It seems that these days people speak a lot about liberty, protecting their liberties, and how their liberties are being threatened by this legislation or that group of people. “We live in a free society!” people proclaim and use that status to excuse or protect all sorts of behaviors. When the government speaks of laws that would restrict gun ownership, the conservatives yell that their liberties are being compromised. When the government speaks of controls on the spread of pornography on the internet, the liberals yell that the freedom of speech and of the press is being compromised. When a homeowner’s association tries to restrict the way renovations are done to a house, homeowners cry out that their liberties are being infringed upon. Even in theological circles, the matter raises its ugly head. When Reformed Christians begin speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty over a person’s life, death, and salvation, the Wesleyans wave the banner of libertarian freedom for the human will. And so the debates ensue.
But do we really even understand what it is that we are saying? There is no question that there are things we oppose, and with good reason, but is liberty and freedom the right plank to stand upon when taking a stand for one or more of these matters? In fact, do we even know what these words mean in the first place? True, we know the mantras. Patrick Henry is famous for proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in the face of British oppression. We have a giant statue personifying liberty standing in the New York Harbor. As Americans, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” But if we do not understand what is meant by these statements, then the mantras become nothing more than repetitious slogans fit to adorn bumper-stickers and drink coasters and are useless when it comes to living out one’s life.
So, what is the definition of liberty and freedom? The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within a society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.”1 Liberty comes from the Latin word, libertas, which means “freedom or independence.” The word free is derived from the German word, frei, which has roots in the Indo-European word meaning, “to hold dear.”2
But what does this imply? If freedom means that I can do whatever I feel like doing, then a free society sounds more like an anarchy than something that would honor God. Surely there must be some qualifications placed on our liberty lest a free society become a horrific place to dwell.
To really understand the implications of these ideas, we need to begin by looking at the source of freedom and liberty, God himself. Though Jefferson was anything but an “evangelical Christian,” he did get one very fundamental idea correct…that is that we derive our “unalienable”3 rights from our creator — a creator who has these rights within his person in a perfect sense. God has perfect liberty, but does that mean that God’s liberty is absolute in the unlimited sense of the definition given above? Particularly for those who have grown up in a culture that has told them that “God can do anything…”, the answer to this question may be surprising. For God cannot do anything (he cannot lie, he cannot sin, he cannot cease to be God, he cannot cease to be perfect and infinite, he cannot make a bolder so large that he cannot move it, etc…). Instead, God can do anything that is consistent with his person and perfections.
You see, it is the perfection of God’s own character that limits his own liberty. That does not mean that God’s liberty is imperfect, far from it. The liberty to be chaotic and inconsistent is hardly a true liberty at all; instead, it is deprivation. In God’s perfect4 liberty, he acts in a way perfectly consistent with his attributes and perfections (His holiness, righteousness, joy, etc…). At the same time, his liberty is restrained by his character so it is expressed in a fashion consistent with his character and ethical norms (which flow out of his character).
Thus, while we often talk about our need for unlimited liberty in society, such liberty is no liberty at all, but chaos and anarchy. What is best for us is liberty that is constrained by an ethical norm, yet if this ethical norm is not outside of us as humans, it cannot provide a consistent norm within which we can enjoy our liberty. And, since human government is nothing more than a gathering of people exercising authority over other people, neither the individual nor the government can establish such norms — as mentioned before, anarchy is the result of the former and governmental oppression is the natural result of the latter. What is necessary is to appeal to a norm that is transcendent and greater than human existence who also is benevolent, not malicious, in his character.
With that in mind, then, true liberty becomes living in a way that is consistent with one’s character and personality (not under coercion or intimidation) but that is also in accord with an ethical standard established by God. In turn, when we pursue immoral ends, we sacrifice our liberty by degrees that are equivalent to the immorality that we have chosen to pursue. When Jefferson argued that we have the unalienable right to liberty, this is the sense by which he understood liberty (remembering that this liberty he speaks of is endowed upon us by our creator — if we share God’s liberty as a result of the Imago Dei, then our liberty must be of the same kind and category as our creator’s liberty). He sought to advocate for perfect liberty in contrast to unlimited liberty, which is no liberty at all.
Sadly, as a society, we have lost the vision set before us by our early American Fathers and our Christian Theological heritage. It is neither taught in school nor in church and then we stand and wonder why it is that our culture has gone astray and that moral chaos reigns in the culture. The book of Judges is an excellent commentary on American life today; when every man does what is right in his own eyes, the culture will fall into immorality and bondage. Christ has established the church to be the agent by which the culture is preserved (we are salt and light); yet, the message of the church has been anything but preservational. We have feared the culture rather than fearing for the culture (given the direction it is bent toward). And thus the church has tended to follow rather than to lead. And, with that in mind, it is well past time where we begin to step out and engage once again, bringing truth into dark places and the life-preserving salt of mercy to those in our midst. And in that, let us learn ourselves first what it means to exercise perfect liberty and then teach the world to do the same.
1 From the Oxford American Dictionaries.
2 Not surprisingly, the word “friend” also comes from this Indo-European root.
3 Unalienable means that something can neither be given up nor taken away. It is part of the very essence of the thing. Thus, were humans to no longer have these “unalienable rights” we would cease to be human. The only way that such a right can be part of our essential being is if we are made in the image of one who also has these rights (in an ultimate sense) as part of His essential being. As Christians, we refer to this as the Doctrine of the Imago Dei — we are made in the image of God and thus these rights that are perfectly found in God are also found in us, though in imperfect ways.
4 Notice that I am using the term, “perfect” and not, “unlimited” here.