ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression

George WHitfield

George Whitfield believed that “Africans” were human but subordinate creatures and as such could rightfully be enslaved. He saw this as an act of beneficence on behalf of the white Christian slave holder. In like manner, Robert Lewis Dabney, while discussing “natural equality” states the following:

[…]if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. Hence, his natural liberty is only that which remains after that privilege is retrenched.[1]

While hideous, the metaphysic of such a position was simple: those unequal in nature, being, dignity, and attributes are also unequal in relations, including authority and submission, right to command and duty to obey. “Equality” only extends to the individuals as a requirement for equal duty before God—one to care for his subordinate and the other to obey his superior. Equity was simply the Golden Rule practiced according to one’s natural lot.

This type of pro-slavery argument, so regrettably advanced from within the Church, was handily demolished by some New School Presbyterians and Abolitionists of the 19th Century via physiology, anthropology, philosophy, and most importantly, the clear witness of the Scriptures. Would that this had ended the vile and blasphemous pro-slavery arguments in the Church. Instead, the annals of history treat us with a much more pernicious pro-slavery argument; more pernicious because supposedly much more “advanced”, “Biblical”, and “acceptable”. Rather than the simple metaphysic of Whitfield and Dabney, we are presented with a new metaphysical category, the inequality of equals.

Here we might give as an example James Henley Thornwell. He argued forcefully that the “African” was indeed of the exact same constitution as was he, with the same capacities, intelligence, will, equal in all dignities, and most importantly, equal in the eyes of God:

Men may be seeking eminence and distinction by arguments which link them with the brute; but the instinctive impulses of our nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the word of God, lead us to recognize in his form and lineaments—in his moral, religious and intellectual nature—the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God. We are not ashamed to call him our brother.[2]

One might expect based on the plain metaphysic of his forebears that this should end all controversy. One clearly could not deprive such a one of “his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion.” Unfortunately, Thornwell goes on to argue that due to the fall of mankind into ruin, God has instituted hierarchies and social arrangements for the perfecting of all men as they find themselves by providence in their current estates. Thus, though the “African” be equal in every sense by his nature and substance, he is subordinate and unequal by birth and race, viz., in his very personal subsistence. Not temporarily, by agreement or arrangement, but by the relational properties of his very being. Sure he is one in nature with his brothers, but he is subordinate as to estate and role until the resurrection, and all that was set awry by the fall is restored through Christ.

Charles Hodge makes similar arguments, though he does not, to my knowledge, accord this inequality of equals to a dispensation due to the fall. Hodge argues clearly for the unity of the whole human race: “Wherever we meet a man, no matter of what name or nation, we find he has the same nature as ourselves. He has the same organs, the same senses, the same faculties, the same understanding, will and conscience, the same capacity for religious culture”[3].He admits the “dignity, equality and destiny of men” as taught by the Savior.[4] But, once again, for Hodge slavery is nevertheless “not necessarily sinful.”[5] God in His wise providence has placed each individual in his ordered position within the social hierarchy and it is each man’s duty to perform the requirements thereof as “equal” before God. For Hodge, as for Thornwell, one’s being equal in every way—in nature, being, and attributes—can be seamlessly coupled with inherent relations of subordination, without the blatant contradiction setting off any intellectual alarms.

When discussing the “subordination” of women enjoined upon the Corinthians by the Apostle Paul, he shows us the contours of this inequality of equals:

[…] order and subordination pervade the whole universe, and is essential to its being. The head of the man is Christ; the head of the woman is the man; the head of Christ is God. If this concatenation be disturbed in any of its parts, ruin must be the result.[…]And still further, as the subordination of the woman to the man is perfectly consistent with their identity as to nature, so is the subordination of Christ to God consistent with his being of the same nature with the Father.[6]


