Dr. Heinrich Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a Swiss Reformed theologian, published his Gifford Lectures in Christianity and Civilisation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1948 & 1949). Chapter IX in Brunner’s first lecture series (The Foundations) is titled: The Problem of Freedom. Citizens of the United States grow up with the constant reminder that they live in a free country. The US Bill of Rights specifies their individual freedoms: freedom of religion, free speech, the right to bear arms and own property, etc. These freedoms are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of human civilization. “The idea of freedom is not one of those which, like the ideas of truth and justice, have stirred humanity throughout all the ages. As a guiding idea and a basic principle of human existence, it is the product of modern times.” (page 127)
The ultimate loss of freedom is slavery, something that has consumed and still haunts my country’s conscience since the first slaves arrived in 1620. But even in slavery, there is freedom within. “There is a space, however, which no state, no social order, no slave-owner of any kind can narrow down and that is the area of inner freedom. Nobody can prevent me from thinking, believing, loving, hating, hoping and fearing as I wish.” (page 128)
Sin is also slavery when an individual rebels against the will of God. “The Bible, as you know, speaks of the slavery of sin, of inward powers dominating man’s will and driving his thought, feeling and action in a direction against his will and which hold him back from what he does will.” (page 129)
Many people believe that freedom is independence from any exterior controls. A person can do anything as long as it does not infringe on another person’s freedom. The human mind freely determines what actions are best and freely performs them. It seems that God only limits freedom by giving commandments and limits. Complete freedom, therefore, is a world without God. This is a philosophical belief in its basic form.
Brunner’s definition of freedom opposes the secular. “The specific character of the Christian idea of freedom is, however, founded in the fact that man’s freedom springs from the same spot from which comes his dependence. His freedom has its real possibility only within this dependence on God, so that the maximum of dependence on God is the maximum of his freedom, and that any attempt to get out of the dependence on God leads to slavery,” Brunner cites Adam and Eve’s rebellion as an example of sinful human rejection of their dependence on God. “This sin is consequently and truthfully connected with unfreedom or slavery. Man’s attempt to emancipate himself from God does not end merely in misery, but in the loss of freedom. … Without his noticing it, the world becomes his God, theoretically and practically. Theoretically, man makes the world God by absolutizing it and giving it the attributes of divinity. Practically, he does the same thing by surrendering himself totally to the world and what the world has to give.” (page 132-133)
In Lecture VIII (Justice), Brunner states that although all humans are created in the image of God and thus equal before God, God gave humans different gifts and unequal abilities. This is why humans must work together, through love, as a community. “Man is not created only for freedom but also for community, and not only for the free community of love, but also for functional interdependence, which is based on the principle of supplementation and the structural subordination of each individual within a functional unit.” (page 138) Society cannot function cohesively without some degree of subordination. “The rationalist interpretation of equality implied suspicion of any kind of authority and professed that any kind of subordination was contrary to human dignity and freedom. The very concept of authority was discredited in the name of freedom. It was by this misunderstanding that the idea of freedom became the lever of the anarchical destruction of society.” (page 139)
Biblical revelation tells of a different kind of freedom, dependence on God, and subordination to God’s will. “Freedom, righty understood, is not the first, but a second word. The first word is dependence on God, God’s lordship. First comes God’s gift and will. God gives freedom to man in binding him to Himself. Man’s freedom is identical with his dependence on God. … It was the tragic error of modern humanity to seek a freedom outside of and in independence of God. This way could not but lead into the opposite, into slavery, be it slavery to the world or slavery under man’s dominion.” (page 140)