Throughout human history, people of all cultures have sought freedom. Some have emphasized inner spiritual or emotional freedom, and others freedom from external restraints, such as slavery or political freedom.
In this series we will discuss the biblical view of freedom, examining how it is presented in the Old and New Testaments.
It is helpful, though, to first present other views of freedom. Contrasting the biblical view of freedom with these other views helps us see its significance more clearly.
Culture: Freedom from External Values
Many people in our culture believe freedom to be a lack of norms, rules, or laws restraining us from doing what we want to do or be.
You often hear the refrain “whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me. Nobody can tell me what to do.”
People who hold to this view believe in “freedom from” any external values. If God exists then this freedom is limited.
In his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen portrays God as a cosmic eye who is always watching us. You can’t escape his gaze and his judgment of your life.
Jean Paul Sartre, the atheist existentialist, went so far as to argue that if God exists we couldn’t be free. God would be like a cosmic voyeur, always looking through the keyhole watching every little thing in our lives.
This kind of “freedom from” is not the biblical view of freedom, which is more of a “freedom from in order to be free to.” We need to be freed from a bondage to sin in order to be free to serve Jesus. It is only in the latter state that we can know the freedom and flourishing we were created to experience.
Before we look more directly at the biblical view of freedom, it would be helpful to draw a further contrast with the classical Greek view of freedom.
In Greek philosophy, freedom, eleutheros, was primarily used in a political sense.
First, someone who is free is a full citizen of the city state, polis, in contrast to a slave who did not have the rights of a citizen. To be free meant to have freedom to speak openly and decide what you want to do.
It is important to note that this freedom was fenced in by the law. In order to preserve freedom, there needed to be political order governed by law that was enforced. Note that:
Freedom, for Plato and Aristotle, is essential to a state. The best constitution guarantees the greatest freedom (Thucydides). This freedom is freedom within the law which establishes and secures it….Law protects freedom against the caprice of the tyrant or the mass….Democracy achieves this best by allowing the same rights to all citizens (cf. Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus). [However, if] the law of self replaces the law of the politeía….it leads to the rise of demagogues and opens the door to tyranny.
In other words, this freedom was within the structure of the law.
In Stoic philosophy, freedom was inwardly directed. Since people could not always control internal events, emphasis was placed on an internal detachment from this world and anything that would bind you to it, such as anger, anxiety, pity, and the fear of death. Individual reason was to be brought into harmony with the cosmic reason. There was a constant struggle to maintain this detachment (atarchia). Freedom was inner freedom for the Stoics and primarily outer freedom for Plato and Aristotle.
As we’ll see in the coming weeks, this view of freedom differs greatly from freedom as it is presented in the Bible.