Freedom and Autonomy #5

The Reformation, and the upheavals associated with it, were paradoxically both a reaction against, and dependent upon, the humanists’ new view of “freedom”. The piety of northern Europe could not accept the anthropocentricity of the ideas that swept the south, even infiltrating the Papacy. So Luther’s protests, and those of Calvin, Zwingli and the rest, were largely fired by a desire to return to the humble God-centred faith of the Bible.

Yet it was only the humanist scholarship of people like Erasmus that made the original Bible text available to them, and both Luther and, even more, Calvin were educated in humanist methodology. Equally, support (especially political support) for Protestantism came largely from those with a stake in personal autonomy – the merchant class, the University intellectual and rulers seeking independence from Rome’s temporal power.

The issue of free-will played a bigger part in the programme of the Reformation than is often recognised. All the Reformers placed stress on human bondage to sin and the need for grace – the very first formal debate with Catholics, by Luther’s colleague Carlstadt, was on free-will rather than on the Bible, the Pope or even salvation by faith. They were opposing a new resurgence of Semi-pelagianism, which had gained influence through the new glorification of freedom in humanist Catholicism: specifically Luther opposed Desiderius Erasmus, and Calvin answered Albert Pighius speaking for the bishop of Aquila and Cardinal Cervini. Semi-pelagians tried to steer a course between Augustine and Pelagius by saying that salvation was initially an act of human will, but that supernatural grace then assisted it to fruition. Although condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, it was too congenial to the new zeitgeist to stay buried.

The Reformers themselves were motivated by what had also prompted mediaeval reform and protest movements – the desire to serve God according to his will. Given the times, though, self-determination was not far below the surface for many of its adherents. At one extreme one can point to Henry VIII in Britain, whose mixed motivations for reform included a healthy dose of modern princely self-will. His courtiers, too, saw that pushing things to their own advantage appeared to put God on their side too.

At the other extreme, one can see a mixture of obedience and autonomy in the Anabaptist movement, who had split from the magisterial reformers like Zwingli. They were prepared to die for radical biblical beliefs, and yet their adoption of Congregational government revolved around their concern to be a “free, unforced, uncompelled people.” It is sometimes hard in Protestant history to see where “obedience to God” really meant “refusal to submit to anyone”. The proliferation of sects during the English Civil War, for example, presages the plethora of denominations in America today: it is intrinsically more likely that they reflect competing human wills than the serious attempt to comply with God’s One will. The priority always seems to be the desire to be free to worship as one wishes, rather than the desire to to worship as God wishes and so become free (the biblical description, as you will recall from #3 ).

I should briefly add that the same mixture of forces was seen in the Counter-Reformation too. It is impossible to ignore the fact that “will to power” was at least as big a factor as “obedience to truth” in the bloody response to the Evangelicals. And it’s notable how much greater a role was given to human free-will in the Council of Trent than in the Council of Orange.

Within Protestantism, the first big controversy regarding human will was Arminianism, and it is still an issue today, as the flurry of posts after the first part of this thread shows. My interest here is the motivation for Arminian dissent from Protestantism’s originally almost universal Augustinian view. Arminius was from the Dutch Reformed Church, which was of a rationalistic, rather than traditionalist, bent. Unlike those of Pelagius’ time, his concern was not so much to insist on man’s responsibility but to restore autonomy:

Arminius insisted it was possible to believe in God’s sovereignty while allowing for real free will in an individual. (The History of Christianity, Ed. Tim Dowley)

To be sure, his reaction was partly against an extreme Dutch Reformed interpretation of the Bible that more or less denied human choice, but what is notable is (a) its basis in the dignity of man and (b) its philosophical roots. The old biblical tension between human and divine will was resolved rationally by downplaying the latter. This was the first time that the “dignity” of free-will was controlling doctrinal conclusions. In the end, for all the heated warfare over it, the Calvinist-Arminian divide left sufficient common ground for Calvinist Whitefield to see Arminian Wesley as his brother and co-worker, despite their sharp disagreement. So also many modern Bible-centred Christians, even when theologically savvy, identify more as “Evangelical” than as one or the other of them.

Yet the polarisation sowed the seed for greater emphases on free-will independent of God. In America, for example, Charles Finney – who openly despised theology and pioneered the idea that the true interpretation of Scripture was the “plain sense” gleaned by “ordinary folks” – based his teaching on frankly Pelagian views, only unlike the latter this was motivated by human self-sufficiency:

Religion is the work of man. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means–as much as any other effect produced by the application of means. (Finney, Sinners bound to change their own hearts)

As is well known, Finney’s brand of revivalism had a huge influence on American Evangelicalism in most denominations (broadly, that which did not succumb to liberal theology). They could not afford to ignore its practical success. It subsequently spread across the Atlantic to Britain. It appealed both to the aspirations for liberty of the younger nation, and the entrepreneurial spirit of British non-conformists.

