Law, natures and freedom (2)

In the last post  I suggested that “laws of nature” are better understood as the properties of the natures of entities themselves, as in Aristotelian metaphysics. Seen in this light, the concept of “freedom” in nature makes little sense, since there are no “external” laws either maintaining order or restricting freedom. Rather, everything in nature is simply created to act according to its God-ordained nature. It would be no violation of the natural order by God either to create some new type of nature in the world directly, or to act on existing forms according to their existing natures. On the other hand neither would it be a problem for him to have created something with the ability to unfold in an evolutionary fashion.

It follows, however, that for anything in nature to be “autonomous”, in the sense of writing its own laws, creating or changing its own nature, would be the most unnatural thing imaginable. That’s the question that arises par excellence if we consider humans and their free will.

To do that, let’s examine “law” in the sense of God’s other book: God’s divine law for mankind. I described how the “legal” conception of nature was mainly imported into science from Christianity. But in turn, the idea of God’s word to us as “law” is a little wide of the mark, though prominent in early modern Christianity.

Just as there are a few biblical descriptions of “ordinances” relating to nature, so there are rather more in relation to, particularly, the law of Moses. That reflects Israel as a theocratic state, there being a need as in all states for an external set of statutues. But the overarching concept of the Pentateuch, and indeed the whole Hebrew Bible, is torah, a word that doesn’t really mean “law” but, at root, the teaching imparted by a father to his child and so, by extension, the teaching imparted by Yahweh to Israel his son.

To quote one source:

A hebraic definition of Torah is “a set of Instructions, from a father to his children, violation of these instructions are disciplined in order to foster obedience and train his children”. Notice how the word “Torah” is translated in the New International Version translation in the following passages.

“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching [Torah].” (Proverbs 1:8)

“My son, do not forget my teaching [Torah], but keep my commands in your heart”. (Proverbs 3:1)

The purpose of a parent’s Torah is to teach and bring the children to maturity. If the Torah is violated out of disrespect or defiant disobedience, the child is punished. If the child desires to follow the instructions out of a loving obedience but falls short of the expectations, the child is commended for the effort and counseled on how to perform the instructions better the next time. Unlike Torah, law is a set of rules from a government and binding on a community. Violation of the rules require punishment. With this type of law, there is no room for teaching, either the law was broken with the penalty of punishment or it was not broken. God, as our heavenly Father, gives his children his Torah in the same manner as parents give their Torah to their children, not in the manner as a government does to its citizens;

“Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your Torah” (Psalms 94:12).

In other words, one could see torah as a special way of forming human, as opposed to lower creatures’, nature: rather than our nature being in every sense a given (though in most senses it is, since our physical, mental and spiritual abilities are all a divine gift), our rational and moral selves are formed by the actions of others, with our own voluntary consent. This is truer than western man tends to think. As social beings, we have a strange freedom to form others and be formed by them, though voluntarily. I like this quote from philosopher Roger Scruton:

Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.

Divine torah, then, might be seen as an indirect form of creation, where the moral and spiritual aspects of the nature God intends to form in us are offered for us to accept voluntarily. In this I see a parallel with laws of nature – not that there is an external set of restraints within which we may be “free”, but a set of creation principles that, when internalised, form in us our true human nature.

Why then would God make us that way – given that it is obvious from universal experience that it has allowed the possibility of sin? Well, aside from the fact that such a question receives short shrift in Scripture – pots questioning potters and so on – one could say that it prevents us being mere robots. But as the last post showed, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in being a robot, if that’s your nature.

I prefer another good thought from Aquinas. Our freedom is given us to choose between different good things in God’s creation, since we can’t experience them all. A myriad photons all act the same way according to their nature. Even rabbits and lions can only be more or less typical of their kinds. But a host of rational humans can eat, handle, learn and offer thanks for a huge variety of good things, and being communal beings can share that blessing with each other, and directly with their Creator in worship. They can even offer worship on behalf of the irrational part of creation.

That’s one thought, anyway – and there are more mysterious considerations, too, including the Irenaean idea that our sin itself may be used by God to help us to maturity as a father’s discipline is part of torah, and of course the greater glory that redounds to God from restoring what is broken rather than making it unbreakable in the first place.

But the main thing is that, in terms of God’s primary purpose, our freedom is intended to help us be formed in our heavenly Father’s image and to serve him more gloriously. Torah, with its necessary accompanying freedom, is our “autonomous law” just as gravitational attraction is part of the “autonomous law” of massive particles. And in both cases, there is no place at all for the idea of freedom as the kind of autonomy that is in any sense independent of God. That’s why Jesus, the most free human being who ever lived, conformed in every way to his Father’s will – torah in him had found a willing home.

