This is the second of three sections of the book arguing that patristic thinkers provide resources for overcoming the quasi-theological racial imagination of modernity. The prelude on Irenaeus attempted to establish the ways in which the Gnostics anticipated the modern racial imagination and the ways in which Irenaeus defended against such ideas, above all (Carter argues) through insisting on the Jewish, bodily existence of Christ. Now this section, which provides a kind of threshold to Carter’s constructive account of antebellum black Christianity, focuses on Gregory of Nyssa, who rejected the legitimacy of slavery and called for the manumission of all slaves.
Carter points out how innovative Gregory’s ideas here were — even Paul did not unequivocally reject the institution of slavery, and for most thinkers in the Roman world, pagan and Christian alike, slavery seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. They are also relatively isolated, as “the world would have to wait another fifteen centuries–until the nineteenth century, late into the modern abolitionist movement–before such an unequivocal stance against slavery would appear again” (231). What is so important about Gregory’s stance from Carter’s perspective is that it is exegetically and theologically based, and indeed, Carter claims that it is motivated by precisely the theological points that are so central to Carter’s own theological vision: the refusal of supercessionism and the insistence on the bodily nature of Christ.
Gregory’s stance is all the more remarkable given that his fellow Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, both accepted slavery, and both did so on theological grounds. Their main contention was that though slavery was a sinful institution, we were living in a sinful world and must face that reality. In contrast to his claims that modernity is quasi-theological, Carter here insists that these two are genuine theological readers, such that “theological reading” does not provide an escape hatch with automatically good results.
The focus of this chapter textually is Gregory’s Homily IV on Ecclesiastes (Google books link). He situates the exegetical work of this homily within a contemplative spirituality focused on the “impoverished, suffering Christ at the cross,” one centered on the attempt to join “the person (hypostasis) of the eternal Christ, Jesus of Nazareth,” which defines Christian existence as “ecstatic” (234). Reading Ecclesiastes within this framework, Gregory argues that the Preacher has been illustrating how one should reorder one’s desires so as to reach true wisdom — hence recognizing that all worldly things are “vanity” — and a crucial aspect of this is to stop viewing things and especially people as potential property. Particularly in the case of slavery, Gregory believes this attitude of ownership bespeaks an intolerable pride.
And it is here that Gregory makes what is, for me, his most interesting move. Whereas perhaps the more natural or straightforward path is to claim that we are all God’s slaves and therefore can’t be slaves of one another, Gregory claims that God created us to be free and didn’t even enslave us when he was within his rights to do so after our rebellion — instead, he went out of his way to free us from the slavery we found ourselves in. If God so extravagantly resists the enslavement of humanity, how can we do any differently? In fact, human freedom mirrors, analogically, the true freedom of God.
Quoting Romans 11:29, Gregory argues that we can never undo or go against God’s decision that we should be free, “for his gracious gifts are irrevocable.” And it is here that I think Carter begins to force Gregory into his own theological framework, because he insists that Gregory is talking about God’s covenant with Israel as the focal point of God’s covenant with creation — because of course Romans 11:29 in context refers to the covenant with Israel. I don’t find this part of Carter’s reading convincing. In the absence of any previous reference to God’s covenant with Israel in the homily, it seems much more likely that Gregory is using Romans 11:29 as a kind of general rule for all of God’s gifts. In the immediate context of the verse, Paul is referring to the covenant with Israel, but there’s no reason to limit it to only that — and so Gregory says that it also applies to his covenant with humanity as such at the dawn of creation. And again, there’s no clear indication that Gregory makes an explicit link between the two, such that the covenant with universal humanity necessarily entails or must be understood in light of the covenant with Israel.
Carter then claims that a slave-holding society is necessarily supercessionistic and Gnostic — which would make ancient Israel itself supercessionistic and Gnostic. (And isn’t Gnosticism all about escaping the bondage of this world and our slavery to the evil creator God?)
In what follows, Carter undertakes a detailed rhetorical analysis of the homily, based on its chiastic structure, in which the concept of the “image of God” proves to be the point on which Gregory’s entire homily centers. His reading here is very erudite and impressive. Given that the “image of God” often refers simply to human reason as the “highest” human faculty, one might suspect that Gregory’s argument is basically humanistic with theological overlays, but Carter endeavors to show that it is deeply theological. First, he details the ways in which Gregory links the work of the resurrection with the work of abolition or freedom, and then he attempts to establish that for Gregory the “image of God” is irreducibly Christological. Thus for Gregory, the Logos is the ultimate “image of God,” but this image needs to be filled out by the “full compliment” (pleroma) of humanity and creation — which we could perhaps connect back to Irenaeus’s notion of Christ as a recapitulation of creation. Carter then embarks on a more constructive reading of Gregory, again focusing on the central themes of Christ’s bodily and Jewish nature.
As I indicate above, I believe Carter is in danger of reading own main concerns into Gregory’s theology. The attempt to make Gregory of Nyssa into a champion of the body is particularly difficult for me to accept. Particularly in light of Bruce Rosenstock’s comments to Xavier’s first post, it’s clear that one could make an argument that God’s covenant with Israel is all about the liberation of slaves and that the ingrafting of the Gentiles into that covenant necessarily entails freeing slaves — but I don’t think Gregory is making that argument, or if he is, he’s doing so incredibly indirectly. His claim that Gregory is not “merely” humanistic in his rejection of slavery but deeply Christological is much more convincingly argued, but it seems to me that Carter is too quick to plug his own idea of Christology into Gregory’s.
Even if these readings are a stretch, however, they do definitely bring out points in Gregory’s argumentation that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed, and for that reason I found it to be a very interesting and informative chapter.
One thought on “Carter book event: Interlude on Christology and Race: Gregory of Nyssa as Abolitionist Intellectual”
Carter does admit that he is using Gregory of Nyssa anachronistically (231). However, I am beginning to have serious doubts that humanity made in the image of God is a looming theme in the Hebrew Bible.
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