Closer to our times it’s harder to discern the most important issues. The liberal church was, obviously, inspired by rationalist “free enquiry”, judging Scripture rather than being judged (and freed) by it. At the same time anti-supernaturalism made spiritual experience entirely subjective – it was how one chose to relate to the divine. There was a trend towards downplaying sin in favour of suffering as the reason for atonement, with liberation in political and psychological terms being correspondingly emphasised. In this context arose the “suffering God” theology, and hence the God whose priority it is somehow to allow maximum autonomy for man and creation, whilst gently seeking to mitigate its evils.

Meanwhile, back in the Evangelical camp, the emphasis on man’s needs, and most importantly his “right” to free-will, led to all kinds of changes. Evangelistic strategies started from sin as a consequence of our “not being robots” but free agents, rather than from sin as a bondage caused by our rejection of freedom in God. Even sin has tended to become eclipsed by the “therapeutic gospel”, in which psychological or demonic influences limit our freedom and the priority is liberation, not forgiveness. At the extremes “Manifest Sons” teaching, the “Prosperity Gospel”, “Name it and Claim it” and so on are not really aberrations, but straight developments from Finney, largely explicable in terms of autonomy.

Open theism, the new kid on the block, can also be seen as one logical outworking of all this – even as the necessary consequence of worked-through Arminianism. For though Arminianism replaces the biblical tension between man’s will and God’s fore-ordination (eg Deuteronomy 2.30; Jeremiah 1.4-5 ) with a merely passive foreknowledge, even that seems too deterministic for many. To fit the humanistic concept of free-will, God’s foreknowledge must necessarily be restricted either by nature (God is restricted to time and a vamped-up version of human reasoning, as in Neotheism) or voluntarily (as in John Polkinghorne’s co-option of Moltmann’s kenotic thought so that God “chooses” not to know the future). The aim is that we should be truly “authentic” and free. In this way the priority to preserve the new, unbiblical concept of libertarian free-will is allowed to restrict the freedom of God to be Yahweh. It’s really the ultimate role-reversal.

But then, that’s what the Prometheus myth, as adopted by the Renaissance humanists, was all about. Brave Prometheus gets control-freak Zeus on the run. It just took rather a long time to seduce the Church.

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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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6 Responses to Freedom and Autonomy #5

  1. Jon,
    I am following this series, but am not always clear what you actually think.

    Further to Arminius’ view on what God’s sovereignty allowed, how would you define his sovereignty? Does it mean, as some say, that ‘he is in control of everything’. Does it mean that everything that happens is according to his will?
    Or does his sovereignty allow for actions or events to occur that are beyond his control and/or contrary to his will?

    I understand that God’s sovereignty could mean ‘the right and the power to do whatever he pleases’. So my questions deal with whether he voluntarily devolves and/or limits his rights and powers in particular areas.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    I’ve tried to do a historian’s job of not describing my opinions (though without concealing my bias), but why I think things are the way they are today. That’s because I really want to avoid people slipping into the same old tramlines: “I hate Arminians because they deny sovereignty/I hate Calvinists because they deny choice/oh no they don’t/oh yes they do.”

    The whole purpose was to look at some modern teaching that seems – to me, and maybe to others on examination – to be throughly unbiblical (as outlined in #1), and to try and trace its roots to a single, non-biblical, view of “free will” that is of relatively recent origin.

    That, I hope, will get each reader to question where their own view of free will/freedom comes from (rather than questioning each other’s or mine).

    So I’m content with any view that takes account of, and is consistent with, the full biblical teaching, and at its simplest that would mean perhaps (for example), “I don’t know how on earth God determined beforehand by his power and will that Judas and co would culpably and willingly deliver Jesus to death, but Acts 4 says he did so I’ll hold the two in in tension, by faith.

    Beyond that, as I tried to show, one needs to tread a philosophical path, as did Augustine and Aquinas, for example, and that philosophy may well be mistaken. I have drawn my own conclusions – which happen to concur broadly with those two guys – but the question I ask myself, and all other readers, is, “Has that been view been formed by trying to subordinate the philosophy to the biblical data, or to some overriding concern that human autonomy be respected?”

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    PS Peter

    To give some idea of the kind of issues that need to be considered, here’s a link to someone whose views on election/predestination I’ve never come across before – Duns Scotus, possibly the greatest of the mediaeval scholastics after Aquinas.

    What interests me is that he majors on a couple of ideas that struck me from Scripture as I was working on my series on “Christological Creation” ( as a conscious alternative to the Polkinghorne model.

    These are (a) that God starts with the final aim of creation and works everything else out in relation to that and (b) that this aim is the glory of Christ. Scotus works out his entire doctrine of Christ on the basis of predestining love, and into that theocentric framework he fits the individual believer. In that kind of philosophical/theological framework, I’m not sure your final paragraph is a meaningful question.

    So is Scotus right or wrong? I’ve no idea, as I’ve never studied him. But I can say the summary on the link is consistent with biblical teaching on the purpose of creation, election and predestination, and clearly places the Scripture over human reasoning and “common sense”. So when somebody (not you!) says, “Predestination is nonsense” I just despair at their ignorance both of Scripture and of the saints who have meditated on it for 2000 years.

  4. Cal says:

    I caught up on this series Jon. It was a pretty good summary for a quick blog series!

