Human Freedom

G. C. Berkouwer


Due to the  length of the article as it was originally written it has been divided into two parts. The Link for Part II is found below.

OF THE most important problems with which we have to deal in our reflections on man, and one which constantly recurs, is the problem of man’s freedom. The problem has aroused innumerable discussions, not only among philosophers but also among theologians, and the passion with which controversy was often carried on is an indication of the fact that in this problem we deal not with some unimportant aspect of man’s nature, but rather with the whole man in his total life. Though this freedom usually was thought of in terms of freedom of the will, nevertheless it was man’s freedom which was under discussion, the freedom of the human being who chooses and acts and who follows his way through life in “freedom.”

There was of course no intent on the part of those who held this human freedom to deny that there are various factors which limit freedom. This “unfreedom” is so evident and frequent in the history of mankind that we must all be impressed by it, by the impressive evidence of dictatorships, deportations, and all sorts of destruction of freedom; and, besides, an individual may feel his freedom cramped by physical or psychical weakness, which hinders expression of man’s full nature. But all this does not alter the fact that human freedom has always been glorified, and its suppression never viewed as an accomplished fact in which man can rest satisfied. The more freedom is endangered, the more it is valued and held as an ideal, and, sometimes, brought forward as a program, and embodied in various institutions as a preventive against those things which can endanger Freedom.1

The discussion on man’s freedom was not confined to external limiting Factors; it also specifically considered the question of whether man was truly free even without external constraints; whether he was not completely determined by factors within himself, or by his own being. Is not what appears to be on superficial examination a free act not actually, upon closer analysis, an act which “necessarily” arises from what man is, and from which he cannot escape, no matter how he tries? Does not a bit of reflection dispose of the naive notion that man is free? Determinism has always given an affirmative answer to this question, while indeterminism has held that the naive consciousness of freedom is not an illusion, and points out that all of our concepts of merit, guilt, responsibility, and the like, presuppose it, and without a basis in freedom lose all meaning. Even within the deterministic framework, some have been influenced by this argument, and have tried to make some room within determinism For human freedom — which effort H. Groos calls “backsliding toward indeterminism.” “Only a few,” he says, “have thought determinism through, have defended it consistently, and have held back from any mediating concessions.”2 Some returned, under the influence of the popular belief in freedom, to indeterminism; some have tried to reach a solution by distinguishing between the determined and the undetermined so that, for example, as over against the determined world of nature there remains room for freedom to play its role within the human personality, which can escape from the grip of the determined.3

The controversy between determinism and indeterminism shows us how constantly man’s thought has been occupied with the problem of human freedom, of spontaneity and choice. There is little reason for Groos to conclude that the popular idea of freedom will finally be stamped out by determinism. On the contrary, in and despite all sorts of determination and massive restraint, the sense of freedom continually manifests itself, and not only in a pre-intellectual popular intuition, but also in intellectual circles, which proclaim human freedom though this freedom is indeed surrounded by all sorts of threats from unfreedom.4

We can see again and again, that the discussion of the concept of freedom, especially in the controversy between determinism and indeterminism, takes place against a background of religiously neutral anthropological analysis. Determinism rules out freedom because of internal or external determination, while indeterminism wishes to break through such determination by relying on man’s nature. Both views rest on a humanistically oriented analysis of man and the surrounding world, in which the central problem is always whether man is free from determination or is in bondage.

The whole dilemma thus is obscured by assuming a purely formal concept of freedom, which leaves the real and central problem of freedom untouched. The problem cannot be solved formalistically by examining what man is “free from.” Such a viewpoint, expressed, e.g., in the definition of freedom as being free from all restrictions, throws no light at all on the nature of human freedom.

And even when men prize freedom as the summum bonum of human personality, there is still the possibility of a degeneration of freedom. And when we raise this possibility, we also bring to the fore the problem of a norm for freedom. Even those who do not relate the degeneration of freedom to what Leo XIII called “the total rejection of the sovereignty of the almighty God” (in his encyclical Libertas) often nevertheless speak of a “perversion” of freedom, as is shown, e.g., in the term “true freedom,” which is then distinguished from false or illusory freedom. This usage already shows us that a merely formal treatment of what man is “free from” says little or nothing. For the moment that freedom is posited, one is confronted by the question of the limits of freedom, and the problem reaches formidable complexity as soon as we intuitively reject the completely individualistic and normless concept of freedom which the purely formal “free from” approach seeks to realize.

Nevertheless, we gain the impression that men are often little conscious of this complexity in their manifold use of the concept of freedom, in everyday practical life, all sorts of restrictions play so great a role, restrictions experienced as essentially alien and as threatening, that we are sometimes inclined without further thought to proclaim “free from” as the essence of freedom. And this definition often finds expression in everyday life. Thus we speak of liberalism in the political and social area, meaning that the state should allow man’s life to keep its “freedom”; and we speak of freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and so forth. In this all a protest is registered against restrictions on human life which cannot be tolerated, as, for example, when during a period of occupation by a foreign power a people undergoes an experience of unfreedom, and the “free from” approach can then be the basis for a blazing enthusiasm when the conquerors are driven out and the people regain their freedom.

But this apparently clear and lucid concept of freedom is never able by itself to bring about a solution of the real and deepest problem of human freedom. For in every situation the “free from” approach immediately poses numerous problems as to the nature and the meaning of freedom, and its limits.

In theological reflection on human freedom one continually faces a much deeper question than that posed by the usual controversy between determinism and indeterminism. For when theologians discussed human freedom, they were not concerned with the freedom of a self-sufficient “being” but rather with the freedom of the man of God. Thus we need not be surprised that in this approach the problem of the relationship between human freedom and the sovereignty of God continually came to the fore. And it is also true that the determinism — indeterminism controversy was often incorporated in theological reflection on this problem. We often encounter these terms in the history of dogma, and this religiously neutral anthropological controversy was then grafted on to the religious questions. We can observe “deterministic” tendencies which because of the (determining) sovereignty of God reserved no freedom for man, while indeterminism, in reaction, often relativized the sovereignty of God to preserve the freedom of man. And thus theology fell into a most regrettable controversy, since an apparent dilemma was raised which is really non-religious in nature, and which is wholly outside of the Biblical witness. It may be stated, and happily so, that this false approach was often recognized, and that attempts were made to banish it from the theological tradition; as, for example, when the absence of human freedom was expounded not in terms of a general determinism, but rather in terms of sin: the slavery of fallen and lost man, who because of the fall was a slave to the dark powers of apostasy, which overpowered and ruled him in all his ways.

