Gregory of Nyssa: The Liberating Work of Salvation

For our sakes, who had lost our existence through our thoughtlessness, he consented to be born like us so that it might bring that which had left reality back again to reality. This one is the only begotten God, who encompasses everything in himself, but also pitched his own tabernacle among us. [1]

The theme of Scripture as the liberating work of God is captured in the central motif of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, which the New Testament explains as completed in the liberating work of Jesus from sin. The presumption is that Christ deepens and expands this liberating work to include overturning every form of enslaving power. Gregory of Nyssa develops a definitive link between the liberating work of Moses and Jesus in his theology. He (as in the epigraph) equates the imagery of Moses’ tabernacle with the incarnation and will appeal to the life of Moses (as one of continual progress in virtue) as key in understanding the incarnation (providing for direct participation in the divine nature). It is no accident then, that Gregory (after the Apostle Paul) makes one of the earliest arguments against slavery.

Gregory, like Paul and Origen, presumes that the Word that Moses encountered is the incarnate Christ. “The much desired face of the Lord once passed Moses by, and thus the soul of the lawgiver kept ongoing outside its present condition as it followed the Word who led the way.”[2] He sees the life of Moses as a journey toward learning to be like Jesus: “He was always becoming greater and never stopped in his growth. He had attained growth even at the beginning when he considered the reproach of Christ more exalted than the kingdom of Egypt, and chose to be ill-treated in company with God’s people rather than to enjoy for a time the pleasures of sin.”[3] In tying the journey of Moses (and exodus from slavery) to the Christian journey, Gregory is focused on the development of virtue but he is also focused on the acting and doing of God, especially in his creative and liberating activity through Christ.

In short, Gregory’s Christocentrism (focused on the incarnation) develops a particular understanding of participation in God through Christ, a particular metaphysic, and in the titles of Christ, a particular set of virtues and liberating power, which would serve to counter the failures of modern theology, both Catholic and Protestant. Before turning to Gregory it may be necessary to point out where exactly the sort of corrective he brings is needed.

If the theme or thesis of Scripture (the very meaning of Christianity) is liberation, then measuring where Christianity has or has not been enacted can be measured by where liberation has or has not occurred. Obviously, there are many forms of enslavement and oppression, but a simple test of a particular theology or form of Christianity is to ask, what form of the faith is most responsible for the modern trans-Atlantic slave trade? The fact that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was introduced by “Christian” Europeans and the Church was the “backbone of the slave trade” would seem to indicate there may have been a theological as well as a moral failure.[4] The added fact that most slave ship captains and slave traders were “good Christians” illustrates the blindness of certain forms of theology. “For example, Sir John Hawkins, the first slave-ship captain to bring African slaves to the Americas, was a religious man who insisted that his crew ‘serve God daily’ and ‘love one another.’” His ship, ironically, was called ‘The Good Ship Jesus.’[5]

Stacy Brown argues that Catholicism was the primary culprit in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as, “The five major countries that dominated slavery and the slave trade in the New World were either Catholic, or still retained strong Catholic influences including: Spain, Portugal, France, and England, and the Netherlands.” (Brown also notes that in 2016, Georgetown University offered a public apology after acknowledging that slavery saved the school, when 188 years prior, Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to save the school from financial ruin.[6])

On the other hand, the Anglican Church invested in slavery and profited directly from the slave trade: “A report commissioned by the church found last June that a predecessor of its investment fund, called Queen Anne’s Bounty, invested significant amounts in the slave-trading South Sea Company in the 18th century.” Gareth Mostyn, chief executive of the Church Commissioners said, “There’s no doubt that those who were making the investment knew that the South Sea Company was trading in enslaved people, and that’s now a source of real shame for us, and for which we apologise.” As a result, the Anglican Church “plans to spend $121m to take action to address ‘our shameful past’ for involvement in the 18th-century slave trade.”[7]

Beyond the slave trade, slave owners represented a number of different denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, came into being in 1845 as the church of Southern slaveholders. Alexander Campbell, one of the founding leaders of the Restoration Movement wrote concerning slavery in 1845: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting it, but many regulating it. It is not, then, we conclude, immoral.” Frederick Douglas, describes one of the men that owned him as a devout Methodist. Edward Covey “would make a short prayer in the morning, and a long prayer at night; and, strange as it may seem, few men would at times appear more devotional than he.”[8] Covey would take the slaves of other masters and break them for slave service (mainly by regularly whipping them), which is how Douglas came under his service. “Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion–a pious soul–a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.”[9] This is Douglas’ ironic way of indicating he was a religious brute.

