Human Freedom


G. C. Berkouwer


We have seen that the positive insight into the true freedom of man starts from another point than many popular concepts of freedom, which begin with the idea of “free from” and see man as having power over himself and as able to make all his own decisions. in such a view, freedom is more closely defined as the possibility of man’s choosing different ways, more particularly two ways, that of good or of evil, which thus lie open as juxtaposed possibilities. In the history of theology, this sort of outlook on freedom occurs in connection with the fall of man. It is here, especially when we view the freedom of the will as lost through sin and thus can speak of creaturely freedom before the fall, that the question arises whether we can speak of another freedom besides the positive richness of freedom in communion with God, the freedom of sonship: that is, whether we should not also speak of a certain formal freedom of choice in man, a freedom utriusque partis. Is there not, besides a material concrete freedom, a formal freedom which stands “open” before what occurs? And does not this formal freedom undeniably raise a series of problems? While true freedom may be bound up with glory now and to the eschaton, does there not fall over this formal freedom the shadow of this dual possibility of choice and thus also the threatening possibility of evil?

Such a formal freedom has often been posited alongside true freedom, and as an illustration thereof reference is often made to the situation before the fall and especially to the “probationary command” given to man in paradise. Does not this “test command” clearly imply formal freedom? And how must we then view the relation between the positive nature of true freedom and this “uncertain” freedom, with which man faced a choice? For we can hardly describe true freedom in terms of standing at a crossroad; it means, rather, walking along one road, and being continually reminded thereof by way of the gospel of freedom. And how is this to be understood when we see next to it freedom as choice,  as a power not to sin (posse non peccare) but also as the power to sin (posse peccare)? Do we not face here a dual concept of freedom, implying an unmistakable antinomy?

These questions as to the nature of human freedom arise especially when we turn our attention to the question of the origin of sin. Only consider how many times the origin of sin has been ascribed to this human freedom of choice, implying this twofold power of man’s nature and of his creaturely existence: to sin or not to sin; a good part and an evil part of his nature.

Theologians have tried in various ways to incorporate this formal freedom, and the power to choose between good and evil which it implies, into the intention of God’s work at creation. Thus it is said that God loves freedom and thus respects this freedom of man. “God takes delight in the unrestricted freedoms of the desert animals” says Stauffer34 in an attempt to show the dynamic of human freedom. God wants a free man, not a mechanical tool or a marionette or a pawn that can be moved at His pleasure. And with this principle of freedom, continues Stauffer, “the possibility of rebellion of this will, created free, is in principle given.”

This idea can be carried still further, and we can speak of a risk taken by God, or of an inner dialectic of freedom, or of the tragedy of freedom.35 Though all such views derive from an initial contrast between freedom and compulsion, they seek to find the origin of sin via human freedom and thus in a sense to make it rationally understandable. Such views seek to include both the “material” and “formal” freedom of man under the one aspect of the rich endowments and the goodness of created man. It was indeed realized that the wealth of the freedom of sonship (even into the eschaton) was an unshadowed wealth which did not fall in the category of “possibility” but could be grasped only as reality; but nevertheless the attempt at synthesis was not given up, with the result that in many views of freedom we can see an inner antinomy. Men tried, within this antinomy, not so much to explain the origin of sin as to indicate the sphere within which it could arise, the sphere of human freedom of choice. This formal freedom was thus generally so defined that man was created free to choose for himself between good or evil, placed before a crossroad, in a situation which was still open. Against the background of the contrast between freedom and compulsion, a further idea was often added, that man was necessarily created with this freedom of choice because God did not wish compulsion and desired this kind of freedom.

It is undeniable, in my opinion, that if we take this line of approach we can very quickly wander into an impassable and tangled forest of unbiblical thoughts and speculations. The simple way in which human freedom is often defined as a double possibility, as freedom of choice, arises from an abstract and irreligious and neutral anthropological analysis of human freedom. The analysis sees this “freedom” to choose either of two directions as belonging to the essence of man as created “good.” Freedom is then the possibility of choice, the open choice, and the choice of sin is then the demonstration, the manifestation of human freedom. Further thought on this formal freedom sometimes provoked a certain hesitation in relation to the, essential goodness of man as originally created by God — a hesitation which is understandable in view of the Belgic Confession’s definition (Art. 14) of this goodness as lying in the fact that God is man’s true life. The Confession speaks of man created by God as “good, righteous and holy, able with his will to accord with the will of God in all things.” It is clear enough that this “ability” does not refer to a formal and still unfulfilled possibility without actuality, an abstract ability to choose. This is clear from the fact that “good, righteous and holy” precedes “able.” In the original draft of the Confession, these three words were followed by “wholly perfect in all things,” words which were later replaced by “able to accord . . .” According to Bavinck, the reason for this change is not completely certain, though he rejects as completely without basis the suggestion that the “wholly perfect” of the original draft was turned down as exaggerated.36