This view of man’s slavery constantly comes to the fore in the history of theology in connection with the question of whether or not man had “freedom” to accept divine grace. Was it actually so that on the one hand there was a divine offer of grace, and on the other a free man, who could respond to this grace negatively as well as positively, so that the decision as to salvation lay in man’s own hands only? Can the distinction between “objective” grace and “subjective” free decision be so simple? That was the question at issue in the struggle between Pelagius and Augustine, and in later forms of this controversy between, for example, Erasmus and Luther, in their argument de Iibero arbitrio or de servo arbitrio.

When as over against Rome the Reformation denied the freedom of the will, rejected the subject — object separation, and spoke of an enslaved will, most Catholic and humanist thinkers saw this as nothing less than an attack on, and indeed an annihilation of, human nature, of man’s essence, which was presumed to be inconceivable without freedom as part of it.

They saw in the denial of freedom of the will a proclamation of a divine grace which was overwhelming and which could affect human life only in irruptive and mechanical fashion, overpowering defenseless and enslaved man. The Reformers’ teaching on the will of man was interpreted as coactio, as necessitas, and over against this the so-called physical freedom of the will was stressed, a freedom not destroyed through the power of sin because it belonged to the essential structure of man’s nature.5 According to Rome, we can speak of a saving and restoring divine power only if we postulate an organic connection between grace and freedom. The point was one, Rome felt, of essential importance, and it is not coincidental that as early as 1520 Rome denounced as one of Luther’s errors his denial of free will, just as it was not coincidental that the controversy between Luther and Erasmus broke out over exactly this point.6 For the controversy was on whether man was or was not “open” to divine grace, able to accept it “freely.” When Luther (and after him Calvin) denied this so-called freedom of the will, this was seen by many as an erroneous view of human nature. And therein lies the reason that Catholic theologians in various polemics against the Reformation stress so strongly the inalienable and essential and evident anthropological structure of human freedom.

Actually, it is clear enough that the Reformation’s intention was not at all to posit compulsion as over against freedom. There was no suggestion that its critique of the freedom of the will meant to hold, in deterministic fashion, that only God acted, and that man was powerless, deprived of will, and driven.7 Such an approach to the problem was definitely not the background of the real controversy. It was readily acknowledged that man followed his own way in “free,” not compulsive, acts, in a self-willed activity and spontaneity from day to day. The denial of the freedom of the will posited, rather, that it was precisely this active and willing human being in his willing and acting who was alienated from God and enslaved to sin; and in no sense a man who stood like a tabula rasa before continually new possibilities of choosing between good and evil. The problem with which the Reformation was concerned was not first of all a psychological or anthropological problem, and still less was it taught that man did not will or act or choose: attention was directed to man as active and willing! The problem was then the condition, the state of “being” of sinful and lost mankind, the being with which he willed and acted and chose in all his activities. Thus it was primarily the central religious question which was raised. Is the “being” of fallen man of such a sort that he is “free” in each new situation of his life, in each new decisive turning point of his existence, free in the sense that the possibility of doing good, of obeying God’s commands, of being “open” to divine grace, is always there? Or is he enslaved to his sinful past and to the corruption of his heart, to his alienation from God? The Reformation did not hesitate as to the answer to these questions. And its answer did not arise from a deterministic view of the acts of God or from an annihilation of man’s will, but rather from its belief in man’s lostness, his fallen state. The criticism of free will was not based on the assumption of a universal necessitarianism, but on the confession of man’s guileful, stony heart, which — mightily active — pushed man forward on a way of sin and corruption which he is no longer able to abandon by means of the “freedom” presumed to be essentially and anthropologically his.8

It is thus of importance, for purposes of orientation regarding the problem of freedom, to know how and on what grounds freedom of the will is attacked. This can be done from the vantage point of determinism or fatalism, which allows no place for any freedom: but it is also possible to reject such a vantage point, and to see the affirmation of the enslavement of the will as a corollary of an affirmation of guilt. And when Rome supported the physical freedom of the will and from this viewpoint disqualified the Reformation, a horrible misunderstanding had arisen in the Church, a misunderstanding whose effects can still be felt. The difficulty of removing this misunderstanding becomes apparent even today in rather spectacular fashion when we consider Erich Przywara, who views Luther as replacing the All-wirksamkeit of God by an Allein-wirksamkeit so that the creature is completely and totally moved by the divine will, and who then concludes that Luther’s view is the same as Spinoza’s.9 And when the first phase of Neo-Orthodoxy stressed the infinite qualitative distinction between man and God, Catholic theologians took this as showing once again that the basic idea of the Reformation was a “deterministic” view of the will — apparently having no notion of the fact that the Reformation actually was concerned with something wholly different from a metaphysical conclusion regarding absolute transcendence as over against immanence, or from exclusive activity as over against inclusive. We shall be able to gain perspective on this point insofar as it occurs in the Protestant — Catholic controversy only when this still influential interpretation of the denial of freedom of the will becomes past history, and the religious meaning of the Reformation’s belief on this point at least begins again to be understood.10

