“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value. What, though, is the referent of “freedom”? It depends on the context. Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹
I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent. I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause. I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings. There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday. I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.
We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages. What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege. We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made. One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters. The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments. Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).
The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement. Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us. But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.
In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament.” Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context. He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people. This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of. On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25) This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable. In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting. Hurtado’s point seems valid.
I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own. Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.
Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.
– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18
Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism. Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant. I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking. In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.
As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then. But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action. The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically. It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion. So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.
The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results. Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people. But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic. Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.
The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well. There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment. But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people. Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look. One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals. In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities. But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement. This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others. The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.
– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)
For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.
For more (roughly) seasonal reading:
Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)
The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers. Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:
Former enlisted man now a CO (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)
¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.” Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.