Other than groups like the Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists, most every denomination was complicit in slavery. The point may be simple and even crude, but it seems clear that Jesus’ continuation of the liberating action of God in Moses seems to have gotten lost among those who could enslave and oppress their fellow humans in the name of Jesus. There were and are several ways of getting around this accusation: slavery is not sin itself but a metaphor for sin; the enslaved are improved in being exposed to their Master’s Christianity, etc. Or maybe, as I pointed out in my last blog (here), Jesus saving activity is concerned primarily with the kingdom of heaven, and the temporal kingdoms are left to violence, coercion, and slavery, as part of God’s plan (as in Luther’s two-kingdom theology). White supremacy and Christian nationalism, like Nazi National Socialism, work out of the same theological matrix of two-kingdoms that arises originally with Augustine, and may have seemed a necessary conciliation with Constantinianism. At any rate, the crudest of markers for the success or failure of particular forms of Christianity, indicates the church has mostly failed. But I presume this crude failure is indicative that many forms of sin’s enslavement have been left unaddressed. Sin enslaves morally, psychologically, socially, and arises in various, more subtle forms than chattel slavery, but a theology that cannot prevent literal slavery is probably not up to preventing or countering its more subtle forms. In other words, white Christians in the United States have inherited a theology that is more enslaving than liberating.

To put a finer point on it, virtue, discipleship, and being made in the image and likeness of Jesus, does not figure into the western, white, theological inheritance. Whether it is the fault of the reformers or the failure of a corrupt Catholicism, the loss of the development of the virtues, the loss of a practical discipleship, the loss of enactment of a real-world righteousness as part of salvation, creates a fundamental shift from the New Testament, not only in the texture of the Christian life but in the perception of God. The notion of two kingdoms, the legal theory of atonement promoted by Anselm, or Luther’s shift to an imputed righteousness or a faith that saves apart from “works,” creates a fictionalized version of the faith in which the forces of oppression – the personal forces of sinful oppression and the structural forces of societal oppression – are left unaddressed. As a result, being Christian is no predictor of one’s moral aptitude or manner of life. This stands in sharp contrast to New Testament Christianity and the Christianity of the early church. It may be that it is Gregory of Nyssa who best sums up this early form of the faith.

Gregory presumes that to be called a Christian means that one becomes like God through Christ. Not only the name of Christ, but all the various titles and names of Christ, are taken up by the Christian. He illustrates with the title of “king”: “authority over all things is hinted at by the name “kingship,” while purity and freedom from all passion and all evil are specified by the names of virtue, each one both thought and spoken in a higher sense.”[10] The Christian then also inherits the title and virtue of kingship or rule over the passions. By the same token all of the characteristics of Christ, included in his various descriptions and titles, are transferred to the Christian: “so Christ is righteousness itself (cf. Heb 7:2) and wisdom and power (cf. 1 Cor 1:24) and truth (cf. John 14:6), both goodness (cf. John 7:12; Mark 10:18) and life (cf. John 11:25; 14:6), and salvation (cf. acts 4:12) and incorruption (cf. 1 Cor 15:53–57), both immutability and changelessness, and every lofty concept whatever indicated by such names—all these Christ both is and is called.”[11] Each of these titles and characteristics are included in the name of Christ and by extension in the one calling herself a Christian.

