Slavery, orthodoxy and hermeneutics

This thread led me to articulate the question of whether, historically, “slavery [was] considered orthodox (and opposition to slavery considered unorthodox) … ?”

It turns out, a bit of reading through previous threads, led me to discover that I’d apparently already found an answer to that question:

For our purposes, it is important to realize that the South won this crucial contest with the North by using the prevailing hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, on which both sides agreed. So decisive was its triumph that the South mounted a vigorous counterattack on the abolitionists as infidels who had abandoned the plain words of Scripture for the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.

‘Learning the Lessons of Slavery’, William E. Hull, Research Professor Samford University, Birmingham, AL – Christian Ethics Today, Journal of Christian Ethics

This paper also summarises the hermeneutic evidence that was the basis for this “triumph”:

The pro-slavery South could point to slaveholding by the godly patriarch Abraham (Gen 12:5; 14:14; 24:35-36; 26:13-14), a practice that was later incorporated into Israelite national law (Lev 25:44-46). It was never denounced by Jesus, who made slavery a model of discipleship (Mk 10:44). The Apostle Paul supported slavery, counseling obedience to earthly masters (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-25) as a duty in agreement with “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness” (1 Tim 6:3). Because slaves were to remain in their present state unless they could win their freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24), he sent the fugitive slave Onesimus back to his owner Philemon (Phlm 10-20). The abolitionist north had a difficult time matching the pro-slavery south passage for passage. They could only point out that biblical slavery was more benevolent and, in some cases, more temporary than its modern counterpart. They argued that neither Jesus nor his apostles legislated slavery but only sought to make it more humane. At best, they had to appeal to the spirit of the Bible rather than to specific texts, buttressing this appeal with general principles of justice and righteousness drawn from moral philosophy. But they could not shake the fact that slavery was commonplace in the Bible and that it was often cruel, especially in its treatment of foreigners. Israelite masters considered their slaves to be property that could be sold (Ex 12:44; 21:20-21, 32). They often used female slaves for reproductive purposes and claimed their offspring’s as their own (Gen 16:1-4; 30:3-4, 9-10; 35:22). They were permitted to punish slaves by beating them to the point of death (Ex 21:20-21).

This leads me to ask the question, has the “prevailing hermeneutic” among Christian scholars changed sufficiently since this time that rejection of slavery has become the orthodox position? Or is rejection of slavery still more of an exception (and thus arguably a Special Pleading) to the current prevailing hermeneutic?

If it has in fact changed sufficiently, what were the key changes most relevant to the change in slavery’s status vis a vis orthodoxy?


Good questions.

One way we know that it isn’t merely a special pleading is that biblical arguments (using the prevailing hermeneutic) were central to justifying abolition of slavery, against the prevailing opinion on slavery at the time. It was Christians, largely, who abolished slavery in the western world, appealing to Scriptural arguments.

Some of these articles might be helpful, particularly the biblical arguments of the abolitionists (there is a lot here):

Gregor of Nyssa’s argument against slavery:

How pro-slavery Christians actually flat out deleted parts of the bible:

And how Scriptural arguments lay at the core of Martin Luther King’s case for civil rights too.

In understanding the arguments, it is important to keep in mind that to us, slavery means “racial and chattel slavery.” This sort of slavery did not exist when the Bible is written. What the bible means by the term is closer to something like bond-servant, or indentured servant. Equivocating these two very different uses of the term is one way that pro-slavery arguments from the Bible were made.

Abolitionists often pointed this out, but they also focused in on verses such as those that prohibit “man-stealing”. There point was that Scripture was clear that going to Africa to steal people away as slaves was flat out wrong. They also emphasized that all men were created free and equal in the eyes of God, and no one had the right to take that freedom from another.

So pro-slavery arguments tried to equivocate on the term slavery, and abolitionists often emphasized that slavery was man-stealing.

In these arguments, the abolitionists were arguing against the Bible or the prevailing hermeneutic. Instead, they were arguing that the slave-holders were ignoring what Scripture taught.

As I predicted, though it was Eddie I thought would go with this. Slavery in the bible wasn’t racial, but it was definitely slavery. Slaves were not slaves by their free choice or contract. They were forced into it, often by capture in wars or raids, and they were freed, kept, or killed at their owners’ whims. It also appears that the children of slaves were born into slavery.

Of course one can find in the bible whatever one wants to find, so both pro- and anti-slavery advocates did. I’m suspecting, however, that the curse of Ham wasn’t used as justification until after the invention of slavery by ethnicity.