And that we are not here giving a more recent interpretation, arising after the Reformation because of the ever more clearly noted dangers of determinism, is apparent if one but refers, for example, to Calvin (Institutes, II, II)11 He says that man has been deprived of his freedom of will and as a result has been subjected to a miserable enslavement. Calvin asks what it means that the fathers so often dealt with the question of free will; he sees in them — with the exception of Augustine — a good deal of uncertainty and confusion, and concludes that they, though disciples of Christ, treated the problem too much in the manner of philosophers. The Latin Fathers usually treated free will as though man was still pure and undefiled, but the Greek writers used a much more presumptuous approach and said that man was autonomous. Calvin then asks what we are to understand by free will. He is not concerned to extinguish man’s will. He emphasizes that man does evil with his will and not through compulsion. One might here speak of a psychological freedom which Calvin would fully acknowledge. But he holds that to call this “free will” is not at all justified, and is most confusing terminology. If “free will” means merely such psychological freedom, fine; but, he says, why give such an unimportant thing so proud a title? On the one hand, he says, it is an excellent thing that man is not compelled to sin; but on the other hand, it is of limited importance, since man is still a sinner in this psychological freedom, this spontaneous action. He is a “willing” servant of sin, and his will is fettered with the shackles of sin. Thus Calvin’s opposition to freedom of the will becomes evident. He cites Augustine, who called the will the slave of sin, and said that the will has been used badly and is now imprisoned And the decisive argument for Calvin, as for Augustine, is that man was created with the great powers of a free will, but lost these through sin. It is very clear here — in this loss of the free will — that the concern is not with a metaphysical interpretation of an enslaved will. If Calvin’s opposition to free will had been based on a deterministic causality, it would have been impossible for him to distinguish the situations before and after the fall; freedom would never have existed. But this is precisely not the case. Calvin views free will as something which has been lost; man has been deprived of it. The fall marks a basic change, for man lost what he once possessed.12

And this distinction also marks Calvin’s judgment of the term. If freedom of the will means that man sins with his will and not through compulsion, then Calvin has no objection; but he considers that the term must be used with great caution, and would prefer that it not be used at all (Institutes, II, II, 8). For, he says, he has found that the usual connotation of the term is not merely that the will is not externally compelled but also includes the idea that man can freely determine his own path and the direction of his whole life in autonomy, as if the man who wills is not a fallen and falling man, whose life’s direction is already decided because of the fall.

And so our conclusion must be that Calvin took up the problem of the freedom of the will as an historical and religious problem, and that in this approach his own deepest interests revealed themselves.13 And thus he can ask (II, II, 8) why men boast of their free will, when they are actually slaves to sin; and as for freedom, he can cite the words of Scripture, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17).

Man, then, according to Calvin, was free before the fall, and lost this freedom through sin. As fallen man he does indeed will and act, but in this activity he walks on a path he cannot leave through his own powers. It is the path of alienation and rebellion. And once on this path, man’s conversion, his return, by his own power — is ruled out. This is man’s enslaved will, his servum arbitrium.14

Before the fall, freedom; and after the fall, enslavement. When the Reformation so speaks, it implies the breaking through of every form of determinism. Anyone who should wish to oppose this formulation from the standpoint of divine omnipotence and sovereignty so as to deny man any freedom a priori — apart, that is, from the question of before or after the fall — would be introducing a most unbiblical view of freedom, and at the same time a very inexact concept of God. He might perhaps from such a concept reach the conclusion that man “naturally” is not free; but it is clear that with such an approach he must develop an idea of freedom as autonomy and arbitrary choice. And this implies a line of thought which makes it finally impossible to catch the Biblical light on freedom. And it certainly must then sound strange to hear life restored through the grace of God described as a free life. No, it is precisely the clarity of the Biblical witness regarding freedom which should make us very cautious of any abstract concept of freedom. A determinist may view all actual freedom —apart from the concrete situation, however disposed — as contraband; but from Scripture it is evident that there is room for an important historical variation, and it is apparently possible to speak of human freedom once again released from restrictions. It is obvious that this freedom, which is held before us as awe-inspiring wealth, has nothing to do with autonomy or arbitrariness, and that it does not stand opposed to submission to God. We can not even say that freedom and submission are two aspects of the Christian life. There is, according to the Bible, only one solution which gives the gospel message its full due: when we refer not merely to aspects, nor to a dialectical relation between submission and freedom, but to their identity.15

We must then speak without any hesitation of human freedom as a creaturely freedom given by God. No misuse of the desire for freedom, not even complete anarchy, should tempt us to stop speaking boldly and emphatically of freedom. The anxiety regarding the use of the term which we find in Christian circles is indeed historically and psychologically understandable, since life has often been shaken to its foundations through an appeal to “freedom.” Freedom is often understood as autonomy and arbitrary power, as a purely formal power of man to go his own way. Thus man can be “liberated” from many restrictions, and thus Cain can “free” himself from Abel — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — and thus freedom can become an idol, a myth, which fills the heart and passions of man. Such practices can bring into the open the hidden and demonic motivations that lurk beneath what is often misunderstood as “freedom,” and they who have been made aware of these hidden forces tend to talk freedom only in whispers and certainly without emphasis. It is clear, however, that such an approach to the problem arises from a perverted and secularized concept of freedom, within which it becomes increasingly difficult to keep in mind the Biblical witness regarding the Christian’s freedom in Christ. Speaking Biblically, we can only say that sin enslaves man, just as it originally robbed him of his freedom and made him a man bound in the fetters of sin, as Calvin says (Institutes, II, III, 5). The Bible never embarks on a crusade against true human freedom; it is not so that, for example, divine omnipotence and providence rule out human freedom or annihilate it. The perspective is wholly different: the Scriptural witness on freedom is limited to man’s relation to God. Man’s enslaved will (servum arbitrium) does not mean impotence in the face of divine omnipotence, but rather sin, guilt, alienation, rebellion. Man’s sin is not a manifestation of his freedom, but its perversion. And it is thus of great importance to give our full attention to, and not in reaction ignore, the fact that divine grace forgives this perversion of freedom, this rebellion, and annihilates its effects, and so renders man once again truly free.

