GAE Conversations: Gregory of Nyssa on freedom and the image of God

(I’m hoping to start some topics based on Parts 4 & 5 of Genealogical Adam & Eve, where @swamidass gives a whole lot of “food for thought” in looking at what the GAE proposal could mean for theology)

In Chapter 17 of GAE (pg 206), @swamidass is discussing worth, dignity, and freedom with respect to those outside the Garden. He includes a couple quotes from Gregory of Nyssa and adds some commentary:

In the fourth century, Nyssa wrote the first truly antislavery text in history:

You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and you make laws opposed to God and contrary to His natural. For you have subjected one who was made precisely to be lord of the earth, and whom the Creator intended to be a ruler, to the yoke of slavery, in resistance to and rejection of His divine precept.

He references the image of God, but grounds his understanding of it in the specific vocation that

God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when he had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

Nyssa’s conception of the image of God is vocational, but his grounding for opposing slavery emerges in his explication of the limits of the dominion calling (GEn. 1:26-27). God granted us authority over the whole earth, but not over each other. Nyssa infer that God also gifts humans with freedom.

Nyssa’s understanding is helpful, Paradoxically, his explication might locate human freedom and dignity outside the image of God. he understands the image of God as a call to rule the world as does God, but not to rule one another… The dominion call, therefore affirms a gift of freedom, which can preexist or be granted independently of the image of God.

I am having a hard time seeing where Nyssa is locating human freedom and dignity outside of the image of God. If the image of God is vocational for Nyssa, isn’t the freedom coming from that vocation? Or is it that it he is saying it is a pre-requisite for vocation, and therefore outside the image?


To broaden up the conversation, I am also interested in ways people might approach about the relationship between the image of God, human dignity and worth, and “those outside the Garden”.

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@deuteroKJ and @jongarvey I’m curious your thoughts on this one.

For example, he says…

Notice that this nature is not defined by the image of God, but an independent gift:

So to be in the Image of God is to respect God’s granting of freedom to all people, and not exercise dominion over our fellow men and women. God himself, though he had the right, did not dominate over them, so those in the image of God are called to follow that example.

So being made in the Image of God is to “rule” as God would rule, and since God is calls us from enslavement to sin into freedom, it must therefore mean that to be in the image of God is to give freedom to other people. I think I get that.

I could see some pushback that the freedom that Nyssa is talking about is spiritual freedom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean physical or political freedom. For the people enslaved in 19th century United States, I’m thinking they saw a difference. So is this grounding that Nyssa is doing sufficient? Maybe that’s my question out of this.

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Except the context of that document is explicitly discussing why Christians can’t countenance slavery.

This article might be helpful too:

I take imageness to be primarily vocational, but it also comes with several entailments. I think the freedom Nyssa argues for could be one of these at an ideal level. I don’t see any difference between Adam and Eve and those outside the garden in this regard (that is, Gen 1 is speaking about all “humans”). What is “added” for A + E is a special vocation beyond mere imageness. We are only at the beginning of this speculative exercise (i.e., assuming there are those outside the garden, what to think of them?).


Speaking as someone currently heavily constrained in my activities, movements and speech by the diktats of other men…

Addressing first simply the question of “image” and “freedom,” it would seem to me reasonable that to reflect God in our created nature includes the reflection of his freedom. I take it that Gregory is thinking along such lines, which of course makes slavery, like all oppression, anomalous, and a result of sin.

But if (as I do) I take “those outside the garden” to be created in the image of God, then considering what this means to them has to factor in the Fall of Adam as the reason why Gregory is able to speak about the abuse of human nature at all. Perhaps going against their nature was simply not a possibility for them.

Slavery is a long-standing, and near-universal institution in the world today millions still being subject to it in one form or another. But it does appear to be largely a product of “civilization,” absent in our most primitive hunter-gatherer cultures.

A step further, though: the concept of “freedom” as “individual autonomy” is a very recent thing, and I’ve argued in a recent blog that it may have arisen directly through the teaching, and the unique needs, of Christianity as a “Kingdom within kingdoms.” The nature of “created freedom,” then, might be different from our assumptions.

So I can imagine a “primitive culture” in which one’s self-hood (and hence one’s sense of liberty), mediated entirely through the social network, might have little or no sense of injustice if one were uprooted from one social group to another without specific consent. In effect, it would be the equivalent of local law, and no more experienced as slavery than being compulsorily sent to school or told it’s now illegal to interact with other households… possibly less so.

One even gets a sense of such a situation in ancient documents, including the Bible. Remember, for example, the law about slaves wanting to stick around after the Jubilee and getting their ear pierced to seal the deal.


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