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“All Things Turned Upside Down”—Calvin on Slavery

PT Through History

In a sermon on 1 Tim 6:1-2, John Calvin commented,

“…but they were slaves, of the kind that are still used in some countries, in that after a man was bought the latter would spend his entire life in subjection, to the extent that he might be treated most roughly and harshly: something which cannot be done amidst the humanity which we keep amongst ourselves. Now it is true that we must praise God for having banished such a very cruel brand of servitude.”[1]

In a sermon on 1 Tim 6:1-2, John Calvin commented,

“…but they were slaves, of the kind that are still used in some countries, in that after a man was bought the latter would spend his entire life in subjection, to the extent that he might be treated most roughly and harshly: something which cannot be done amidst the humanity which we keep amongst ourselves. Now it is true that we must praise God for having banished such a very cruel brand of servitude.”[1]

Admiring students of Calvin will be pleased by this denouncement of the institution and Calvin’s praise to God for banishing the “brand” of slavery in question. Yet the exposition raises a number of questions. Who are the slaves “that are still used in some countries”? What does Calvin mean by the “humanity we keep amongst ourselves”? What is this “brand of servitude”? Is there a more acceptable “brand”? Drawing primarily upon the work of André Biéler, and continuing my inquiry into the intersection of race and theology (see my recent Political Theology pieces here, and here), I’d like to provide a survey of Calvin’s comments on the subject of slavery.[2]

First, context. The modern European slave trade in Africa began in 1441, when 12 men from Cabo Branco were captured and taken to Portugal. Here, slave labor on sugar plantations existed as early as 1452. In 1454 Pope Nicholas V issued Romanus Pontifex, a bull granting the Portuguese a monopoly in trade with Africa. Ignoring this “monopoly,” Spain also forged a way into the trade, but quickly outlawed it in 1542, becoming the first modern nation to do so. Concurrently, during the second half of the 16th century, the number of slaves arriving in the Americas grew exponentially. Slavery had little or no presence in 16th century France, Calvin’s immediate context. While there is some speculation that informal slave trading took place in France on a small scale as early as 1540, it wasn’t until 1594 that the French ship L’Espérance of La Rochelle is known to have participated in the slave trade. The country did not become involved in the slave trade until after 1620, more than half a century after Calvin’s death. Thus the only personal contact Calvin would have had with any form of slavery is the institution of serfdom in the northern regions of France.

Yet, as indicated above, Calvin was aware of the slave trade. He knew, for example, that taking captives and selling them into slavery was common practice in Spain during his lifetime, and he frequently laments the presence of slavery there and among the Turks.[3] Nevertheless, in his extant writings, Calvin neglects to directly address the particular practices that were persisting throughout Europe. Neither his sermons on Deuteronomy, where he discusses slavery on several occasions, nor his commentaries on the other relevant biblical texts, take issue with the particularities of the European slave trade of the 16th century.[4]

What then does Calvin have to say about the matter? Despite his reticence or lack of interest in speaking to the European institution of slavery, Calvin does address slavery in a principled manner when the biblical text calls for it. Logically prior for Calvin is the fact that slavery is not rooted in the natural order of things (nor any principle of natural law), but rather is a detestable postlapsarian phenomenon, a consequence of sin, the fall of humankind, and the marred imago Dei. Consider his sermon on Ephesians 6.

“For each human being is a reasonable creature. And this derived from sin, as one evil triggers another, until things descend into utter confusion. But if we examine the rights which masters had, we shall conclude every time that this is something which is contrary to the whole order of nature. For we are all fashioned after the image of God, and it was thus altogether too exorbitant that a reasonable creature upon whom God has stamped his mark should be put to such insulting condition. But such are the fruits of the disobedience and sin of our first father Adam: it has resulted in all things being turned upside down.”[5]

So also, Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 12:

“Soon after the deluge it happened that most of the human race lost the freedom that was by nature common to everyone. Now, whether the first enslaved humans had been crushed by the conquest or compelled by poverty, the natural order had certainly been corrupted by violence; for human beings had been created to have and sustain society to their mutual advantage. And although it is necessary for some to have stewardship over the others, we ought rather to maintain equality among brethren.”[6]

