Thursday, April 5, 2018


Chris L. De Wet, The Unbound God: Slavery and the Formation of Early Christian Thought. Routledge Studies in the Early Christian World. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 178. ISBN 9781138201163. $140.00.

Reviewed by Ronald Charles, Saint Francis Xavier University (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a very important book. The small volume of 178 pages (5 chapters) is interesting and intriguing for its sheer beauty in exposition and daring analysis and propositions. The author addresses a simple yet profound research question: "In what way did the Christian theologians of the third, fourth, and early fifth centuries appropriate the discourse of slavery in their theological formulations, and what could the effect of this appropriation have been for actual physical slaves?" (ii).

The first chapter ("Introducing Early Christian Doulology: Slavery to God, doulology classifications, and early Christian identity") introduces the reader to the nuances and complexities regarding early Christian discourse and practice vis-à-vis slavery. The author coins the very useful concept of "doulology" to capture "the enunciative process in which slavery and mastery operate together as a concept 'to think/communicate with'—in this process, knowledge and behaviors are produced, reproduced, structured, and distributed in such a way as to establish subjects in/and positions of authority and subjugation, agency and compulsion, ownership and worth, honor and humiliation, discipline and reward/punishment, and captivity and freedom" (8). From that definition one may see clearly Foucault's influence on the author's thought, which he readily acknowledges. The author also situates his work in conversation with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, especially in his use of the term "habitus." The notion of "habitus" is deployed to understand the dispositions, mentalities, attitudes, habits of perception, and actions that characterized Roman society, and inter alia, the early Christian intellectuals/theologians in their attitudes and practices regarding slavery. He proposes that one adopts a reading stance "against the grain" and read the ancient texts prudently in order to understand the positionality, both at the discursive level and from a practical standpoint, of some early Christians with regard to slavery. The chapter is convincing enough that it did not need the extra section of a case study to illustrate the main points of the chapter from Syrian monasticism.

Chapter 2 ("Savior or Slave? Philippians 2:6-11 and the problem of slavery in Origen's Christology") looks at how Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254 CE) "incorporated Phil. 2:6-11 into his Christology, and how he dealt with the underlying problem of Christ assuming the form of a slave in the hymn" (42). The author also explores how Origen's interpretation of this particular text influenced his views on institutional slavery. Before delving into the proposed analysis, the author takes the time to summarize Plato's views, arguments, and usages of the trope of slavery, in conjunction with Platonic cosmology, in order to show how Origen was influenced by Platonic thought. The author shows convincingly that the hymn in Phil. 2:6-11 "should be understood within this development of doulological cosmology and corporeal heteronomy. While Christ is divine and pre-existent, he is in a position of rulership and so equal to God, according to the hymn, but then the incarnation implies that he becomes subject to the principle of corporeal heteronomy. Thus, the corporeal form is also the form of a slave. But when Christ is restored to his divine status, and free from the bonds of corporeality, he is again Kyrios, Lord" (47-48). Origen's thought on slavery is extremely complex. The author shows some of the ways in which one may capture parts of Origen's grappling with the topic of slavery, both from the viewpoint of his theological reflections and from his understandings on the nature of secular slavery. The author has demonstrated that "Origen remains true to his Platonic roots and adopts more of a Platonic view of slavery than an Aristotelian view" (68). The conclusion to this chapter is very provocative in its assessment of Origen's doulology. The author concludes that, in Origen's language, one finds a level of discursive violence that takes the colonization of bodies as commonplace. He asserts, "The Word remains a typical master. He seizes what he covets. The divine Word takes the soul of Jesus and his body in possession in a manner similar to how enslaved bodies were sexually claimed and exploited. Humanity is effeminized and doulologized, and becomes the coveted prize in a war of deception and violence between the masters who are God, sin, or the devil. Freedom is relative and paradoxical" (70).

