Thursday, July 15, 2004

Is the Trinitarian tradition "pro-slavery"? (Part II)

Catholicism, let it be clear, condemned the enslavement of Africans from the inception of the practice in the 1400s. Yet there is a continuing discussion of slavery of various kinds, including slavery in ancient and Biblical times, which continues unabated. Responding to communication received from Edgar Foster along these lines (continued from an earlier discussion), the following dialogue ensued:

Foster: "I do not view all forms of slavery as "inherently sinful," though [Kevin] Giles seems to lean in that direction; in fact, he makes some pretty explicit statements that indicate his avowed opposition to enslaving human persons in any way whatsoever. However, his words must also be interpreted in their proper context."

Blosser: Discussions of this type I find exceedingly troublesome, not only because of the disturbing nature of many kinds of slavery and because of the inflammatory connotations that arise in such discussions, but because of the frequent lack -- as in Giles' case, apparently -- of defining "slavery" before discussing it.

[Blosser's earlier statement to which Foster responds below]
In that sense, I think the issue of slavery is much like three other classic issues in terms of their relationship to the Bible: (1) monagomous marriage, (2) the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, (3) the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. My hunch is that it would be very difficult to make a conclusive case for any of these from Scripture alone.
Foster: "I take exception with you concerning (1) and (2). The Bible seems to present a pretty coherent and compelling story when it comes to monogamy and the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. What makes you tend to doubt that a "conclusive case" can be made for (1) or (2) by means of Scripture alone? Would this not depend on the presuppositions,temperament as well as the volitive and cognitive functional abilities of one's interlocutor."

Blosser: I felt pretty sure you might take exception to ## 1 & 2, the reason being that you BELIEVE them and assume that your religious beliefs are derived straightforwardly from Scripture. What makes me doubt that a "conclusive case" could be made from Scripture alone? Try it. I don't think it can be done, any more than a conclusive case can be made for for exclusive adult baptism or for infant baptism from the Bible alone. If you want to really test yourself, I would again encourage you to read Mark Shea's By What Authority? which makes a strong case, in my opinion, for the claim that such beliefs can't be conclusively devended by Scripture alone, and, furthermore, mounts a case for the hypothesis that those who adhere to such beliefs are always ALREADY presupposing Catholic "Tradition" or something like it.

Foster: "Giles is a trinitarian. He is the theologian trying to make a connection -- not necessarily essential -- between slavery and the Trinity doctrine. Giles argues that Evangelicals have altered their view of the Trinity based on certain cultural presuppositions. In other words, he contends that a Christian's reading of the Bible or a Christian's formulation of doctrine is always historically conditioned. Thus, Giles maintains, orthodox Christians once thought that the three Persons of the Godhead were all ontologically and functionally equal (i.e. not subordinate with respect to the AD INTRA works of the Trinity). However, after the suffrage movement or the advent of the birth control (INTER ALIA), evangelicals began to insist that the Son and Spirit are subordinate to the Father, yet equal to Him as respects the one nature that they either share with the Father or are with Him. The analogy used to support such thinking, Giles points out, was the husband and wife relationship, which Giles believes is theologically innovative and not rooted in historical Trinitarian orthodoxy. The upshot of his analysis is that Christians tend to read the Bible or formulate doctrine through certain cultural lenses. Just as they changed their views on the social, familial or ecclesiastical role of women, so Christians (whether evangelicals or Catholics) have altered their beliefs or views on slavery and, by implication, the Trinity doctrine.

Blosser: Granted, the connections are being made in the first place by Giles (and that the uses to which you might put such connections are secondary); but that makes the connections no less far fetched, in my opinion. It's a truism that "cultural lenses" affect our interpretations of things. But isn't it preposterous to suggest that modern Evangelicals are behind the advent of inter-Trinitarian subordination of Persons when subordinationist battles were fought among the Patristics? Granted, it may be the case that Evangelicals have come up with new metaphors for illustrating the matter -- though I'm not at all certain of that either (nuptial imagery has a long Catholic tradition) -- but I would find any notion absurd that suggested, say, that a conception of the Trinity was responsible for slavery in America, or vice versa.

Foster: "Granted, we should avoid conflating the variegated senses of "slavery." Nevertheless, regardless of what Murray meant by "slavery," it seems clear that he lumped "black slavery" in with his comemnts about servitude being a "divine institution." And it also seems quite evident that he believed "slavery" was a result of the divine curse on Ham (See John Murray. Principles of Conduct. London: InterVarsity Press, 1957. Page 96. I am willing to revise my views of Murray, however, in the light of evidence to the contrary."

Blosser: In fairness to Murray, it would probably be charitable to clarify what is meant by "divine institution," since that expression is often used in Protestant circles for things that are often called "sacraments" by Catholics and "creation ordinances" by Calvinists. Murray clearly does not have that in mind, since he sees slavery as
an institution emanating from the fall. Like all human government, he seems to be saying, slavery is something capable of abuse, but not intrinsically wrong. That is, just as there can be just governments, there can be just and charitable slave owners -- a claim which, you will agree, is empirically testable through historical research.

Floster: "Giles particularly has in mind Greco-Roman and "black" slavery that involved no "dollars under the table" but a determination to "break" the slave by any means necessary."

Blosser: "Breaking" also needs definition. The mother of John and Charles Wesley, as a philosophy of child rearing, recommended "breaking" a child's will early in his life, without "destroying" his will, so as to
make him docile, teachable, and capable of being trained in virtue. Clearly (I hope), that's not what Giles has in mind. Perhaps something closer to "breaking a horse."

Foster: "Giles does take issue with Murray here, writing:
'Murray accepts that Scripture endorses slavery, but to safeguard himself he takes up the argument popularized by Thornwell that slavery is only the property of one man in the labor of another, not the property of man in man. This is special pleading. Slavery by definition involves owning the person and his labor.' (Giles, 221)
"That is, Giles defines slavery in terms of legal ownership; it is not simply being a nannie or servant for nobility."

Blosser: Then I think what requires further definition is "person" and "owenership." For even if one purchases a slave at the slavemarket for benifit of his work, there is a profound sense in which no man can "own" (possess, purchase, have as property) another "person" (rational soul), for a person is not a thing. That would seem to be tacitly conceded in contexts where slave owners concerned themselves with evangelizing their slaves (at least in some cases).

None of this, be it noted, makes such slavery acceptable from my point of view as a Catholic. I would even have difficulty with the idea of a servant, I'm afraid.

Foster: "Thanks for the links. I admittedly need to do more work in terms of examining the Catholic perspective on slavery, though Giles says that it too changed during the post-Enlightenment era."

Blosser: Giles may say one thing. History may say another. Centuries before the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church condemned "black slavery" as soon as it began. In 1435, six decades before Columbus sailed, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the Canary Islands, and ordered their European masters to manumit the enslaved within 15 days, under pain of excommunication. In 1537, Pope Paul III condemned the enslavement of West Indian and South American natives, and explicitly attributed that evil, "unheard of before now," to "the enemy of the human race," Satan. The commencement of the Enlightenment is often placed in the mid-17th century with the publication of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia.