“‘God’s Image cut, or carved in Ebony,’ was a phrase first used, we believe by the English Church Historian, [Thomas] Fuller [in 1642]…and assuredly this phrase is among the most striking of the graphic sentences which he stamped so deeply on the republic of letters. There it stands, this beautiful and appropriate piece of imagery, and there it will stand, as long as those walls endure.” H.G. Adams, God’s Image in Ebony, preface, 1854
I find most supporters of the liberal arts fail to realize how dangerous they are. Often, I’ll hear them long for the old days of the medieval university but fail to realize the evils in which these universities were complicit. The American holiday, Emancipation Day, provides a good occasion to contemplate how liberal arts education at supposedly Christian universities can still support unchristian thinking about humanity. It should also provide an occasion for us to consider how our willingness to accept falsehoods from popular pagan authors can have horrific consequences.
The key tragedy of the medieval liberal arts curriculum is that it emphasized Aristotelian metaphysics and downplayed a key theological concept—that humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). In fact, I contend it is possible that the tragic emphasis upon one aspect of Aristotelian thinking delayed the abolition of slavery.
In an article about the roots of human dignity in late antiquity, Kyle Harper observed, “Few societies have been so squarely constructed on the institution of slavery as were ancient Greece and Rome.”1 The institution had strong philosophical backing. As is well-known, Aristotle claimed in his Politics, “It is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves [by nature], and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves,” a lie that David Brion Davis noted, “would help shape virtually all subsequent proslavery thought.”2
In fact, we know of no specific pronouncements against institutional slavery until an ancient Christian bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, made this theologically-grounded argument against slavery in the fourth century,
If a man makes that which truly belongs to God into his own private property, by allotting himself sovereignty over his own race, and thinks himself the master of men and women, what could follow but an arrogance exceeding all nature from the one who sees himself as something other than the ones who are ruled?… How much does rationality cost? How many obols for the image of God? How many staters did you get for selling the God-formed man? [emphasis added]3
He would go on to say that everything about humanity “manifests royal dignity” due to its “exact likeness to the beauty of the archetype.”4
Why was this early anti-slavery thinking, rooted in the core biblical concept that we are all made in God’s image, not advocated more widely? One thing that certainly did not help was the incorporation of Aristotelian metaphysics and moral philosophy into the liberal arts curriculum of the first medieval universities that emerged at the end of the twelfth and the start of the thirteenth century. Aristotle’s writing justifying distinct social roles and human slavery became the primary text used in the moral philosophy classes of Christian medieval European universities for the next 350 years.5 The universities taught Aristotle in the “undergraduate” course on moral philosophy, and they focused upon Christian theology and ethics in the more advanced theology graduate faculty.6 Thus, “undergraduate” students educated only in the liberal arts would read primary texts that built their understanding of humanity’s core moral vocation on Aristotle’s elitist and hierarchical understanding of humanity instead of the concept of the imago Dei. This reality is one reason why we must be careful about promoting pagan liberal arts as some sort of panacea apart from a Christian theological framework.
It was only when the brilliant University of Paris scholar, Pierre de la Ramée (commonly known as Peter Ramus, 1515-1572) challenged the use of Aristotle and the teaching of pagan moral philosophy in the university that the way opened for revolutionary educational approaches grounded in Christian anthropology to once again bubble to the surface. During the decade before his death, Ramus criticized the extensive use of Aristotle in the teaching of ethics.
where the boy learns a mass of impieties: for example, that the principle and ideals of “the good” are innate in every man, that all the virtues are within his own power, that he acquires them by means of nature, art, and labor, and that for this work, so grand and so sublime, man has need of neither the aid nor the cooperation of God. Nothing about providence; not a word about divine justice; in short, since, in the eyes of Aristotle, souls are mortal, the happiness of man is reduced to this perishable life. Such is the philosophy out of which we build the foundation of our religion!7
Instead of Aristotelian ethics, he wanted Christian theology and ethics to replace Aristotelian metaphysics and moral philosophy as the foundation of the liberal arts. Unfortunately, his radical Christian vision had only limited influence, although it did shape some important early American Christian moral philosophers and moral philosophy courses at Harvard and Yale.8
The incorporation of pagan falsehoods into our metaphysics, ethics, the university, and society had profound ramifications. One result is that it would take even longer for the key truth that we are all (including those carved in Ebony) made in God’s image to replace Aristotelian-type ideas used to justify human slavery. It took Christian eighteenth and nineteenth-century abolitionists to revive and expand this truth (e.g., H.G. Adams, ed., God’s Image in Ebony). As David Brion Davis noted in his book, Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery, “The popular hostility to slavery that emerged almost simultaneously in England and in parts of the United States drew upon the tradition of natural law and a revivified sense of the image of God in man.”9
Not surprisingly, when one compares the arguments of the Christian abolitionists to the Christian defenders of slavery in the early 1800s, one finds that the former constantly focused on the Christian doctrine that all humans are made in God’s image to justify the abolition of slavery while the latter ignored it. As the southern abolitionist Angela Grimke argued, humanity “who was created in the image of his Maker, never can properly be termed a thing, though the laws of Slave States do call him ‘a chattel personal.’” Or as the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas proclaimed to a crowd in his famous Fourth of July speech, “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,’ [Acts 17:26] and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own.”
Today, we still need to unpack and consider what it means that all humans are made in God’s image and what it means to restore that defaced image. We also need to be on guard continuously against replacing the truth that all humans are made in God’s image for popular academic theorists who neglect this point. Academics or public intellectuals promoting theories that appear to address social injustice but do not begin with the affirmation that we are made in God’s image will only reproduce the historic tribalism and degradation of sectors of humanity into which we too often descend (e.g., see communist societies). They offer us no meta-identity that can be the source of worth, value, and dignity for every human. In contrast, may all American Christians, indeed all Christians, celebrate today one key implementation of that important idea in American life and continue to work for its further realization.
- Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” in Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives, ed. Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 1:131.
- David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 128.
- Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten, 4.1. In Sources chrétiennes no. 416.Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery, 81–82.
- Quoted in Andrew Louth, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis:1–11, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2001), 34.
- Laurence Brockliss, “Curricula,” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. II; Universities in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, ed. Hilde De Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).
- Gordon Leff, “The Trivium and the Three Philosophies” in A History of the University in Europe: Vol. I. Universities in the Middle Ages, ed. Walter Rüegg, 307-336.
- Peter Ramus, Petri Rami Pro philosophica parisiensis academiae disciplina oratio (Paris, 1557) https://books.google.com/books?id=rFFV082xNp0C&pg=PA2&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false. English translation is taken from Frank Pierrepont Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912), 174-75.
- Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.
- David Brion Davis, Image of God: Religion, Moral Values and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 198. See also Dierdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).