Freedom and autonomy #4

I showed in #2 that the Bible’s approach to free-will is based on the commonsense reality of our daily experience, with its positive teaching aimed at showing how that experience should be modified by God’s revelation. Any resulting paradox it leaves unresolved, calling only for humility before God’s truth (eg Romans 9.19-21). Any resolution of such issues requires theologising which is, at least in part, philosophical. Indeed, the need to resolve them usually arises from philosophical speculation.

A prime example is the first serious theological treatment of free-will, by Augustine. He was trying to counter the Manicheans, a quasi-christian sect of which he himself had been a member, who had latched on to a familiar Epicurian paradox: since evil exists, God cannot be both all-powerful and all-good. They had opted for the former, by saying that evil is a rival eternal principle. You’ll note that Scripture plainly says God is all-powerful and all-good, so faith has the option of ignoring the philosophical reasoning and accepting the paradox, by trusting that God knows himself best – but that’s hard to do in the face of what seems irrefutable logic.

So Augustine, with a bit of help from Neoplatonic thought, demonstrated that evil arises through free-will, and did useful work on how that fits into the teaching of God in Scripture. After this book, he was forced to address other issues about will through the contoversy over Pelagius, the British monk who taught that free-will is all that is needed for salvation, and that grace merely means general provison like Scripture and free-will itself – views that were later anathematised at his trial. Once more, the large volume of work Augustine did on this was aimed at maintaining every strand of biblical teaching, explaining as much of it as possible through philosophical reasoning and leaving the rest to obedient faith.

Also note that the heretical elevation of free-will in Pelagius’ system was not to do with the moral necessity of autonomy, but because he felt the doctrines of grace made people lazy and sinful. Even he still shared the general consensus that our will was intended to draw us to God, not offer us independence from him.

Later theologians built on Augustine, so that the greatest mediaeval philosopher-theologian, Aquinas, was a thoroughgoing Augustinian (though his philosophy was Aristotelian) which led the more cautious, or perhaps less biblically rigorous, Church authorities to reject some of his more difficult conclusions from Scripture. It had done the same for Augustine’s similar conclusions before, and would do so later with those of Calvin, though as a humanist, the latter had a general disrespect for philosophy and so an uncompromisingly biblicist approach. Some other scholastics adopted what’s called a “semi-pelagian” position, which we needn’t discuss yet.

Nevertheless, free-will was not a big issue in those times because of the nature of the mediaeval worldview itself. This was fully dependant on Christian thinking because of the power of “Christendom” (though its major faults were also from that fusion of imperial politics and religion). But to mediaeval man, we all have our allotted place in the hierarchy of God’s “great chain of being”, ranging from God, through the Son and the angelic realm (and of course the departed saints), to the Pope, kings, lords and down the social order before reaching the beasts, the plants and the minerals. Grace was largely held to be sacramental (one was saved through infant baptism and the mass), so that it gave little potential for conflict with free-will. Similarly, touchy issues like predestination had a rather theoretical feel when everybody was baptized into Christ except the distant Turks and some mythological antipodeans. It seems Aquinas was addressing such matters because Scripture and the nature of God mattered to him, rather than because of societal conflict.

Perhaps the stability of the mediaeval world was due for the shake-up of the Renaissance. This started as a move to rescue Christianity from old-fashioned scholasticism by recovering the knowledge of the Church Fathers and the classics; so in some ways it was antiphilosophical, practical experience being preferred to endless reasoning. But the agenda of Italian humanism soon began to revolve around the dignity of the human being, and particularly of his reason and his freedom – and especially freedom from the “hidebound” traditions of the Church.

The transition is well summarised by the way a Greek story – that of Prometheus – became a guiding myth of the Renaissance. The Eden story had been a favourite theme in mediaeval times, the emphasis being on mankind’s foolish rebellion and curse, and the grace of God in rescuing him through Christ, the new Adam.