Calvinist theologians, says Bavinck, indeed acknowledged that the first man had not reached the highest possible state . in all things, and their view of the status integritatis was a sober one, but this did not affect their affirmation of man’s original goodness:  “good, righteous and holy” (Belgic Confession, Art. 14); “good . . . created in true righteousness and holiness” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3). And because of this it was difficult to ascribe without hesitation the possibility of a choice in either direction to the essence of man because of God’s “love of freedom.”37 For to do this would be to ignore the fact that a choice for evil as an arbitrary choice would be in conflict with and a perversion of true creaturely freedom. It is thus impossible to combine the material freedom of the child of God and the formal freedom of choice in a satisfying and meaningful synthesis, since in such a synthesis we must always eventually incorporate arbitrariness into the idea of “freedom” rather than excluding it. The choice for sin then immediately becomes a manifestation of human freedom — though we go on to speak of sin as actually being slavery. Thus too, with such a view of freedom the depth of the fall can never be made intelligible, for in the fall the opposite of human freedom becomes evident; namely, man’s arbitrary choice, the enslaved will (servum arbitrium). Man’s freedom and the fall are not related as possibility and realization. We often hear of the enigmatic aspects of the fall, since the fall is that of a man created good; but this does not refer to a psychological riddle (namely, how man could be tempted) but rather to the unfathomable nature of the freedom of man which is lost in becoming arbitrary choice.38

It is furthermore clear that we may never use such a “formal freedom” in connection with the image of God. As if man could ever show the likeness of God in the possibility of choosing evil — possibilitas utriusque partis, in bonam et inalam partem! The only adequate basis is that of the affirmation of man’s good and creaturely freedom in his communion with God. The freedom of man can be adequately described only in this context. If we begin with the positive character of the good creation of God, we must say of man’s freedom, with Brunner, “thus the maximum of man’s dependence on God is also the maximum of his freedom, and his freedom diminishes as he moves further from his source and origin, from God.” And a hesitation to combine a formal freedom with the true freedom of man in the richness of communion with God, in some sort of dualistic concept of freedom, gives evidence of a realization of the problems involved in such a synthesis.39

It is not difficult to point to the characteristic problems of a dualistic concept of freedom. We might begin with the formulation of Julius Muller, who distinguished between real and formal freedom.40

“Real freedom” is freedom in which man is truly free. It is the freedom which according to the New Testament is the possession of the believers, who have been liberated through Christ, a freedom which does not rule out their obedience and submission but which rather coincides fully with these. With this view of freedom, Muller gets into difficulty in his chapter on the “possibility” of sin. For this rich and positive freedom can not be related to evil. It is precisely the being free from sin; it is freedom in Christ, the freedom of the child of God as the true and divinely intended humanness of man. Though this freedom is to be fully realized only in the future, in the freedom of the glory of the children of God, when creation itself will be delivered from its servitude to corruption (Rom. 8:21), nevertheless Scripture speaks of this freedom as in principle present in this dispensation: true liberty. It is liberation from all that which hinders true humanness, and it has nothing to do with a formal freedom as a “possibility” of choosing either good or evil. But it is to this formal freedom that Muller turns his attention, as he postulates another freedom besides actual freedom, namely freedom as the power to choose either good or evil. This power, man’s formal freedom, is not at all a product of fantasy, he says, but rather is the necessary presupposition of man’s consciousness of guilt.

