Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Freedom of, or freedom from?

After the post on the obedience of faith, it seems fit to say something about freedom, a concept popularly perceived as in opposition to obedience.

Romans 8:2 reads:

ὁ γὰρ νόμος τοῦ πνεύματος τῆς ζωῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἠλευθέρωσέν σε ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου τῆς ἁμαρτίας καὶ τοῦ θανάτου.

The point I would like to cover in this post regards the verb ἠλευθέρωσέν, aorist indicative from ελευθεροω, "to liberate", make free. As usual, I shall start looking where this verb (and the nouns ελευθερος, "free", and ελευθερια, "freedom") occurs in the NT, with the goal of better understanding its semantic domain.

First of all, the verb is from ερχομαι ("to go"), in the sense of "to go where one wishes", and therefore to be free. It is one of the key words of Paul's theology, where it is often used (to anticipate the conclusions) to mean freedom from the slavery of sin. The translations provided in this post all come from the ESV.

The verb ελευθεροω:
  • Joh 8:32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
  • Joh 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
  • Rom 6:18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
  • Rom 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
  • Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
  • Rom 8:21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
  • Gal 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
The noun ελευθερος:
  • Mat 17:26 And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free."
  • Joh 8:33 They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"
  • Joh 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
  • Rom 6:20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
  • Rom 7:3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
  • 1Co 7:21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.
  • 1Co 7:22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.
  • 1Co 7:39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
  • 1Co 9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord?
  • 1Co 9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
  • 1Co 12:13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
  • Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
  • Gal 4:22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.
  • Gal 4:23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
  • Gal 4:26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
  • Gal 4:30 But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman."
  • Gal 4:31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
  • Eph 6:8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.
  • Col 3:11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
  • 1Pe 2:16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
  • Rev 6:15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,
  • Rev 13:16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,
  • Rev 19:18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great."
The noun ελευθερια:
  • Rom 8:21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
  • 1Co 10:29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience?
  • 2Co 3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
  • Gal 2:4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in--who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery--
  • Gal 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
  • Gal 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
  • Jam 1:25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
  • Jam 2:12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
  • 1Pe 2:16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
  • 2Pe 2:19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.
We often think of freedom as freedom of doing something, that is, the liberty of acting (or not acting) in whichever way we desire. But this does not seem the meaning that the NT primarily attaches to ελευθεροω. In fact, this word is normally in opposition to "slave", or "slavery", and the slavery the texts often refer to is "sin". So for example Rom 6:18, Rom 6:20, Rom 6:22, Rom 8:2, Rom 8:21. The liberty the Bible talks about is not first and foremost an ethical liberty, it is rather ontological. In this sense, it is freedom from, particularly from being slave, or subject, to the limitations of sin. According to Paul, Christian freedom is still to be understood in opposition to slavery, but to the slavery of the Mosaic law. Cf. for example Gal 4:25-26, which contrasts the earthly Jerusalem, which is under slavery of the law, like Hagar - Sarah's slave - is in bondage, with the "Jerusalem above", which is free. However, there is another slavery, to which Christian freedom is not in opposition, namely, the slavery of Christ, or righteousness (which is the main effect of the Christ event, as Fitzmyer aptly says), as per Rom 6:18: ἐλευθερωθέντες δὲ ἀπὸ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ἐδουλώθητε τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ, "having been set free from sin, we have been made slaves to righteousness."

Here we need to note the key distinction between the two historical categories of the "freeman" (ελευθερος, latin ingenuus) and of the "freedman" (απελευθερος, latin libertinus). The freeman is the one who is born free. Does he have any merit for having been fortunate enough to be born free, or intelligent, or of a good family, or in the Western world, etc? No. The freedman, on the other hand, is the one who, although he was born as a slave, has been set free. Does he have any merit for this? No. (Regardless of his merits, his master could always refuse to grant him freedom.) But now, when we transpose this to Christianity, there is an important point to make: in the world the distinction between the freeman and the slave made free (the freedman) is still retained in terms of civil rights, or, in other words, being set free from your earthly master does not make you equal to a man born free (cf. Acts 22:28: The tribune answered, "I bought this citizenship for a large sum." Paul said, "But I am a citizen by birth."). In Christ, however, this distinction vanishes: what is important is only that you accept your being dependent upon (slave of) Christ, regardless of your natural descent: cf. Gal 3:28, οὐκ ἔνι ᾿Ιουδαῖος οὐδὲ ῞Ελλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ. And this for the very simple reason that, in Christ, it does not make sense to speak of a "natural freeman", because all are tainted by (i.e. enslaved by) sin - hence, the distinction disappears. In this sense, as the Roman freeman was the only true citizen of Rome, the Christian made free by Christ is the the only true citizen of the free city of Christianity.

