Freedom and Autonomy #2

The first post in this series has already generated some good comment, which shows how live the issue of “freedom” is for many of us. I’ve decided on a slight change to plan – I feel the argument will be clearer if I deal with the biblical position first, and then proceed to how people have understood it historically. But keep in mind the thesis I’m presenting is not “free-will v predestination”, but that:

(a) Theologies based on the centrality of human and natural freedom and God’s “letting go love” are novel.
(b) The explanation for them is found in the enthronement of autonomy as a primary “good” over several recent centuries.
(c) This autonomy is not a biblical concept, and must therefore be suspect.

The Reformers and Puritans, disputing with Semi-pelagians and, later, Arminians, were prone to say that free-will is not taught in the Bible. By this they meant the kind of autonomous free-will advocated by those positions, though they were interpreted (by their enemies and their more bigoted friends) as denying the existence of human will itself. This was not, however, their true position.

Nevertheless, as a matter of strict fact, free-will is not taught anywhere in the Bible – it is simply assumed axiomatically, on the assumption that it is common experience. One could compare this to the Bible’s total failure to make any argument for the existence of God: the natural sensus divinitatis is assumed, and people are called, in various ways, to covenant-loyalty to the only true God, Yahweh. Atheism is only mentioned as a rare aberration – and even then probably means practical rejection of his rule rather than metaphysical commitment to naturalism. Similarly, the Bible has no clear philosophy of human reason and other mental or spiritual capacities: we all know from experience that we think, dream etc, and the Bible takes it for granted and moves on from there.

So the capacity for human choice, and therefore responsibility, is not so much affirmed as assumed by the Bible, as common human knowledge, from the first. Adam is free to eat of every tree, but will be accountable for eating from one forbidden tree. Just like people now eat whatever they like, but get punished if they steal the food.

“Free-will” itself is only used a few times, and in the Old Testament, mainly as a technical term for a voluntary sacrifice – there is no metaphysical baggage there. But nevertheless the Bible is full of human choices – though a lot fewer non-human choices, one snake and one donkey being the only exceptions I recall below the angelic realm. Let’s then, for convenience, look at “will” and “freedom” separately, since Scripture doesn’t treat them as interlocked.

What the Bible actually teaches about the will is some theological nuancing to the universal human experience of choice and responsibility, with little or no attempt – note this well – at a philosophical resolution of any issues raised by it. In other words it teaches us what God does in relation to human will, but leaves us either to accept it as it is on faith, or think it through more deeply, as befits our capacity.

Mainly, though not exclusively, this nuancing is the assertion that human will, like everything else in the universe, is still dependent on God and his providence. Realising that this is the whole teaching priority will prevent us from seeking to explain away each text. There are a myriad examples of this, and of course space for only a few here.

We could start with the sons of Israel selling Joseph into slavery, which in Genesis 45.5 Joseph attributes to a greater plan of God. We could consider God’s raising up of Cyrus to achieve his own purpose of freeing Israel in Isaiah 45. Or we could remember direct teaching like Proverbs 21.1, in which the Lord directs the king’s heart like a watercourse, or like 16.9 in which a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. All these teach, “I am Lord even over human will.”

In the New Testament we would remember the passage in which the betrayal of Jesus is attributed to God’s predetermined plan (Acts 4.27-8), or how God’s promise to Paul to testify before royalty came through the free actions of his enemies.

This sovereignty of God has a particular role in the business of salvation, such as John 1.13, in which the children of God are said not to be born of human will, but of God; or Philippians 2.13, in which God works in his children both to will and to do his good purpose.

This is the whole realm of grace, and the reason why it needs to be taught, apart from the glory of God itself, is because another strand of positive Bible teaching is the bondage of the human will to sin – which it again, without philosophical resolution, cheerfully mixes in with our experiential freedom of thought and action. In Romans 6 it is described in terms of release from slavery to sin: in Ephesians 2 our inability is viewed even more strongly as death: “dead in sins and trespasses”.

All these concepts are, as it were, theological layers applied to the basic axiom of human free-choice. Do they in any way diminish or destroy that choice? Quite simply, the Bible leaves no room for that. As Augustine later pointed out, the very existence of “will” assumes freedom to choose, or it would have to be called something else. But how, then, is God’s prescience, or fore-ordination, or effectual grace, and so on, compatible with our freedom? Scripture doesn’t even attempt an answer, apart from the occasional recommendation for clay not to question how the potter has made it.

It doesn’t forbid us seeking to work the issues through. But like the nature of the soul or the limits of mind, or like the case for theism, those are philosophical, not directly religious, matters. And no less necessary for that. Yet how you do your philosophy will determine whether you remain true to Scripture, or not. It’s my contention that the philosophical concept of autonomy (which I will come to in due course, honestly!) puts a bias into ones theology that leads away from Scriptural revelation.

The next episode, since this one is long enough already, will stay with the Bible, looking at its concept of “freedom”. But to close, I would like to make one more point relating to the “new” theology, in which God’s overriding concern is human free-will, even if it means that his own will is thereby diminished (Remember the Beuchner quote in #1 about God’s power becoming itself powerless?).

It’s instructive to do a word search on the word “will”. In Young’s concordance, there are 63 New Testament entries, mainly for Greek θελεμα plus four other Greek words. All but 8 of these relate directly to God’s will. Yet of the rest, only two are used simply (and theologically trivially) of humans alone (1 Cor 7 speaks of self-control over marriage, Luke 23 speaks of Jesus being surrendered to his accusers’ will… and we already know from Acts 4 what that means!). The rest are either speaking negatively about human will in relation to God’s (eg 2 Pet 1.21), or of people (primarily Jesus) deferring to God’s will over their own. The last case it is about a man in a parable whose will represents God’s!

On that biblical evidence, whose free-will do you think has the greater priority for God?

Jon Garvey

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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