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Christian Biblical Studies
THE YES AND NO OF INDEPENDENCE
By W. Resume
All citations are to the King James (Authorised) Version.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty – 2 Cor. 3: 17
So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty – James 2: 12
THE RIGHTS OF freedom of thought and expression are fundamental to a vibrant modern democracy. Equally vital to the functioning of democracy are the instruments of democracy – the ballot, a free press, etc., and an infrastructure commensurate with the exercise of freedom, such as roads, public transport, retail facilities, etc., all the means whereby a free people can move about, congregate, travel from place to place to find work, exchange ideas, and so on. Although the degree and depth of the liberties we enjoy today – especially in the West – are unique in the history of the world, the philosophical underpinnings can be traced a long way back.
By the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, the Greeks had attained a free outlook on the world. Most of the philosophers of Greece were materialists, such as Xenophanes, Socrates, and Plato. Socrates himself emphasized the supremacy of the individual conscience and the public value of open debate, tenets which underpin the present-day values of free speech. In the Roman Republic few restrictions were imposed on the expression of private opinion. The general rule of Roman policy was to tolerate throughout the Empire all religions, an aid to maintaining peace in the dominions. Most of the leading thinkers, though unbelievers in the pantheon model of ‘religion’, or cult of the State, considered it valuable for the purpose of keeping the lesser-educated populace in order.
As far as the Roman Republic was concerned, one religion stood out from the rest: Judaism. Because of its exclusiveness and intolerance, Judaism was regarded by the otherwise tolerant pagans with disfavour and suspicion, though its devotees were protected by the emperors even from the troubles which their own fanaticism aroused. It was with the beginning and growth of Christianity that the question of freedom of thought and expression, allied with the supremacy of conscience, assumed critical importance.
The Christian religion was seen at first, by the Romans who knew of it, as a sect of the Jews. However, as it grew, two factors brought upon it the wrath of Rome: its making many proselytes (which the Jews had not done) and its objecting (along with the Jews) to the ‘worship’ of emperors. This to the Romans was one of the most sinister signs that this new religion was dangerous. The rapid advance and success of the new religion stimulated a change in social behaviour and invited, on occasion, a harsh response from the State. Christians were accused of witchcraft, immorality and murder, and were even blamed for some natural catastrophes by those who feared Christianity’s advancement. The persecutions under Decius were continued by Valerian. Emperor Diocletian sought to infuse new life into the official religion. To this end he attempted to suppress the growing body of Christians, resulting in their severe persecution, especially during the years 303-313 (Rev. 2: 10; ʻten daysʼ, a day standing for a year). These sufferings were brought to a close during the reign of Constantine, by the Edict of Toleration (311) and the Edict of Milan (313) [texts of these Edicts available here].
The Church and the World Fall in Love
At the Council of Nicaea (Asia Minor) in 325, at which Constantine presided – having, as Emperor, declared in favour of Christianity the year before – the Church was confirmed as the official victor in the Arianism controversy. Under the sponsorship of Constantine, the Churchascended to a position of political influence, an essential ingredient of State polity. From this juncture we may date the fusing together of Church and State; each party wanted power, and the union was acceptable to both. From a persecuted minority, the Christian church became, in course of time and at the leading of certain ambitious men, a powerful theocratic system which sought to regulate the conscience of the individual, frequently crushing those who expressed contrary opinions.
The Church gained this position in the World at the high cost of forsaking its original primitive force – simplicity and disentanglement from the World. A sect which in its infancy stood firm against pagan emperors and proclaimed liberty of conscience as the believer’s prerogative, would in time set about denying this right to those who came under its own authority, and clamping down with an iron hand on those who ventured outside its doctrinal walls. Whereas the free intellectual atmosphere of secular Greece and Rome had been marked by a lack of sacerdotalism, the entrenched religious classes now dictated the limits of thought and expression. The faith which our Lord proclaimed would ‘make you free’ became by turns the author of imprisonment – physical and mental.
Freedom of thought was restricted by the nature of the doctrines imposed on the believer, such as the Trinity, the Absolutism and Idolism of the Church, hell-fire, and other intimidating strictures, to the degree that the laity never learned to think freely, let alone express dissident views. Those who did step out of line were rounded up and forced to recant and, on so doing, were often imprisoned or killed anyway, on the principle of self-incrimination. Although the worst offender, the Catholic Church would not be the only institution guilty of such practices. A number of Protestant institutions adopted certain teachings as dogmas, and demanded uniform assent from their members, under threat of physical punishment or excommunication and disfellowshipment. It seems that no religion or sect is free of such doctrinaire practices.
Secularism and Religion: Antagonistic Friends
The two spheres in which freedom of thought and expression operate, the Secular and the Religious, are intertwined, and the opening up of freedom in one sphere fosters freedom in the other. Beginning in the fourteenth century, three conjoined cultural, intellectual, and reform movements – Renaissance, Reformation, Rationalism – would alter the complexion of European civilisation forever, simultaneously chipping away at the throne of the established Church.
A renewed appreciation of art and classical studies and the spread of humanistic learning during the Renaissance, led to an uneasy cohabitation by the new men of letters with the prevailing religious culture. During this period, early sparks of the Reformation began to flash – sparks that would be fanned into a flame of reform by early in the sixteenth century.
The papal Church had long espoused its belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth (based on Aristotle). In adopting such a stand on scientific knowledge, the Church had for centuries formed a rampart against the advancement of knowledge.Both Reason and Faith were thus led captive in chains of superstition and ignorance. Martin Luther’s blow at papal authority strengthened the reform movements already under way, and had the effect of making possible the development of a freer atmosphere in which philosophy could re-emerge and science could resume in earnest. This led not only to a flowering of the Protestant ‘reformed’ denominations, but spurred a crop of rationalist thinkers who, from the late seventeenth century to the eighteenth – the Enlightenment period – would contribute to the undermining of the Christian faith as effectively as Luther had opened cracks in the walls of papal supremacy.
Revolutions And Miscellaneous Explosions
The opening up of secular freedoms was stimulated in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the War of American Independence (1775-1783) and the Revolution in France (1789-99), whose motto Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! epitomised the conflict between Sacerdotal-Aristocracy and Secularism. Such historic changes contributed to the wide-spreading spirit of inquiry and a flowering of intellectual and societal freedoms which lie at the root of the liberties we take for granted today.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, many religious teachings had become merely outcroppings of a shallow creedal foundation cobbled together from the rulings of councils, scholarly opinion, tradition, and some educated guesswork, and so were especially vulnerable to the infidelistic implications of the new sciences. The Darwin-Huxley theory of animal and human Evolution delivered a near-fatal blow to Christian doctrine. So powerfully did the sceptics assert their ideas as against Genesis and the prophecies and miracles of the Bible, that they severed the relationship of the believer to the Bible.
Belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures was undermined by Higher Criticism and derided in the pulpit even by Christianity’s own supporters, forcing believers to re-interpret Genesis and evaluate their position. Christian scholarship responded with an eloquent defence, including profound arguments drawn from ‘natural theology’, from such prominent exponents as Bishop Butler, Thomas Chalmers, and Henry Drummond, who argued that the observed phenomena of the natural world prove the existence and goodness of God. This battle continues today, with arguments from both sides piling up. From the middle to the close of the century a number of social-religious movements started – the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s (and Womenʼs) Christian Association. Religious teachers such as Charles H. Spurgeon in Britain and Dwight L. Moody and Charles T. Russell in the United States, spurred a popular shift back to piety and a serious study of the Bible.
During the twentieth century, liberty in the political, social and economic spheres expanded in irregular and unprecedented fashion around the world, as nation-states were made and unmade in the wake of global and regional wars, coups, revolutions, and re-alignment along lines of ideology – such as Communism versus Capitalism, and the dreary decades of nuclear confrontation between East and West.
The Rise, Ascendency, and Fall of Great Britain
The various adjustments to British life in the closing years of the 1800s and the opening years of the 1900s, were prompted by social, political and industrial innovations, colonial wars, and unprecedented international trade. Many of these progressive elements came to a halt at the time of the Great War of 1914-18. Agitations for expansion of the franchise to women, calls for improvements in working and living conditions – suspended during the four years of that war in the interests of social cohesion – returned in force when it was over. Bled white by the conflict, Britain emerged an altered nation, less confident and less powerful. From 1918 we may date the beginning of Britain’s decline as the chief nation of the world, though the full implications of this were not apparent at the time. Still ahead lay the League of Nations’ British mandate for Palestine (1920-1948), leading, by diffuse and Providential means, to the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, an outcome which began with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. After the Second World War, the emergence of the United States as the succeeding world empire, and the rise of the Soviet Union as a nuclear power, confirmed the diminished role of Great Britain in world affairs. Britain’s exit from its dominant position in the Middle East following the Suez Crisis of 1956 may be seen as the companion bookend to 1918.
The cumulative effect at the national level was far-reaching. Many changes were positive, many were negative. Freedoms in the workplace and the home, the opening up of higher education to a wider swath of the population, better health, more comfortable houses, and a rise in disposable income – all these alterations to the domestic scene produced a ʻpost-warʼ Britain which was quite different from its ʻpre-warʼ character. In the decades since, ʻcitizen power’ has expanded farther, commensurate with the spread of knowledge, coupled with a reduced deference to parental authority, a cynical approach towards government, and a corresponding lack of respect for traditional morality.
From being a largely conservative nation, rooted in a practical, unsentimental Christianity, the United Kingdom was transformed into an informal, less-stratified, increasingly godless society. Like other consumer-based economies, the nation is now inundated with various ‘objects of excitement’, obsessed with celebrities, shopping, self-display, sexual experimentation, and so on. The popular imagination is captivated by the limitless levels of personal pleasure and satisfaction available.
The dis-United Kingdom
At the time of the writing of this article, the expected referendum on Scottish independence has not yet taken place. On Thursday, 18 September, the voters in Scotland will decide either to remain in the United Kingdom or become an independent nation. A No result will mean that Scotland stays in the Union; a Yes result will mean that Scotland will prepare to quit the Union by 2016. Regardless of the outcome, the international status of the United Kingdom will be severely and irrevocably reduced. An immediate and obvious manifestation of the change will be the adjustment of the national flag. The Union Jack, regarded by many as the worldʼs most beautiful, will be stripped of the Scottish saltire (see photo at the head of this article). But the alterations to national life and politics will be much deeper and more far-reaching than this – how far, no one knows.
What we are witnessing is the not-so-slow-motion dissolution of the once-mighty Britain. Trapped between its supine relationship with the United States on the one hand, and its entanglement in the European Union on the other, Britainʼs own independence is now so far compromised that it may never again be a truly sovereign nation-state. For patriots and lovers of this remarkable land, which has contributed uniquely and powerfully to the cause of democracy and religious freedom across the centuries, and which in its heyday laid the foundations of the modern world, such an outcome is painful to contemplate. But if there is any consolation in this, it comes from the knowledge that Godʼs will is always done. For it is He alone who raises up and casts down the nations of earth, until His glorious ends are achieved (Dan. 2: 20, 21).
The Christian: A Bond-Servant Of Freedom
But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed (James 1: 25).
Under the Divine polity the progress of liberty is both inevitable and problematic, and tests the motives and character of all who fall under its influence. Personal liberty of the sort preferred by the natural heart is a heady mixture, and in our sinful, fallen condition we may easily get drunk on it. The fundamental question is not how many restrictions we should rid ourselves of, but rather which ones we ought to keep. It is, in the the final analysis, a spiritual question, one which is increasingly relevant in a society undergoing a seismic shift toward the secular frame of mind. The loosening of personal and private restrictions presents especial difficulties for the Christian man and woman. For although the Christian, as citizen, enjoys the same rights to civic and political freedoms enjoyed by everyone else, the Christian is bound to a code of behaviour which is viewed by others with contempt or hostility, making it risky to go against the trend.