Sin remains, then, a perversion of the will’s true purpose, resulting in a diminution of our nature. It’s not just that by disobeying God’s external laws we are rebels. It is that by refusing God’s teaching for us we have become sub-human. God is not Zeus jealously refusing mankind the divine knowledge of fire until Prometheus bravely steals it. Rather he is a Father who offers us the best torah possible, only to have us reject the gift in favour of a corrupt aberration of our own.

On the torah model, then, final judgement is like the rejection by a good father of an irredeemably wicked son who has failed to internalise any of the character-traits he was taught. It may be seen as punishment in a legal sense (and Scripture does portray in in that way), but it is also the rejection of a creation that has willingly failed to be what it was made to be: ie fitted for eternity with God.

I don’t know if that is helpful to you, but it does seem, to an extent, to provide a more valid comparison of scientific and spiritual law, and one that makes the whole quest for autonomy either in science of human affairs pretty meaningless.

Just one more thing: by pointing out law as part of God’s provision for creating human nature, it reminds us that it is not necessarily the exhaustive expression of God’s nature. We are created in God’s image, true, and so that certainly makes love, truth, justice and so on something that we share with God more than we would expect, say, tapeworms or crocodiles to do. And yet the good God has also expressed his nature in the whole creation in different ways. God, on reflection, is clearly not subject in the same way as us to the law: the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away – but it is not theft. God takes each one of our lives in the end – but it is not murder. So how can we possibly hold him to account by the law, not forgetting that we ourselves do not even keep it? In this, as in so many other things, we need to remember that he is in heaven, and we are on earth, so our words before him should be few.

That’s good torah.

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Prometheus, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Law, natures and freedom (2)

  1. GD says:

    Nice one Jon – I would add that the Law in toto can be understood as Law in the correct sense, because it includes both choices and end-results e.g. if a person freely chooses to be honest, her character would form over a life-time of such acts as an honest one, whereas if he chooses to be dishonest, the character of that person would invariably be a dishonest one. Christianity has built on the torah to show what spiritual and social character becomes acceptable to God.

  2. It could be argued that, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” is Job’s rationalisation of his circumstances rather than an appropriate attribution of responsibility for his loss.
    Last month my younger sister died from gastric carcinoma. I doubt that anyone in my family would agree that this was because ‘God takes each one of our lives in the end’.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Peter, so sorry to hear about your sister – must be a very hard time for you and your family both. The prayers of any readers here, I’m sure, go with you.

    Bereavement is never the best time to discuss the theology of suffering – which was maybe the one good thing about Job’s friends before they lost patience and spoke rubbish.

    Still, Job’s initial attitude was one shared by Naomi and Hannah, for example, in their bitterness – and maybe accounts for the 30% of psalms that are complaints to God about suffering. The immediate context of that verse in Job is that he is exonerated from sin by the godly narrator for not charging God with evil, rather than criticised for dragging God into what was Satan’s work.

    In the end, of course, God justifies Job for his attitude and the narrator seems to forget all about Satan’s agency and describe his friends comforting him for “all the trouble the Lord had brought upon him” as part of the final outcome.

    All I can say from my own experiences of grief and bereavement – and pastorally over the decades – is that I feel more reassured by a God who allows things I can’t understand and who encourages me to pour out my soul to him than one who would never dream of permitting such things, but who had his hands tied by some greater power.

  4. Jon, thanks for your kind comments.

    I understand that God must allow suffering and that we must suffer.
    However, I have to stop short of saying that He causes our suffering, at least in the case of physical diseases.

    Apart from any doctrinal understanding about what Christ’s death accomplished, we know from the life of Jesus what the God’s attitude is towards sickness. It is surely God’s will that we should be healthy, and contrary to His will that we should be sick.

    I am demurring at the idea that God ‘takes’ our lives by means of sickness. I don’t think that the testimony of the rest of scripture allows Job to be interpretted in that way.

  5. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    You’ll appreciate that the OP was about law, freedom and human nature rather than providence or suffering. But I’d have to say that Job at least was consistent (see 14.5, 21.21), and there are some other passages in the Psalms you might like to consider and pray over at your leisure (31.15, 39.4, 139.8).