For if we, united to him by faith in him, are named together with him who excels the names interpretive of the incorruptible nature, it is entirely necessary that as many concepts concerning that incorruptible nature as are contemplated with the name should also become those conforming to our having the same name. For just as we have obtained the title of Christian by participating in Christ, so too it is fitting that in conformity we should be drawn into sharing all the lofty names.[12]

One puts on Christ by putting on the virtues of Christ or by doing what Christ did and participating in who he is. It is not that one is left to do this apart from Christ: “Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue.”[13] God in Christ shares salvation and virtue with his followers and this is the meaning of the name Christian:

For just as by participating in Christ we are given the title ‘Christian,’ so also are we drawn into a share in the lofty ideas which it implies. Just as in a chain, what draws the loop at the top also draws the next loops, in like manner, since the rest of the words interpreting His ineffable and multiform blessedness are joined to the word ‘Christ,’ it would be necessary for the person drawn along with Him to share these qualities with Him.[14]

The name “Christ” and the various titles and descriptions which go with the name are not just inclusive of the incarnate Lord, but what is found in Christ (and these titles) is the revelation and perfection of the divine nature. As Jonathan Bailes states it, “Those who are called to become like God must imitate Christ because Christ himself is the perfect manifestation of divine perfection and, therefore, the names that are given to him are not simply descriptors of his humanity.”[15] Gregory assumes a direct equivalence between the titles given to Christ and the divine nature and the perfection of that nature. His Christology is such that God is not who he is apart from the perfections of Jesus Christ found in the incarnation. God’s perfection is the perfection of Jesus Christ. As Bailes concludes, “it is for this reason that Gregory sees no tension whatsoever in saying that whoever imitates Christ by conforming herself to his various titles—kingship, righteousness, wisdom, power, goodness, life, salvation, etc.—has fulfilled the goal of Christianity and the virtuous life, namely, imitating the perfection of God.”[16] The Christian becomes perfect as Christ is perfect and thus  becomes perfect like the Heavenly Father.

If one does not imitate the virtue of Christ, Gregory wonders if such a one truly shares in the name: “If, therefore, someone puts on the name of Christ, but does not exhibit in his life what is indicated by the term, such a person belies the name and puts on a lifeless mask . . .. For it is not possible for Christ not to be justice and purity and truth and estrangement from all evil, nor is it possible to be a Christian (that is, truly a Christian) without displaying in oneself a participation in these virtues.”[17] The incongruity of taking the name Christian without participating in the reality of Christ was inconceivable to Gregory and early Christians.  

Gregory writes point blank: “If one can give a definition of Christianity, we shall define it as follows: Christianity is an imitation of the divine nature.”[18] He understands this may sound difficult, but this putting on of the divine nature in Christ is the defining point of Christianity:

Now, let no one object to the definition as being immoderate and exceeding the lowliness of our nature; it does not go beyond our nature. Indeed, if anyone considers the first condition of man, he will find through the Scriptural teachings that the definition does not exceed the measure of our nature. The first man was constituted as an imitation of the likeness of God. So Moses, in philosophizing about man, where he says that God made man, states that: ‘He created him in the image of God,’ and the word ‘Christianity,’ therefore, brings man back to his original good fortune.[19]

It brings him back to his original goal not simply through (though not exclusive of) imitation, but through participation in Christ. Gregory speaks of both imitation and participation and seems to mean the same thing by the two terms. As Torstein Tollefsen observes, “ontological structure” of the imitation of God in Gregory’s writings is indistinguishable from Gregory’s theology of participation, so that when Gregory speaks of the imitation of God, he does not intend by this to imply merely an imitation of an external model, but a genuine participation in divine activity.”[20]

The imitation of the divine nature, as Gregory explains, is the definition of what it means to take on the name Christian: “Now if humanity was originally the likeness of God, I shall probably not have missed the mark in my definition by claiming that Christianity is the imitation of the divine nature.” The Gospel “commands the imitation in our way of life of good actions, as far as that may be possible.” The actions this involves are clear: “Our being made strangers to every wickedness as far as may be possible, to be pure from its defilements in deed and word and thought—this is truly the imitation of the divine perfection and of what has to do with God in heaven.”[21] God commands that his children be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect, and with the command the possibility presents itself: “For it is just as impossible to make ourselves equal in appearance to heaven’s greatness with the beautiful things in it as to liken humanity from earth to God in heaven.’ But the explanation of this problem is clear, because the Gospel does not command the comparison of one nature to another, I mean the human with the divine.”[22] The original image was set to receive the divine likeness, not due to its own nature, but because God’s nature is one that can be shared.

