The Unbound God

Slavery and the Formation of Early Christian Thought

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Chris L. de Wet
Routledge Studies in the Early Christian World
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To be a “slave of God” in 4th century Syria was no hidden matter of the heart. Draped in chains, bound with iron at neck and wrist, the bodies of devout monks like Eusebius of Teleda and Symeon the Stylite made the inward enslavement to their one true master shockingly visible. Examining these stories, alongside more famous uses of slavery in figures like Paul, Augustine and Origen, Chris L. de Wet’s important new study, The Unbound God: Slavery and the Formation of Early Christian Thought, has two central aims—the first of which it achieves, the second of which invites a few questions and reservations.

The book’s primary goal is to examine “how the discourse of slavery … functioned in the shaping of early Christian religious thought” (8). In this de Wet succeeds decisively. He not only demonstrates “that slavery was an indispensable conceptual and intellectual tool for nascent Christianity” (8), but displays that tool’s breadth and complexity with impressive erudition—tracking its operations from the 3rd through the 5th centuries, across diverse genres (letters, sermons, treatises), and in four languages (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic). Wide-ranging but not scattershot, the treatment resembles a tour through a dense city: of necessity, much will pass by unaddressed, but what is explained is accessible, lucid, striking—benefiting experts and novices alike.

In the first chapter’s introduction to slavery in early Christianity, de Wet forges new conceptual tools, drawing upon resources from social and cultural theory. These concepts are crucial to the success of the chapters which follow, enabling him to track, classify, and compare various strands of the sprawling slavery discourses of late antique Christianity, and illumining unexpected points of convergence among disparate texts which would otherwise remain obscure.

Most significant among these conceptual tools is the notion of “doulological classifications” (13). Building from Preaching Bondage, his first book on slavery in John Chrysostom, “doulology” is de Wet’s way of framing the problem of slavery in early Christianity as neither merely an institution, nor a set of ideas, but a Foucauldian “power discourse,” with variously “metaphorical, religious, cultural, social, and political” dimensions (8, 146). Doulological classifications, accordingly, provide a conceptual method of addressing a primary difficulty of this discourse for modern readers: how to interpret the way ancient authors routinely use master-slave imagery to discuss diverse phenomena beyond “actual” slavery—the nature of the passions, the body-soul relation, the power of demons, the subjection of humankind to God. Traditionally, scholars have spoken of “literal” vs. “metaphorical” slaveries. De Wet contends this distinction runs aground on the ancients’ “much broader cosmological-doulological framework of reality,” such that to identify as a “slave of God” (as in the Syrian monks above) is no mere metaphor (13 The doulological classifications de Wet introduces make the valuable contribution of an expanded three-part framework: horizontal enslavement of human beings to other human beings—for which he frequently, and somewhat unhelpfully, substitutes “secular slavery; vertical enslavement to “non-human personal beings or spiritual entities”; and metaphorical enslavement to non-personal entities such as the passions.

The payoff of this tripartite approach appears in the chapters that follow. Chapter 2 analyzes the place of Philippians 2:6-11 in Origen’s Christology, using the vertical and horizontal categories to trace Origen’s intellectual background to the idea of the “doulological nature of the cosmos” in Plato, Stoics, and Hellenistic Judaism (42-46). Similarly, chapter 3 argues that debates in Eunomius and Basil of Caesarea concerning the Holy Spirit cannot be grasped apart from this doulological structuring of reality, whereby the contested status of the Spirit—as either subordinated to or equal with the Father—is negotiated through the rhetoric of mastery and slavery. In chapter 4, de Wet considers the role of the “Curse of Ham” in the complex interplay of slavery and sin in Augustine, John Chrysostom, and the Cave of Treasures. The fifth chapter summarizes the book’s findings and reflects briefly upon the themes comprising what I understand to be the book’s secondary aim.

The Unbound God’s secondary aim simultaneously pursues two closely-related inquiries: to press beyond purely intellectual history to examine the “social effects” of slavery discourse upon “actual physical slaves” (i); and, having identified these effects, to “investigat[e] how the legacies of slavery as a whole have shaped society today,” with a particular commitment to “the interests of social justice” (21, 148). Both pursuits are praiseworthy, yet raise issues that merit further interrogation. I identify two.

First, de Wet makes a persuasive, sorely-needed case against the common complaint that any critical engagement with ancient slavery is morally “anachronistic,” failing to account for “historical context” (6). He rightly points out the biased character of the only window modern readers have into that context—masters wrote the sources. To redress this, de Wet suggests “the only way” forward is to read “against the grain” (7). I wholeheartedly agree. But the most promising way to achieve this reparation, as leading historians such as Keith Bradley have argued, is through careful, judicious use of comparative perspectives from modernity, in which there exist ample theorizations of, reflections upon, and an intellectual tradition of resistance to the experience of slavery from the vantage of enslaved persons themselves. Yet, the rich resources of diasporic Black thought make no appearance in The Unbound God.

This is unfortunate, especially as it is not self-evident that the tools of the European theorists de Wet does employ—Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Sigmund Freud—can “travel” in the way he needs them to. The particular enthusiasm for Foucault at times obscures more than it reveals. De Wet seizes upon a rather minor strand of Augustine’s slavery discourse—the absence of reason (“madness”) Augustine attributes to both heretics and slaves—seemingly because it affords him the chance to associatively link “Augustinian déraison” with “other crucial concepts Foucault was concerned about, namely truth, torture, and masculinity” (123-24). In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Edward Said noted the risk of elevating Foucault’s archivally-specific analyses of power-knowledge into timeless principles, ready to be “transported” anywhere and everywhere: here indeed, “the methodological breakthrough becomes the theoretical trap” (244). With other theoretical resources available, why theorize chattel slavery with lenses crafted for 19th century French prisons? Frederick Douglass, Mattie J. Jackson, or James W. C. Pennington might have had something to say.

Second, the absence of such voices is especially striking when, invoking social justice and the need for “activism against the legacies of slavery,” de Wet frames the task of rethinking Christianity against mastery as a new, future-tense possibility. De Wet writes, “It willmean … conceiving Christian religious discourse and practice anew” (149), as though fugitive, hybrid, complexly transformed Christianities of resistance had not been flourishing across the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, and beyond for centuries. Attending to these still-thriving intellectual traditions on the underside of modernity, rather than erasing them, might have enabled a sharper, more historically-rigorous fulfillment of de Wet’s second aim—identifying doulology’s legacies in the present—than the broad, all-encompassing list he offers: “violence, warfare, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the exploitation of the poor and marginalized” (149).

Nonetheless, The Unbound God makes a genuinely vital contribution to the growing interest in slavery’s enduring place in Christian thought, and it deserves to be read, taught, and discussed widely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Elia is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Duke University and a 2018-19 ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellow.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris L. de Wet is associate professor of New Testament and Early Christian studies at the University of South Africa, and the Editor of the Journal of Early Christian History. He is also the author of Preaching Bondage: John Chrysostom and the Discourse of Slavery in Early Christianity (2015).



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