This consciousness of guilt can operate only when it presupposes that we could have done otherwise than we did, and thus presupposes our freedom. Now it is a priori evident that we face a series of problems with these two juxtaposed concepts of freedom; this is already plain in the terms themselves, for making real freedom and formal freedom coordinate is wholly artificial. “Real” freedom is actually nothing more than a tautology, while the concept “formal freedom” offers no substantial contribution to clarity. Muller subsumes the two different things under the one concept of “freedom,” and thus his very terminology reveals the tensions inherent in this dual concept of freedom. He himself is occasionally conscious that this dual concept leads him into great difficulty since each term appears to exclude the other. For does not actual freedom in the richness of being a child of God exclude formal freedom, and does not formal freedom throw deep shadows over true freedom? Nevertheless Muller tries to arrive at a solution by pointing to a certain harmony, for true freedom, “the full determination of man for the good, which excludes every possibility of evil” would be inconceivable if it “did not develop from formal freedom.”

There are indeed not two concepts of freedom, he says, but rather two moments in one and the same concept of freedom. Formal freedom does indeed imply the ability to do otherwise, and hence appears to be in conflict with true freedom, but it is precisely the intention of formal freedom to become the true freedom of the child of God.

Muller thus tries to rise above the apparent conflict between the two concepts by making formal freedom a presupposition of true freedom, a means to reach the goal of true freedom. It is clear, however, that this is no solution since the conflict can not be removed by such means. For we still have to do with two differing concepts of freedom. Muller says that when man’s free will has taken on its true content, then it no longer is formal freedom. And besides, we confront the fact that this road from formal to true freedom was not the road man followed, and it becomes clear from Muller’s more detailed account of the origin of sin that it is impossible to combine true and formal freedom in a synthesis.41

As Muller distinguishes between formal and real freedom, so Emil Brunner distinguishes between formal and material freedom.42 It is something obvious for him, long since well-known to theologians and philosophers. Material freedom can be lost, formal freedom not, since the latter is characteristic of man and may be called an aspect of God’s image. Brunner means by material freedom the same that Muller meant by real freedom. It is the characteristic freedom which exists where the Spirit of the Lord is, freedom in dependence on God, freedom which is of complete stature only when man remains in this dependence. Sin stands over against this freedom, so that freedom and love are related as “freedom in and through love.” But there is also, besides this material freedom, another sort of freedom, formal freedom. Brunner does not wish to have it relativize the loss of material (real) freedom; this was “completely and unconditionally lost.”

Since material freedom is true freedom, “everything yet remaining to freedom counts as nothing compared to the loss of this true freedom,” and thus we speak of formal freedom, “and deny its essential importance.” For the essential thing in man’s nature is his relation to God, and even if man still retains his formal freedom, this protects him not at all against disaster. We might remind ourselves, in considering this view of Brunner, of Calvin’s somewhat similar outlook (Institutes II, II, 7). He also acknowledged that man on the road of sin chooses through free will and not through compulsion, but then asks what importance this has in the context. But Brunner suddenly gives this formal freedom such an accent that without it the problems of “reason and revelation” and “faith and culture” become irredeemably confused. This importance of formal freedom is related to the fact that it is concerned with being-a-subject, (Sein-in-Entscheidung). It is noteworthy that Brunner first speaks of the lost true freedom (material freedom) and now goes on to refer to free will as “the presupposition and the essence of man’s humanness.” And precisely here, on the point of the essence of man, the problem of the dual concept of freedom again comes to the fore. For Brunner’s concern for formal freedom as “essence” of man raises the question of how he can harmonize this freedom with what he has previously called true freedom. If formal freedom means that man is not compelled to act and freely chooses his own way, we must consider that Scripture refers to precisely this active and freely willing man as the slave of sin. Brunner may call formal freedom the essential characteristic of reason, but he is then dealing with another “essence” than that with which he was concerned when he placed so much emphasis on true freedom. Brunner himself says that true freedom does not mean liberum arbitrium indifferentiae, freedom to choose regardless of good or evil, since such freedom of choice would be a perversion of freedom. What remains in Brunner’s concept of formal freedom is the ontic structure of man’s nature in distinction from that of the animal, the form of human nature, which leads man to art and science, civilization and culture. But it thus becomes impossible to bring the concepts of formal and material freedom together under the common denominator “freedom.” How can we place true freedom next to a “freedom” in which man can say yes or no to evil? And can we say that the Bible fixes our attention on such a dual concept of freedom?

