Slavery in the Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer

B. Gripp (Universidade Federal Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro)

Slavery is a major theme in the works of ancient Christian writers. In fact, concerns about the internal trinitarian relations, the doctrine of Man and their social thinking display an interest in the institution of slavery. In the first, the precise relations among the persons of the Trinity are a major theme of their thought, in the second they reflect on the singular aspect of man as Image of God and what does this mean regarding slaves and masters, and in the third they react to several of the social problems the institution posed in their society.

This is especially true in the case of Gregory of Nyssa. Indeed, he dedicates two passages in his work to comment on slavery itself, one in his In Ecclesiasten, which has become quite famous even outside of Ancient Christian Studies, and other in De Oratione Domenica. In this paper, we will discuss more in-depth the lesser known passage, which helps us to precise the Nyssen’s thoughts on slavery and on the nature of Man.

In the Fifth Homily on the Lord’s Prayer, commenting the verse Forgive us our debts, as we too forgive our debtors, in which he analyses the disparity of the faults against ourselves compared to ours against God, he sees the parable of the unfaithful servant as an appropriated explanation of this doctrine. Gregory then admonishes his audience not to act harshly against an unfaithful servant, asking them to forgive any sin he may have committed. There follows a discussion on the nature of slavery.

We then proceed to compare this passage with the more famous one of In Ecclesiasten. We conclude that, although they are thematically similar and congruent, they are totally different in terms of composition, precluding any kind of textual dependence. Both texts allow us to understand with more precision what was Gregory’s views on slavery and its underlying philosophical and theological bases.

As a result, we find out that Gregory of Nyssa conceived man as a naturally free creature as a consequence of the imagery of God in himself, and therefore received the lordship over visible creation. Accordingly, the enslavement of men is against the innate liberty of mankind and a result not of any natural propensity to slavery, but of power and custom enshrined in law.