Along with this imitation, participation is that which makes imitation possible: “This is because the divinity is equally present in all things and in like manner pervades the entire creation, and nothing would remain in existence if it were separated from the One who is. Instead, the divine nature takes hold of each one of existing things, as of equal value, since he encompasses all things with his own inner all-embracing power.”[23] By “minding the things of heaven,” one not only thinks of heavenly things but participates in the heavenly virtues: “Consequently, the person who wants it has the life of ease in heaven, even though he is on earth, just as the gospel explains by telling us to mind heavenly things (cf. Col 3:2) and to store up in the treasuries there the wealth of virtue.” This participatory ontology not only indicates the avenue to God but indicates that Christ is an extension to humankind of the divine nature. Thus, the Christian is called to the perfection of God: “’Be perfect, as also your heavenly father is perfect’ (Matt 5:45). For when he called the true father the father of those who believed, he wanted also those born through him to be like the perfection of goods contemplated in him.”[24]

This notion of obtaining the perfection of God is blocked by a great deal of modern theology. It is counter to Catholic and Protestant nominalist conceptions of God (in which the divine nature is inaccessible) and amounts to an alternative understanding of salvation. This form of salvation is no mere legal fiction, nor is it strictly tied to the church’s sacraments, nor is it concerned primarily with escaping hell and going to heaven, but it is a putting on of the righteous nature of God. Gregory’s Christology is his soteriology in that Christ’s person entails salvation. What God is doing in Christ in turn, is not extraneous to the nature of God, but is part of who God is. Gregory and the early church left no room for an immoral Christianity consisting of failed virtues.

There is no room, for example, for slavery in Gregory, who considers it the height of pride to presume one can own fellow humans. “So, when someone turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?”[25] He is among the earliest of the church fathers to speak out against the institution providing a scathing criticism of slavery in his homily on Ecclesiastes entitled: “The evils of slave-owning.”[26] As Chris de Wet argues, “This homily is probably one of the most potent late ancient reactions against institutional slavery.”[27] Gregory argues that one cannot live a virtuous life while participating in the prideful practice of slaveholding and slave management. “For what is such a gross example of arrogance in the matters enumerated above – an opulent house, and an abundance of vines, and ripeness in vegetable-plots, and collecting waters in pools and channeling them in gardens – as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? . . . This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God.” As Gregory describes it, the slaveholder denies the human nature of the slave and presumes to play God:  

I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.[28]

The slaveholder has forgotten the first command of God and has forgotten his own place in God’s creation:

You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen. 1,26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? You have subjected all things to man, declares the word through the prophecy, and in the text: it lists the things subject, cattle and oxen and sheep (Ps 8, 7-8). Surely human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock? Irrational beasts are the only slaves of mankind. . . . But by dividing the human species in two with ‘slavery’ and ‘ownership’ you have caused it to be enslaved to itself, and to be the owner of itself.[29]

Gregory’s conclusion is decisively clear:

I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put: on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness’ (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself . For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 1:1,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

. . . He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul. Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room. Presumably, then, the property belonging to him is up for auction too. That means the earth, the islands, the sea, and all that is in them. What will the buyer pay, and what will the vendor accept, considering how much property is entailed in the deal?[30]

Gregory’s theology proves itself in his abhorrence of slavery. To arrive at this understanding entailed a theology set upon imitating and participating in Christ as integral to the Christian life. As Bailes concludes, “The virtuous life consists in the imitation of Christ, in conforming oneself to all of the distinct virtues that are attested to in the biblical titles of Christ, and only by doing this can one attain to the goal of Christian virtue, which is to become like God.”[31] This definition of Christianity leaves no room for the failed (immoral, virtueless) forms of the faith but liberates from every form of enslavement.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. Translation and Introduction by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) 97-98.

