The Slave Metaphor in Augustine’s Christology in Sermon Dolbeau 26: What Kind of Slaves are We?

The metaphor of the slave, which serves as a reference to Christ’s humility for us to imitate and as a reminder for Christians to practice obedience, is common in Augustine’s corpus, including his sermons.[1] For example, Elia aptly points out that in Sermo (s.) 159B, there is an explicit slave Christology expounded by Augustine through his use of a three-layered hierarchy—The master (paterfamilias),[2] the wealthy slave (servi peculiosi), and the deputy slave of the slave (servi vicarius)— within the master’s house (domus), the “lived social reality” in a typical Roman-North African plantation household, to symbolize the human “middle” position between the Lord of the cosmos (the master) and the rest of creation (the deputy slave).[3] While this approach to Christology and the call for human humility through God’s creative order is typical of Augustine (see also Io. eu. tr. 17.16, civ. 13.3), this paper will draw our attention to a much less discussed sermon on the subject, called s. Dolbeau 26. This paper will first discuss Augustine’s tripartite framework of the slave metaphor in s. Dolbeau 26[4], namely, the laborers (or “hired servants”, mercenarii), slaves (servi) and sons (filii): “You see, it’s one thing to be still a slave, who is also going to be made into a son from a slave, and another to be already a son. One thing to be a slave in fear, another to be a son in charity. A great house (2 Tm 2:20) has everything: both hired servants and slaves and sons.”[5] I will argue that the differentiation of these different personas in the “great house” serves three purposes: first, in the light of the anti-Donatist spirit, it helps Augustine to accept those with grace who does not serve God with ulterior motives (like what the laborers do to their master); second, it gives Augustine a way of explaining the theology of adoption – that Christians are adopted sons (slaves turned into sons); third, it helps to characterize the Christian’s journey of obedience to God, a healthy transition from fear of God to the love of God. Through this slave Christology then, Augustine asserts that Christ is the perfect Son, serving God on earth with full love for Him, expressed in perfect obedience, which becomes the model for all slaves of God (the “adopted sons”) and hopefully inspires the laborers to become true slaves of God with the right motives, serving their master out of the right fear and love. Ultimately, through this ‘slave-analogy’ framework, Augustine’s exhorts his Christian listeners to be “the good slaves” and make their lives worthy of their calls to the Christian identity: With which groups (labors/slave/son) of the household (Church) do the Christian readers resonate, and why? If they can be answer honestly, Augustine implies, they are one step closer to living with dignity and bearing true witness to Christ in the midst of the pagans.

[1] From textual and contextual evidence (such as from the Confessions, Letters 10, 24), it is likely that not only were Augustine familiar with the slave system in his North African context, but also he himself had a slave in his house at young age. See Daniel José Camacho, “Did Saint Augustine Own Slaves? The African bishop’s ties to slavery have been overlooked,” #Nerdflow Newsletter. August 11, 2022. Daniel José Camacho. “Saint Augustine’s Slave Play.” The Point. 2022.
[2] For a discussion of Augustine’s conception of the slave master in his time and context, see Matthew Elia, “Ethics in the Afterlife of Slavery: Race, Augustinian Politics, and the Problem of the Christian Master.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 38, no. 2 (Fall / Winter 2018), 94-95. Even though did not advocate the total abolition of the slave system at his time, he has made numerous attempt to explain that slaves should not be abused or discriminated, and, following Paul’s exhortation in Eph. 6:5-9, he exhorts that slaves should obey their masters from the heart and the masters should treat their slaves well, as both has the same God of heaven as their Master. See also Johannes van Oort, “Black and slave? ‘Mestizo’ Augustine on Ham,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 79, no. 1 (2023), a8689.
[3] Matthew Elia, Slave Christologies: Augustine and the Enduring Trouble with the “Form of a Slave” (Phil 2:5–7) 25, no.1 (2021), Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 25.
[4] Augustine, “Dolbeau 26: Sermon 198, Mainz 62 – Discourse of Augustine the Bishop against the Pagans,” in Sermons Discovered Since 1990, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. 11, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, 180. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997. Sermo Dolbeau 26 is a three-hour sermon preached on the New Year’s Day of 404 against the pagans on the false mediator the devil and the true mediator Christ Out of this new year sermon, Augustine develops many reflections that will be later expressed in the City of God. See Pasquier, Anne. « Augustin dans le sermon Dolbeau 26 : Un discours contre la confusion identitaire » Journal Laval théologique et philosophique 70, no. 3 (2014), 493., or Marie-Anne Vanier, “L’ Apport Du Sermon Dolbeau 26,” Papers Presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies 5: St. Augustine and His Opponents, Other Latin Writers : 331-337.
[5] Ibid., 189. s. Dolbeau 26.2: 375.270-278.