[…]these subordinate relations of one creature to another are merged, as it were, in the supreme causality of God. It matters little whether the man was of the woman or the woman of the man, as both alike are of God; just as he before said, it matters little whether a man were a Jew or Gentile, bond or free, since all are alike before God.[7]

Equality of nature does not preclude inequality in subsistence but are rather perfectly compatible; they merge in the “supreme causality of God”. Thus we see Hodge arguing from 1 Corinthians 7:17 that,

[…]it was a general ordinance of [Paul’s] that men should remain in the same social position after becoming Christians, which they had occupied before. We can very imperfectly appreciate the effect produced by the first promulgation of the gospel. […]the perfect equality of men which it announced […]produced a ferment in the minds of men such as was never experienced either before or since. It is not surprising, therefore, that men were in many instances disposed to break loose from their social ties; wives to forsake their unbelieving husbands, or husbands their wives; slaves to renounce the authority of their masters, or subjects the dominion of their sovereigns. This was an evil which called for repression. Paul endeavoured to convince his readers that their relation to Christ was compatible with any social relation or position. It mattered not whether they were circumcised or uncircumcised, bond or free, married to a Christian or married to a Gentile, their fellowship with Christ remained the same. Their conversion to Christianity involved, therefore, no necessity of breaking asunder their social ties. The gospel was not a revolutionary, disorganizing element; but one which was designed to eliminate what is evil, and to exalt and purify what is in itself indifferent.[8]

To Hodge and many others, the hierarchical relations among men, the “social ties”, including slavery, were all concordant with “the perfect equality of men.” In fact, the evil to be redressed was rebellion against this, while the bondage was “in itself indifferent.”

The premise for this whole method of reasoning is this presumed metaphysic of inequality of equals, a metaphysical having one’s cake and eating it too that grants a veneer of universal human dignity and equality of nature wilst denying the logical concomitants of this truth. What possibly could be the basis for this metaphysical pairing? Full equality of nature and attributes, but subordination in the relational attributes of personhood? Perfect equality yet unequal in authority and right to command or owe obedience? Note that for Hodge and Thornwell, this subordination is not a role taken up by one naturally endowed with freedom from coercion, but rather a place in society or relation dictated by one’s very race or birth.

Modern complementarians were faced with a similar challenge as were the enslavers of the past. Note well: I am not in any sense trying to draw a parallel between slavery and male headship in the home, nor arguing that any complementarians under discussion support slavery. I believe in male headship as Biblically understood. What I do intend to show, rather, is that complementarians found the same need to trade on the metaphysic of inequality of equals in order to grant acceptability to their arguments in the face of feminist opposition in the 1960’s and 70’s. Like before, we also have in the history of the subordination of women the simple metaphysic of Whitfield and Dabney. Take for example Thomas Aquinas,

Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.[9]

Again the simple metaphysic: those unequal in nature and attributes are also unequal in relations, including authority and submission, right to command, and duty to obey. In the face of steady opposition in the 20th Century, we again find the more “advanced”, “Biblical”, and “acceptable” argument presented, the metaphysic of inequality of equals. The leverage point is similar to Hodge’s above: “as the subordination of the woman to the man is perfectly consistent with their identity as to nature, so is the subordination of Christ to God consistent with his being of the same nature with the Father.” But the modern complementarians have become much more explicit in their defense of the metaphysical principle, now specifically grounding it in the nature of the eternal Trinity. Wayne Grudem writes the following in defense of this metaphysical principle,

[…]the idea of headship and submission within a personal relationship did not begin with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987[…] No, the idea of headship and submission existed before creation. It began in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. The Father has eternally had a leadership role, an authority to initiate and direct, that the Son does not have. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is subject to both the Father and Son and plays yet a different role in creation and in the work of salvation.