    Job, of course, can be taken as mistaken in his views, but remember it’s not news reportage but a carefully considered theological poem – these later verses are used as theologically accepted “givens” about his state of misery, not to state contentious or untrue doctrine to confuse us – that’s why the NT quotes other parts of Job. And of course, Job is finally vindicated by God for “saying of me what was right” (unlike the friends, 42.7).

    At the same time, to be murdered by a persecutor, say, is not to be murdered by God: Paul in Philippians 1 for example, though threatened with execution by evil men, concludes he will remain for awhile because the Lord considers it better for the Church. He says that (as in fact later happened) it might change to be better (in the Lord’s scheme for him and for the big picture both) for him to “depart”, the clear implication being that the decision lies in the Lord’s hands more than the Romans’.

    Classical theology, and I believe biblical testimony, has the key concept of primary and secondary causation (and that is on the theme of the OP). What evil men, or Satan, or even potentially anything like natural evil, may intend for harm, God doesn’t just turn, but intends for good. Thus it was with Joseph and his sufferings in Genesis 45.4ff, repeated 50.19-21.

    And so it is that our suffering in Christ is never meaningless, though it’s usually incomprehensible to us (which is why we’re encouraged to complain to God, and not about him, I suppose).

  6. I let this go whilst struggling with the implications of what I think you are saying.
    Let me try again.
    If, as you imply in this and a subsequent post, God ‘takes’ people by means of sickness, then does it not follow that it must be His will for people to be sick, at least sometimes?
    Is that what you believe?

  7. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    Welcome back to this venerable thread…

    I’m tempted, having pointed to a number of Scripture passages in previous replies rather than the less important matter of what I believe, to do a Melanogaster on you (God forbid!) and say, “What do you think the data shows?”

    If there is an idea that the Father of our Lord Jesus never wills (in some sense, whether actively or permissively) sickness, then that idea must presumably be based on Scriptural teaching, or it would just be the doctrine of men. So is there such teaching in Scripture? Where?

    One could start by looking up the word “plague” in a concordance, which seems to occur over 100 times in about 20 books (in NIV). Then check out where the plague originates in each case. It’s instructive.

    There are admittedly few such mentions in the NT (outside Revelation) which might mean Jesus is representing a new God rather than the God of Israel, or else that the emphasis there is on Christ as healer and Saviour. Nevertheless, there are passages such as Acts 13.23 which need explaining.

    What did the Holy Spirit intend to teach us in those passages?

    So as not to leave this without some nuance, have a look at Lamentations 3. See the number of times the Lord is named as the (sole) source of his affliction. And yet vv31-33, in the midst of all, he says “[the Lord] does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” Now by that, he can’t mean that God does it unwillingly, forced against his will to inflict suffering like some weak tool of Satan, but rather that within his government of human affairs, it may be necessary to do so – in the case of Lamentations, for the sin of Judah.

    It’s like a parent who says “I don’t want to punish you” but does anyway – they’re not lying, and neither are they under coercion. Or even the doctor who says “I don’t want to hurt you” but does anyway, because he wants to heal more than he wants to avoid pain.

    So, is the Bible’s teaching on this unclear, or not?

  8. I think the NT teaching is clear. I am referring to how God deals with believers under the New Covenant.

    Firstly I take it that salvation to applies to the whole person, and that Christ died to redeem us from all of the consequences of sin (Peter, quoting Isaiah, says, “by his stripes you are healed”).

    Secondly Jesus, being the express image of the Father, manifested in his life the will of the Father (“I only do the things I see the Father doing”, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”). He healed the sick. He didn’t make people sick.

    Thirdly the commission Jesus gave to his disciples to heal the sick, which they carried out, is evidence of God’s continuing will to heal.

    If God is both making people sick and healing them then his house is divided against itself. The daughter of Abraham was bound for 18 years by Satan, not by God.

    So, do you really believe that God ‘takes’ believers (i.e. kills them) by means of disease, or is it his perfect will that they should be well in spirit, soul and body?

  9. Jon Garvey says:


    The real disaster in God’s house would be if he promised power over death and disease to all who believe, and was then defeated by Satan, or nature, or whatever else, in every single case; for we will all grow sick and die sooner or later, if some other misfortunes doesn’t befall us. It would demonstrate the failure of the blood of Jesus, and more generally the weakness of God in the thing that matters most: his providential care of our lives… if he had indeed given us such a blanket promise.

    It’s a shame that you didn’t respond to my citing of Paul’s entrusting of whether he would live or die to God in Philippians 1, because it kind of suggests that whatever evidence the Bible gives will be insufficient.

