True Freedom vs. Unrestrained Choices (to Marry)

According to President Barack Obama, "we are all more free" as a result of the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage last month -- a claim that disturbed me slightly more than images of the White House bathed in rainbow-colored light in celebration of that decision. Obama's claim, it seems to me, trades on a definition of "freedom" that most Americans -- even, perhaps, evangelical Christian Americans -- would (at least implicitly) embrace, regardless of their convictions about the propriety of same-sex marriage. Freedom, according to that definition, is inversely related to the number of restrictions placed upon my person and my choices in life. Insofar, the logic seems to go, as the number of people that I can legally enter into marriage with in America doubled (more or less) by virtue of a single ruling of America's Supreme Court last month, I must be "more free."

At least one aspect of the Christian Church's response to the Court's decision -- and the broader phenomenon it represents (that is, a perceived liberty to redefine entities and institutions which have their existence and proper definition from God) -- must be serious theological reflection upon the nature of true freedom. Scripture and the Christian theological tradition, I suggest, define "freedom" rather differently than your average American (president). Freedom according to these sources would seem to mean not the absence of as many restrictions as reasonably possible upon my choices in life, but the absence of those particular realities that restrict me from being who I really am, from fulfilling the identity given to me by God in creation (and restored to me in redemption), and the corresponding liberty to choose (only) that which reflects my true identity.

We could, of course, argue such a definition of freedom from Christ's words in John 8:36: "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." The freedom Christ promises in this text is not one of unrestrained choices, but liberty from sin and Satan -- those realities that try their damnedest to make people something other than the God-glorifying and God-enjoying divine image-bearers they were created to be (cf. John 8:34-35, 44).

But for such a notion of human freedom to have depth and stability, it must ultimately be constructed and seen as an analogue to divine freedom. Nothing and no one, after all, is more free than God. "The Deity is possessed not only of infinite knowledge," wrote the sixteenth-century reformer Jerome Zanchi, "but likewise of absolute liberty of will." Yet God (freely!) professes to us, in Scripture, his own inability to lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). There is no real contradiction between ascribing "absolute liberty" to God and asserting God's inability to lie, because God's "absolute liberty" -- that is, God's freedom -- means not the absence of any restraints (including those imposed by his own nature) upon his choices, but the absence of restraints upon the exercise of who he is. Thus, the option (as it were) of lying (or committing evil in some other form) would not and could not make God more free than God is. God is most free because he is himself -- Triune, just, merciful, loving, etc. -- in everything he does.

If we look to divine freedom for guidance in properly conceiving human freedom, it should become obvious that restrictions on opportunities -- particularly, opportunities to do evil -- do not jeopardize that freedom. Indeed, they can push us towards true freedom, even if our own freedom will not be perfected until that day in which our own (glorified) nature, rather than external force(s), fully restricts our choices and occasions for evil.

While his own notion of divine freedom was (in my judgment) problematic at points, the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth had a proper sense for how divine freedom and true human freedom correspond, and how that truth should implicate our understanding of human freedom. Barth explored this territory in his essay "The Gift of Freedom" (in The Humanity of God). Having made, in that essay, some comments on divine freedom, he said this of human freedom:

God does not put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads. The opposite is true. God frees man from this false situation. He lifts him from appearance to reality. It is true that man's God-given freedom is choice, decision, act. But it is genuine choice; it is genuine decision and act in the right direction... Sinful man is not free, he is a captive, a slave. When genuine human freedom is realized, inevitably the door to the 'right' opens and the door to the 'left' is shut. This inevitability is what makes God's gift of freedom so marvelous, and yet at the same time so terrifying. [...] His (the Christian's) freedom is the joy of that obedience which is given to him. This is a daring venture whenever it is undertaken. [...] It is the venture of responsibility in the presence of the Giver and the fellow receivers of the gift - past, present, and future. It is the venture of obedience whereby man reflects in his own life God's offer and his own response.

(Interestingly, Barth on one recorded occasion named the proper definition and defense of both divine and human freedom as a "front line" theological issue, and remembered with apparent satisfaction the sober warning he had issued America as he left her shores about the imminent rising of a "theology of unfreedom." One wonders if Barth didn't have a prophetic inclination that a properly defined and theologically rich notion of freedom could only exist on a collision course with the counterfeit version of "freedom" -- propped up by the rhetoric of "liberty for all" and regular fireworks displays -- one meets so often in America...)

As regards the issue of marriage, it is -- to steal Barth's phrase -- the Supreme Court that has "put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads." Our nation's laws and cultural norms increasingly burden us with choices no individual should ever have to make -- choices about whether to be a man or a woman (think Bruce Jenner), whether to be white or black (think Rachel Dolezal), whether to marry a man or woman, and so on. Such choices are slavery, plain and simple.

With all due respect to President Obama, then, we are not "more free" as a result of the Court's decision last month. True freedom as it pertains to marriage would entail not increasing choices about whom I might marry, but increasing encouragement from without and courage within to make my marriage reflect more and more the true, God-given definition of that institution, and so to ever-increasingly reflect the relationship of love, longing, humility, and submission that exists between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph. 5:22-33).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.