Ordered Liberty

As Christians go back and forth on various political debates, especially concerning the current round of Republican candidates, the old debates about the nature and role of government re-emerge. The various options of statism, socialism, liberalism, welfarism, conservatism, libertarianism, and the like get hotly debated. This is because there are all sorts of places on the political spectrum where Christians can find themselves on.

As I have tried to argue elsewhere, there are some obvious extremes to avoid. For example, some Christians champion extreme libertarian positions to such an extent that they are little better than anarchists. The further one goes with right-wing libertarianism, the closer one gets to left wing anarchism. Such views do not seem to have biblical warrant.

While the Bible may not offer us a complete, detailed political blueprint, it does give us enough information to help us avoid some decidedly unscriptural extremes. If anarchy and antinomianism are real problems, so too are statism and big government.

Christians should be just as concerned about creeping Leviathan as they are about amoral anarchy. Neither one fits the biblical view, and neither one should be championed by biblical Christians. Of course trying to get the biblical balance right is never easy, but we must seek to do so nonetheless.

Now this topic is obviously far too big to do justice to in a short essay, so at best all I can do here is offer some very brief introductory remarks. In fact it may be best to just present a number of quotes along with some loose commentary. A number of things I have been reading in the past several days have coalesced here, so let me seek to tie it all together.

Image of God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives
God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives by Bauckham, Richard (Author) Amazon logo

I just bought a book by British theologian Richard Bauckham which has been around for a while, but finding it on sale sealed its fate. So I snatched up God and the Crisis of Freedom (WJK, 2002). It is a collection of eight essays he penned over a twelve year period.

He makes a number of important contributions to the debate, but let me cite just a few points. He reminds us of the great differences between modern, secular understandings of freedom and the biblical version: “The Enlightenment belief in the wholly self-sufficient and self-determining self has led to the asocial, amoral, and isolated individual of contemporary atomized society in the West.”

He continues: “The modern understanding of the self assumed that the individual self inherently has all it needs for its own happiness and requires only to be set free from external constraints. It is this supposed self-sufficiency of the modern self that sets it in opposition both to socialization in human community and to dependence on God.”

But this attempted emancipation from God and others has simply resulted in new tyranny and enslavement: “Only forgetfulness of God makes possible the dream of infinite freedom for humanity. But this dream is an alienating illusion.”

Getting back to the loving triune God is the only way to achieve genuine freedom. Bauckham calls this “the freedom of belonging”: “When I love God and freely make God’s will my own, I am not forfeiting my freedom but fulfilling it. God’s will is not the will of another in any ordinary sense. It is the moral truth of all reality. To conform ourselves freely to that truth is also to conform to the inner law of our own created being.”

He reminds us that freedom to do what is right is what is really important: “Freedom to choose is essential to authentic humanity. But its value does not consist merely in itself. . . . The point is not simply to have choice but to make good rather than bad choices.”

Conformity to God’s will is real freedom. As Rousas Rushdoony put it in his 1984 collection of essays, Law and Liberty, God’s law is the condition of life. “The condition of a fish’s life, its environment, is water; take a fish out of water, and it dies. The condition of a tree’s life, its health and its environment, is the soil; uproot a tree, and you kill it. It is no act of liberation to take a fish out of water, or a tree out of the ground. Similarly, the condition of a man’s life, the ground of man’s moral, spiritual, and physical health, is the law of God. To take men and societies out of the world of God’s law is to sentence them to a decline, fall, and death. Instead of liberation, it is execution. Man’s liberty is under God’s law, and God’s law is the life-giving air of man and society, the basic condition of their existence.”

Of course such thoughts, especially as applied to political considerations, are not new. Several centuries ago Edmund Burke, known as the father of conservatism, said much about such matters. As he once wrote: “The only liberty I mean, is liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.”

One commentator discusses Burke’s conception of ordered liberty this way: “Liberty derives from Natural Law; it is our birthright, forfeited only through irrationality or violence. But liberty is not license to act from sheer self-will. Rather, it is ‘social freedom [Burke’s italics]. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint,’ with no individual or group able to violate the liberty of any other. Moreover, liberty must comport with order—in both the society and the individual soul.

“A believing Christian, Burke knew man’s capacity for evil. Liberty without wisdom and virtue, he warned, ‘is the greatest of all evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition and restraint.’ Liberty can only flourish and be beneficial in an orderly society of moral, religious people. To be fit for freedom, people need self-control and morality.”

He cites a familiar passage from Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. . . men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Self-government, in other words, is the fundamental form of government, and without it, no government can succeed. The classical philosophers also wrote much about this, arguing that the highest good of man was the cultivation of virtue, both private and public.

Complete freedom then is neither desirable nor possible. Let me conclude with the words of Rushdoony: “No such thing as absolute or unlimited liberty is possible or good. More than that, unlimited liberty for man is destructive of liberty itself. . . . Unless every man’s liberty is limited by law, no liberty is possible for any man….

