Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Reformation Freedom

This was released by the Institute of Lutheran Theology last Friday.   I couldn't bring the formatting through well to this blog page, but I decided the content might make it worth putting up anyway.   Hopefully, every Lutheran already knows this . . . 

October 31, 2014 (Reformation Day) points to the beginning of the Reformation in Europe.   The gospel reading from John 8, asserts this: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (31-32).  Reformation Day is all about freedom.   It is not, however, about freedom in the sense that most Americans think.   When we citizens of western democracies think of freedom, we are likely to think the following:  A person is free if and only if that person is able to do what the person wants to do.  This freedom from external constraint or compulsion is what is meant by political or civil freedom.   A free people are a people whom the state does not coerce, who have natural rights for the pursuit of happiness that cannot be taken away by the state and must be honored by the state.   Some read the Reformation as a movement towards individual freedom.   Each person has a free conscience, and can interpret Scripture properly on his or her own.  According to this line of interpretation, this notion developed into freedom of religion, a idea that Americans understand as a constitutional right.  The Reformation gave greater freedom to individuals over and against the powers of Church and Empire.  But this way of understanding freedom, is not what Jesus is talking about here.  This notion of freedom is not Reformation freedom.         

Teaching philosophy for so many years has made me acutely aware of a second sense of freedom:  A person is free if and only if that person could have done other than what he or she did do.  This understanding of freedom speaks to so-called "contra-causal causality":  Is a person merely moved along by the movement of the subatomic particles comprising him, or has that person real freedom with respect to those particles?  The idea is this:  We are all made up of matter (energy) that is ruled by certain fundamental laws of motion.   The decisions we make are actually determined by the neurons and synapses of our brain that, in turn, our comprised of matter (energy) obeying laws of motion.  Thus, when I choose to go through door A rather than B, I am really just being moved neurophysiologically to walk through A rather than B.  Free choice is an illusion.  If I knew all of the laws of motion at work in the system, I would be able to calculate with absolute certainity the future movement of any particles in that system - - this includes particles that make up people and thus includes the people themselves.   But this philosophical sense of freedom is not something about which John 8 is concerned.  This is notion of freedom is not Reformation freedom.

What John 8 concerns is a specifically Christian sense of freedom:  A person is free if and only if that person wants to do, and is able to do, that which that person ought to do.  The idea here can be seen easily with respect to the alcoholic.   He may not rationally want to drink, and indeed may be successful not drinking much of the time, but he always passionally wants to drink.  He is always besieged by the desire to drink, and finds himself divided: He does not want to drink at the same time as he deeply wants to drink.   It is this way with respect to sin.   St. Paul discusses this in Romans 7.  "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."  The sinner, like the alcoholic, is divided.  He is a slave to sin, rationally wanting desperately not to do that which he wants passionally to do.  All of us our in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.    The freedom of the Reformation is a freedom that returns the sinner back to what God would have him be; it is a re-forming of a self de-formed by sin.   The freedom of the Christian is a freedom from sin that quells the divided self, allowing the believer a sense of peace through certain knowledge that that she is becoming, and in some sense already is, that which God has intended her to be.  

Christian freedom is not an absence of external compulsion like in civil freedom, nor is it an absence of internal compulsion like in philosophical freedom, it is rather a reorientation of the whole way of thinking about freedom.  Christian freedom does not measure freedom with respect to the self, but rather with respect to God. The Reformation's deepest insight is that when God looks upon us, He sees his holy, innocent, suffering Son, and thus he sees us as being who we are intended by God to be.  God justifies sinners, and in so doing gives the gift of freedom: We are who God wants us to be on account of Christ.   This is true Reformation freedom. May the freedom of the Reformation animate you and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus! 

Dennis Bielfeldt, Ph. D
Institute of Lutheran Theology