Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) was one of the most consequential theologians of the early Church. His preaching and writing helped to shape how Christians think about God and the life. Unfortunately, to the Church's shame, some of his teaching did not shape things as much as they should have. For example, he preached a scathing rebuke of slavery. We can only wish that Christians generally had taken that sermon to heart, repent, and commit to being more faithful in our time.
In his 'Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes', he references Ecclesiastes 2:7 – 'I acquired slaves and slave girls, and slaves were born in my house’ and says:
Does any of the things listed here, a sumptuous house, vineyards galore, beautiful gardens, a system of pools supplying orchards with water, suggest as much arrogance as the man’s idea that he as a human being can be master over his fellows? ‘For I acquired,’ he says, ‘slaves and slave-girls, and slaves were born in my house.’ Do you see the vast extent of his boastfulness? Such a voice as his is raised in open defiance against God.
For we have learnt from the prophet (Ps. 119.91) that all things are subject to the Power that transcends everything. If a man, therefore, regards what belongs to God as his own property, and lets members of his family share in his ownership, and if he goes so far as to think himself lord and master of both men and women, and sees himself as being different from those under his authority, surely in his arrogance he is doing nothing else than going beyond the limits of his own nature?
‘I acquired slaves and slave girls.’ What is that you say? You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by him. For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be master or mistress of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the Creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command.
You have forgotten the limits of your power. Your authority is limited to ruling over brute beasts. ‘Let them have authority,’ Scripture says (Gen. 1.26), ‘over the birds and the fishes, the four-footed beasts and creeping things.’ How is it that you ignore these creatures which are properly assigned to you in slavery, and rise up against the very creature that is free by nature? How is it that you class one of your own species among four-footed beasts or even reptiles? ‘You have made all things subject to human beings,’ cries the Logos through the mouth of the prophet (Ps. 8.6), and the passage lists what is subject to reason, namely cattle, oxen, sheep.
Surely human beings have not been born to you from cattle? Surely oxen have not provided you with human offspring? The only mastery a human being can properly exercise is over the brute beasts. Is that such a small thing for you? ‘You make grass grow for the cattle,’ says Scripture (Ps. 104.14), ‘and fresh plants for the slaves of human beings.’ But through your system of slavery you have divided the one species, making members of that species slaves or masters of other members.
‘I acquired slaves and slave girls.’ Tell me, what price did you pay for them? What did you find among your possessions that you could trade for human beings? What price did you put on reason? How many obols (ancient Greek bronze or silver coins) did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how many staters (gold coins) have you sold the nature specially formed by God? ‘God said, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.”’ (Gen.126) Tell me this, who can buy human beings, who can sell them, when they are made in the likeness of God, when they are rulers over the whole earth, when they have been given as their inheritance by God authority over all that is on the earth? Such power belongs to God alone, or rather, it does not belong even to God. For, as Scripture says, ‘The gifts of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11.29) Of his own free will God called us into freedom when we were slaves to sin. In that case he would hardly reduce human beings to slavery. But if God does not enslave what is free, who dares put his own authority higher than God’s?
How can the rulers of the earth and all that is on it possibly be sold? When human beings are sold, it is absolutely necessary for their property to be handed over as well. What price, then, will we put on the whole earth? What price will we put on all that is on the earth? But if these things are beyond price, tell me, how much is their master or mistress worth? Even if you say ‘the whole world’, not even then have you arrived at their true value. For One who knows very well what human nature is like said that not even the whole world is a fair price for a human soul. (Mark 8.36 and parallels) When a human being is put up for sale, nothing less than the ruler of the earth is led onto the auction block. Now obviously the property they have will be auctioned along with them, and that means the earth, the sea, the islands, and all that is on or in them. How much, then, will the buyer pay? What will the vendor receive, when property of this kind is involved in the transaction?
Have a brief document, a bill of sale, and the counting out of a few obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? Oh, what madness! If the contract were to get lost, or the documents were to be eaten away by moths, or if a drop of water were to fall on them from somewhere and ruin them, where then would be the proof, where the guarantee, that they are your slaves, and you their master? For I cannot see that the title of master gives you anything beyond what your slave has, apart from the title itself.
What has your power added to your nature? Neither years, nor beauty, nor good health, nor moral advantages. Both you, the master, and your slave were born in the same way; you both live under the same conditions; you are both subject to the same states of soul and body, to pain and cheerfulness, to mirth and distress, grief and pleasure, desire and fear, illness and death. There is surely no difference in these respects between master and slave. Do they not draw the same air into their lungs? Do they not both enjoy the same light of the sun? Do they not keep themselves alive in the same way, by the intake of food? Do they not have the same arrangement of internal organs? Do not the two of them become the same dust after death? Is there not one judgement for both? Is there not a common heaven, a common hell?
You, therefore, who are equal to your slave in all respects, what have you got that makes you superior enough to think yourself master of a human being, when you are just a human being yourself? How can you say, ‘I acquired slaves and slave girls,’ as if you were talking about a herd of goats, or a herd of pigs? (For having said, ‘I acquired slaves and slave girls,’ he goes on to mention the wealth of flocks and herds he had. ‘I had great possessions,’ he says, ‘of flocks and herds.’) He talks as if these animals and the slaves subject to his authority were in the same class.
(This translation is by Trevor Dennis. Gregory's sermons on Ecclesiastes can be found here in another translation.)