In spite of the undeniable problems which in this manner are always revived, theologians have time and again asked the question whether when we examine man’s originally good nature we do not encounter de facto an ability to sin, a posse peccare, and if so whether we should not honor this possibilitas with the name of freedom. Can we escape postulating a formal concept of freedom — an ability to choose at the crossroads — along with true freedom? As answer to such questions, it has often been said that God created the “possibility” of sin, that He created man so that he could fall and then let man choose, freely, whether he would follow God’s way or his own way. Herman Bavinck especially devoted much attention to this problem.43

It was not God’s will, said Bavinck, instantly to lift man above the possibility of sin and death through some act of power (we should note that the word “possibility” plays an important role in Bavinck’s approach). The possibilitas peccandi, the possibility of sinning, is from God. It was an “objective possibility,” in accordance with which God created the angels and men so that they could sin and fall. This possibility is, he says, without a doubt willed by God. Bavinck then brings man’s freedom into context when he writes that man did not yet possess the highest and unlosable freedom, that of not being able to sin. The image of God still had its limit, in the possibility of sin. Man was good, but he might change; he walked on the right road, but he might yet turn away from it. Bavinck even says that this could not be otherwise, for whatever is formed can become deformed, and thus a creature naturally incapable of sin is a contradiction in terms. The possibility thus lies in the nature of created things, and Bavinck goes on to analyze this possibility more closely. It is not simply implied in the reality of sin, for Bavinck calls attention to other factors, to man’s imagination as a power, so that the breaking of God’s command was proposed as becoming like God, to man’s being body (sarx), to his susceptibility to temptation. Bavinck does not, with all this, intend to give an explanation of the origin of sin. Reference to the possibility willed by God is all that can be said on the subject. “How this possibility became actuality is a mystery, and will doubtless remain such.” He rejects every rational explanation, since it would not do justice to the irrationality and lawlessness of sin. Bavinck wrestles with what he himself calls “the greatest riddle and cross of reason”; namely, the actuality of sin in a world created good. But he discusses it nevertheless. He considers the “not yet” of man’s created nature, the not yet possessing the highest good, and discusses the good but changeable status of the first man and the unchangeable eschatological glory of the child of God. At this point in his reflections, Paul’s words in I Corinthians 15:45-47 play an important role; the apostle distinguishes between the first man, who was earthy and of the earth, and Christ, the Lord from heaven, who has become a quickening spirit. According to Bavinck, this comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ has great importance also for our understanding of the fall. He relates the possibility of sin and man’s being “of the earth, earthy.” There is a difference between the origin and nature of sin in angels and in man. Man was not spirit but earthy, “weaker and more fragilely organized,” and as such gave Satan a fitting opportunity for temptation. It is thus that Bavinck explains Paul’s placing a close relation between man’s material nature and his sin. In man’s being flesh, earthy, lies the possibility of sin. This does not imply the explanation of sin through the flesh, as many have thought, for then sin is implicit in creation and ultimately in the Creator. Materiality is in itself no sin, but it is the occasion and stimulus for sin, so that Bavinck thinks he can speak of the “inducement” for Satan, man’s susceptibility to temptation, in his nature as a material, psychic being.

We have here an attempt to clarify sin, if not in its actuality then in its possibility, by way of the anthropological structure of man as creature. We do indeed arrive at some insight into the fall of man through this concept of the “inducement” to temptation which lay in the weak and fragile human structure,44 But it is clear that we can not in this way designate the possibility of sinning as a necessity, for we would then be unable to escape attributing the actuality of sin to man’s fragile and weak material nature. With this approach, in other words, possibility and actuality can not be separated.45 Nor can we base this approach on 1 Corinthians 15. Paul is not there concerned with an explanation of the origin and the possibility of sin. He refers to the overflowing richness of Christ and His salvation, even into the eschaton and the resurrection of the dead.

In order to show the richness and glory of Christ, he compares Christ and Adam, the first man. He refers back to Genesis 2:7, where we read of the divine act through which man became a living being. The first man is earthy, from the earth, in contrast to Christ, who is from heaven (I Cor. 15:47; cf. 48-49). But this contrast does not entitle us to draw conclusions regarding a “possibility” which lies in this earthy nature, and especially in man’s material nature. The origin of the first man is contrasted with that of the last Adam who is the quickening spirit (I Cor. 15:45; cf. 15:22), and in this there is also an eschatological aspect: “as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (I Cor. 15:49). Paul does refer to the creaturely aspect of the first man, but there is no reason at all to feel that he was here concerned with the problem of the origin of sin (and its possibility), and indeed it is precisely the creatureliness, the createdness, of man which is his glory and his essence in his total existence.46 And that is no humiliation of man. It becomes an humiliation only when man no longer understands the meaning of his createdness and dependence and rebels against it. And thus this createdness, this earthy nature, can never be a means to clarifying the origin of sin. Evidently I Corinthians 15 has been related to the origin (and possibility) of sin because theologians were concerned with the problems of the changeable and the unchanging, of freedom perverted in the fall and the definitive and eschatological freedom in Christ, of the transition from immortality to death and that immortality which Christ brought in the transition from death to life.47

