Freedom and autonomy #1

Another big task, which really needs someone to put into a book, so I think it will spread into multiple posts. Sorry. The task is to lay the case out for overturning a concept that came into the Church’s thinking maybe 600 years ago, and has gradually gathered ground until, in the last few decades, it has been systematically and exponentially destroying the prophetic and apostolic doctrine of many branches of Christianity, like some Trojan Horse computer virus. I mean it.

This time it’s not the doctrine of a fallen creation – though it helps explain that – but something more fundamental: the belief in human autonomy. I will try to show how inimical it is to the whole revelation of God both in Scripture and in the incarnate Christ. After that, it’s up to you to see if it applies to you or your theological neighbourhood, and whether you care. The idea is now so ingrained that for many it is far more important than what Scripture, or Christ, might teach. It is, indeed, heresy to suggest they don’t teach it. So I don’t expect to turn the tide – maybe just get one or two more people swimming against it.

Maybe I’ll start to tackle this by looking at how some well-known theologians deal with “freedom” today, before seeing how it arose and how it relates to historic Christianity. Have a look at these quotes:

And because God’s love is uncoercive and treasures our freedom – if above all he wants us to love him, then we must be left free not to love him – we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God’s power, is itself powerless. Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

The connection between the fall and love is freedom. Love does not enslave, but frees, the beloved. God’s love gave us free will. With it, we chose sin and we fell. Thus even our fall, our sin, is proof of God’s love. Only in freedom can we sin. And only love gives us the freedom to sin. Without that freedom to sin there is also no freedom to love…
We doubt God’s love when we see and feel all the sufferings that our freedom to sin has brought upon us… We wish He had given no law that we could ever have chosen to disobey… But mere kindness or compassion would keep us protected against suffering by denying us real freedom. Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You

And relating more specifically to creation itself:

An infinite love, if we think about it seriously, would manifest itself in the creation of a universe free of any rigid determinism (either natural or divine) that would keep it from arriving at its own independence, autonomy and self-coherence. John Haught, Darwin, Design and Divine Providence

An extremely important aspect of twentieth century theology has been the recognition that creation is an act of divine kenosis, God’s self-limitation in allowing the creaturely other to be and make itself. John Polkinghorne, The Inbuilt Potentiality of Creation.

Let me draw the most salient doctrinal points from these typical passages:
(a) God’s overriding characteristic is self-giving love.
(b) That must, necessarily, be expressed in giving his creatures autonomy (“we must be left free”; “freedom which love refuses to overpower”; “Love does not enslave, but free” etc),
(c) Even though that means that God is thereby diminished (“God’s power is itself powerless”; “divine kenosis” [self-emptying]; “self-limitation”).

But let me just flag up some questions about biblical doctrine. Does the Bible say that self-giving love is the only significant characteristic of God, excluding, say justice, holiness, wrath or jealousy? Does the Bible even have a concept of a self-emptying God (see here for my own answer). Is God’s priority for us really self-determining freedom? Is there any such concept of autonomy in the Bible’s teaching? Does Scripture contain anything suggesting that God allows himself to be limited in any way? If not, and these truths are so central, why not?

The power of such teaching depends on its unqualified absolutisation of what are, indeed, key truths, at the expense of others. And in today’s climate, to oppose the teaching is held to be opposing the truths. I have already been accused elsewhere of claiming, because God is not only committed to loving us and desiring us to love him, that God is not infinite love. And of suggesting that because autonomy is not an absolute, I’m preaching determinism. And by denying divine kenosis, that I’m falsely teaching that we can’t know God through seeing Christ … plus, of course, that I’m making God a cold impersonal force by denying that he changes.

I will argue that the key to understanding the modern approach is the central term of the three – human autonomy. Everything else develops from that. It looks like the history will have to wait till the next post, but let me close this one by simply pointing out that nearly every Christian teaching tends towards being radically affected once human autonomy is taken on board: the doctrines of God, Christology, pneumatology, inspiration, creation, providence, sin suffering, judgement theodicy, salvation soul-making, election free choice, grace personal decision, atonement example, ecclesiology … all change their meaning in less-than-subtle ways. I would suggest they actually turn Christianity into a new religion that would not be recognised – and would be rejected – by the apostles and prophets. But I’ll need to provide more evidence for that position.

Next time, the birth of autonomy, starring Adam and Prometheus.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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13 Responses to Freedom and autonomy #1

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Is the modern approach insisting on complete autonomy? Is that not getting dangerously like us creatures having ‘life in ourselves’? In theism (by contrast with deism) that is impossible, because God is life itself, and we are not God(s).

    Or do that want merely practical autonomy? In that case, more hand-on from God should be allowed, as long as it is not too visibly-disturbing from the point of view of the recipient at the time. But do the biologos-types consider this option?

  2. pngarrison says:

    I seem to recall that somewhere C.S. Lewis wrote that election and freedom are both profound truths, but that he thought freedom was the deeper of the two. Is he to be among your villains, too?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I doubt it pngarrison, because he takes a profound, rather than a one-dimensional, view of freedom. Look, for example, at the relationships in his Sci-Fi trilogy, in which he exemplifies that old Anglican phrase “whose service is perfect freedom”, with regard to Ransom and the eldila, the eldila and Maleldil, and notably the young feminist wife of the cowardly protagonist in “That Hideous Strength” – all of which will leave you cold unless you’ve read them!