But as the Renaissance proceeded, the story began to acquire a new gloss based on the intellectual climate. Adam began to be the hero who braved the wrath of God to bring the knowledge of good and evil to the race, and so a new maturity. The first creation had been basic and subservient – Adam’s actions brought civilisation and culture. As time passed, it began to be seen that the Prometheus myth was not only fashionably classical, but fitted the libertarian theme better. In the tale, Prometheus, the Demiurgic creator and benefactor of man, stole fire for the race from Zeus (who had withheld it out of fear and jealousy) and so brought the possibility of boundless self-improvement in rivalry to the gods. Some more notes on the myth are here.

And so we see, for the first time, the birth of the idea of freedom as autonomy; as independence from God and by no means a bad thing for that. Man sees himself as coming of age, and at the centre of that is the conviction that his free-will should outgrow the pedagogic constraints of orthodox faith. “Man is the measure of all things,” was the motto, and the dignity of man required that he determine his own destiny, rather thant accept what God might have allotted him. The Promethean myth, of course, is to be understood as a proxy for those giants of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, Pico, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, the Medicis etc. It encompassed the rise of high art, of modern science, of magic and alchemy, of the independent nation state, of untrammeled trade – including the slave trade – and of the cult of the individual. Along with this came religious innovation.

As time progressed the Renaissance morphed into the Enlightenment, where human reason consciously begins to displace God himself – and certainly such mediaeval clutter as the biblical witness about him. God is promoted out of control – as in Deism – and is eventually abolished altogether in atheism and its more polite brother, agnosticism. These are the familar religious themes of the Enlightenment project, and the sanctity of the human will is at the centre of them. So, in one form or another, free-will has become a central theme of modern philosophy since Descartes. How can the embodied will be truly free? How can libertarian will be guaranteed free of constraints, especially in a Newtonian Universe or one where there is a sovereign God? How can the individual’s will be kept from being smothered by society? How far can the will mould reality to itself? There’s a good review of the study of the autonomous will in modern Philosophy in Roger Scruton’s overview, but a little thought should make it obvious to anyone how autonomous freedom guides our society’s thought, politics, morality, law, and even art and entertainment. “Pushing the boundaries” is praisworthy: “fitting the pattern” is reprehensible cowardice.

What is less obvious is how the autonomy theme affected the kind of Christianity that rejected Deism or atheism, and I see that space compels me to try and approach that in another post.

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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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2 Responses to Freedom and autonomy #4

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    The subject matter covered by the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ is vast – a couple of suggestions, if I may. Autonomy may also deal with a person accepting responsibility for his actions. The term may also include an ideal of ‘true-to-self’ in that the person relies on his/her conscience and ideas of right and wrong to determine/judge his actions. Freedom within a religious/Christian context is indeed understanding and acting in accordance with the will of God, and this is through revelation and grace – I consider personal freedom as an act of reflecting on the revelation and understanding oneself within such a context (before God).

    From what I understand from your comments, I think that your view on autonomy may be a narrower one, in that you indicate that an ‘autonomous self’ was created during the turmoil of the age of reason (i.e. Prometheus), and this now may constitute an idea of a ‘human being’. Perhaps you may comment on this – do we now have another view of humanity as a ‘Promethean’ figure?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Yes, terminology is a problem – “autonomy” was used in older Christian philosophy in the sense of a creature having it’s own “law” given it by God at creation, eg the law of the snake being to slither without legs, etc. Autonomy in the sense I mean is “making ones own law”.

    I’m trying to describe how a concept new to Judaeo-Christian thought was introduced through the Renaissance (exemplified by the Prometheus myth), and became the schema by which older concepts like freedom, free-will – and autonomy too – came to be understood, and which has come to dominate some streams of theology.

    There a myriad aspects to this – but one I’ve not majored on in the text is the emphasis on the individual self in the west, compared to the wider vision of self the context of society, of family and of course, in the salvation sense, in relation to God’s covenant community.

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