“One of the basic premises of the American system, and a basic article of Christian faith, is that man’s liberty is under law. The purpose of law in the United States, has, historically, been to further liberty by law. Basic to all moral anarchism is the insistence that liberty can be gained only by freedom from law. From the beatniks and hippies to the student left and civil disobedience agitators, this belief in liberty as freedom from law runs deep. To prove that they are free, these immature and perverse minds insist on breaking some laws to demonstrate that they are free men. But moral anarchy is always the prelude to statist tyranny, and this vaunted freedom from law ends always in a freedom from liberty!

“Liberty, then, is under law and it requires careful and conscientious legislation to maintain the social structure in that state of law which best promotes liberty. Limited liberty is the only kind of liberty possible to man. To dream of more is to endanger liberty itself.”

As mentioned, much more needs to be said on these matters, and I have perhaps simply opened a can of worms here. But these issues are well worth thinking about and discussing, especially in light of the current political situation in the US.

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10 Replies to “Ordered Liberty”

  1. Reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about in his book, Orthodoxy.

    “We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    Unlike so many of us that have a wrong perspective of what freedom is, at least these terrified children had the wisdom to keep away from the edge!

    Annette Nestor

  2. Thanks Annette

    A great quote from a great book by a great author. You couldn’t have done better! Indeed, you made my day with that one.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. The psalmist writes: ‘Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.’ (Ps 119:34). As you point out Bill, this is the way of true liberty. Thanks for this excellent article which reminds us of what we as a society should know from God’s Word and from experience and which we neglect at our peril.
    Graeme Mitchell, Sydney NSW

  4. There are plenty of warnings in the Bible about living a life wholly devoted to self. We saw in the Book of Judges that they did “what was right in their own eyes.” The liberty only lead them to destruction and pain, ultimately it enslaved them. People seems to be thinking when they live a life like that they are truly free, but unfortunately they are kidding themselves.
    Ian Nairn

  5. I get the impression that people who have lost their Christian belief and think they can do what they like (because what they see is all there is) actually resent people who observe the Christian Way. Christian belief, once observed but now rejected by libertarians and humanists as unscientific, is the new scapegoat for those who do not live by their code. An example of this burgeoning bullying can be seen in the US news where an abstinence programme which promotes traditional faithful marriage has been warned off by the Obama administration from using the word “abstinence”. Abstinence requires the building of character whereas governments bending over backwards to condone all kinds of lifestyle for fear of giving offence requires no effort to build character on the part of the individual. It is difficult to think of anything less threatening than abstinence and yet people who extol its virtue are threatened.


    Rachel Smith

  6. Thank you for your Website and your comments by you and your participants on-line. I now know where to look for updates on what’s going on in mainstream media and know it will be true and also see posts by others that is informative and true. Blessings to you Bill and keep writing!
    Karen Lewis

  7. To quote Jesus: Jn 8:31-32 “If you hold to my teaching,you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And at v36 he says “And if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” Thomas More could commented from the Tower of London: “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage.” Maximilian Kolbe also knew this gift as did (and do) countless others. St Paul said: “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Rom 13:10. One obvious fact seems to be that liberty is of God. I think Edmund Burke would agree. Thanks Bill for promoting thinking.
    B T Walters

  8. Bill, on a Facebook thread, I posted about the protesters against the wars in the Middle East (Iraq/Afghanistan and the “war on terror”), along these lines:

    …they NEVER cared for the soldiers or the purely moral quality of the so-called war on terror.

    They have always been barrackers for one side – the side for totalitarianism and against individual freedoms, for socialism and against free enterprise, for the enemies of the West, and against the caricature of “the USA as ugly policeman of the world”.

    They do not understand intellectually or morally the contradiction within their protest.

    The context was a person posting a clip of Sarah Palin responding to protesters against the war that her son was over there fighting to protect the protesters freedom to protest in the USA.

    As Francis A Schaeffer wrote regularly, we as human beings made by God (and not by ourselves) are incapable of handling absolute freedom (freedom from all law).

    John Angelico

  9. In 1798 whist addressing the military, John Adams, 2nd President of America said,
    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    Let us be of no doubt, we are living in a state of war in which we fight not to impose our Christian values and morality on the rest of society but one in which we are defending our families and those of others against libertarian avarice, selfish ambition, unrestrained sexual appetite, self – determination, and fallen human nature. And for that I for one would be prepared to take up arms, as I hope every grandfather, father and son would be prepared to do in defence of their wives and children.

    David Skinner, UK

  10. Adam and Eve knew a time when there was only 1 law and apart from that, total freedom. If they, being made in the image of God and being declared “very good” by the creator himself, were unable to handle that freedom whilst in paradise, we, as fallen man are pretty unwise if we think we can live in a fallen world without the restraint of righteous laws.
    Mario Del Giudice

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