      Of course, having a high view of election almost guarantees a high view of freedom, if one begins to understand either.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I confess I’ve had difficulty getting clarity on the thinking of BioLogians about this – though I’m not under the illusion that it’s other than an Evangelical umbrella group covering a range of both sound or unsound beliefs. But the predominant tenor of popular TE theologs who get to write fro BioLogos – following on from a broader modern movement, as I’ve tried to indicate – is to make autonomy a moral necessity. If that’s the case, to me adding hands-on activity from God is subtracting from the infinite letting-go love …

    But I want to go on to ask the place that autonomy – aka libertarian free-will – has in Scripture and history, and to suggest it maybe shouldn’t be a part of theology at all. Whether I succeedd is another matter…

    And here my target is not simply, or even primarily, TEs, except insofar as that’s what this blog mainly covers. I see autonomy as a blight on much Christianity today… never antagonise some people when you can antagonise everyone?

    • Ian Thompson says:

      I can see some controversy coming, then, if you get into predestination and election, as you seem to have in mind. I just hope that we will be allowed to respond to God’s grace, in order to receive it.

  4. seenoevo says:


    The issue of “autonomy” here does seem to involve the very old issue of free-will vs. predestination.

    Autonomy/free-will vs. predestination. After 2,000 years, or at least 500, we’re STILL talking about this? One would think an issue so basic and important to the faith would have been settled a long, long time ago.

    But no. The reformed branch of the reformation may be reformed yet again. Perhaps to become the Reformed Reformed Church of the Reformation. The RRR.

    As with Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic, better mind your three Rs, children.

    • James says:

      Most of the truly deep and meaningful problems of theology, philosophy, and life in general are never “settled” in the way that mathematical and scientific problems are settled. Each generation returns to the problems and finds new depths in them, new dimensions. Christians will always be talking about free-will and predestination because the core Christian affirmations of divine sovereignty and human freedom, in their apparent tension, will always make that subject something to be wrestled with by thoughtful people.

      I see nothing wrong with this. It is the modern spirit of positivism, to my mind, which wants theology to have a set of right and wrong answers as chemistry and mathematics do. No doubt there are a number of theological propositions which we can label as true or false, but a large number of theological questions are bounded by mysteries on all sides, and the attitude of: “I want the solution to this problem on my desk by next Thursday at 5 p.m.” is not the appropriate attitude. It certainly was not the attitude taken by the great theologians, saints, and mystics.

      A more constructive approach, it seems to me, is to carefully sift through the Bible and tradition and see if we can at least eliminate some false doctrines. Often, I think, we can show that, whatever the final Christian position ought to be on some complex metaphysical/theological matter, it is *not* Position X. I think that Jon is doing an able job of showing that Christian “freedom” is *not* the “freedom” of molecules or mushrooms “not to be bullied by a tyrannical Calvinist God who has no respect for creaturely autonomy” etc. I think he is doing a good job of showing that this is Enlightenment liberal claptrap combined with major category errors whereby living matter is confused with non-living, and sub-human with human. Whatever “freedom” Christianity teaches, it must be something that is compatible with divine sovereignty, and it must distinguish between the dignity appropriate to human beings and the dignity appropriate to a nucleotide or a bacterium. The attempt by some of the leading BioLogos columnists to obscure such things, by fuzzy blanket notions of “freedom” and “creaturely co-creativity” and “Wesleyan” (as allegedly vs. Calvinist) theology, is something that Jon rightfully opposes, by rubbing the nose of BioLogos in the great writings of the Christian tradition, whether it likes the smell or not.

      BioLogos, and American TE generally, claims to be an effort of scientists who represent (for the most part) the Protestant evangelical tradition. Jon is trying to ensure that TE claims remain faithful to that tradition, and not try to do an end-run around that tradition. Hence his repeated discussion of Warfield and other early theistic evolutionists, who thought that theology should indeed take account of modern science, but *not* in a way that denatured theology by subordinating it improperly to scientific theories. And it astounds me that BioLogos TEs, and so many other ASA-TEs, are unable to perceive that much of the resistance to their activity in evangelical circles is not against the possibility that God might have created via evolution, but against the common TE understanding of *God’s role in evolution*. To a good many traditional evangelical folks, the TE God looks increasingly like a passive spectator of what nature does in its “freedom,” and He apparently has no firm expectations of what evolution should produce (smarter octopuses would be as good as human beings, in a pinch, according to Ken Miller, beaglelady, etc., and it is unclear whether or not God intended any species in particular, according to Falk, Venema, etc.). This portrait of God and evolution clashes with fundamental affirmations of Biblical, Reformation, evangelical Protestantism about the sovereignty, omnipotence and providence of God. And as Jon is trying to show — to mostly deaf ears across the Atlantic — this kind of radical departure from traditional Protestant doctrine is not *necessary* in order to put together Christianity and evolution. One can have evolution without sacrificing orthodoxy. Why the American TEs resist this fraternal correction from their British brother is a question I cannot answer.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:


    The discussions on freedom and predestination have been carried out over many centuries – I recall you have presented these matters before in this forum. I restate my point of view, in that theologically, freedom is a singular attribute that is from God, and may be stated as the ground of a human being – this is another way of saying God has created particular beings called humanity. This is predetermined in every sense of the term. God has also predetermined the law by which we may understand and differentiate between good and evil – He has also endowed us, as His creation, with the spirit/intellect that enables us to both understand and make choices, and also actualise these as acts in this world.