When did the idea of headship and submission begin then? The idea of headship and submission never began! It has always existed in the eternal nature of God Himself. And in this most basic of all authority relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability (for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in attributes and perfections). It is just there. […] Within the being of God, you have both equality and authority.[10]

The metaphysic of inequality of equals is presumed to be grounded in the Trinity. The illogic of the principle, and the near incomprehensible nature of the metaphysic itself, is supposedly justified by shrouding it in the ineffable and mysterious nature of the Trinity. Just as for Van Til the ineffable and incomprehensible nature of the One and the Many is given synthesis and warrant in the ineffable inner nature of the Trinity, so the principle of equal in being and attributes, coupled with inherent ordered hierarchy and inherent inequality of authority, finds its synthesis and warrant in the Trinity.

And the results of this are almost as palpably insipid as that of the enslavers when brought to its logical conclusion. Just as the “African” shares in the one image of God along with his enslaver, so the woman shares the one image of God along with the man; but just as the image of God is manifested in the right to be commanded from birth and the consequent duty to obey, so the woman’s image bearing is in her natural submission. A sampling of Bruce Ware’s central contribution to Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood makes this abundantly clear:

Man is given a place of rulership over all other created beings on the earth, thus indicating the higher authority and priority of man in God’s created design. […] What does it mean, though, that man as male and female has been created in the image and likeness of God? What does this tell us about the nature of manhood and womanhood as both male and female exhibit full and equal humanness as the image of God while also being distinguished as male (not female) and female (not male)?[11]

[…]while God did intend to create male and female as equal in their essential nature as human, He also intended to make them different expressions of that essential nature, as male and female reflect different ways, as it were, of being human.[12]

[…]the female was made the image of God second, in a mediated fashion, as God chose, not more earth, but the very rib of Adam by which He would create the woman fully and equally the image of God. So, while both are fully the image of God, and both are equally the image of God, it may be the case that both are not constituted as the image of God in the identical way. Scripture gives some clues that there is a God-intended temporal priority bestowed upon the man as the original image of God, through whom the woman, as the image of God formed from the male, comes to be.[13]

[…]it is evident that Paul is thinking specifically about the woman’s origination vis-à-vis the man’s, and he reflects here on the importance of the man’s prior creation, out of whose being and for whose purpose the woman’s life now comes. […] Just as the man, created directly by God, is the image and glory of God, so the woman, created out of the man, has her glory through the man.[14]

He concludes,

Male and female, while fully equal as the image of God, are nonetheless distinct in the manner of their possession of the image of God. The female’s becoming the image of God through the male indicates a God-intended sense of her reliance upon him, as particularly manifest in the home and community of faith.[15]

I should hope these passages speak for themselves. The metaphysical principle of the inequality of equals, supposedly grounded, justified, and birthed from the Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father, is a metaphysic of oppression. It’s insipidness lies in its loud heralding of the equal dignity of all mankind while nevertheless justifying a hierarchy of persons according to the very image they bear by creation.

It is easy to show that Hodge himself held to this principle within the inner life of the Trinity. He writes that the “Bible teaches that the Son and Spirit are in the Holy Trinity subordinate to the Father, as to their mode of subsistence and operation, although the same in substance, and equal in power and glory.”[16] He argues that the Nicene Creed teaches,

The principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its infinite perfections is common to the Father, Son, and Spirit, there can be no inferiority of one person to the other in the Trinity.[17]

He believed that the only historical error in the supposed subordination of the Persons of the Trinity were in attempts to explain it.[18]

I believe it is the very desire to bolster oppressive forms of authority that has led to the necessity of the principle of the inequality of equals and therefore also the subsequent fabrication and blasphemy of subordinating the Son to the Father in all eternity. The Scripture does not teach ESS. The Scripture also does not teach the metaphysic of oppression. When the Son of God voluntarily subordinated Himself in time to become a bondservant on behalf of fallen man, it was not in that in which He was equal with the Father (Godhead) that He became a slave, but in His flesh:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5-7)

He became less than the Father (John 14:28) by taking on an inferior nature; “You have made Him a little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7). There is no sweet spot for oppressors to find comfort in the Scripture. There is no cake eating and having within the metaphysics of equality. And when I read Grudem writing…

