Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom as Social Reality

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, ch. 7—”The Redemption of Society”:

“It [1 Cor. 14.24] is the paradigm for the birth of free society, grounded in the recognition of a superior authority which renders all authorities beneath it relative and provisional.  We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart.  There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing.  We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being.  ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3.18).  The church of Christ, which professes the authority of God’s summons in the coming of Jesus, has the role of hearing it, repeating it, drawing attention to it.  In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectiely, a voice which, when the oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.”
—p. 252

“Freedom, then, is not conceived primarily as an assertion of individuality, whether positively, in terms of individual creativity and impulse, or negatively, in terms of ‘rights’, which is to say immunities from harm.  It is a social reality, a new disposition of society around its supreme Lord which sets it loose from its traditional lords.  Yet individual liberty is not far away. For the implication of this new social reality is that the individual can no longer simply be carried within the social setting to which she or he was born; for that setting is under challenge from the new social cetnre.  This requires she give herself to the service of the Lord within the new society, in defiance, if need be, of the old lords and societies that claim her.  She emerges in differentiation from her family, tribe and nation, making decisions of discipleship which were not given her from within them.  Between the old and new lordships, then, is a step she must take on her own, a responsibility for individual decision; and that, too, is a contribution to liberty, not because it creates a vacuum in which the individual is momentarily free from any society—that is not liberty!—but because it allows her to enrich society by the gift of her self-donation to it.  Individual decision, the act of heart and mind, has now become fully and consciously engaged in and for society; so that society itself is free, being upheld by the free self-giving of each member.  A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all others.  

“Modern liberalism is not yet ready to leap fully armed from the head that first conceived this thought.  This is not yet ‘freedom of conscience’ in a generalized sense.  It is ‘evangelical liberty’, which is to say, the freedom freely to obey Christ.  Yet evangelical liberty has proved to be the foundation of a more generalized freedom, including a certain, not indefinite liberty for misguided and erroneous judgment.  The logic which leads from the one to the other is that of St. Paul, writing about the ‘weaker brother’: ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls’ (Rom. 14.4).  Which is not to say that there is no such thing as evident and unarguable error; nor that each person’s vocation is so hidden that the right and wrong of what he thinks and does is obscure.  It is simply that he has (has, not is) his own master, and his master is not the ruler who governs him in the order of civil society. There are some judgments that may be evident enough, but which do not fall to the ruler to make.  The ruler has to establish a prima-facie interest in the implications for civil order before intervening between andy man or woman and the God who commands.  That is the correct way of stating the liberal doctrine which is often put misleadingly as ‘the separation of law and morality’.  There can be no separation of law and morality; but what there can be, an is, is a sphere of individual responsibility before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake.

“A perennial observation of political philosophy declares that there are two alternative concepts of freedom, a negative and a positive: freedom from control and freedom for self-realisation.  For the sake of exposition one could characterize the two as the freedom-ideal of slaves and the freedom-ideal of aristocrats.  The one consists in the abolition of oppressive constraints, the other in opportunities which are somehow given as a birthright; the one lacks an end beyond the goal of liberation itself, the other never needs liberation to bring its ends within reach.  If we situation the idea of freedom at the point where the church impacts upon society, we shall understand why neither conception will suffice.  An adequate description of freedom has points of affinity with both.  The truth in the negative conception is that freedom is a Gospel which, whether they know themselves to be in need of it or not, is addressed exclusively to those who are, in fact, unfree.  But it is not a Gospel complete in itself, but only the first moment in the Gospel.  The truth in the positive conception is that freedom is evoked and sustained by the command of God.  That command does not merely say ‘Be free!’ and then fall silent; it puts before us a way of freedom, which is the way of Christ’s victory.”
—pp. 254-56

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