I would certainly be interested to know what part of the bible makes that clear.


That appears to be contradicted by the first quote I gave above:

For our purposes, it is important to realize that the South won this crucial contest with the North by using the prevailing hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, on which both sides agreed. So decisive was its triumph that the South mounted a vigorous counterattack on the abolitionists as infidels who had abandoned the plain words of Scripture for the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.

This plainly indicates that the shared hermeneutic applying at the time that abolition was being debated yielded results that gave more support to slavery than to abolition.

Likewise, Hull’s article is not claiming that you cannot find any Biblical support for abolition (“At best, they had to appeal to the spirit of the Bible rather than to specific texts”), but rather that the shared hermeneutic of the time gave greater weight to the specific texts that Southern theologians were able to marshal for their side of the argument.

Because of this, my question was not can some Biblical case be made supporting abolition, civil rights, etc.?

My question was how the current prevailing hermeneutic would balance the conflicting merits of the “spirit of the Bible” case against slavery with the “specific texts” case supporting slavery.

The “Special Pleading” issue was to do with whether declaring the anti-slavery the winner would be consistent with the current prevailing hermeneutic as it is applied to other issues, or would require some sort of ad hoc exception to the system.

Actually the colonial American and Biblical systems had strong similarities. The Biblical system for Israelite slaves is comparable to the colonial system of indentured servitude (for Europeans), with the Israelites/Europeans retaining more rights. The biblical system for non-Israelite slaves was harsher, and amounts to chattel slavery:

You can will [foreign slaves] to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Lev 25:46)


I’m not entirely sure if I would agree with you there. The Bible had a different, harsher, chattel slavery system for everybody who wasn’t an Israelite. America had a different, harsher, chattel slavery system for everybody who wasn’t a European (I believe they enslaved Native Americans as well as Africans). I think the distinction is more in how narrowly they defined the ‘other’, than in the differential treatment of in-group and out-group.

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This is true for parts of the bible, within the various Hebrew states. But of course there was plenty of slavery outside those states that features in the bible, as is just about every mention of slavery in the New Testament. You should consider slavery in the Roman Empire.

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That would appear to be ‘rules of slavery imposed on the Israelites by Caesar’ rather than ‘rules of slavery imposed on the Israelites by God’ – and I think it is only the latter that is directly relevant to discussion of hermeneutics and orthodoxy.

Well, I don’t know about that. There’s considerable discussion of how slaves and slave-owners should act in the Roman world. That’s as biblical as anything else.

Does the NT establish any explicit rules for slave ownership? I had though it was more about behavior of slaves (submission to their master, particularly).

There was far more extermination than enslavement.

Yes, but there was at least some slavery of Native Americans as well, and my understanding is that it was chattel slavery rather than anything comparable to indentured servitude.

What proportion of 2021’s white evangelicals would you estimate endorse MLK’s arguments?

One classic verse used is 1 Tim 1:10, which speaks against andraposteis–menstealers (KJV); kidnappers (NASB + many others); enslavers (ESV); slave traders (NRSV, NLT).

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Oh. I thought there might have been something referring specifically to Africa. But these are manstealers or kidnappers. What if the slave trader buys his slaves rather than stealing them?



How does modern hermeneutics adjudicate between less specific themes in the Bible (what Hull calls “appeal to the spirit of the Bible”) and more specific passages that explicitly demarcate a practice, and thus implicitly state that the practice is acceptable?

It might be informative to compare slavery with killing. The Ten Commandments state a blanket “Thou shalt not kill”, but elsewhere in the Bible it establishes the death penalty for numerous crimes, speaks approvingly of various wars, and even at times has God calling for the killing of the women and children of defeated foes.

One has to ask then if, hermeneutically, slavery is a violation of these themes, or merely an allowable exception to them?


I haven’t done a full study of the word in classical Greek, but my sense is that it encompasses buying & selling of slaves as well (several lexicons more than suggest this). If not, then obviously it’d be a different question. If there’s no specific verse (I don’t know of one off the top of my head other than 1 Tim 1:10)–as is the case with most things–Christian theology does what it does to arrive at a reasonable position or possible positions.