This is all condensed in 1 Cor 7:22: ὁ γὰρ ἐν κυρίῳ κληθεὶς δοῦλος ἀπελεύθερος κυρίου ἐστίν· ὁμοίως ὁ ἐλεύθερος κληθεὶς δοῦλός ἐστιν Χριστοῦ. The noun ἀπελεύθερος refers to the free man who was once a slave (δοῦλος). So, Paul says, if you were a slave of a human master, you are now set free from that slavery (that is, from the slavery of the law); you are now a freedman, but still a freedman of the Lord (κυρίου). On the other hand, if you were a freeman, do not presume to be absolutely (literally: without ties, or bounds) free, because, if you accept the call of God, you are now a slave of Christ. If you don't, you simply remain in your state of slavery. 2 Pet 2:19: ἐλευθερίαν αὐτοῖς ἐπαγγελλόμενοι, αὐτοὶ δοῦλοι ὑπάρχοντες τῆς φθορᾶς· ᾧ γάρ τις ἥττηται, τούτῳ δεδούλωται. That is, if you don't remove the cause of what overcomes (ηττηται, from ητταω, lit. to make less, inferior) you - that is, sin -, you remain in a state of slavery with regard to exactly those things that overcome you.

So, what is this freedom/ελευθερια? It is really "to go where one wishes", as the etymology suggests, but not primarily in terms of ethical behavior. It is freedom from the slavery of sin, and this freedom we can get through another freedom: the freedom to choose whether to be slave of sin, or not (and, incidentally, if we believe this is true freedom, we ought to respect it for what it is: if one really wants to be a slave, be he a slave). It is in the end really a freedom from, from sin, and from all sinful structures. 1 Cor 9:19: ᾿Ελεύθερος γὰρ ὢν ἐκ πάντων...: freedom from all, but which cannot be disjointed by the obedience of faith, by the slavery to Christ (hence, to all in Christ). Freedom and obedience go hand in hand. ελευθερια is primarily existential, ontological, theoretical, and only then practical and applied. Paul's paradox is in seeing that one first needs to accept its state of slavery before he can be set free, and that one needs to recognize that his real human nature calls for an actual recognition of his dependency on Christ's grace for salvation - which is perhaps a more palatable way, given our modern sensitivities, of expressing the need for one's voluntary slavery to Christ.

This is a thoughtful and indeed fascinating meditation; I have myself wondered about the potential implications of the etymological link between the adjective ἐλεύθερος and the verb-root ἐλευθ/ἐλουθ/ἐλυθ, but I honestly think that it is very questionable whether any original etymological link between the adjective and verb continued over the centuries -- and down to the era of the composition of the NT -- to have any conscious or unconscious impact on how writer's understood the meaning of ἐλεύθερος; I think we'd need to have some direct indication in the author using the words that such a relationship is in mind. I think it is generally recognized that etymologizing NT Greek words is more often than not a perilous course to enter upon.
Many thanks for the comment, prof. Conrad. Your hint about the peril of etymologizing NT Greek word is valuable and I'll keep it well in my mind.

You are right: in statements like "So, what is this freedom/ελευθερια? It is really "to go where one wishes"", I actually took for granted that the etymological link between ελευθερος and ελευθεροω was still being perceived in the NT era. At the same time, what drove the post was not so much a desire to stress an etymological link between words, but rather the intention to briefly clarify the meaning of "being set free" in the context of Pauline theology - and the relationship between obedience in the faith and freedom. Had Paul in mind that ελευθερος could be linked to a root meaning "going at will"? Perhaps yes, perhaps not, and as you rightly say saying yes would properly require more direct indications (plus, is there consistency of word usage in the Pauline corpus? etc). However, my point in this post was more that Paul seems to have firmly in his mind that ελευθερια is in the first place ἀπὸ τῆς ἁμαρτίας, and that this ελευθερια is only meaningful when seen in close relationship with the υπακοη πιστεως.
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