Did Christianity really undermine slavery? If so, why did it exist for so long in Western Civilization? Tim Keller touched on this topic in an interview on Mere Fidelity about his book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical:
[Richard Bauckham] makes the case that Christianity is a non-totalizing metanarrative. That is, it’s a moral absolute, but it doesn’t lead to totalitarianism like other metanarratives do because of its nature. And he makes the case that it undermines injustice, it’s Jesus Christ going to the cross. He gives all the reasons why the Christian metanarrative should undermine oppression and undermine injustice, and therefore be a basis for doing justice but not one that turns you into an oppressor yourself….
The real pushback that sometimes makes my own heart sick is, “Hey, if that’s really the case…how in the world do you explain church history?” … Most of church history does not seem to bear that out….
Richard’s idea that…it’s a metanarrative that undermines oppression without making you an oppressor, I’d have to say in a minority of cases, you really can see it working….
Kyle Harper…he’s a classics professor—I’m not even sure if he’s a believer—but he’s written about slavery, and he says that it was Gregory of Nyssa, I think, who was the very first person in the fourth century to say, on the basis of the image of God, all slavery is wrong.
And so Kyle Harper says, on the one hand, let’s face it, the early church, to a great degree, sort of made its peace with slavery, but on the other hand, he says there’s no place in the history of the world where anybody actually said what Gregory of Nyssa said. He says there’s no place in antiquity where somebody just said slavery is completely wrong. It was just unprecedented, and it came from somebody who reflected on the image of God and the cross, and that’s where the original idea in all of world history came, he thinks, from the Bible….
And when I read things like that, I say, yeah, there is a genius in there—Bauckham is right—in spite of the fact that, in general, the church has not seen the genius of it.
I found a brief video of Kyle Harper on this topic that’s worth watching.
Human beings are sinful, and we don’t change easily. As I’ve argued in the past, just as it’s taken centuries to apply the facts of the physical world to technology, so it has taken time for us to work through the ideas found in the Bible and apply them to our society:
Like the unchanging laws of nature, we have the unchanging words of God in the Bible. And as in the world of science, in the world of Christianity we’ve had to work out our knowledge and application of those unchanging words into our societies. This takes time because human societies started off so far from the ideal—with many false ideas and without knowledge of some true ideas of application that hadn’t yet occurred to them….
It’s no surprise, then, that 500 years ago societies had only reached the moral equivalent of the light bulb and not the computer; but the problem was in the application, not in the data. That is, as inevitably as an application of the facts of the physical world led to computers, so the ideas of the Bible have led to the free societies we now see in the West. But one ought not be surprised by the amount of time it took the societies of the West to work through ideas based on biblical data any more than one is surprised by the thousands of years it took us to work through scientific ideas based on the observable data of nature. Nor does it make any more sense to fault the unchanging Bible itself for those societies’ slow pace than it does to fault the always-present laws of nature for our formerly rudimentary ideas about science. The Bible and nature remained the same even if the implications had not yet been fully explored and rightly applied.