I don’t know what you mean by this phrase

I don’t accept this logic. Yes, injustices were permitted under the Mosaic law (e.g.), but this does not necessitate endorsement or setting out an ideal. How do I/we know? It’s not always easy or clear…thus the need and wisdom for discussion/debate. But we do have some clues from the Bible itself. There is a real/ideal tension within the OT law itself. For example, within seven verses it states “there will be no poor among you” and “there wlll never cease to be poor in the land” (Deut 15:4, 11). Part of the biblical rationale of the law is to constrain sin, recognizing the law is powerless to remove it (and certainly can’t remove its roots in sinful human hearts). Similarly, Jesus’ reflections on divorce–permitted in OT law–is that it does not constitute God’s original design but was allowed due to hardness of heart (Matt 19; Mark 10). So, things were “accepted” but not “acceptable”…if one could parse it that way. One may disagree with God’s strategy of not eradicating all injustice immediately, but that too would be a different conversation.

There are various ways Xn theologians and ethicists address these things. It’s fair to say, it takes a lot more than simple prooftexting, and requires several angles of consideration, including understanding Israel (or the church) in its own ancient context, considering real vs. ideal, the centrality of Jesus, and the trajectory of the Scriptures, which does not necessary end in the NT with the ideal.

I disagree. These aren’t parallel issues.

On one hand, that’s not technically correct, since the verb almost always denotes illegal behavior (i.e., it is not one of the several more generic terms for killing, which is why most translations opt for “murder”). On the other hand, yes is it’s a "blanket statement’ because that’s what the Decalogue is (“Commandments” is not how the OT itself refers to it). It provides big-picture starting points–principles if you will (though I hate that word)–that then must be fleshed out in actual circumstances. So it should not be a surprise to find so-called exceptions to the general rule for some of them (and we could come up with several examples of acceptable “breaking” of, e.g., the Sabbath or telling the truth).

Other than not seeing it as a parallel situation, I still think this is a reasonable question. The vast majority of the church today thankfully has arrived at a strong consensus that an ideal Christian ethic supports abolition of slavery. But it certainly (and regrettably) didn’t come overnight. From a Christian perspective, our hardness of heart also affects our thinking and reasoning…so it’s no surprise that we’ve gotten a lot of things wrong and it often takes time to get to a better place.


I was using it in contrast to Hull’s “prevailing hermeneutic” of the time period when abolitionists were in dispute with advocates of slavery, to allow for the possibility that it had changed over time. Given that Hull stated that this prevailing hermeneutic yielded a “triumph” for the slavery-advocacy side, it seemed a reasonable working assumption that some change had occurred.

This would seem to place slavery as a lesser evil than adultery, theft and coveting various possessions of other people’s (including their slaves), as these are explicitly forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and thus would seem to be ‘not accepted’ rather than ‘accepted but not acceptable’ like slavery. One has to wonder the extent to which slavery would have continued in OT era Israel, if the punishment for it were the same as that for adultery: that of death. Slavery would seem to be easier for “the law … to constrain”, as it is typically less covert than adultery.

I would hope so. But the fact that Founders Ministries (formerly the Southern Baptist Founders Conference) saw fit to publish last year an article by a retired SBTS professor that has been described in Baptist circles as defending slavery makes me wonder just how “vast” that majority is.


A lot of good points in your response, and I can’t fault someone for thinking the Bible/God got the priorities wrong. But I would add that the OT law by and large mimics that of Israel’s neighbors except when it comes to certain theological differences (or sociological strategies like keeping Israel from table fellowship with others). Thus, adultery and theft were outlawed by all people; conversely, slavery was practiced by all people. Yes, God could’ve played the revolutionary and upended all the social structures (and others are free to criticize him for not doing so), but apparently (speaking from the perspective of faith) he had reasons for not doing so and chose the more gradual approach.

You make a good point about the perception of the relative wrongness of slavery vs. adultery. I’ll need to think more about that b/c (to your point) the relative severity of punishment does indicate a culture’s values…so one way to distinguish Israel from her neighbors is not in the crimes but the punishments, especially what received the death penalty. This happens to be quite limited in Israel in comparison.

Just rabbit trailing out loud here concerning OT slavery vs. other ANE cultures: the OT law does view slaves (and foreigners) as fully human, and shows more constraint in the treatment of slaves. I know it falls short of modern expectations (and thus does not get Israel/God off the hook), but it shows some progression short of revolution. Each would need to decide for himself or herself on this being acceptable.

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Each slave, each owner, or both?

Clearly not the former! I was thinking about us today evaluating an ancient culture (or theologically, what God allowed to take place among his covenant people) to the extent that it might affect one’s embrace or rejection of the faith, or which form of the faith (and view of the Bible) one might be willing to embrace.

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