Calvin remarks with reference to the characteristics of the image of God in man that we can know it in no better way than through the restoration of man’s corrupt nature (Institutes I, XV, 4); and the same is true of human freedom. The New Testament pictures it with great emphasis as freedom in and through Christ. There is obviously no reference here to an abstract concept of freedom, but rather freedom is spoken of in a completely relational sense.16 This becomes perhaps most clear when we consider that there is no tension or competition between the freedom of the believer and his submission to Christ. Indeed, it is precisely that man who stands in community with Him and who submits fully to Him who is referred to as free. The restoration in Christ, the new man, refers to our restoration from the enslaved will (servum arbitrium) to the free will (libera voluntas): One of Jesus’ talks with the Jews dealt with the liberating power of the truth (John 8:32-36). When they protested that they had never been in bondage, Jesus spoke of the enslavement to sin, and told them that “if the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” Jesus contrasts, in this sharp polemic, actual freedom with the slavery of sin, with that miserable servility and enslavement. (Compare the similar evaluations of this enslavement in Rom. 6:6, Rom. 6:19, Gal. 4:3, Titus 3:3.) It is the same outlook which is given us elsewhere: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free” (Gal. 5:1); this is the richness of freedom, which must be protected against threats to it; “be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Freedom in the New Testament is not a formal possibility or a formal power which enables the believer to choose either of two ways. On the contrary: it is no possibility but rather an actuality, the actuality of being free (cf. Gal. 3:13, 4:4). It is materially qualified and made concrete through the relation to Christ, and is identical with coming into the service of God (Rom. 6:22), with all the wealth that is implied therein. Thus the depth and completeness of this freedom become visible. It does not compete with or limit the acts of God, as if the more powerfully God’s acts affect our lives, the narrower our freedom becomes! Or, as if the accentuation of our freedom should limit the power of the grace of God! Anyone who thinks in such categories should realize that the New Testament knows no such opposition. The New Testament pictures it in precisely the opposite way: the more communion with God fills our life, the more free our life becomes.17 If we place divine power and human freedom in a relation of opposition — even if we refer to a mystery in connection therewith — we are actually operating with a secularized and autonomous concept of freedom. When such a concept, which implies some sort of competition in the relation between God and human freedom,18 is held consistently, one cannot but conclude that the divine greatness and power rob man of his due, and threaten man in his true humanity. But such a concept actually involves a serious misapprehension of freedom, a misapprehension that really presupposes the idea of the jealousy of a God who begrudges man his proper nature, viewing it as a threat to His own power.

We must remember in this connection that the Bible does indeed refer to the jealousy of God, but everything depends on what we must understand by the term. Does the Bible speak of a jealousy of God toward man, which could in any sense be analogous to the impure jealousy of humans? The answer to this question is not difficult to give. Whenever Scripture speaks of divine jealousy, it is in a context of relationships so clear that there is no room for misunderstanding. Consider first of all the second commandment, in which a divine warning and threat is added to the forbidding of the worship of images; “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Ex. 20:5; cf. Deut. 5:9), and the text in which the fierceness of God’s “jealousy” in judgment is referred to: “I will give thee blood in fury and jealousy” (Ezek. 16:38). While we may not detract in the least from the terrible power of such words, they are nevertheless far removed from the “jealousy” of God toward a human race to which he begrudges a place under the sun. The “jealousy” of which Scripture speaks is not directed against man as such, but only against the man who violates the only right relationship to God. Such violation occurs in the worship of images, as stated in the second commandment, but also, as stated in Ezekiel, when the people are no longer faithful to the God of the Covenant. For this is an intolerable rebellion, an attack on the mystery of God’s love for Israel, and thus the jealousy of Jahwe in all its fierceness is a revelation of a love which cannot bear that this love is disdained with impunity (cf. the whole of Ezek. 16, especially verses 8, 15 and 32). Thus the jealousy of Jahwe is not directed against man, but against the adultery of His people, against the failure to appreciate His love. Jahwe’s jealousy can only be aroused because of illegitimate religion: “They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities” (Deut. 32:21).19

In this “jealousy” there is nothing of the illegitimate jealousy of man, who begrudges his fellow man that which is his;20 rather, it is the revelation of God’s holiness and love, with which He watches over the steadfastness of His covenant, the covenant of love.

The divine jealousy is not directed against man as such, but against the perversion of human nature in supposed autonomy, in which man’s relation to God becomes troubled and endangered. Another sort of jealousy may be found in Greek mythology, but not in the Word of God. Scripture presents precisely the opposite of any idea of competition; first in creation, and then in salvation, man receives his status in wealth and communion and freedom, and he is affected by God’s jealousy only when this communion and freedom are violated. Therefore, too, Scripture never speaks of a jealous attitude of God towards human “freedom,” since all His acts are directed towards this freedom. His concern is with a freedom which is the freedom of sonship, not the “freedom” of arbitrary choice.

There can be tension between “free” autonomous man and God only when man wants to defend this “freedom” against God, and then makes room for it in theory or in practice. But this “freedom” is not honored with that name in the New Testament, but is rather rejected and unmasked. This “freedom” as autonomous self-determination and self-destining is certainly not the “essence” of man, and the supposition that it is or promises to be true freedom, is pictured in the New Testament as completely illusory. Of false teachers it is said: “While they promise liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same he is brought into bondage” (II Pet. 2:18-19). Were we to begin with an abstract idea of freedom, we should find the terminology of the New Testament indeed strange, bizarre and intolerable, when it speaks of servants, slaves of Christ, and submission in every area of life. We should then see all such things as a threat to freedom, as an abolition of freedom. But the New Testament recognizes no conflict here because it holds that true freedom becomes actualized precisely in this submission, And this is no mere metaphor, no “aspect” which can be relativized through other “aspects,” but it rather concerns the actual nature of freedom.21 Often the saying that true freedom is true submission sounds somewhat trivial; the reason is the often oversimplified use of these terms. They can be used in a very general sense, as when, for example, Jacques Perk says that true freedom has regard for the laws. But we should reflect that the New Testament is not merely repeating a general truth: it is designating this identity essential for true humanness. And we shall have to admit that Scripture reveals something of the deep mystery of our humanness when it pictures the position of man not as submission in contrast with freedom, but shows in very real and penetrating fashion man’s freedom precisely in his submission. Schlier expresses this in striking fashion when he says that the New Testament does not tell us that man is enslaved because he is not able sufficiently to order his own way, but rather tells us that he is enslaved just because he does so do, and to the extent that he does so do.22

The enslaved will (servum arbitrium) is according to the New Testament found precisely in attempted autonomy, in taking one’s life in one’s own hands, in autarchy, in controlling one own’s destiny. As over against that, we see the light of true freedom. To quote Schlier again,23 “man attains control over himself only by letting himself be controlled.” The words in which the New Testament concept of freedom is paraphrased often take such “paradoxical” form, but basically there are no opposing poles here, any more than for Paul when he speaks of love as the fulfilling of the law.

