Only God Is Free

Openness theology is being hotly debated in evangelical churches and theological societies. Very often, the discussions center on the word freedom. If God has granted human beings genuine freedom, openness theologians argue, the future must be genuinely open. God, they conclude, must restrict his own knowledge and simply refuse to know in advance everything we’re going to do. Therefore God puts himself in the position of having to react to history, “repenting” of previous vows, changing his mind about what he is going to do.

In such discussions, human freedom is spoken of as if it were genuine and real, and God’s freedom is spoken of as if it were limited. This is an unusual assumption in the history of Christian theology, and it would be well for us to note it. Space limitations preclude countering these arguments fully. Here, a simple restating of traditional Christian notions of freedom will have to do.

Not-so-Free at Last
To begin with, it is important to realize that human freedom is actually a very limited freedom. This might not be apparent, for it seems we make choices and do things we want to do. Behind this freedom, however, there stand many factors that influence and restrict our choices.

For example, have we not been launched into the world without anyone consulting us? Yes, our parents made a choice, but we ourselves did not. We were never free to decide that we would enter this world. Our birth depended upon some extraneous activity.

Again, what kind of a world was it into which we were launched? Did we have any say regarding it? Not at all. We might have preferred some very different world, such as a nonmaterial world, a world of pure mind or spirit.

But we had no choice. We are forced to live a life that is, in part, physical. We cannot change it. We have to make the best of it.

Were we allowed to express some racial preference at birth? No. We were born Europeans or Americans, Africans, Asians, Latinos—with all the associated advantages and disadvantages. We have no choice in this matter. We have to belong to this or that racial category.

What say did we have in relation to the social structure into which we were born? None. The structure existed long before our birth. And even as we grow older, we cannot always change it. Suppose we were born slaves, or medieval serfs, condemned to live lives of toil and poverty and with little hope of escape. Perhaps our social structure offers hope of education. But perhaps it does not.

Perhaps we are born into a Christian society. But perhaps, too, we come into the Muslim or the Hindu world, or one that is animistic, or atheistic. Did we have anything to say about this?

Does our freedom mean that we have never been influenced by others? Of course it does not. All kinds of people—parents, teachers, relatives, friends, colleagues—have helped to make us who we now are and thus have shaped our choices. Here, too, our freedom is a limited freedom.

We enter a society full of laws and customs not of our choosing. We might, of course, break laws or customs. We might become criminals or rebels. We might demonstrate our freedom in this way. But society has sanctions. The loss of freedom by imprisonment might be the penalty for criminal activity. And if we are rebels, society might shun us and prevent us from achieving our ends. Even here, then, freedom of choice and action is limited.

Even so-called artistic creativity is limited. Artists can only work with what already exists in our universe or with materials that humans manufacture—clay, canvas, carving knives, brushes. It is surely nonsensical to compare our puny efforts at creativity with the creative work of God—who made all things from nothing by the word of his mouth. Cocreators? No. At very best subcreators!

Hemmed in by Environment
Maybe real freedom lies in the moral sphere. But are the choices we make between good and evil entirely our own? Have not many factors—parental teaching, law and custom, the form of society, the religious background—contributed to our decisions, many of which are outside our own control? No, we are not compelled by any of these factors to choose this or that option. But ours is a limited freedom. Indeed, we are also restricted by what will result for others through our choices. Few of us live totally autonomous lives. We belong to communities, and in different ways these communities impose restrictions upon our freedom.

Do not heredity and the environment play a part in the moral no less than the physical sphere? Are we not the victims of all that has been done before us and all that is being done around us? This is the point made by the doctrine of original sin. Sinfulness is not merely individual. It is also collective. What our forebears did, and what others are doing around us, profoundly influence our own choices and in many cases restrict them.

But there is more. Because sinning is addictive, it too restricts our freedom. This addictive power of sin finds graphic illustration in those who become entrapped by drink or drugs. It applies also to other forms of entanglement: ambition, lying, theft, the love of money, or the love of power. Those who use their moral freedom in this way easily lose much of their freedom. Yes, we are free to do what is wrong, but as Paul tells us, this kind of freedom is in fact a slavery to sin (Rom. 7:11ff.). It also carries with it serious consequences (Gal. 6:7). Speaking of collective as well as individual sin and guilt, a German writer put it well: “World history is world judgment.” Sinning brings corruption, and corruption involves the extinction of human freedom.

In the end, any human freedom we do enjoy is always hemmed in. At best, human beings have only the freedom to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

No Mere Ad Hoc Reactor
In sharp contrast to the serious and often fatal limitations of human freedom is the total unlimitedness of divine freedom. In his dealings with us, God does work in time and space. Does this mean that he is subject to their limitations? Not at all! Unlike us, God made time and space but dwells in eternity. He operates within time and space out of the context of his eternal will and purpose.