    Now, personally I believe there is no conflict between Old and New Testaments, because the Spirit of Jesus wrote both. If God mapped King David’s days out in Psalm 139, or extended Hezekiah’s life by exactly 15 years, then I am no less under his providential will.

    But if we must divide the covenants in that way, James in the New Testament, addressing his brothers in Christ, warns them to live in humility before God, and say “If it is the Lord’s will we will live and do this or that.” He doesn’t say, “If it is the Lord’s will, and Satan doesn’t outsmart him, we will live…”

    And that’s apt, given that (as Hebrews says), “…man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.” Applied specifically to Christians, Paul reminds us that “If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.” We are promised to rise on the Last Day, not to live forever.

    And if God has destined each of us to die once, has he not also destined the means of that death, just as he destines the means to every other end he decrees? Or does his providence cease at that point, and Satan and all his angels take it as licence to do whatever they want, whenever they want, while God looks on helplessly? Even in Old Testament days Satan could nothing to Job apart from God’s express, limiting, permission. Is his care less for us?

    As in so many things, it’s a question of what kind of God we want – do we want one who is gently benevolent but impotent in real situations, or one whose sovereign, loving government sometimes seems hidden and must be accepted by faith? Do we believe that the illness through which Paul preached to the Galatians (ch4) was just a bungled plan of Satan, and so a bit of luck in accidentally saving souls and bringing us a whole epistle and resolving the circumscision question – or was Paul’s illness too within God’s providence, as the Church down the centuries has believed?

  10. This is such a big can of worms I will have to confine myself to responding in part only.

    Since you were disappointed that I did not reply to your comments on Philippians 1, let me do so.
    My reading of it is that it was Paul (not the Lord, not the Romans) who was choosing whether he would die or live at that time. I don’t know if Paul suffered from any physical illness – the Scriptures are not clear on this – he refers to suffering for Christ, rather than illness – his suffering may have been solely the consequence of the many privations he experienced on account of the gospel (2 Cor 6.5). This, however, is not my point.

    Nor is my point that we don’t get sick or die (we clearly do) but that under the New Covenant God has made provision for our healing and our health. Far from implying that God is impotent I am saying that he has both the desire and the power to heal us. I thought in my earlier submission I gave a sound Scriptural basis for believing this.

    I am not saying there is conflict between the Old and New Testaments. God has not changed. But our covenant has. You quote Lamentations 3, and verses 37 & 38 might well summarise your position. But look at verse 39, “Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?”
    My New Covenant answer to that question is, “A believing man should not accept being punished for something that Jesus has already been punished for”.

    Here are a couple more references:
    Matthew 8:16,17 “. . .and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, `He Himself took our infirmities, and carried away our diseases.'”
    James 5.14,15 “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”

    Evidently it is God’s will for us to heal the sick and/or to pray for the sick, and we are not supposed to lay down our weapons in deference to the idea that the illness is somehow God’s providence (this would be ‘to receive God’s grace in vain’).
    Indeed, how can we pray in faith for healing if we are in doubt as to whether the person is destined or may be destined by God to be sick? If Jesus treated sickness as evil, and attributed it to Satan, we should do no less. I wonder if Jesus ever said, “Well, you are getting old now. Just accept your illness with good grace and die in peace” [a valid choice, of course].

    It is one thing to say that God ‘works out everything [including things that were intended for evil] in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Eph. 1.11). It is another to say that God wills, intends or desires that a person should either sin, or be sick, or perish.
    I prefer to believe that it is God’s will for us that ‘in all respects we may prosper and be in good health, just as our soul prospers’.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      First of all, thanks for your wise words to Seenoevo on the other thread. I’m not sure they were received as soberly as you meant them.

      A couple of detailed rejoinders and then the general point – after that we may have to agree to differ on this or go round in circles.

      It seems to me your understanding of Philippians 1 becomes a bit forced, as it seems clear in the context of chains, defence of the gospel, prayers for deliverance etc that what is at stake is the death penalty, which is not in Paul’s power, yet which he concludes will not happen yet because the Church needs him – suggesting God overrules Rome, or not, as he wills. If it were some disease or something over which Paul had a choice, he would sound like a rather sub-Christian “Shall I bother with medicine or not?” or worse still, “Shall I top myself or not?” He knew that the Lord had denied we can add even a day to our life by taking careful thought.

      As for Christians not being punished for sins, the all-inclusiveness of Christ’s sacrifice is absolutely right, but you neglect the question of punishment as discipline rather than retribution – which was as true of Israel under the old covenant as under the new. Heb 12.4-13 is non-specific about what type of hardship is entailed, but is quite specific that without punishment, we are not sons but illegitimate children. And, at least in analogy, there is talk of lameness and of healing in v12.

