Freedom and autonomy #3

Freedom is a buzzword with an enormous emotional resonance. Beware reading this stuff, those of you who live in democracies, especially in those that honour emblematic bells or statues named “Liberty.”

Freedom in its modern context is almost synonymous with libertarian autonomy, the ability to do things completely independently of all other agents, including God. And that may be fair enough in politics, psychology and so on. But in theology we ought to start with revelation, and it’s rather important to ask if the Bible’s understanding of “freedom” is the same as ours, particularly if “freedom” is to be the mainstay of our system, as it is in the kind of theology outlined in the first post of this series.

I suppose it’s reasonable to start in Genesis, where Adam’s creaturely freedom is untrammeled by sin, or even as yet by marriage. “You are free to eat of any tree of the garden,” Yahweh tells him. That’s immediately followed by a prohibition, though – a restriction on his autonomy, backed up by the sanction of death. Yet Adam is as free as he was created to be; but wait … that “freedom” involves being a gardener employed in the service of God, put in that role by God and not his own decision. How is that free?

Theologians now would point to the libertarian freedom he must have had in order to take the forbidden fruit. But that’s not what Genesis says, for the only freedom mentioned is the liberty to eat everything except the tree of knowledge. And far from God’s respecting his freedom to sin, he actually takes away the freedom he had by excluding him from Eden and making him struggle with thorns and thistles for his bread, instead of eating freely. He is in bondage to death and sin, as the Bible goes on to explain, and forcibly kept from Eden and the tree of life. He isn’t even any more free from the hand of God than he was, either, as the judgement on further sins up to the Flood shows.

How to make sense of this, then, as “freedom”? Simply this. In the garden, Adam was free to be what God had created him to be – a willing servant and viceroy of God. That allowed a wide latitude, “any tree in the garden” surely representing complete freedom to act within God’s will. And since (as Aquinas has so beautifully pointed out) different facets of God’s infinite diversity are shown in each work of creation, Adam’s creaturely freedom was as wide as God’s creation, bar one tree.

By extension, the “freedom” of the other natural creatures, if we must use that unbiblical concept at all, was the freedom to be what God had created them to be – the sun and moon, seed-bearing plants, great creatures of the sea, livestock or whatever. They were serving God’s cosmos in their own way and were as happy as Larry the lamb and as free as every winged bird. Did they repine that they were not left “free to create themselves”? Were they unfree because they were inextricably linked through their creation to God’s purpose and will through providence? The creation shows no signs of either craving, or receiving, autonomy, because it was what made up the structure of God’s self-built temple, in which he himself would dwell.

In contrast loss of freedom is a loss of ones true creatureliness: the negation of ones nature, by departure from the will of God in which it “lived and moved and had its being”. Autonomy is simply an irrelevance to this divine image of freedom. But maybe I’m concluding too much from one passage? No – it’s the bible meaning of freedom, in other than the most mundane senses.

Take the paradigmatic liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. As Exodus 6.6-7 shows, they were to be redeemed so that God could take him as his own people, under covenant. “Let my people go,” God said through Moses, “so they can serve me in the desert.”

Or take the Law. In Psalm 119.32, the writer says, “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free,” and in v45, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” And in those precepts, it was presupposed that release of slaves or captives was restoration of the freedom to serve God according to the covenant stipulations.

The paradigm of freedom in the New Testament is Jesus, only begotten Son of God, who nevertheless said he always did the will of his Father. Indeed, the mutual relationships of the Trinity are the template for our own freedom, not in that the Godhead is One despite its freedom not to be, but in that it is free because of its Oneness, just as its mutual love has absolutely nothing in common with the fashionable idea that “infinite love must mean being willing to set free.” God’s Trinitarian love is jealous, like his covenant love – and that’s not because of ancinet misunderstanding and barbarity, but the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who dwells in that love eternally. If the Spirit can’t even inspire accuracy about his own being, then the doctrine of inspiration is a complete dead duck.

And so Jesus tells his disciples, in John 8.31ff, that holding to his teaching will lead them to know the truth and make them truly free. And he goes on to say to those who cavill that they already are free, that in fact they are nothing but slaves to sin.

Indeed, freedom is often in the New Testament described as release from the slavery of sin. Yet just as often it is framed in terms of slavery – not even just servanthood – to Christ (eg Romans 6.15ff; 1 Cor 7.21-24; James 1.25; 1 Peter 2.16).

Now as far as I can tell (and by all means try to turn up counter-examples) this freedom to live within God’s will is the only kind of significant freedom mentioned in the Bible, except when it is contrasted ironically with the “freedom” to rebel and die by the sword or suffer eternal judgement. And if that is so, what warrant do we have to consider any other type of freedom as a theological reality? And certainly, what gives us any right to insist that God’s greatest act of love for us is to make us free to live utterly apart from his interference, even for eternity if we are so wedded our autonomy?

Well the answer, as I am at last in a position to describe, is that a completely alien concept of freedom crept into Christian thinking along the line, and hi-jacked our theology. And hi-jacking seldom results in true freedom.

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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