And with such problems we do indeed encounter the deepest mysteries of the whole Biblical witness, those which Bavinck called not only a riddle but also the heaviest cross of reason. We can clearly see that all these problems center in the essence of creaturely freedom. At the same time we understand that the actuality of the perversion of freedom, against the will of God, can not and may not be explained from other component factors, but can only be confessed as guilt. The outlines of freedom become visible only from within the full Messianic actuality. The light of grace shines on true freedom on our way of deep shame and guilt. We understand through salvation in Christ that the perspective which we see through the windows of Holy Scripture is not that of eternal recurrence but rather that of eschatological freedom. This recovery of the disdained sonship, this coming to one’s true self, as the prodigal son found himself and the way to his father’s house — these we may not obscure through our terminology, through talk of a felix culpa, and surely not through an attempted explanation of sin.

The riddle of sin of which Bavinck speaks48 can not be elucidated by appeal to man’s weakness because of his material and fragile nature, but according to the light of Scripture can only be seen as an enigma of man created good who became bad through his fall, his rebellion, which alienated him from the glory and from the friendship of God. It brought him on a self-chosen way of inner and far-reaching unfreedom, and thus became the enduring rebellion of his life. Of this transition there is no elucidation, now or in the future, to be given which would make this step towards alienation psychologically or anthropologically understandable. Every attempt in this direction — and there have been several attempts made — every attempt to explain the possibility of sin through man’s createdness has always led to attempting to explain sin itself, to place it within causal and explanatory relationships, and thus to take away or at least to relativize its character of guilt. Now, theologians have often spoken of the possibilitas peccandi and of the potentially alterable goodness of created man,49 but it is clear that these terms and references often mean no more than to point out, beginning with the actuality of sin, that the fall of man was not “impossible” but “possible.” But it is further clear that we then can not speak of this ability as an ordinary “possibility” like other possibilities, which always throw some light on their actualization. If we speak in such fashion of the possibility of sinning, we throw no light on the matter — just as it seems impossible to understand what Bavinck actually meant when he wrote that God created the possibility of sin.50

When Barth speaks of the “ontological” impossibility of sin, he means that it is impossible for man to fall out of the grace of God. No matter how much sin as an actual power has loaded man with guilt and shame, his essence — his relation to God —could not be affected, since God’s grace triumphed over this choice and excluded it ontologically.51 But in the problem of the possibiIitas peccandi which has concerned theologians since Augustine, the question is somewhat different; namely, whether sin as actuality can or cannot be explained. in order to clarify to some extent man’s “arbitrariness” through this “sphere of action,” man’s “freedom” to choose either way has often been simplistically incorporated in this “possibility,” so that sin is derived from the freedom given man by God.

But sin can never be elucidated from the goodness of the creation of God. This does not at all imply an excusing of sin because of the “mysteriousness” of evil. We certainly may not speak of the “riddle” of sin if we mean thereby that sin cannot be understood, in the same sense that many other things cannot be understood. “Riddle” — that oft used word52 — can be justifiably used only when it refers to the guilt of sin, precisely in the light of God’s good creation, in which man could find no “inducement” to rebel against his Maker, Scripture also speaks of this guilt, which can never be causally explained: “Lo, this only have 1 found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccles. 7:29).

Man — the man of God — must seek inventions because they are not there, because he does not see them before him, neither in communion with God nor in his own good life. Thus sin is the senselessness of unjustified rebellion dashing with God’s own work, clashing with the richness and goodness of the human nature created by Him. In that sense, sin is a riddle, This riddling character occurs again in every sin, as in Israel, where it led to the question of divine concern for His sinful people: “O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me” (Micah 6:3, and see 4, 5). That is more than simple unintelligibility or simple riddle.

The depth of man’s guilt is here revealed, which Christ Himself with respect to the sin against Him described thus: ‘They hated me’ without a cause” (John 15:25. See Ps. 35:19 and 69:5, and John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin”). This is a different description of the “riddle” of sin than that given when men try to escape its force in the “tragedy” of evil or the “fatality” of freedom or in an ineluctable dualism.