      But the point on sickness is made specifically and historically in 1 Cor 12, in which Paul says that misuse of the Eucharist (a) brings judgement, (b) explains some of their present weaknesses, sickness and even death, (c) is judgement from the Lord and (d) is a form of discipline to avoid their condemnation (and therefore is being applied to true believers, not false).

      That’s not to imply that all sickness is judgement, of course, but those are examples the NT gives us that temper what I would consider an oversimplistic view of God’s often inscrutable will.

      More generally, to me this is a question of Christ’s reign and government of the world, which is by no means diminished by the prenent non-consummation of the Kingdom. He sits and reigns over all things at God’s right hand now. Your quote from Matthew is the old “healing is in the atonement” debate from Charismatic circles, and in some 40 years of interaction with that movement I’ve found that absolutising such healing leads to theological confusion and pastoral harm. Because in the end, for all that God may have promised health and well-being, we all die, and if that’s not from some trauma it’s from some failure of health. Even the celebrated “God heals everything” leader who laid hands on me to receive the Spirit died from cancer a few years later. Why?

      To explain that, assuming God always wants to heal believers, one has to have recourse to a number of Job’s-comforter-type explanations, such as:
      (a) The sufferer isn’t really saved, so the promise doesn’t apply.
      (b) The sufferer lacks some vital component like sufficient faith (or in some charismatic parlance has a “blockage” in the form of unconfessed sin, ancestral demons etc) leaving God’s power and willingness to heal stymied by (it seems) his unwillingness to tell the sufferer exactly what their problem is and give them grace to sort it and receive “their healing.”
      (c) There’s some kind of dualistic struggle where God is somehow prevented by Satan from fulfilling his will – and sadly, it has ultimately happened that way in every case since Christ came. That would make Satan more of a free agent in the NT than in the Old, as in Job, and more pwerful than God in every actual life here.
      (d) The BioLogos-type theology of divine non-intervention, where the laws of nature, chance, etc have to be “free” and it would be wrong for God to interfere. That, obviously, would be totally incoherent to your view, God having bound himself to an absolute promise to heal and an absolute commitment to leave nature alone: the ultimate kind of “creating a rock he cannot lift” paradox.

      With those alternatives, I prefer the one that recognises God’s ways as higher than ours and beyond understanding: “He is Yahweh – he will do what seems good to him.” And, because God is who he is, it will be good, even when it astonishes or scandalises us.

  11. Hi Jon,

    Just back from a few days in the Lake District (where for me there are few clearer manifestations of His invisible qualities).

    I agree, on this one we might end up going round in circles, so I’m happy to stop here. Just a few background notes:

    I was raised a Baptist and a Calvinist, and prayer for the sick was very much an ‘if it be Thy will’ affair. In later years I picked up on the Charismatic and then the ‘Word of Faith’ teachings (although I always struggled with the ‘blab it and grab it’ approach). That God wanted us well appealed to me as a reasonable feature of His love, and my study of the Scriptures led me to believe that healing and health were provided for us in Jesus.
    I remain convinced that this is Scriptural, and without any other proof texts the ministry of Jesus is sufficient evidence for me of the Father’s will in this respect.
    I am entirely sympathetic with your question, “Why then doesn’t it work?” – it seems to me that prayer for miraculous healing is ineffective in most cases, and I don’t know why that is.
    I have to consider whether it is my theology rather than my experience that is at fault, although, of course, I can’t base my theology on my experience.
    I live with cognitive dissonance. What’s new?! 🙂

  12. Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for reply Peter

    We seem to have visited many of the same houses, though I was always an outsider to the word of faith approach because I saw it do great damage in the hands of manipulative leaders … but also because my own cognitive dissonance eventually made me realise faith was becoming a problem rather than a solution.

    My wife had a very good Christian friend who died young of recurrent breast cancer. Husband was a doctor, and was sure that such a thing could only come direct frrom the devil, in despite of God’s will in any form. I was sure his grief took much longer to resolve as a result – one can complain to God, but complaining to Satan? Hardly.

    Anyway, I hope and pray that your theology and experience soon find a happy rapprochement.


  13. Jon Garvey says:


    The few clear answers to healing prayer I’ve had were when I had stopped thinking it mattered how much faith I had, and I just prayed (with others) trusting God to do what was best, but knowing healing was “on the agenda” rather than in practice impossible. The sense of surprise was certainly a bonus!

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