[2] Quoted in the Introduction to the Life of Moses,  20. In Cant. 12, Vol. 6, pp. 354, 8—356, 16

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is the point of Stacy M. Brown, “The Major Role The Catholic Church Played in Slavery,” New York Amsterdam News (September 18, 2018). Brown is Referencing the website

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Aljazeera, “Church of England admits ‘real shame for us’ over slavery ties”

[8] Frederick Douglas, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Electronic Version, 1999) 62.

[9] Douglas, 57.

[10] Gregory of Nyssa, One Path for All: Gregory of Nyssa on the Christian Life and Human Destiny, Compiled and introduced by Rowan A. Greer and Assisted by J. Warren Smith (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 20.

[13] Life of Moses, 31.

[14] Gregory of Nyssa: The Ascetical Works, trans, Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 84-85.

[15] Jonathan Michael Bailes, “Becoming Like God in Christ: Nicene Theology and Christian Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa” (Boston: PhD Dissertation, 2020), 142-143.

[16] Bailes, 144.

[17] The Ascetical Works, 85.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Torstein Tollefsen, Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 163. Cited in Bailes, 133. As Tollefsen notes, “Gregory’s works abound in the terminology of imitation. When he speaks of likeness and archetype, the likeness is an imitation or reflection of the archetype…I think this is just another way to express the central idea of participation. To imitate God is to participate in God. In principle, the logic is the same.”

[21] One Path for All, 20-21.

[22] Ibid, 21.

[23] Ibid, 22.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes: An English Version with Supporting Studies (New York and Berlin: Waiter de Gruyter, 1993), 73.

[26] Ecclesiastes, 73.

[27] Chris L de Wet, “The Cappadocian fathers on slave management”

[28] Ecclesiastes, 73.

[29] Ecclesiastes, 73-74.

[30] Ecclesiastes, 74-75.

[31] Bailes, 145.

Philemon and the Abolition of the City of Man

Slavery is the biblical motif which gets at the all pervasive economic, social, and psychological system of sin and it is against this background that exodus and redemption are also to be understood. Slavery is not simply the biblical metaphor for sin but is the concrete manifestation of what is meant by sin and in turn is precisely that from which Christ redeems. The very term “redemption” means that one’s life is no longer subject to commodification, objectification, materialization, or to circulation in an economy in which human life is reduced to bare life without intrinsic value.

In this human economy, the basic categories human/subhuman, citizen/alien, inclusion/exclusion, sovereign/subject, slave/free constitute the city of man. Being inside the city (with its laws and subjects) and outside the city (where there is no law) are marked by slave and free. The premise of the gospel is that being found outside the city, outside the law, outside the domain of what it means to be human (the exclusion which establishes the inclusion of the city), is the place occupied and exposed by Christ. Christ establishes a new organizational principle, a new family, centered on the koinonia of his body, in which exclusion is no longer the structuring principle of inclusion.

In the short book, Philemon, Paul masterfully knocks out all supporting presuppositions for continuation of a top-down master/slave order. After the gospel and after the writing of Philemon, slavery among Christians would seem to be excluded, and yet the reception of this smallest of books speaks of the troubled reception of the fulness of the gospel. The question arises, with a book like Philemon, whether Christians who fail to recognize the basis of this new koinonia (in which there are no slaves and masters but only brothers and sisters) fail to comprehend the gospel – and beyond this the question is as to where this incomprehension lies?