The darkness of this “without cause,” this contra voluntatem Dei, can only be understood and confessed in the light of the love of God, which is not an answer to our love but to our enmity: “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us even when we were dead in sins . . .” (Eph. 2:4-5).

These fatiguing cogitations on the origin of sin, on unde malum, can never find rest except at the point where there is vision — without reason — that penetrates sin in all its riddling character; and this vision is from within the freedom of the sons of God. This freedom in its fullness is an eschatological fruit of salvation. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the power of the “once” of Hebrews, of the revealed mysterion (Rom. 16:25) and the deep content of the profession of the perseverance of the saints.

We have already noted in passing that the so-called probationary command has often been referred to in support of the concept of formal freedom, since it is held that this implies a possibility of choice of good or evil, and a choice which the Creator Himself gave to man. Does this command not imply that God placed man at the crossroads of good and evil, with a free will, before a choice of two paths, a choice presupposed and pointed out by God Himself?

But there is reason to question whether the term “probationary command” is actually a correct expression of that which Scripture means to tell us in the Genesis account. We must first of all note that Genesis does not say that man was placed before a neutral and indifferent choice, We read of a command that was given man: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). It is in any event not so that Cod gave man the “freedom” to choose his own way according to his own will, to choose between two possibilities, for only one way is shown him on which he may walk. As the Belgic Confession (Art. 14) says, this was the command of life. The other “way” was emphatically placed under the threat of the judgment of death, and it is the serpent who later interprets the command in another way than as this most serious warning: “Ye shall not surely die: for Cod doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4, 5). It is from this side that the dialectic of freedom is called up, that the two ways are presented to man as “possibilities” open to his “free will,” and that the choice for evil (in malam partem) is seen as a meaningful choice to be seriously considered. But God’s command is a command of life, which does not leave man to a choice, nor compel him to a choice between two ways, but rather shows him with the utmost emphasis one way, the way of freedom, the way of obedience. As Humbert says, “the command is absolute and unconditional; it does not propose a choice for man, but it imposes a single attitude, that of obedience and faith. The solemn menace of Genesis 2:17 is not prelude to a “test,” but is meant to prevent any willing of disobedience.”53 We might then well ask whether the description of the command of God as a “probationary” command does not awaken the misunderstanding that God presented man with “freedom” to go left or right, to choose good or evil. Man is, rather, called to obedience in this command. And thus this “command of life” can hardly be used to support a formal concept of freedom, namely, the freedom to choose evil.

We can also consider later texts which have been brought in to support this conceit of formal freedom. Thus, for example, Deuteronomy 30:15: “I have set before thee life and good, and death and evil,” But it is dear that this does not at all refer to an abstract secularized free will, or to an autarchic choice which is calmly recognized as a “possibility” of man, of Israel. Consider the verses which follow. “I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways” (v, 16), The other way is rejected and the threat of judgment placed over it, if the heart should turn to it (v. 17). As Jahwe once again holds before the people “life and death, blessing and cursing,” we hear again the command of life: “therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed shall live” (v. 19). This command is a command to life and to freedom. The “either — or” of Israel’s history, even as Elijah’s call for the people to choose on Mt. Cannel (I Kings 18:21), is not at all the proclamation of a self-directing and autonomous free will, but rather the outstretched finger of God, pointing to a single way. And all the warnings and threats which surround this “either - or” make sense only as emphatic underlinings of the message regarding this one way. If Israel does not heed the command to life, or if Israel “chooses” for Baal, that is not a manifestation of its freedom, not an ontological freedom of the will, but an endangering of freedom and the acceptance of an enslaved will (cf. Deut. 30:18, 20). There is never a trace of the two choices as in balance, as two ways which are placed on an equal footing. The threats against disobedience can sometimes be strongly emphasized, for example in Deuteronomy 28, where verses 1 to 14 speak of blessings and 15 to 68 of curses, so that Noth can note that the emphasis in the chapter is one-sidedly on the curses; but he also adds that obedience and disobedience, blessings and curses, are not on the same level, and seen from the law’s standpoint are not two choices placed before man in the same way as two possibilities.54

For precisely this abundance of threats is a very strong indication of the one way shown Israel, the way in which it can walk in truth and share in freedom: “they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways” (Deut. 28:7).