There is rather the miracle of the gift of freedom, which consists of this, as Paul puts it characteristically, that we are no longer our own, and therefore we rediscover ourselves in our true humanness and our true destiny. This “paradoxical” truth (as, e.g., Bultmann24 calls it) is the great mystery of man’s life, as it is revealed in the restoration to true humanness. This restoration is not at all an “annihilation,” for the man who is no longer his own is, in this situation, called to glorify God, “glorify God in your body, and your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:20). The fact that we are not our own does not cast shadows over human freedom, but evidences it as a joyful reality: “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Here freedom is fully revealed, for here man recovers his status, and is freed from the delusion of his autonomy to serve God. Believers must be reminded of this again and again, for they must learn so to be true man and truly free. And in the text which Bultmann calls “the most powerful expression of freedom,” this reminder is expressed sharply, so that freedom will not be misunderstood: “For all things are yours . . . the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours but ye are Christ’s” (I Cor. 3:21-23), Though this insight does not originate first of all in Paul’s experience, it does correspond well with it, for he in his encounter with Christ did not go from “freedom” to slavery, but from slavery to freedom. “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal, 2:20). And from this “not I” comes forth the powerful and seething activity which is the sign of true freedom. Thus Paul speaks (Gal, 5:13, 4:4-7) of being truly free and of being called to freedom as a very joyful thing, through which man’s nature is not destroyed but rather restored.

The New Testament revelation regarding freedom thus articulates a deeply religious verdict. Every concept of freedom which would describe man’s essence ontologically, apart from his relation to God, must end with the “freedom” of autonomy and self-determination. Such an abstract ontology of essences can give no true perspective on freedom; it must always designate as the earmark of freedom, being “free from” — however the concept is then further elaborated. This freedom, this being “free from,” is then seen as of the “essence” of man, a self-sufficient inwardness which protests all threats to it or limits on it, all conquest and compulsion. Freedom is then defined by man’s dignity and by his inner nature. This freedom leaves man to himself, and he chooses so to be, as over against the world of the other, which limits him and threatens him. Freedom is then “the being left to oneself in the sense of pure self-limitation to oneself as one’s incontestably own,”25 so that man himself is the absolute subject who dictates the law. Freedom is thus formally qualified, and from this point of view any limit or responsibility will be seen as a relativizing of absolute freedom. But this makes clear the meaningless and subjectivistic character of such a “freedom from.” All variations within this absolute freedom become purely relative. When Schlier discusses the transition from the concept of freedom as political freedom to the idealistic notion of freedom, he adds that the “formal definition of freedom remains the same”: the idea of “free from” as the essence of freedom is a negative qualification and implies ultimately the breaking of all bonds with another. Thus, says Schlier, it stands in direct contrast with the New Testament idea of freedom, which is pictured as true freedom up to and including its eschatological fulfillment, a freedom in which men share and stand through the faith to which men are called, and in which men must be protected.26 This freedom cannot be formally defined through a “free from” approach, but always stands in a material context; one can almost speak of a New Testament definition of freedom when Paul writes, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17).

This freedom is not taken for granted in the New Testament Church. It is rather surrounded by constant warnings to remain in freedom.

If the Church turns away from the path that has been shown her, she does it not in freedom; rather, the turning away endangers freedom. That is Paul’s concern for the Church; that she not become again enslaved, but stand fast in her freedom.27 The freedom of the believer in Christ is also a “freedom from,” a freedom from the law, but freedom is referred to here in a polemic and antithetical sense, and refers in turn to being in Christ, because He has bought our freedom, “redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13). This “freedom from” the law is thus not a standing above the law (see I Cor. 9:21), and Paul can call us to the fulfilling of the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2; cf. Rom. 13:8) in the same context as his “if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18; cf. Rom. 6:14).

James has often been placed in opposition to Paul, not only as regards the relation between faith and works28 but also as regards the law. It is, however, striking that it is James who speaks of the complete royal law of freedom and calls absorption therein and practice thereof a blessed thing (Jas. 1:25, 2:8, 12).29 This is possible only through the richness and the actuality of freedom in Christ. And this in turn, here as everywhere in the New Testament, is a matter not of appropriating an abstract philosophy but of directing attention to the meaning and the reality of freedom as the increated mystery of man’s humanness.

It is obvious from the nature of this freedom that it has nothing in common with an individualistic perversion of freedom, but reveals its true meaning precisely also in the love of the other, the neighbor. This freedom fulfills the law in that way: “he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).30 The mystery of man’s humanness reveals itself here, in this fulfilling of the law. It does not reveal itself in an obscure “free from,” but in a love-filled ‘free for” and fulfills also the following of the law of Christ.

We might ask whether the New Testament concept of freedom refers only to a freedom of a specific character, to Christian freedom, and whether we can derive any conclusions from this freedom as to freedom in general, which can play such a powerful role in the heart of men. Were we to answer that the New Testament is concerned only with an isolated “freedom,” that of those who have become the servants of the Lord, and that this opens no perspectives on freedom in human life in general, we should fail to recognize that freedom in Christ is the true freedom of man’s humanness. This true nature, not “supernatural” but increated, does throw light on human life, which in its manifold variations is in all sorts of ways enslaved to the powers of darkness. Man’s nature, as God meant it to be and as He restores it and will restore it, stands before us in Jesus Christ — in the freedom in Christ — full of the rich perspectives of “freedom from” as well as “freedom for.”