Many will cringe at Calvin’s view of “necessary” stewardship over another human being, and will wonder how this comports with maintaining “equality.” But for Calvin, equality doesn’t necessarily preclude authority; in the case of slavery it often refers to the type of authority to be exerted. Additionally, the term must be understood in light of Calvin’s distinction between flesh and spirit, which will become clearer below in his comments on Onesimus’ relationship to Philemon. As for a master’s stewardship over a slave, Calvin’s perspective was that this undesirable arrangement was a necessary provision (and consequence) of Israel’s hardheartedness. Thus, despite his negative attitude toward slavery, Calvin approved the Old Testament laws that tolerated and regulated it, as a divinely-mandated safeguard in the interim epoch of redemptive history: “…the vice (of regulated slavery) has to be reckoned among the others God has tolerated because of the people’s hardness of heart, the more so since it could be very difficult to correct.”[7]  And, furthermore, “If everyone had been judge in his own case, the houses of the wealthy would have been like slaughterhouses for the torment ad torture of the unfortunate slaves… it was necessary to see to it that tyrants did not torture their slaves in order to keep them permanently under constraint.”[8] Continuing further in his comments on slave regulation, Calvin reveals his intolerance for man-stealing, accepting at face value the injunction of Deut 24:7:

“The same punishment [death] is here deservedly denounced against man-stealers as against murderers; for, so wretched was the condition of slaves, that liberty was more than half of life; and hence to deprive a man of such a great blessing, was almost to destroy him. Besides, it is not man-stealing only which is here condemned, but the accompanying evils of cruelty and fraud, i.e., if he, who had stolen a man, had likewise sold him.”[9]

 

Calvin also approved the Old Testament’s vision of manumission, as described in the “Sabbatical Year” of Deuteronomy 15. This was for Calvin perhaps the most important part of slave regulation because the slave is to be set free and generously provided for as he departs. The weekly Sabbath serves as a reminder of this event and of God himself as the one who grants freedom. It is designed to be a reminder of how human beings are to act toward one another.

“But now, seeing that human beings cannot get used to acting properly towards their neighbors, and would not willingly abandon their rights when they have the advantage, while only with great difficulty can one force them to do what they ought, our Lord therefore made this proposal to them, saying, Behold, those who release their slaves will render me a service I appreciate and I give you as a sign of this … the day of rest. Know then, that when that sign is given you are giving relief to your slaves at my behest, and I am there in the midst, overseeing that act; and you are doing it because of me.”[10]

Paul’s letter to Philemon, while not explicitly addressing manumission, raises questions about a slave’s relationship to his master as well as a slave’s prospect of freedom. Consider Calvin’s comments on verses 15-16.

“Paul therefore reminds Philemon that he ought not to be so greatly offended at the flight of his slave, for it was the cause of a benefit not to be regretted. So long as Onesimus was at heart a runaway, Philemon, though he had him in his house, did not actually enjoy him as his property; for he was wicked and unfaithful, and could not be of real advantage. He says, therefore, that he was a wanderer for a little time, that, by changing his place, he might be converted and become a new man.

He next brings forward another advantage of the flight, that Onesimus has not only been corrected by means of it, so as to become a useful slave, but that he has become the “brother” of his master… Hence (Paul) infers that Philemon is much more closely related to him, because both of them had the same relationship in the Lord according to the Spirit, but, according to the flesh, Onesimus is a member of his family. Here we behold the uncommon modesty of Paul, who bestows on a worthless slave the title of a brother, and even calls him a dearly beloved brother to himself. And, indeed, it would be excessive pride, if we should be ashamed of acknowledging as our brother those whom God accounts to be his sons.”[11]

It’s difficult to say whether Calvin’s assumption of Onesimus’ wickedness and unfaithfulness is based on Onesimus’ act of theft, Calvin’s understanding of slavery in the New Testament world, or Calvin’s assumptions about slavery as filtered through the lens of his immediate context. To some, the answer may seem straightforward based on an initial reading, but his comments on verse 16 complicate matters significantly: “We know how wicked the dispositions of slaves were, so that scarcely one in a hundred ever came to be of real use. As to Onesimus, we may conjecture from his flight, that he had been hardened in depravity by long habit and practice.”[12] Such exegesis is disconcerting at the least, as it is unclear why Calvin presumes such knowledge of slavery in the world of the New Testament, resulting in an unfairly negative portrayal not only of Onesimus, but indeed of the 99% whom Calvin says were useless. This is a striking comment from Calvin in light of his broader commentary on the subject.