    Some of my thoughts:

    I don’t think it’s right to connect the primacy of defining “God is love” into a drive to give human autonomy (as you’ve defined it). I think the Scripture presents God’s love as the axis by which He is Holy (His love is what sets Him apart), He has Wrath and is Jealous (there’s too much work to describe how these two are out workings of real, other-oriented Love). So it’s sort of a cheap shop there.

    You’re actually wrong to say that Pelagius wasn’t concerned with human autonomy. According to Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, one separation was that Augustine treasured the idea of being a child of God, where Pelagius was disgusted. Babies disgusted Pelagian, for when a son came of age, as in all good Roman families, he was no longer subjected to the ‘pater potestas’ (Father Power) in the family, he was his own man. I’m not sure what Pelagius would’ve made of “Without Me, You can do nothing” from Jesus.

    I’m not so sure about your cheery reading of Aquinas’ motivations. I think he, like many other Aristotelians of the day, were more interested in working out a synthesis of Aristotle with main-day philosophy (the bastardized remnants of Plotinus) and with Scripture. I don’t think he came to issues over Predestination and Election necessarily over a love of Christ, rather than these issues were philosophically demanding. That may sound harsh but it’s warranted. I don’t see the same bridge between him and Augustine you do.

    In fact, I think Augustine, contrary to many scholars, was much less a Neo-Platonist and more someone who never could get outside the language he learned from Plotinus. When Augustine, in his Confessions, said he was glad to have read Plotinus before Paul because he wouldn’t read the latter back into the former, and actually see how the Neo-Platonists were loveless and blind, I was shocked. He may talk in Platonic categories, but he had moved beyond.

    As for Adam and Prometheus, that brought me a chuckle. I remember as a christianized Pagan I had the exact same attitude because I understood Milton as a straight reading of Genesis. Even after I converted, the sinister paradigm was latent. I was listening to a song based on Paradise Lost when a lyric spoke of how Adam followed Eve in eating the fruit because he’d rather be damned with her than be apart. I told this to a friend where he shook his head and said something about idolatry. My first impulse was “it wasn’t idolatry, it was love”, when it struck me that God as the stodgy regnum, instead of fatherly King, still snuck around.

    The fear is that if God is active, in working for good, he may indeed be like that cold, uncaring, Miltonian god. I had my heart warmed recently when I found Athanasius talk about Christ as God’s living will made Flesh. Putting the Messiah’s face on providence changes everything.

    As for the Reformation motives, I don’t think the Northern urge for Reformation was purely as you put it (biblicism over renaissance pagan resurgence). A major thrust of the Reformation was the general hostility of Germans (of Swiss and Germany-proper) to Italian dominance and disrespect. That’s not to deny the power of ideas, but many got involved in the Reformation for papal hatred and national freedom. It’s an aspect that tends to be either overemphasized or neglected. A helpful mirror is the Bohemian Reformation. A lot of it was Czech nationalism, but there are solid pockets of biblical resistance rejecting Rome as anti-Christ. Ever read Chelcicky? Fascinating guy.

    As for the Enlightenment and Determinism, I find it very funny that the whole movement went about in a circle. The Enlightenment was to free man from the so-called bondage of the Church. They had some good reasons to reject it (ossified orthodoxy resulting from the bloody 30 years war), but they abandoned Christ for Prometheus. Except, they weren’t free. A hallmark of the Enlightement was reverting to determinism in a Newtonian Universe of Law. Man was a machine to be pieced together. Logic was shackles. Thus the antithesis (I’m not a Hegelian, I promise!) of the Romantic era came and swept away the chains of reason. However they became enslaved to feelings, of overwhelming sorrow. Between Apollo and Dionysus, there is no freedom or life. Both promise autonomy, both give you chains. Only in Christ are we set free.

    Those are my insights. Cheers mate,

  5. Cal says:

    One more thing:

    That quote that God’s power is powerlessness. Wow! That has it completely backwards! God’s glory was not creating some nebulous thing called free-choice or free-will. God’s glory was on the cross. God’s powerlessness is His power and through it He wrought a conquest over the shadows of sin and death.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Good comments all, Cal.

    I note where we seem to disagree is largely on the motivations of people involved in vast writing projects with huge volumes of commentary down the centuries. I wouldn’t pretend to know enough about any of them to fight my corner too hard.

    I actually have read much of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian corpus, but stuff slips ones mind! My views on Aquinas have grown more respectful the more I’ve read him – and I’m aware that an experience of Christ later in life made him stop philosophising. Was that spiritual sense new, or did it merely transcend what he’d brought to his study before? Cue scholarly debate in arcane journals.

    Nevertheless on those issues you actually underline one point I was trying to make in the series – that genuine theological issues are usually coincidental with political ambitions, philosophical biases and so on. As you rightly say, that aspect is often ignored or overstated … which covers pretty well every treatment, from the other person’s point of view!

    Anyway, I hope you felt that the general thrust of the series was truthful, given the necessary truncation of themes that even I have dealt with more rigorously elsewhere. Somebody just needs to write the book…

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