There are other places where a similar choice is given Israel, for example: “if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye shall serve” — preceded by “serve ye the Lord” (Josh. 24:14, 15). And the same point could be repeated. It is also surely true that the point which holds for Israel holds all the more when man was originally placed, in the goodness of his creation, before the command of life. And if we there seek a synthesis between the Freedom given by God and a formal freedom, the freedom to choose evil, we shall inevitably fail in this dualistic concept of freedom, for the choice for sin perverts and does not reveal a free will. And our unsuccessful striving for such a synthesis can be based only on a concept of a neutral “freedom” as part of the essence of man. If we do not abstract man’s essence, and thus also his creaturely freedom, from God, if we do not see freedom as a release for arbitrary choice, then we shall not wish nor be able to combine true freedom and the servum arbitrium, the enslaved will. That is doubtless the basic reason for the protest of Luther and Calvin against the natural freedom of the will. That protest was not an expression of disdain for the ontic structure of human nature, but it was concerned to protect our view of genuine humanness, which has no connection with arbitrary choice. We can never see freedom as a gift of God if we begin with such an arbitrary “free” will. Our understanding of this true freedom is an exclusive fruit of divine revelation, since fallen man can be made aware only of his own unfreedom. And man is so completely under delusion of this arbitrary free will that it takes a lifetime to become accustomed to the light of genuine freedom. It needs to be continually preached, and in such a way that our treatment of the law and the gospel takes up the enslaved will as well as the truly free will. For the law and the gospel take man away from the illusion of the crossroads at which he supposes he can choose either way arbitrarily. They break through the darkness of the “indifferent will,” and the delusion which continually obsesses man on the path of sin. The light of the holy command breaks forth: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Mic. 6:8). It is knowing and practicing this good, this humility in the walk with God, which shape freedom — that freedom which in new responsibility55 is understood and experienced more and more as true freedom. And when the actuality of evil — not only its possibility — manifests itself, then we hear the command of life: “But thou, O man of God, flee these things . . .” (I Tim. 6:11).

It is not without a very deep meaning that Jesus Christ called His yoke easy and His burden light (Matt. 11:30). And John speaks of the richness of freedom and conquest, in the context of the child of God, thus: “his commandments are not grievous” and this truth becomes revealed in the reality of the new freedom, in the reality of sonship: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world” (I John 5:3-4).