We see this already in the Old Testament, as the prayers for freedom and the songs of freedom rise to heaven from out of the need of the individual and of Israel. Liberation from that which harasses and threatens man’s humanity — in general and particularly in Israel, the people of God — is viewed as the work and the blessing of God; and so also creaturely freedom, in which man can fulfill his calling and bring to expression the meaning of his humanity. The New Testament presents the freedom of man’s nature not as a vague and distant ideal, but as something actually before us in the life of the Church, which in its whole existence is and must be a sign of this freedom. It has often been noted that the New Testament shows a marvelous consciousness of self, a powerful experience of freedom. Now, consciousness of self is a term which easily awakens bad associations; e.g., when we think of the sort of life (actually unaccustomed to freedom) which abstracts the “self” from its Maker and thus falls into a perverted self-consciousness. But there is a consciousness of self, in being a child of God, which can arise in a context that enables it to carry out its healing function. This is the context of freedom in Christ, which also has important implications in the area of “free from.” Then we no longer deal with an abstract self-consciousness of the self-oriented man, but rather with a knowledge of the self which is structured from the freedom to which man is called through grace; the call to leave the darkness for the light of freedom. And then this consciousness sounds forth against all opposing powers, as in the triumphant words of Paul (Rom. 8:39) that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ; and then there is a glorying which has nothing to do with false pride: “let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”31

Here — and elsewhere — there is a consciousness of impregnability, of legitimacy, of the true nature of man which is revealed in its freedom as a “being free for” and therein also as a “being free from.” This concept of freedom can no longer be called formal, for it is completely concretized in actual life.

And from this now unveiled meaning of true human nature, which begins to show forth the image of God as a child of God, and from this freedom, we also gain a sharper perspective on the world. Schlier writes, and rightly so, that “in the Christian idea of freedom the breakthrough to real freedom occurs. If we comprehend what freedom is in its Christian meaning, then we have also grasped the source of every freedom.”32 In other words, the Christian idea does not imply an under evaluation of the desire for freedom found in individuals and in peoples — often so terribly outraged or threatened in their humanness — rather, it takes them very seriously, as seriously as did Paul when he speaks of the groping attempts to find God “though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:27). The call for freedom, which can be heard in all ages, can be of different sorts. There can be a demand for freedom which is nothing but the lust for lawlessness, a reflection of the longing for “freedom” portrayed in Psalm 2:3, “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast their cords from us.” Or, again, we can hope for a “freedom” which in actuality is slavery: “promising liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption” (II Pet. 2: 19). But the fervid longing for freedom, in contrast to the perverting of man’s humanity, is legitimate when viewed in the perspective of the human nature God intended, though its real meaning and origin may not be fully understood. The message of the Church to the world therefore lies not in the preaching of a general concept of freedom, of a concept into which each man can pour his own content, but rather in the proclamation of the gospel of Christ, in which is unveiled what being human in freedom means. And from the standpoint of the gospel it is completely clear that in every situation and against every threat liberation is never the end but it is rather the beginning: it is a renewed appeal arising from the regained — general — human nature and demanding fulfillment of human nature in this liberation. And it is certainly conceivable that such a newly contested “free from” should degenerate, and should not find true freedom in the meaning of a man or a people in the service of God and of one’s neighbor, in the “free for” of true community. Nonetheless, the light of freedom streams into the world from Christ alone, and it shows us true humanness. It is the light of the bound Christ, who fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Covenant in the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. He read Isaiah’s prophecy of the bruised who should be delivered in freedom, and then said, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:17-21; Isa. 61:1-2). In that day, too, men did not realize the scope of this fulfillment. The eyes of all those in the synagogue were fastened on Him, and all “wondered at the gracious words which proceeded from his mouth,” but they were soon filled with wrath and sought to kill Him (Luke 4:28). But the prophecy of freedom is fulfilled and the signs of liberation are spread over the land, signs full of the richness of “free from” in the liberation from sin and guilt, from need and death, from bodily misery and demonic possession. It is the revelation of the kingdom of Christ and of that true humanness which He referred to in His statement, “ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This freedom is the content of the gospel and with its immeasurable force cuts through every bond which threatens to relativize and ravage man’s humanness. For over these threats — which do not honor man as the divine creation — there hangs the threat of the judgment, the judgment of the gospel of liberation as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the psalmist: “For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy. He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence; and precious shall their blood be in his sight” (Ps. 72:12-14).

And thus the light of freedom shines forth even into the eschatological perspective; the Church is directed to the ultimate revelation of freedom, until the whole creation is liberated (free from!) from its servitude to impermanence into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.33