    Within this (general context) we may understand what it is to be human, and also, what it is to become beasts without any regard to what is good – such pathological outcomes are the result of human choices and acts. Does this mean that human beings are free to ‘make’ themselves into debauched perverse creatures, below the nature of the animals that we discuss so often? Yes, I think that it does.

    Your brief discussion of those who claim to be Christian, yet denigrate the Faith, is well made. I think the present day perversity regarding Christ as our ‘whipping boy’, and God needing to prove Himself worthy of us, so as to justify why He allows humanity to sink to such depravity, is a modern day version of what Paul discusses regarding Grace – in his day, people sought to pervert the Gospel by saying, since forgiveness of sins is an act of Grace by God, then the more people sinned, the greater the opportunity we give God to show His grace. Today, the term ‘love’ is used instead of grace, to justify the greatest perversity humanity can commit.

    So what is new concerning those who would do anything to deny the Faith?

  6. seenoevo says:

    To repeat an applicable sequence from the “The hermeneutic…” blog:

    James: “The same is true of questions of free will and predestination. Who can claim to have laid down an absolutely clear account of those matters?”

    Me: “I can, and I think any person with some common sense and real Christian faith can. Here’s how the “absolutely clear account” might be “laid down”:

    [God knows all things, including what the future holds. Predestination does NOT mean only that God knows what your future destiny is. Predestination more importantly means your destiny is PREDETERMINED by God such that you have NO CHOICE, NO FREE-WILL DECISION and action in the matter. If Predestination is true, what’s the point of Christ’s incarnation and preaching and death, what’s the point of following his commands to grow in virtue and preach and evangelize? If Predestination is true, WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANYTHING? Be it resolved, therefore: Predestination is false, anathema.]

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      This series is not about predestination, but I would counsel you to be wary of anathematising predestination, as you would be denouncing the whole Roman communion, since it is a dogma of the Catholic Church:

      Between these two extremes the Catholic dogma of predestination keeps the golden mean, because it regards eternal happiness primarily as the work of God and His grace, but secondarily as the fruit and reward of the meritorious actions of the predestined. The process of predestination consists of the following five steps: (a) the first grace of vocation, especially faith as the beginning, foundation, and root of justification; (b) a number of additional, actual graces for the successful accomplishment of justification; (c) justification itself as the beginning of the state of grace and love; (d) final perseverance or at least the grace of a happy death; (e) lastly, the admission to eternal bliss. If it is a truth of Revelation that there are many who, following this path, seek and find their eternal salvation with infallible certainty, then the existence of Divine predestination is proved (cf. Matthew 25:34; Revelation 20:15). St. Paul says quite explicitly (Romans 8:28 sq.): “we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the first born amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Cf. Ephesians 1:4-11) Besides the eternal “foreknowledge” and foreordaining, the Apostle here mentions the various steps of predestination: “vocation”, “justification”, and “glorification”. This belief has been faithfully preserved by Tradition through all the centuries, especially since the time of Augustine.
      (from Catholic Encyclopaedia)

  7. According to Wikipedia, “Predestination, in theology, is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God”. I think this definition is incorrect, though many Calvinists believe something akin to it.

    According to Romans, “For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son”.
    So something preceeds predestination (foreknowledge).
    And what is predestined is specified (conformity to Christ’s image).

    It is best to use words in the way that the Scriptures do.

  8. seenoevo says:


    Regarding what I believe to be your false claim that predestination is dogma of the CC, and the extended quote from the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

    My own definition above of Predestination included the absence of human free-will decision. (I did NOT make explicit something else which I also believe: This “free-will”, like everything else, IS a gift from God (i.e. grace), and our proper exercise of it ALSO requires grace. NEVERTHELESS, we DO exercise the free-will to some mysterious extent on our own and apart from God’s influence. It is a mystery to me, and I think to the CC. Bottom-line: God does NOT force us or program us like robots. He does NOT pre-program us, he does NOT “predestine” us. I didn’t make all this explicit earlier because I didn’t think I would need to. I probably assumed too much.)

    If you can show me that the CC differs substantially from what I wrote above I’d like to see it.

    Also, I don’t know who produces the Catholic Encyclopaedia, but I’m pretty confident it’s not the best source of authentic Catholicism. A better source, would be the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. I did a word search there, and got only one hit for Predestination. And the text actually puts quotes around the word. Any guesses why?

    [Para 600: To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: “In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.]

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