In making time and space, God created the world into which we were launched at birth, our limited bodily and moral lives. That we are born, that we grow, that we gain and dispose of various resources, that we may suffer illnesses, and then that we age and die—all these are divinely appointed (cf. Ps. 139:13ff.).

Did God intend that we should be the victims of sickness and death? Perhaps not. But does this mean that God’s purposes have been resisted? Not at all! There is no limitation on God. Human sin brings spiritual death, but it also brings physical suffering and physical death as well—and this was the consequence that God freely chose. His response to human sin was something he had planned—and planned in freedom. It was no mere ad hoc reaction. In his freedom, God gave us the limited freedom to choose good or evil. Foreseeing in eternity what that choice would be, he also foreordained the consequence (Rom. 1:18ff., James 1:14ff.).

Does he realize that thousands among us are condemned to lives of poverty, ignorance, conflict, and religious falsehood—circumstances that, among other things, severely restrict our freedom? Indeed he does realize this, for in his freedom, God has supervised the setting of our lives. Though these conditions result from human folly and sin (abuses of human freedom), God has also in his eternal freedom provided a remedy, even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Ready to suffer with us, he also redeems.

Unlike our existence, God’s work in time and space does not restrict his freedom. God’s being is spiritual: Physical limitations do not apply to him (Ps.139:7ff.). God’s being is eternal: He can act freely in all the tenses of time (Isa. 42:9; 44:7). In fact, God is there already in all the factors that influence our choices. He is there in the choices that we make, the words we speak, and the acts we perform. He is there in the results and ramifications of these choices, words, and acts, interweaving them with the choices, words, and acts of others in order to achieve the divine purposes of grace and judgment.

What about human sinfulness? Does not this constitute a limitation on the freedom of God? Right choices, of course, obviously do not conflict with the divine freedom. But supposing we make wrong choices, as we so often do—does not conflict arise? Does not our action restrict the divine freedom, prevent God from achieving his purposes, and force him into forms of action that he had not originally contemplated? And when we repent of our misdeeds, do we not bring a new pressure upon God, forcing him to reconsider the new approach that he had planned? In other words, does not the sinful use (or abuse) of human freedom impose a limitation on the divine freedom? This is the main question openness theologians ask.

In reply, we need to recognize that the freedom of God is not like human freedom. God is free to grant some freedom to creatures, yet also free to control the destiny of these creatures, to overrule their freedom in fulfillment of his own ends. In divine righteousness, God’s freedom from the very outset imposes penalties on abuses of our limited freedom. In divine grace, God freely seeks a saving outcome even for sinful creatures. This is authentic freedom, and it transcends by far our thinking about freedom (Isa. 55:8ff.).

God in his freedom can use even our transgressions as instruments of his grace. Even as he reproves and smites he can also bind up and heal (Job 5:17ff.). He is not forced into last-minute decisions brought on by human decisions. God in his freedom was open to human choices. He was also ready for all eventualities, and he would at once give the foreseen appropriate response. In his divine freedom, therefore, God is never placed at risk.

God is also free to intervene in human affairs, transcending the seeming laws that he himself has made. From one point of view, everything God does in and with and through his creatures is an immanent intervention. Do we not pray to God that he will intervene? And are not our prayers in many cases answered?

At times, however, God in his freedom intervenes in a way that confounds the rule of cause and effect. These interventions are miracles. The freedom of God means that he is able to intervene miraculously whenever he sees fit.

Supreme among these free interventions were the Incarnation and Resurrection of the divine Son. The eternal freedom of God allowed human freedom to abound in its abuses, plotting against the divine Son, hounding him to judgment, condemning him unjustly, crucifying him, and thus incurring the guilt. Nevertheless, God’s freedom was still in control. The passion of God—the suffering and death of Christ—was itself the action of God. Out of this welter of human ignorance, folly, and viciousness, God accomplished reconciliation, the “sweet exchange” whereby Jesus took to himself our sin and thus enabled us to become righteous—and truly free—in him (2 Cor. 5:21).

Salvation and authentic human freedom (Rom. 6:22; Gal. 5:1) are the true goals of the God who “loves in freedom” (as Karl Barth put it)—as the free Creator, the free Reconciler, and the free Redeemer.

This traditional view not only makes room for human and divine freedom, but also better understands how they are alike and different. Discussions of openness theology should take this view into account more regularly.

This paper is by Geoffrey Bromiley, professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary. It’s taken from Christianity Today, February 4, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 2, Pages 72-5.

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