  1. See Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty (New York, 1955). pp. 58-59 especially. He speaks of “secular and ecclesiastical tyrannies, wars between peoples, persecutions, exiles and gallows” as evidences of unfreedom; “with this project in view, the statement that history is the history of liberty sounds like irony, or, if it is seriously maintained, like stupidity.” But he goes on to speak of the “thirst for liberty.” Liberty must be gained through a “perilous and fighting life.” Therein, he says, lies its exhilarating aspect. A world of freedom “without obstacles, without menaces and without oppressions” would be “worse than death, an infinite boredom.”
  2. H. Groos, Die Konsequenzen und Inkonsequenzen des Determinismus (1931), pp. 41, 126. Groos speaks of the “halfway and inconsequent determinism” which arises because of this popular belief (p. 127). How long this belief will continue to dominate is not predictable, he says, but the time will come when it will give way to philosophical determinism; and once this happens and, for example, the implications of heredity are understood, then determinism will also find support in the popular mind (p. 155). There is an inescapable and necessary logic in determinism, and we can, he says, speak of fatalism, in contrast to various halfway determinisms, as the “world-outlook of the future” (p. 157). Fatalism is to determinism as steel is to iron.
  3. Cf. H. Dooyeweerd, Reformatie en Scholastiek in de Wijshegeerte, I (1949), 37ff.; especially on Kant for the “fourth motif” in the history of philosophy nature vs. freedom. Cf. H, I. Iwand, “Studien zum Problem des unfreien Willens,” Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie (1930), pp. 225ff. He makes a similar attack on Kant’s antinomy between freedom and causality. Iwand speaks of a theoretical irrefutable “illusionary self-understanding.”
  4. Cf. H. Redeker, Existentialisme (1949), pp. 319-321; on Sartre as the philosopher of freedom, who, however, opposes both determinism and indeterminism. Even unconditional freedom, says Sartre, is saturated with necessity and facticity, so that Redeker concludes that the ontologic basis is not free, and the dialectic fails at the final point. Cf. S. U. Zuidema, “Sartre.” Denkers van deze Tijd, I, 279-283; R. Mehi, ‘Het Vraagstuk der Ethiek in het Franse Existentialisme,” Wending (1956), and the final chapter (on liberty) of M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénomenologie de la perception (1945), on the dilemma of total freedom and no freedom, and his comment that we are inextricably involved with the world and with others: man’s “situation” excludes absolute liberty even at the outset of our actions (p. 518).
  5. On this “physical” (or natural) freedom, cf. Leo XlII’s encyclical Libertas; “the ability to choose the means proper to the desired goal” (pp. 17-18). Free choice (liberum arbitrium) is a property of the will, something proper to the will, seu potius ipsa voluntas. It is noteworthy that despite the supposed indestructability of this freedom, the encyclical goes on to say that the “power to sin is not freedom” (p. 19), with a citation of John 8:34 (‘Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin”). On the concept of freedom in this encyclical, and problems surrounding it, see B. van Beyen, “De Opvatting van de mensclijke Wilsvrijheid in de Neo-Scholastiek,” Studia Catholica (1956), pp. 213-215. For the organic relation between grace and freedom in Catholic thought, see ch. 2 of my Divine Election (1955).
  6. The condemnation of Luther is in Exsurge Domine (Denzinger, 776). For Luther and Erasmus, cf. further my Conflict met Rome, ch. 4.
  7. Iwand, op. cit., p. 241. He sees the equation of the idea of the unfree will with the idea of determinism as the most common misunderstanding of the former. For man’s enslaved will, cf. I Pet. 2:16 warning against “using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness”: this refers to an enslaved will, not to an annihilated will.
    Thus we speak of a “servum arbitrium in the “privatio act uosa — a term which stresses the dynamic and active character of sin. The enslaved will manifests itself in this alarming dynamism.
  8. Cf. Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche (s.v., Willensfreiheit), XXI, 317.
  9. E. Przywara, “Gott in uns und Gott über uns,” Ringen der Gegenwart, II (1929), 550ff. He is followed by many Catholics in this view; recently by Marlet, Grundlinien der Kalvinistischen Philosophie der Gesetzesidee als Christlicher Transzendentalphilosophie (1954), pp. 129ff.
  10. Marlet, op. cit., p. 131. He refers to Calvin in support of his position. He says that Calvin stresses exclusively the Allein-wirksamkeit of God, so that both in the individual and the areas of life — all bound immediately to Him — all independence is denied; and Marlet sees this as meaning that secondary causes are completely absorbed in the original causality of God. Cf. his reference to J. L. Witte, Het Probleem Individugemeenschap in Calvijns Geloofsnorm (1949). Witte views Calvin as stressing transcendence at the cost of immanence. It would seem that there is some conflict between exclusive divine transcendence on the one hand, and a unique and complete divine activity in every creaturelv act on the other — but Marlet uses both as characteristic of Calvinism. His expression “Allein-wirksamkeit is unsatisfactory, since Calvin’s protest against man’s independence is a protest against man’s supposed autonomy, and has nothing to do with a depreciation of the meaning and worth of creaturely activity. And thus Marlet’s reference in this connection to the difference between Dooyeweerd and Stoker hardly indicates a flaw in the “structure” of Calvinism!
  11. The discussion following is based on the Institutes, II, II. The introductory mention of the loss of free will is from the heading of II, II. For the Latin fathers, ibid., 4, 9. For the Greek fathers, ibid., 4; the word Calvin sees used by them is autexousion. Niesel refers to Clement, Origen. Chrysostom (cf. Calvin’s remarks) and to Gregory Nazianzus, Op. Sel. IV, 246. For Calvin’s stress on will rather than compulsion, see II, II, 7, 8.
  12. On this point see also the Canons of Dordt, III, IV, Rejection of Errors. Here freedom of the will is rejected, and the elevation of the powers of the free will (III. IV, III), with a reference to the guile fullness of the heart. Cf. the Con fessio Scotiana, art. 2, on the original libertas arbitrii (Muller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der Reformierten Kirche, p. 250); Confessio Helvetica Posterior, art. IX, the will has been made enslaved. “voluntas vero ex libera facta est voluntas sewa (ibid., p. 179); cf. the further remark “servit peccato non nolens, sed volens. Etenin voluntas, non noluntas dicitur (ibid.)
  13. When Calvin distinguishes between necessity and compulsion (necessitas and coactio), necessity refers to a necessitas arising from the corruption of human nature. Cf. J. Bohatec, “Calvins Vorsehungslehre,” in his Calvinstudien (1909), p. 365. For the distinction, see Institutes, II. III, 5. Calvin there says the will is deprived of its freedom and necessarily follows evil (with citations of Augustine and Bernard). Man sins with his will and not against his will; through inclination, not compulsion; through desire, not through external compulsion.