 

Conclusion

Depending on one’s expectations of Calvin, interpreters may be left frustrated by his treatment of slavery. His comments about Onesimus are reason enough. More broadly, there remains much work be done at the intersection of rights, equality, nature, and authority in Calvin’s thought. Such efforts could provide the necessary structures for a more a more comprehensive analysis. Even so, there is much one can glean from this brief survey. By way of summary: (1) Calvin has a negative view of slavery overall because it is contrary to the created order, but (2) he supports its divine mandate and regulation in the Old Covenant, as a safeguard against sin and abuse. (3) Calvin believes that slaves should be treated with equality, but this does not mean abrogating the master-slave relationship. If we may also make some broader theological observations: Calvin aims to exegete the text on its own terms and within its original historical context. This is instructive for modern interpreters, who in our urgency for social righteousness (the correct impulse I believe) are often quick to impose anachronistic categories, demands, and expectations upon our historical inquiry and biblical exegesis. Often this dismissiveness forestalls fruitful, critical engagement. We might also admire the coherence of Calvin’s situating of slavery within his project as a whole, rooting the slave question in the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Calvin insists on an anthropology that begins with Genesis 1—not Genesis 3—thus retaining the imago Dei as a principle of human dignity for slaves and all of humankind. Accordingly, the principles of common humanity, the order of nature, and “aequitas,” which emerge as foundational for Calvin (especially in his political and economic views), can be seen throughout his treatment of the slave question. One does not have to accept wholesale Calvin’s conclusions about slavery in order to accept this basic hermeneutic, one which has been profitable for subsequent interpreters within the Calvinist tradition.

 

 


[1] Calvin, Sermon XLVI on 1 Timothy 6:1–2.

[2] André Biéler’s Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought . Originally Published under the French title La Pensée économique et sociale de Calvin, University of Geneva, 1961. Translation by the World Allicance of Reformed Churches 2005. I’m also indebted to Kayayan, E., 2013, ‘Calvin on slavery: Providence and social ethics in the 16th century’, Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 78.

[3] Calvin, Sermon, Genesis 12:4-7; Commentary on Jeremiah 34:8-17, cit. Kayayan; Sermon CXV on Deuteronomy 5, Op. Calvin., XXVII, 346.

[4] The topic of slavery occurs in the sermon on Deuteronomy 11:22–25 (preached on Thursday 26 September 1555), 15:1–15 (Wednesday 30 October 1555) or 24:7–9 (Saturday 01 February 1556).

[5] Sermon, Ephesians 6:5-9, also cit Kayayan

[6] OT Commentaries (Harmony of the Law), op. cit. Genesis 12:5

[7] OT Commentaries (Harmony of the Law), op. cit., Exodus 21:1-6

[8] Commentary, Deuteronomy 15:12-18

[9] Commentary Deuteronomy 24:7

[10] Sermon CXV on Deuteronomy 15, Op. Calv., XXVII, 344.

[11] Commentary, Philemon, 15-17.

[12] Ibid.

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide.

2 thoughts on ““All Things Turned Upside Down”—Calvin on Slavery

  1. If men-stealing is prohibited by God, how could the product of men-stealing EVER be OK much less acceptable by Christians?

    I read where a black woman, after the civil war, came to the house of a white woman, in the south, a Christian, and ASKED her to make her her slave because she had no where to live or way to make a living. This Christian woman took her in as a friend and they lived as sisters in Christ. But the black woman realized slavery was the only means and hope for her to live at this time.

    To steal, capture, a human being to make them a slave was prohibited by God, therefore a sin against God, much less the harsh treatment and labor without wages was an aggravation of that sin against God. Could not Calvin figure that out from even a cursory reading of the Bible?

    I have often wondered how those slaveholders who called themselves Christians could be slave owners if they knew anything about the Bible. Well, they USED the Bible to justify themselves,rather, misused it. The said God meant for Cain’s desendants to be slaves of other men, and some said black people were not even human beings. Then how could they treat even animals like they treated some of their slaves? It cannot be reasoned as to WHY one human being could so reason less than they were totally without God in their lives.

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