  1. E. Stauffer, Die Theologie des Neuen Testaments (1941), p. 46. See Job 39:5; “Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass?”
  2. Cf. N. Berdyaev, Vrijheid en Geest, pp. 155ff
  3. Bavinck, op. cit., II, 529; II, 44.
  4. Bavinck, op. cit., II, 534-535. It is striking, in this context, that Bavinck speaks of the posse stare and posse non errare, peccare, mori and then says of the possibility of sinning and dying that it “forms no part, no piece, no content of the image of God, but was its boundary, the limit, the circumference.” He refers to Wendelinus (as cited by Heppe, Dogmatik, p. 181) who said that before the fall the ability not to sin (posse non peccare) did belong, but the ability to sin did not belong, to the image of God. We can see here a wrestling with the concept of freedom similar to Bavinck’s. The complete image of God was to be fully revealed in the ability not to sin. The image was to be completed, and the possibility of sinning and dying conquered and annihilated.
  5. The impossibility of a rational synthesis between true freedom and formal freedom can be seen in K. Rahner, who attempts to clarify the problem through the idea of the “sphere” of freedom. “An unqualified withdrawal of the possibility of a factual and morally wrong choice would have been equivalent to the abolishment of the sphere of freedom” (K. Rahner, “Würde und Freiheit des Menschen,” Schriften zur Theologie, II (1955), 261-262). The eschatological freedom of the beati is, he says. no evidence against this argument: “they have completely achieved their freedom” — an answer which does little to solve the problem of the hypothecated “sphere” of freedom to choose evil! Nor does his statement that a compulsory abolition of moral evil in this world is Utopian. There is a noteworthy parallel between the outlook of Rahner on the sphere of freedom and that of A. Kuyper. who in connection with this sphere wrote that “God cannot hinder the rational creature from rejecting in his heart or in his deed the good and choosing evil. That must be left free” (E Voto, I, 65). Cf. also K. Schilder, Heidelbergse Catechismus, 1, 324. He says our freedom is “hedged about, but not determined.” Concerning what Adam could do, he says “for that was his freedom.” We should consider, as over against this, the “free” eating of all the trees in the garden (Gen. 2:16).
  6. E. Brunner, Den Mensch in Widerspruch, pp. 267, 269. In this connection, the views of H. Heidegger, writing in 1700, are striking (Corpus theologiae Christianae, Loci VI, XCVIII, p. 227). He says that liberty or freedom of the will is not the ability to sin or not to sin, and says of it “id occupandum ante omnia est,” for “sic enim nec Deo, nec coelitibus immutabiliter bonis competeret,” citing Rom. 6:20 (“when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness”) and John 8:36. His meaning is clear from his approving citation of Seneca: “Deo parere vera libertas est. Cf. his opposition to the idea of Adam being created indifferent to good and evil (p. 228) ; such indifference is “imperfectio, vitium, prima peccati origo et defectio a Deo. Liber, non indifferens, a Deo creatus est.
  7. J. Muller, Die Chr. Lehre von der Siinde, II, (3d ed., lM9). The page references in the material which follows are: 6ff., 13. 15, 17-18, 20-21, 36. See also for the distinction between real and formal freedom, J. M. Hasselaar, Erfzonde en Vrijheid (1953), p. 82, and Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, III, 3, 355.
  8. Muller, op. cit., II, 97-108. He speaks of an “original self-decision” which we can point to only by going beyond the realm of time and seeking the origin of our freedom of the will in the extra-temporal, in a fatal decision that precedes all our temporal sinful decisions. The primary decision falls in “a self-decision lying beyond the sphere of’ earthly life.” The reference to “intelligible” freedom reveals the antinomy in Muller’s concept of freedom by first placing formal freedom next to true freedom. Muller cites Philo, Plotinus and Origen as supporting his outlook. The development of theology followed other ways, and only recently could reflection on the concept of freedom lead to a new understanding of this idea (p. 108).
  9. E. Brunner, Das Gebot and Den Mensch im Widerspruch. The page citations for the material which follows are: Das Gebot, 65, 472, and Widerspruch, 259-272. Cf. also Dogmatik, II. 142.
  10. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, III. 2, 27, 44-48, 53.
  11. We could more rightly say that the “inducement” to temptation lay in man’s innocence. Cf. D. Bonhoeffer, Verzoeking (1953), p. 17.
  12. Bavinck, op. cit., II, 417. is noteworthy that he mentions the distinction between men and angels (as spirits). One could conclude that the “possibility” of the fall of the angels becomes all the more impenetrable to the understanding, since in them the “inducement” to sin because of flesh would be wholly absent, they being spirits. Bavinck does not refer to the problem of “possibility” in regard to the angels at all.
  13. Grosheide, Commentaar, p. 543. He refers to “man,” from which it appears “earthy” does not refer merely to the body. Cf. Kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch, VI, 417, s.v., pneuma.
  14. See K. Schilder, Wat is de Hemel? (1935), p. 125.
  15. Bavinck, op. cit., III, 29.
  16. See Heidegger, Corpus theologiae, p. 228.
  17. Bavinck, op. cit., III, 2. See also Th. L. Haitjema, Dogmatiek als Apologie (1948), p. 192. He writes about man as “indeed created in the image of God, but nevertheless an earthy and material being” who presented Satan with “a suitable opportunity for temptation.” The problem lies in the words “but” and “suitable opportunity,” though Haitjema calls sin “the mystery of the evil will, the great riddle.” Cf. Schilder, Heidelbergse Catechismus, I, 325-326. He speaks also of the “possibility of temptation” — which is something else again — which God held before man, and of the “possibility” of abandonment. Cf. H. Vogel, Gott in Christo (1952), p. 469. He warns against the danger of trying to understand the possibility of sin because of the posse peccare.
  18. See Chaps. III and IX of my The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth.
  19. Besides Bavinck, see also, e.g., Schilder, op. cit., I, 324.
  20. P. Humbert, Etudes sur le récit du paradis et de la chute dans la Genèse. (1940), p. 108.
  21. M. Noth, Gesammelte Aufsütze zum Alten Testament (1957), p. 160; cf. pp. 168-169. Cf. also W. H. Gispen. Leviticus, p. 370, on the similar situation in Lev. 16
  22. See D. Bonhoeffer, Ethik (1949). p. 196: “freedom has open eyes.”

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

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