They try to force people to choose between equality and authority. They say, if you have male headship, then you can’t be equal. Or if you are equal, then you can’t have male headship. And our response is that you can have both—just look at the Trinity. Within the being of God, you have both equality and authority.[19]

…I can’t help but hear also Thornwell and Hodge and the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1818 working out a compromise with evil. No Grudem, oppressors must choose. Make your arguments for inherent inequality from the inequality of nature and suffer the consequences under the hammer of God’s Word; or accept true Biblical equality and all that accompanies it. Rejecting the metaphysic of inequality of equals forces this decision upon us. Lord willing, being honest about this decision will destroy the latent force of so called “Biblical” pro-slavery arguments and also force complementarians toward a more Biblical grounding for male headship and rightful authority in the home, without either marring the equal dignity of equal image bearers, or hiding behind a spurious metaphysic of oppression. (I suggest we start with Ephesians 5.)

[1] Systematic Theology, Section 9, Ch. 47

[2] “The Rights and Duties of Masters”, p. 11

[3] “Examinations of some Reasonings against the Unity of Mankind”, p. 275

[4] “Slavery”, p. 275

[5] ibid., p. 277

[6] Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 11:3

[7] ibid., 11:12

[8] ibid., 7:17

[9] Summa, Part 1, Q. 92, Reply 2

[10] Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, pp. 51-52

[11] ibid., p. 72

[12] ibid., p. 81

[13] ibid., p. 82

[14] ibid., p. 85

[15] ibid., p. 92

[16] Systematic Theology, Part 2, Ch. 18, Section 1

[17] Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. 6, Section 5

[18] Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. 6, Section 6

[19] Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, p. 52

10 thoughts on “ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression

  1. Matt Powell March 1, 2017 / 4:27 pm

    If you believe in male headship, and yet believe that men and women are equals in nature, how is your argument any different than the one you’re condemning? If you believe in any authority in human relations, either you believe that the subordinate is unequal to the superior, or you believe he is equal. Obviously you reject the first, so then you accept the second, right? And that means you believe in the inequality of equals, right? Inequal in authority, equal in nature.

    What other option is there, other than rejecting all human authority, which you say you don’t do.


  2. Jesse Light March 8, 2017 / 5:25 pm

    I am having some trouble following you. I am completely against ESS, so I am in no way defending that. You say that you believe in male headship, but also seem to be saying that hierarchy cannot exist among equals. So how can there legitimate male headship? (I could even ask on what basis children should submit to parents or subjects to rulers) Are you saying that the idea that women in general, due to their nature, must be subordinated to men is an inequality of equals and thus invalid, but a submission of wife to a husband is valid, because it is predicated on the marriage relationship? In other words, it’s the marriage, not the nature of the woman that is the basis for male headship? Just looking for clarity, here.


  3. Rachael Starke March 9, 2017 / 5:00 pm

    Brother, I had seen the post come through my feeds but hadn’t had time to read it. Then today I had a *two hour* conversation with a dear sister originally from Kenya who is really struggling with issues of hypercomplementarianism for precisely the reasons around slavery you describe. Then ten minutes ago someone tweeted about your follow up piece, and here I am to say that, on first read, this is really compelling, but I’m actually going to invest in printing both pieces out and reading them together.

    To the issue of a 1 Corinthians 11 and better definition of headship/authority, Wendy Alsup wrote a really helpful piece here that’s clarified my thinking tremendously:


  4. Cameron Shaffer March 13, 2017 / 9:18 am

    Could you clarify what male headship in the home then means, and show the metaphysics at play with that? It’s not clear to me how a husband can be the head (leader, in charge, tie-breaker, etc…) without the metaphysics of unequal equals being at play.


  5. Cameron Shaffer March 13, 2017 / 9:20 am

    Just saw your next post. Please disregard my previous comment.


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