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.