  14. The point can be sharpened by saying that we are not dealing with determinism, but with the accusation of Jeremiah: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). Cf. Aalders, Commentaar, ad loc. He says that this text is often cited in connection with the corruptness of human nature, but wrongly, since it deals with a hardening of the heart through continual living in sin. But this does not rule Out the fact that the impossible is here spoken of in connection with an existing situation in which man moves and in which he is powerless.
  15. In my Divine Election (1955). p. 327. I noted Otto Ritschl’s idea that some Calvinists when they took up man before the fall suddenly returned to an “indeterministic” outlook, and accepted free will. This is a typical misunderstanding; if Ritschl had been logical, he should then have been amazed at the “illogicality” of the Calvinists when they went on to speak of Christian freedom! Determinism has no room, either protologically or eschatologically, for freedom. Ritschl’s astonishment thus does not correspond to the actual situation among Calvinist theologians, who evidently were completely aware of historical and eschatological perspectives on the problem.
  16. In spite of the Catholic emphasis on “physical freedom,” evidences of this relational nature of freedom break through again and again even in Catholic theologians; cf., e.g., “what freedom ultimately means . . . really becomes actualized before God.” R. Guardini, Freiheit, Gnade, Schicksab. Drei Kapitel zur Deutung des Daseins (1949), p. 99.
  17. Cf. R. Bultmann, “Gnade und, Freiheit,” Gbauben und Verstehen, II (1952). p. 161. He says “thus our dependence on the grace of God, our surrender to it — far from limiting our freedom! — precisely makes us in the true sense free” — this is, he says, a genuine summary of the freedom of the New Testament. Cf. K. Barth, K. D., IV, II, 855. He opposes the idea of competition. The denial of such competition has nothing to do with a reciprocal dependence or with one or another form of correlationism. Competition is something other than radical dependence, to which the New Testament time and again refers in connection with fatherhood, freedom and love. See I John 4:10 on divine and human love, and on which is prior. Cf. on this point Barth, K. D. IV, II, 855, on the ground of love; this ground is also the ground of freedom, and thus any dialectic of competition is excluded.
  18. In this connection we might well reflect on Jer. 10:23: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” The remarkable thing about these words (a prayer) is that they are spoken without the slightest consciousness of any violation of freedom; rather only with a sense of standing before the divine countenance. If we read “determinism” into this text, we do not understand it at all; read the passionate context and the unique view of the God of Israel. Cf. the language of Prov. 16:9.
  19. Jean Daniélou, “La jalousie de Dieu,” Dieu Vivant, XVI, 53ff. In a fine article on this subject, he refers to Elijah as a great representative of the jealousy of God (p. 68) and refers also to Ps. 69:10 in connection with the zeal of Christ in the purification of the temple (John 2:17). Cf. also Hosea as regards jealousy and adultery (Hos. 2:5, 8, 12). It is understandable that when the Image of married love is used, the thought of God’s jealousy comes to the fore.
  20. This is not to say that there is no legitimate jealousy possible among men. Thus, as Daniélou (op. cit., p. 63) points out, we read that Paul watches “with a godly jealousy” over the Corinthians, for “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Cor. 11:1-2). We see here, in Paul’s concern, essentially the same sort of jealousy over the children of God. And indeed not all ordinary jealousy among men is illegitimate if only it arises from respect for unique relations, as in marriage, though even this legitimate jealousy can become perverted and distorted because of man’s sinful heart.
  21. Herman Ridderbos, Arcana revelata, pp. 102-103. He correctly warns against speaking of a dialectic between freedom and law, We must accept what is said on these two “in complete seriousness, but without attempting to discover in these apparent oppositions a dialectic which attempts to approximate the truth by way of clashing statements.”
  22. H. Schlier, in Kittel, Theologisches Wdrterbuch, s.v., eleutheros, p. 492.
  23. Schlier as cited in the footnote above. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1. It says we are no longer our own, but Christ’s. And thus also man finds his own life back in being willing and ready to obey.
  24. Bultmann, Theologie des N. T. (1948). p. 328. The context shows his insistence that freedom in Christ is not a freeing from all norms, but is a new serving (Rom. 7:6). “A paradoxical servitude! For the servant of Christ is of course at the same time one who is the Lord’s freeman” (I Cor. 7:22). Cf. the “serving one another by love” (Gal. 5:13).
  25. H. Jonas. Augustin und das Paulinische Freiheitsproblem (1930), p. 11.
  26. H. Schlier, in Kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch, II. 489. and in his Der Brief an die Galater (1949). p. 175, referring to I Thess. 4:7. “a call to stand in and by freedom.”
  27. Cf. H. N. Ridderbos, “Vrijheid en Wet volgens Paulus’ Brief aan de Galaten,” Arcana Revelata (1951), pp. 100ff., on the threat to freedom and on freedom as a gift and its steadfast certainty and the responsibility implied therein (p. 101).
  28. See my Geloof en Rechtvaardiging (1949); E.T., Faith and Justification (1954), pp. 130ff.
  29. Dibelius, Der Brief des Jakobus (1956, 8th ed.), p. 112. He sees here an evidence that Paul did not influence all the Streams of original Christianity, and that there were churches which did not view salvation as resting exclusively on faith (as did Paul) nor reject all reliance on works. Dibelius warns against identifying James’s “law of freedom” with Paul’s “law of the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:2) and standing “under the law of Christ” (I Cor. 9:21) . But he is forced to acknowledge — which his thesis forbids him to do — that Paul “occasionally” follows the usage of these churches and speaks of a possible fulfilling of the law (Gal. 6:2; 5:14, 23). The unsatisfactory nature of Dibelius’ thesis thus becomes evident. Cf. also H. Schammberger, Die Einheitlichkeit des Jakobusbriefes im antignostischen Kampf (1936), p. 63. He contrasts Paul (freedom) with James (law of freedom); he sees the latter as on the way towards future Catholicism, towards moralistic teachings, etc. He finds the best parallel (p. 64) in Barn. 2:6; he finds a Judaistic legalizing tendency reappearing strongly in James. This is a misunderstanding of the whole context in which James speaks about the law.
  30. See Schlier, op. cit., p. 176: “the real and right completion of freedom is found in the mutual service of love,” Cf. Paul’s ‘I have made myself servant to all’ (I Cor. 9:19); cf. also Gal. 5:13. I Pet. 4:10-11.
  31. The “warning request” (Gal. 6:17), which arises from Paul’s being a servant of the one Lord, which materializes itself in the stigmata, the need in the apostolic service, in the following of Christ (see Schlier, op. cit., P. 210).
  32. H. Schlier, “Das vollkommene Gesetz der Freiheit,” Die Zeit der Kirche (1956), p. 195.
  33. Note the Connection between glory and freedom (Luther: “herrliche Freiheit”); see O. Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (1955), p. 174.

 Human Freedom - Part II

This article is taken from the Berkouwer series “Studies in Dogmatics”, Man: The Image of God (Eerdmans:GrandRapids, MI), 1962.

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