Philemon seems perfectly clear in its implications. Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus back as if he is Paul himself (v. 17). Philemon is to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). Paul’s letter is filled with pathos as Onesimus is “beloved,” “my child whom I have begotten in my imprisonment” (v. 10) In Onesimus, Paul says he is “sending my very heart” (v. 12). Paul claims personal kinship with Onesimus and identifies him with his own deepest feelings – the very center of who he is. “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17). It is doubtful that Philemon will regard Onesimus as anything short of a brother, which is Paul’s appeal: “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (15-16). Here is Christ’s ethic applied, as Paul identifies himself with the slave, he undoes not only the oppression of Onesimus but the dehumanizing master/slave relationship in which the master too is degraded.

Paul’s point may include the freeing of Onesimus so that he might return to Paul and Paul’s ministry, but his ultimate point is to have Philemon regard Onesimus as a brother. This unity or koinonia is the point of the gospel and the gospel accomplishes these other things (ending slavery, ending oppression, and overturning the city of man) in the process. What is not mentioned, but is very much present in Paul’s maintaining it is Philemon that “owes him his very self” (v. 19), is that a human life is on the line. The unmentionable but lurking reality is that Philemon, as a master, has the right to crucify a runaway slave. Owning another human and denying them their humanity (the very opposite of what Paul has done for Philemon) is part of Roman slavery exemplified in the masters right to crucify his slave. Yet, it is precisely as a slave that Christ dies. Christ’s citizenship, his place in Israel, his existence as being fully human, is denied in his crucifixion, but in this way the counter-economy of the gospel is established. Crucifixion and resurrection remove the fear of death, the controlling factor in slavery, yet Philemon in maintaining the master/slave relationship would seemingly disregard the cross. This is the unspoken fact, but when Paul says charge to me whatever Onesimus owes (ultimately it his life he owes), he is imitating Christ in his willingness to identify with the slave. He is saying – take me not him.

Here is one of the small gems of the New Testament; revolutionary in its implications and a worked example of the apocalyptic implications of the gospel. This small book calls for a reassessment of what it means to be human. It calls into question the very founding structure and economy, the hierarchy of relations, the accepted reality of Roman society. Yet these seemingly revolutionary and obvious implications of Paul’s gospel turn out to not be so obvious throughout church history.

According to J. B. Lightfoot, the ancient church did not pay much attention to the letter because “the gospel is not concerned with trivia.”[1] As Demetrius Williams describes the opinion of the early church,

Although Philemon was included in some early canon lists, there was little to no comment on it because no one apparently found any occasion to mention it. The letter was thought to have no doctrinal content that might have led to its being quoted, no contribution to the development of Paul’s theology, or of Christian theology in general.[2]

Williams describes the early consideration of the letter as being trivial, banal, beneath consideration, and perhaps unworthy of the canon. Because of early attacks on the book, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) defends the book precisely by changing the import of its message. He “argued that God established different social roles and estates and every individual should stay in his or her proper role” and in some way the book supposedly demonstrates this.[3] Both Chrysostom (c. 347-407) and Jerome (c. 342-420), due to attacks on the book, also attempt to defend it. But as Williams demonstrates, theirs is a somewhat underhanded defense:

John Chrysostom found a purpose for Philemon in addressing the situation of converted slaves. He argued that when a slave is converted and faithfully continues his life as a slave, even unbelievers are able to see that slaves can become believers without questioning the present norms of the society.[4]

Williams follows an established pattern in interpretation of Philemon, in which the book is used to draw moral lessons about knowing one’s place and a demonstration of Paul’s humility, but the remarkable element is the seeming blindness to the moral implications of slavery spelled out in the book. There seemed to be a concern to protect against the radical interpretation of Philemon, and on this basis preserve it as part of the canon. Williams traces this line of reasoning up to and including the Reformers:

Martin Luther, in his 1527 Lecture on Philemon, viewed Onesimus as an example of a person who was misled by the idea of freedom. He argued that Paul respected the established legal rights of property and did not seek to abolish slavery. Calvin, too, affirmed respect for the prevailing order and also emphasized Paul’s request to receive Onesimus back into his service.[5]

There were those who advocated the abolition of slavery among Christians (e.g., the Donatists in North Africa, Gregory of Nyssa, and various anonymous Christians to which Theodore refers), but this radical minority were often silenced by the conservative majority’s appeal to Philemon, as if this book made the case for slavery and conservatism – which in modern eyes it clearly does not. What this history of interpretation seems to indicate is the stifling effects of Constantinianism, imperialism, Christian nationalism, and racism, on the gospel. Given the primary role slavery plays in Scripture, it would seem that to be blind to the gospel’s implication for this institution is simply to be blind to the fulness of the gospel. Perhaps the blindness entails a refusal of the radical nature of the gospel.

