Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ by Murray J. Harris

Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (New Studies in Biblical Theology No. 8 ) by Murray J. Harris (Leicester: Apollos 1999)

This is a superb piece of evangelical scholarship.  It is carefully thought out in method and execution, rigorously argued, comprehensively researched and highly stimulating.  The author displays great skill in history, exegesis and theology, harnessing them all for the sake of a pastoral motive: to encourage greater devotion to Christ.  It is an excellent example of how “academic” study (often conceived of as a totally theoretical and non-utilitarian pastime) can actually feed and enliven preaching.  The busy pastor-teacher with little time for reading beyond preparation for the next sermon, will undoubtedly find that for the long term, this book repays careful study.

Harris begins by noting that the word doulos is the most distinctive Greek term for ‘slave’.  Yet it has consistently been translated by most modern versions as ‘servant’.  ‘In twentieth century Christianity,’ he says, ‘we have replaced the expression “total surrender” with the word “commitment”, and “slave” with “servant.”’ This has important consequences for how we view our lives as Christians: ‘we commit ourselves to do something, but when we surrender ourselves to someone [as slaves], we give ourselves up’ (p18).  The rest of the book goes on to show how much of the New Testament’s message is missed by mis-translating the Greek word.  After a fascinating study of the differences between Greek, Roman, and Jewish ideas of slavery (important background information), he proceeds to an examination of the NT attitude to physical slavery.  He shows that the NT accurately reflects the circumstances under which slavery operated in the first century and then considers the vexed question of why a full frontal assault was not made upon the institution of slavery itself.   ‘If Christianity is viewed as basically a movement of social reform, then this silence regarding slavery is indeed surprising, if not culpable’ he says (p67), and goes on to assert that Christianity is concerned primarily with the transformation of character and conduct rather than the reformation of societal structures.

The bulk of the book is concerned not with physical slavery but with the metaphor of slavery to Christ in the NT.  There is some excellent exegesis here, and some nuggets of gold in the footnotes.  Harris illuminates every verse he touches upon, unveiling their background in the culture of slavery.   His discussion of the language of ‘lordship’ is especially enlightening (pp 87-105).  There is some fairly dense argumentation at times, which may frustrate the casual reader.  There are also some concise summaries of other scholarship (cf. the interaction with Sass and Martin in ch.7) during which the reader becomes aware that the author has done a great deal of work in order to clarify the issues as clearly as he can. 

Harris is clearly balanced in his exposition of the theme of slavery in the NT.  At no point is he reductionistic about the metaphors the NT gives us, and he does not suggest that he has discovered a new ‘centre’ for the corpus.  Indeed, he is honest about the fact that there are certain aspects of slavery which no longer apply in Christian experience (p149; cf. the two verses where Christians are ‘no longer slaves’ – John 15 and Galatians 4).  In working through some NT examples of people commended as slaves of Christ he indulges in some speculation, but it is helpful to see these practical models of slavery worked out. 

There are three exceedingly useful appendices (on the use of doulos in the LXX, NT terms denoting slavery, and the translation of doulos in the English versions), a nine page bibliography, an index of authors, subjects, Greek and Latin terms, Biblical references and references to other ancient literature.  This is a comprehensive work, a model piece of scholarship which shows us the workings as well as the conclusions, and a highly stimulating read.  Buy it, read it, preach it!

This review was first published in Churchman 113/4 (1999).

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