront to God. What is more, the position he adopts derives fundamentally not from Christian teaching but from Stoic and Cynic ideas about human liberation and the life according to nature. For these philosophers, true freedom—which is to say, the soul’s freedom from the arbitrary demands of human society—is open to all, irrespective of the hand fate has dealt. To be truly ‘slavish’, by contrast, is to be in thrall to the allurements of money, fame, power. Gregory’s central concern, which is rooted in these philosophical ideas, is with the moral damage done to those in the slave-owning class who set too much store on worldly hierarchies and don’t think enough about the injustices dealt to slaves themselves.

Whitmarsh points out that “a quick Google search reveals scores of academic and para-academic essays desperately looking for signs of abolitionism in the writings of the early Church.” It is true enough that many Christians love to paint a picture of early Christianity as leading the way in opposition to slavery, and that this case is not actually very strong or clear because the early church had a lackluster record generally speaking (sadly mixed with a few standout cases of truly ugly accomidations). However, the specific assessment of Gregory by Whitmarsh and Toner is grossly misleading as is made entirely clear by an informed reading of Greogry himself and some attention to Hart’s brilliant 2001 article.

Hart fully acknowledges the sad landscape of early Christian writings on slavery, their extensive borrowings from pagan sources, and their often sad regressions into defenses of slavery. He says that, for well over half of the church’s history, “the response of Christian theologians to slavery ranged from—at best—resigned acceptance to—at worst—vigorous advocacy.” Moreover, Hart clearly demonstrates that Gregory is in no way relying upon the pagan ideas from the surrounding culture that could be somewhat critical of slavery. Hart’s main point is that Greogry even explicitly rejects the Platonic basis for his argument despite the fact that this would be the school of pagan thought closest to Gregory’s own. Instead of suggesting an ideal world outside of fallen history where slaves might be free, Gregory develops an idea of human nature that is grounded concretely in both human history and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This astonishing vision from Gregory has no analog in the ancient world and leaves no space at all for the institution of slavery as something that could possibly be compatible with the Christian life. For Hart, Gregory stands out as almost inexplicably from his own day and age:

Gregory’s rhetoric …presses well beyond the issue of mere manumission and adumbrates that of abolition; the logic seems as irresistible as it does anachronistic—and therein lies its mystery.

Hart is perplexed and impressed by Gregory’s sermon because it rests upon ideas that are genuinely new, and because these ideas would remain virtually unique in Christian history for centuries to come.

Not only is Hart fully aware of the wider historical context for Gregory’s writings, but he is profoundly aware of the sermon’s placement and points of connection within Gregory’s other works and within the story of Gregory’s life. Contrary to Whitmarsh, it is not that Gregory does not “think enough about the injustices dealt to slaves themselves.” It is rather that Whitmarsh cannot follow the astonishing depths of Gregory’s claims as he uses the most jealously guarded of all “possessions” (the slaves bought and sold by the many powerful members of Gregory’s congregation) to claim an unshakable unity and freedom for all of humankind, one that is grounded in this current lifetime and that is revealed in Christ’s resurrection. This Christian vision of our human nature utterly confounds and reverses all the presumptions of human history.

The confusion of Toner and Whitmarsh here is understandable. These are not easy matters to understand for those of us so far removed from the cosmic, holistic, and embodied ways of seeing so essential to Gregory and his world. I read Gregory’s sermon in its entirety before reading Hart’s article, and I saw that Gregory was uncompromising with regard to slavery. However, I entirely missed the full depths that Hart expounds. Before returning to the deepest point that Hart expounds from Greogry, however, here is the initial overview of the sermon that Hart provides:

Gregory treats slavery not as a luxury that should be indulged in only temperately (as might an Epicurean), nor as a necessary domestic economy too often abused by arrogant or brutal slave-owners (as might a Stoic like Seneca or a Christian like John Chrysostom), but as intrinsically sinful, opposed to God’s actions in creation, salvation, and the church, and essentially incompatible with the Gospel. Of course, in an age when an economy sustained otherwise than by chattel slavery was all but unimaginable, the question of abolition was simply never raised, and so the apparent uniqueness of Gregory’s sermon is, in one sense, entirely unsurprising. …But, then, this makes all the more perplexing the question of how one is to account for Gregory’s eccentricity. Various influences on his thinking could of course be cited—most notably, perhaps, that of his revered teacher and sister Macrina, who had prevailed upon Gregory’s mother to live a common life with her servants—but this could at best help to explain only Gregory’s general distaste for the institution; it would still not account for the sheer uncompromising vehemence of his denunciations.