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, bare life functions as the basic stuff from which truly human life, or life within the polis or the city, is formed, but in this formation, there is a necessary distinction between life inside the city (that life accounted for in the law, in citizenship, in being fully human life) and that life excluded from the city. That is, within life there is a necessary division between mere biological life and the good life of the city, and the marker of these two forms of life is the biological life shared by all humans. Thus “when Aristotle defined the end of the perfect community in a passage that was to become canonical for the political tradition of the West, he did so precisely by opposing the simple fact of living (to zēn) to politically qualified life (to eu zēn): ‘born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life.’”[6] Agamben demonstrates that the Aristotelian recognition of an opposition within life between unqualified life (zēn) and good life (eu zēn) is the structuring principle of the judicial and political order constituting the city. For there to be an inside, there must be an outside, so that excluded life is an essential part of the structure of the polis. The politics of human society is the place in which life must be transformed into good life and it does this on the basis of the exception. “In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.”[7]

The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[8] This is the power of the sovereign, to decide the state of exception or to decide who falls outside the city and is thus subject to random killing as in crucifixion. The slave determines the master, and the sovereign, in ordering this arrangement, establishes the law. To challenge this order would be nothing short of challenging the accepted consensus as to what it means to be human.  

Agamben notes that bare life is transformed through a particular relation to language. Through the instantiation of the voice (having a voice in the polis) the division is made within life, as the “politicization” of bare life brings about the good life (or having language – the logos). The fundamental division is not friend/enemy but the division accomplished through language, between bare life and political existence. “There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.”[9] Language, or having a voice in the polis, is the saving element which transforms bare life into human life. Those rendered voiceless (within the city) are synonymous with those outside the city or outside the polis and law.

The choice appears to be between the logos and city of man or the Logos and communion of Christ. There is no question that the implication of the gospel, as Paul presents it throughout his writings and as it is concentrated in Philemon, would challenge the status quo of the law, of social structures as they exist (in Judaism or in the slave trade), and that it speaks of an apocalyptic breaking in of a new order of culture and humanity, and yet the revolutionary nature of the gospel, particularly as it pertains to slavery has a very troubled history as reflected in the enduring nature of slavery and in the troubled reception of this little book. The issue is at the very core of the gospel and at the very core of the construction of human society, and it may be that it is the contradiction of these two realms that has caused this major issue (expressed in this minor book) to be so misunderstood.

[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “’No Longer as a Slave’: Reading the Interpretation History of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon,”

Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon (Paul in Critical Contexts), Matthew V. Johnson Sr., Demetrius K. Williams, et al. (Fortress Press, 2012) 11.

[2] Williams, 16.

[3] Williams, 18.

[4][4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) 9.

[7] Agamben, 12.

[8] Agamben, 18.

[9] Agamben, 12.

The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin

The humor of Slavoj Žižek continually makes the singular point that the law or the symbolic realm is an oppressive force, so pervasive in its power, that it is inescapable. A man who fears chickens thinks he is a grain of corn and likely to be eaten. He is institutionalized and undergoes years of therapy. On the day of his release he runs back into the hospital as he has encountered a chicken. His doctor patiently insists that he must now understand that he is not a grain of corn. The man readily agrees that the years of therapy have paid off, he says, “I know I am not a grain of corn. “But,” he asks, “does the chicken know this.” Is escape from the “big Other,” God, the law, or fate, possible? For Žižek, the category may be subject to manipulation but ultimately the mind of the chicken cannot be changed. Continue reading “The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin”