Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Freedom and the Laws of God

The laws of God, his commandments, are the righteous code of freedom, the rules that define and preserve both political freedom and its taproot, spiritual freedom.  God’s laws are not merely the suppression of fallen human impulse.  They are the honor code of liberation.  They are the way authentically free persons conduct their business with Him and with one another:  Now that you are free, here is how you ought to live.
God Himself declared as much to the ancient Israelites when, before He gave them His law, He reminded them that He was the very One who brought them out of slavery and bondage in Egypt (Exodus 20: 2).  Now that they were a free people, here’s the way a free people ought to act; here’s the way they ought to conduct their affairs.  If they were to be, and to remain, both morally and politically free, they must not lie (Exod. 20: 16); they must find ways of gaining rest for themselves and others (vv. 8-11); they must respect their elders, thereby acknowledging the debt they have to their ancestors and those who made the world they inherited (v. 12); they must respect and preserve private property (v. 15); they must respect human life and refrain from all murder  (v. 13); they must not serve any false gods, for there is one God and one God only (vv. 2-7); and they must keep themselves free from envy, lust and inordinate desires, which themselves are bondage and indicate moral slavery (v. 17).
In other words, the freedom God gave them came with responsibilities, and these laws articulate the responsibilities.  Freedom, to be preserved, comes with obligations.  These laws are the preservatives and the obligations.
Freedom, furthermore, must be extended to others, and these laws are how to extend it to those who are foreigners and who live among you.  As God never tired to remind the Israelites, they too were foreigners in other lands, and they knew first hand how bitter and crushing that experience could be (Exod. 22: 21, 23:9; Deut 5:5, 10: 19).  Imposing that crushing bitterness on others is not the way freed and righteous persons ought to live.
And if the ancient Jews found this freedom and its obligations beyond their reach, as the unregenerate always do, then the law would do something else for them:  It would lead them to The Great Liberator Himself (Gal. 3: 24), Who would set them free in soul, a liberation from which all other freedoms spring, and which helps to keep freed persons on the right side of the line that divides liberty from licentiousness.


Mitchell Powell said...

I would be interested to hear more about what you think about the relationship between freedom and law. More specifically, what do you think about the relationship of modern man to biblical law?

I ask this because, while you defined obedience to the law as the terms on which people in the Old Testament were called to live out freedom, you stopped short of defining that "line that divides liberty from licentiousness" as the biblical law.

Lately I've been reading some books by Gary North and R. J. Rushdoony and, since you've broached the topic of law, I thought I might ask you what you think. (If you have any specific thoughts on either man or Christian Reconstructionism generally I would be happy to hear them.)

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

The law itself is the line that marks the difference between liberty and license. I'm sorry if that was not clear. I wrongly thought it was.

I spend almost no time reading North and RJR any longer. They understand the OT law too absolutely and apply it too woodenly. I think they do not understand the extent to which the OT law is adapted to the moral and spiritual weaknesses of the ancient Israelites. It's not merely a reflection of God's perfect will and character. They read it as if it were a collection of Greek moral absolutes, and not a historically conditioned law shaped by God for that specific people at that specific time. That is, He meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. If He met us where we ought to be, we'd not meet Him at all.

The laws regarding slavery, for example, do not reflect what we know about the character of God. Paul in Philemen is closer to that. Given that human beings are creatures in God's image, it is wrong to own them as property. They are human beings, not mere stuff to be bought and sold. But given the moral condition of the ancient Jews, the law permits it for a time and begins to soften its evil. In time, slavery will be fully outlawed, not merely tolerated and softened. But not then, not at that point.

As Jesus says regarding the law of Moses and divorce: it is permitted because of the hardness of human hearts, not because God is so fully in favor of it. It's an accommodation.

Mitchell Powell said...

Thanks; that helps. Your response makes sense -- it's about what I've been thinking, though I wouldn't be able to summarize it that easily.

Your work was clear as far as it went, but I wasn't sure what you meant in terms of the law's application to today. Now I know.

The reason I've been reading some North and RJR isn't because I want to make sure that the restitution ratios for sheep and oxen are being exactly followed in today's society, but because they are unashamed of biblical law and willing to look long and hard at it, which makes them a worthwhile read even when I don't agree with them.

Your last essay looked similar enough to at least some of their principles that I thought I'd check to see if my gut feeling that you'd read them was right. (You sound very much like what some liberals would refer to as a "soft-core Reconstructionist.")

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

You're right, Mitch. They do take these issues very seriously, and that is honorable and worth our attention.

"Soft core reconstructionist"-- I've never heard of it before, which doesn't mean it's false. I don't really have a label for myself in this regard.