I agree with Hart’s point here, but still consider it noteworthy that this sermon was preached shortly after Gregory lost his older brother Basil and not long before he lost his sister Macrina all in the same year. Nonetheless, Hart goes on to point out, not the more private pains of Gregory’s aging and beloved family, but the legitimate and more public context of Gregory’s growing authority:

Of course, the Ecclesiastes homilies were preached during the Great Lent of 379, when Gregory’s moral authority had no doubt been considerably fortified by his recent triumphant return to Nyssa from two years of banishment under the Arian emperor Valens; it is appropriate that they should sternly admonish, reprove, and summon to repentance, in order to prepare his congregation for Easter, and explicable that they should be marked by a certain confidence of tone. Moreover, ever since Constandne had granted churches the power of manumissio in ecclesia in 321, propertied Christians had often made Easter an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was obviously encouraging his parishioners to adopt an established custom. Even so, he could, in all likelihood, have quite effectively recommended manumission—simply as a salutary spiritual hygiene, or as a gesture of benevolence—in terms calculated better to persuade than to offend. But Gregory’s sermon goes well beyond any mere exhortation to the exercise of charity; he leaves no quarter for pious slave-owners to console themselves that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, not tyrants, but stewards of souls, generous enough to liberate the occasional wordiy servant, but responsible enough to govern odiers justly. Gregory’s language is neither mild nor politic: for anyone to presume mastery over another, he says, is the grossest arrogance, a challenge to and robbery of God, to whom alone we all belong; to deprive a person of the freedom granted all of us by God is to overturn divine law, which gives us no prerogatives one over another; at what price, asks Gregory, can one purchase the image of God—God alone possesses the resources, but as divine gifts are irrevocable, and God’s greatest gift to us is the liberty restored to us in salvation, it lies not even in God’s power to enslave humanity; when a slave is bought, so are his or her possessions, but each person is set up by God as governor of the entire world, and no sum can purchase so vast an estate; the exchange of coin and receipt of deed may deceive you that you possess some superiority over another, but all are equal, prey to the same frailties, capable of the same joys, beneficiaries of the same salvation, and subject to the same judgment; we are equal in every respect, but—as Gregory phrases it—“You have divided human nature (tēn physin) between slavery and mastery and have made it at once slave to itself and master over itself.”

Hart spends most of his space on this last phrase (“you have divided human nature”) which he unpacks as the key to the vehemence of Gregory’s entire argument. Gregory’s consternation at the division of human nature reminds Hart of essential points within Gregory’s thought elsewhere in his writings:

Perhaps it is only a rhetorical flourish, but it is an odd phrase in itself (in what sense, precisely, is a ‘nature’ divisible?), and if one reads it according to the theological grammar established by Gregory’s eschatology (particularly as developed in two treatises of 380, On the Soul and Resurrection and On the Making of Humanity), it takes on a meaning at once unexpectedly literal and daringly speculative.

In Gregory of Nyssa’s writings, all of human history is a temporal revelation or unfolding of Christ’s indivisible body which is the image of God only in its fullness (that is, only in the concrete and complete presence of all its parts). Any failure by us to live in accord with this ongoing revelation of Christ is a real but contingent wounding of Christ’s body that is its own judgment and that we must work to heal before our own life as a member of this body can itself be manifested. This truth is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals as he overcomes death by death and shows us the true nature of our shared humanity. For these reasons, Gregory is leveling the most intense of criticisms when he says that “you have divided human nature.”

The precise meaning and peculiar power of this phrase becomes clear at last: for Gregory, no accusation could be more terrible, nor any more precise. Every violence or coercion that divides us quite literally divides the one body—the only true identity—that we can ever possess. Moreover, as even this ‘whole humanity’ belongs not to us, but to Christ, as his body, all divisions between free and slave, privilege and poverty, eminence and abasement are wounds that we, in our arrogance and faithlessness, inflict upon him. Writes Gregory, in his fifth homily on the Lord’s Prayer, nature never so divided us—only power has done so—nor did God ever ordain slavery, not even on account of sin.

This understanding of human nature by Gregory departs significantly from even his closest influences in the Platonism of his own day. Hart spends several pages unpacking the implications of Gregory’s concept of human nature and what distinguishes it from its closest contemporary points of comparison. These are worth sharing at length:

By all appearances, this is mere Christianized Platonism. And yet this apparent idealization of humanity becomes at once unstable, and begins to divest itself of its ideality, where Gregory goes on to describe the first Person as comprising (as indeed being) the entire plenitude—pleroma—of all human beings, throughout all the ages, from first to last. In his reading of Genesis 1:26-27, Gregory takes the creation of humanity according to the divine image to refer not principally to Adam, but to this fullness of humankind, comprehended by God’s ‘foresight’ as ‘in a single body’.

…It is this entirely novel coincidence in Gregory’s thought of the idea of physis with that of pleroma that marks an irreversible break from Platonism and that (more relevant to the matter at hand) makes somewhat unexpected sense of the use to which the word ‘physis’ is put in the fourth sermon on Ecclesiastes.

…In Gregory’s account …the primal Person is neither in any real sense preexistent, nor finally transcendent, of the plenitude of persons who come into being throughout time; persons are neither shadows of, nor separated participants in, human ‘nature’, but are in fact its very substance. Gregory’s reading certainly resembles Philo’s, but finally differs from it radically: Gregory submerges the ideal in the historical (rather than the reverse), while still allowing the ‘ideal’ (which now should really be read as the ‘eschatological’) to prevent the historical from assuming the aspect of an enclosed order oriented towards an immanent end. The first creation stands over against—in judgment—any attempt to wrest a meaning, natural privilege, or ‘destiny’ from the prudent arrangements and sinful ambitions of history by sacrificing the good of particular persons, because it is precisely the full community of persons throughout time that God elects as the divine image, truth, and glory. At the same time, the very openness of history, thus liberated from its worldly end, also stands over against any ideality that might serve to reduce this perfect and primordial creation to an abstraction. If the ideal and the actual constitute not two realities, but only two sides of what ultimately stands as a single reality, a kind of reciprocal critique must pass continually between them, such that neither ever suffices to explain or ‘found’ itself.

Which is to say, perhaps, that ‘the eschatological’ names that species of thought in which history’s truth and the truth of history’s disruption uniquely coincide. Still, within this very indistinction of ideal from actual, inasmuch as the reconciliation of its terms occurs under the form of an akolouthia, a certain division remains, between the innocence of time and the violence of history, between the good creation God wills and the destructive fictions of a fallen world. This is the ironic power of the eschatological, which makes every moment within time one of discrimination, a critical moment. Gregory’s sense of this division is probably most vividly expressed in the form of a speculative mythology he devises concerning what might have been had we not fallen: but for sin, he opines, humanity would have propagated itself in a more angelic fashion; only God’s foresight separated the race into distinct sexes, so that even when deprived of the properties necessary for celestial procreation (whatever those might be) humanity could bring the race to its fore-ordained plenitude. Gregory’s Platonizing prudery aside, the important idea here is that God brings the good creation he wills to pass in spite of sin, both in and against human history, and never ceases to tell the story he intends for creation, despite our apostasy from that story. But for sin, says Gregory, God’s design would have still unfolded, but peacefully, continuously, from potentialities established in creation at the beginning, according to an innate dynamism, and everything would have come without obstruction to partake of divine glory. Sin, though, inaugurates its own sequence, an akolouthia of privation and violence, spreading throughout time from its own principles; and so God’s gracious purpose appears in time always now as a counter-history, the story of the church enmeshed in stories of power. Humanity, as the pleroma of God’s election, still possesses that deathless beauty that humanity, as an historical being, has lost; and God, seeing that beauty, draws all things on towards the glory originally intended for them, by drawing persons into the body of Christ. In the incarnation, Christ enters into this human plenitude, into the midst of its temporal akolouthia, and orients it again towards its transcendent end. And because it is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos must be of effect for the whole: Christ has, one might say, assumed the pleroma, in its history of fallenness, to restore to it the unity of his body—to which all persons properly always already belong—and so his glory enters into all that is human.

…The total Christ is none other than total humanity. there can be no true human unity, nor even any real unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, God’s true image. Obviously, Gregory’s thought must admit of a certain tension here, between free historical contingency and God’s eternal will. Humanity is one, as God first fashioned and eternally wills it, and cannot finally be divided; nor can any soul be redeemed outside of this human pleroma. But while each person is ‘objectively’ implicated in the salvation Christ has wrought in human nature before any ‘subjective’ appropriation of it, it is in each person, as he or she takes on the lineaments of Christ’s form, that the likeness of God also dwells in its fullness and is expressed. Gregory’s eschatological subversion of Platonic categories would otherwise be unintelligible. God will be all in all, according to Gregory, not by comprising humanity within himself according to a metaphysical premise that comprehends the ‘idea’ of the human, but by way of each particular person, in each unique inflection of the pleromas beauty; and yet this assumption of the human unfolds only within human freedom, within our capacity to venture away.

…The story of Christ is also quite literally the story of all time, the story of the lordship of the Logos over the body of humanity.

Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be entire, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even this one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete and God’s purpose in creation unrealized. Gregory’s anthropology sometimes seems like the Philonian, caught in the same penumbral interval between idealism and the biblical story, but it is this eschatological collapse of the distinction of ideal from actual that sets his formulation apart. The Kingdom, as he imagines it, will be achieved only in the harmonious play of all created differences when creation achieves ‘the redeemed oneness of everyone united one with another through their convergence upon the One Good’.

…And if the ‘essence’ of the human is none other than the plenitude of all men and women, every essentialism is rendered empty: all persons express and unfold the human not as shadows of an undifferentiated idea, but in their concrete multiplicity and hence in all the intervals and transitions belonging to their differentiation; and so human ‘essence’ can be only an ‘effect’ of the whole. Every unlikeness, in the harmonious unity of the body of the Logos, expresses in an unrepeatable way the beauty of God’s likeness. The human ‘original’, no longer a paradigm, is the gift and fruit of every peaceful difference and divergence; and only as this differentiating dynamism is the unity of the human ‘essence’ imaginable at all, as the peaceful unity of all persons in the Spirit, who is bringing creation to pass and ushering in the Kingdom. And even in the Kingdom, that essence will not be available to us as a fixed proprium. According to Gregory, the final state of the saved will be one of endless motion forward, continuous growth into God’s eternity, epektasis; salvation will not be an achieved repose, but an endless pilgrimage into God’s infinity, a perpetual ‘stretching-out’ into an identity always infinitely exceeding what has already been achieved; there will always be the eschatological within the eschaton, a continuous liberation of the creature, subsuming all that has gone before into an ever greater fullness of God’s presence to the soul, so that the creature will simply be freed of all memory, all recollection, ” and so all anamnetic grounding in the absolute. The eschaton, thus conceived, brings nothing to a halt, returns nothing to its pure or innocent origin; it repeats the gracious liberation of difference that creation always is, endlessly, but it never secures beings within being, or fixes them in their proper places, or discriminates the noble from the base; it is, rather, a perpetual venturing away from our world, our totality.

And, most importantly, it has appeared already, in our midst, at Easter; the verdict of the resurrection now breaks upon every instant, disrupts every representable essence, every serene proportion. All our discourses of power and privilege belong to the language of death, which has already been conquered in our one shared, indivisible nature.

…Given the extreme concreteness and essential sociality of Gregory’s language concerning human nature, it would have been impossible for him to draw any specious distinction between slavery to sin and death and slavery to political or social power; if God acts to liberate us from the one, God condemns and overthrows the other. …If, says Gregory, Christians indeed practiced the mercy Christ commands of them in the beatitudes, humanity would no longer admit of division within itself between slavery and mastery, poverty and wealth, shame and honor, infirmity and strength; all things would be held in common, and all would be equal one with another. Gregory’s Easter vigil sermon of 379 (On the Holy Pascha), which would have followed upon the Ecclesiastes homilies, celebrates every form of emancipation, seamlessly joining the theme of liberation from death to that of the manumission of slaves, while again urging the latter.

…Amid the divisions—the slaveries—we are always forging—political, social, economic—the one who is dispossessed, homeless, nameless, with neither power nor privilege to call upon, is the one whose humanity has been verified for us in the body of the slave who was raised from the dead. All myths of eminence and power are overturned at Easter. And no theologian has ever evinced a profounder sense of this than Gregory. Late in the course of his Contra Eunomium of 382, he addresses Eunomius’s argument that Christ could not really be God because Paul describes him as bearing the form of a slave, and no one could be both slave and Lord of all things; Gregory’s answer is as various as it is indignant, but one point he makes with special force is that God assumes the slavery in which we all languish precisely in order to purge slavery—along with every other ill—from our shared nature.

…By every worldly wisdom, Christ—beaten, derided, crowned with thorns—is an absurd figure, madly prating of an otherworldly kingdom, oblivious to the powers into whose hands he has been delivered; but Easter reverses the ordering of this scene, vindicates Christ over against the power that crucifies, locates truth there where he stands, in the place of the victim and the captive. And if this judgment has already come upon us, and liberated us from death, we can do no other now than desire and advance the release of all who lie in bondage. This cannot be gainsaid. And Gregory seems often to have seen with a clarity rare not only for his time, but perhaps for every age of the church, the magnitude of this truth: we can never again deceive our-elves that we can call justly upon any power but that which sets others free if, in the resurrection of Christ—much to our consternation and embarrassment, no doubt, even to our condemnation, but ultimately for our redemption—the form of God and the form of humanity have both been given to us, completely, now and henceforth always, in the form of a slave.

In closing, I will just observe, again, that all of this would be lost on virtually any reader who decided to pick up this brief homily by Gregory in our standard English translation. Hart translates the one key phrase this way: “You have divided human nature between slavery and mastery and have made it at once slave to itself and master over itself.”

However, here is how this passage appears within the standard English translation that is available: “Transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules.” This translation smooths over the language and turns it into a fairly simple observation that any modern reader would likely take as a statement of the obvious (itself a testimony to the slow yet profound Christian influence on culture that gave rise to modernity). In its more complete context in the standard English translation, this phrase that Hart focuses on is actually situated inside a complex question:

As for the person who appropriates to himself what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules?

Even with this wording, this is a bold point for Gregory’s day and age. Nonetheless, it is clear that the average reader would never notice, given this translation, that Gregory’s central assumption in his argument involves human nature being a concrete, historically-embodied, and living whole that is revealed by Christ’s resurrection even amid the violence of our lives. We would never recognize how Gregory called upon his wealthy and powerful congregation to recognize that this living unity, the very image of God, can never be treated as divided in any way without literally pulling apart the body of Christ. Thank God for scholars such as Hart who can read the likes of Gregory and give us something like the astonishment that some in his own congregation must have felt when the details of their everyday lives were identified as real manifestations of their own union with Christ (or lack thereof).

Mosaic floor from 3rd century AD with slaves serving at a banquet. From Dougga at the National Museum of Bardo, Tunisia.

3 thoughts on “Slavery in Gregory of Nyssa as a Wound that We Inflict Upon Christ

  1. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor any of the Apostles ever condemned or even suggested to slaveholders that they were doing anything wrong thereby.

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