Gregory of Nyssa – A Lone Voice Against Slavery

Gregory of Nyssa – A Lone Voice Against Slavery

I have already written about Gregory of Nyssa[1] – one of the Three Cappadocian Fathers – and his compassion toward the poor. But he deserves another article, for a stand that made him unique and countercultural in his time: his stand against slavery.

            Gregory’s cry rang loud in the course of a sermon on Ecclesiastes 2:7, a passage where the author included his slaves as part of his riches: “I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.”

            Many of Gregory’s hearers had slaves. Some were or might have been slaves. They probably thought Gregory would focus on the emptiness of riches spoken by the author of Ecclesiastes. They might have even expected a typical Christian exhortation to masters to be kind to their slaves, or to be moderate in their acquisitions.

            Other preachers had spoken along those lines, including Gregory’s brother Basil and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. But most Christians saw slavery as an unavoidable evil, one of the effects of sin in the world. (It was apparently around this time that some Christian writers began to attribute the institution of slavery to Genesis 9:25, when Noah said that his grandson Canaan would become “servant of servants”).

            Viewed in his social and intellectual context, Gregory’s sermon sounds surprisingly counter-cultural, a lonely voice denouncing slavery as an abuse of authority and a disregard of humanity’s common origins.

Slavery Is an Abuse of Authority

            “Do you notice the enormity of the boast?” he asked. “This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all (Ps. 119:91[2]). 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?”[3]

            Gregory reminded his hearers of the limits of human authority. God has given human beings “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26). God has then repeated the same injunction in Psalm 8, specifying that it concerned “all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (vv. 7-8).

            This list, Gregory said, doesn’t include humans. “Surely human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock?”[4]

            What’s more, men and women were created free. In fact, even after we chose to be enslaved to sin, he “spontaneously recalled us to freedom.” And “if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?”[5]

Slavery Disregards Our Common Origins

            In other sermons, Gregory had emphasized the common origins of all human beings as creatures made in God’s image as a compelling motivation for love and compassion. It was a premise most Christians accepted in theory, though it was harder to translate into practice.

            To Gregory, the fact that all human beings share the same nature makes slavery both unnatural and illogical. “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.”[6]

            By pointing out the irrationality of slavery, Gregory mounted a direct challenge against Aristotle, who wrote, “That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”[7]

            For Aristotle, those with inferior intelligence and abilities (as subjective as this judgment inevitably was) could not easily survive on their own, and were therefore “natural slaves.”  This view was so deeply ingrained in ancient thought, that many Christians, like Basil, took it for granted.

            For Gregory, this pagan mindset had to be discarded. In fact, this division was a sin and a product of pride. “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?”[8]

            Besides, Gregory points out, how can anyone put a price on a human being? “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?”[9]

            Actually, Gregory reminds us, Christ has given an idea of the value of human souls: “He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul,” Gregory said (referencing Mat. 16,26; Mk. 8,36).


Ahead of His Time

            Gregory’s denunciation of slavery still stands alone among ancient documents. It was brief (only a few paragraphs of the full sermon) but forceful, passionate, and clear, leaving no room for misinterpretations and justifications. Scholars have looked in vain for definite influences on his thought. Some have given some credit to his deep admiration for his sister Macrina, who persuaded their mother Emmelia to free all their slaves, treating as equals the ones who chose to stay. 

            In any case, Gregory’s exhortation on this issue remained, to our knowledge, a lonely voice. It was too radical for his time. We have to wait centuries to find a denunciation of slavery that is equally explicit, rational, and Scriptural. But this doesn’t detract from the depth and breadth of his message – a message which is still as valid and thought-provoking as it was then.

[2] “By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants” (ESV).

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregorii Nysseni Opera (GNO), vol. 5, transl, by Stuart G. Hall and Rachel Moriarty, quoted in, 334.5

[4] Ibid., 335.11

[5] Ibid., 336.6

[6] Ibid., 335.11

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, vol. 5, 334.5

[9] Ibid., 336.6