Chapter 3 ("Emancipating the Spirit: Slavery and early Christian pneumatology in Eunomius and Basil of Caesarea") investigates the use of doulology with reference to the spiritual world in early Christian thinking. The chapter focuses on the debate about spiritual hierarchies and taxonomies between Eunomius (b. ca. 324 and 328 CE) and Basil (b. ca. 329 CE). Thus, slavery became a very useful discourse "for thinking about and structuring the ineffable spiritual realm and the dynamics within the Godhead" (97). Before further analyzing the positions of these two fourth-century thinkers, the author pays attention to the use of the rich spiritual cosmology articulated in the fifth similitude of the second-century work known as the Shepherd of Hermas, where the position of the Holy Spirit and Christ is clearly delineated in a doulological framework. This way, the author places the various texts and arguments in conversation so that one may have a broader sense of the use of doulology in structuring the discourses of the spiritual realm over the centuries, and how these discussions influenced some major Christian doctrines. In other words, these Christian thinkers proved how influential the discourse of slavery was to their theologizing, and how such discourse developed in late ancient Christian formulations of theological positions and religious practices. The author announces three social consequences deriving from Basil's thought with regard slavery: "First, the defense of the equality of the Trinity was also a defense of slavery, and thus did not do much in addressing the problem of enslavement […] Second, there is an extremely potent masculinization and kyriarchization of God in On the Holy Spirit. This is clearly seen in the discourse related to the volition of the Spirit, its sanctity and transcendence, its dominion, and its activity and impenetrability." (99) This reviewer could not locate the third social consequence in Basil's thought.

Chapter 4 ("The Curse of Ham [Gen. 9:18-27]: Slavery, sin, and punishment in John Chrysostom, Augustine, and the Cave of Treasures") demonstrates how "the relationship between early Christian ethics and slaveholding was quite comfortable and accommodating—for those in position of power, at least" (105). The chapter tries to illustrate how the variegated and complex relationship between sin and slavery was articulated by various early Christian thinkers. The author goes back to the curse of Ham to show how this particular text has been used and abused in theological debates. He provides a clear analysis of the Genesis text in Chrysostom and Augustine: Chrysostom, for example, viewed slavery in a disciplinary manner as a remedy for sin, whereas Augustine understood slavery in a positive way. Slavery started in the soul and manifests itself in excessive vices, for Chrysostom. It is shocking and, as the author mentions it, "disturbing to the modern reader to realize that Chrysostom, like many other early Christian authors, actually saw secular slavery as an institution that remedied the effects of sin and therefore protected and improved society—slavery becomes a technology for harmatiological policing, so to speak. Only a world without sin can be a world without slavery, and slavery made a bad world a little bit safer" (114). Augustine relied on the familiar tropes in Roman ideology regarding slaves to develop his thought on slavery. For Augustine, as for most ancient Roman free citizens, slaves are weak, untrustworthy, and foolish. Augustine places a heretic in the realm of one who acts in a slavish manner. The chapter, in the understanding of this reviewer, could have ended right there after the discussions of Chrysostom and Augustine on slavery and how they interpreted the Genesis account of the curse of Ham. This reviewer does not see the rationale for including the very unfamiliar text of the Cave of Treasures in the discussion. And this is a main problem of this otherwise excellent monograph. The texts are coming from all directions and one may feel annoyed by such a bewildering catalog. The author seems to anticipate this criticism when he mentions that "Some readers may even find the book somewhat experimental" (8).

The last chapter ("Conclusion: The Unbound God") is a small (2 pages), but helpful, summary of the book. The author points out, in a Foucauldian manner, the genealogical aspect of the conclusions reached. He points out that one may not find neat responses from the texts analyzed, but a very complex array of engaging discourses and activities with regard to slavery. Slavery, the author notices, "had a remarkable effect on the making of early Christian asceticism and monasticism" (149). One cannot divorce early Christian discourse from the tropes and cosmology of what was common in ancient ideology regarding slavery. The author's prose is very riveting in stating, "There is no denying that in its formative centuries Christian theology was built on the backs of slaves and wrote itself on papyrus, parchment, and enslaved flesh" (149). The author's last brief reflections are theological in nature, which could turn off some readers. He proposes a reimagining of religious expression that does not necessarily portray God as a slaveholder. For him, and inspired by Gregory of Nyssa's calling, "it is possible to think about God or the Divine or one's spirituality or the cosmos at large without resorting to the language of slavery, domination, and submission" (150). This book is a reflection on the past and its bearings on the present via the development of early Christian thoughts, and how one may creatively reimagine various religious discourses and habits in order to work for a better future. It is a great accomplishment.

No comments:

Post a Comment