The first-century followers of Christ were set free from the regulatory restraints of the Mosaic Law (John 8: 36, ʻSon shall make . . . you free indeedʼ). However, they were cautioned not to abuse their liberties (Rom. 6: 18, ʻye became servants of righteousnessʼ; 1 Cor. 10: 23). As twenty-first-century Christians we, too, are saved by Grace, through the exercise of faith (Eph. 2: 8-10). The ‘work’ spoken of by James (quoted above) as being appropriate for the Christian is not such as earns us a reward, but refers to those actions which demonstrate that we are living a life consistent with our claims. As Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, so should the Christian emulate His attitude of a servant. Indeed, the Apostle informs us that ‘pure religion’ consists in helping the poor and unfortunate, never forgetting that we must pass on the good news of the Gospel at every reasonable opportunity (Jas. 1: 27).
The flowering of liberty and the progressive trends of the past century-and-a-half which have brought to mankind the remarkable benefits of industrialisation, national and individual wealth, and the resultant economic and social freedoms, has at the same time taxed the integrity of the human heart. But true freedom demands self-restraint. A train hurtling along at 170 miles per hour induces a heady thrill, but it is a thrill allowed and secured by the knowledge that maintenance of the machine and the track are top-notch, and that we are in no danger of being ʻliberatedʼ from the rails and into the open air. To trust is to be tethered. Independence with a caveat. How many of us would be prepared to put trust in Self or in the secular ethics of careless or unrestrained Society? Where better to lodge our trust than in the Son who has guaranteed true spiritual freedom by the sacrifice of Himself?
As bond-servants of Christ we give up the right to do what we choose. Our own preferences are to be subsumed in the will of God. Being ‘free’ in the Christ-like sense implies a heightened regulation of our conscience, by which we habitually adjust not only how we behave, but what we think. The Christian faith thus operates at such a deep level that it is no surprise that most people cannot grasp more than the surface features of it, and may even regard such a state of mind as radical. The consecrated woman or man puts Christ first in their aims and calculations. Being thus internally regulated brings a dependable and godly freedom, the security of which comes from knowing that we are His and He is ours and that He is infinite in power. We need not fear anything, for Christ’s love in us hunts out fear and cultivates the peace which the world cannot understand nor obliterate.
Who Is ʻThe Most Important Person In The Whole Worldʼ?
Hint: Itʼs Not You
As a philosophical argument, all individuals have rights and are theoretically equal. But looked at from the more restrictive biblical standpoint, freedom is a privilege, not a right. The entire race is in a convict condition – dying – and has no claim before God to ‘fair’ treatment. It is an important truth that one stands before God only through the merit of Christ. Without it we are nothing, and have nothing. The Christian’s relationship with God does not require the intercession of man or sect or church. Through the workings of the holy spirit in us we are sanctified day to day. For the duration of life, our mind and heart are adjusted toward Christ-likeness, the pattern which we are to keep before us at all times.
However, we cannot expect complete freedom in this life, for sin is ever present, and will sometimes tie us in knots. We should endeavour to untie our hearts and minds from the strings that bind us to the unhelpful aspects of our natural tendencies: selfishness, prejudice, impatience, covetousness – anything which exalts the noisy Me. In this age of personal esteem, the Christian must put the Self last. This is contrary to one’s natural instinct and the pervasive mantra of ‘doing your own thing’ (Rom. 8: 6-14):
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. 10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. 12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
The sort of Christianity described in these verses has never been socially attractive and never will be. Its exclusiveness lies not in any superiority of its adherents, but rather in the peculiar demands it makes of the willing heart: the self-abnegation which seeks the will of God above the will of the Self. It is a commitment which does not ease up on weekends or holidays. From it will flow a healthy regard for others, the giving of the benefit of the doubt, the exercise of compassion and mercy, and a robust, intelligent prayer for the blessings of perfect liberty yet to come to all mankind through the Kingdom of Christ on earth, for which we pray.
September 2014. The author asserts all natural rights to this article, except that you are free to reproduce it without express permission. Please acknowledge the source.