What is Freedom? A Discussion

What is Freedom? A Discussion

A Philosophical and Theological discussion between Dr. Paul Franks and Dr. Victor Shepherd

The editor of Tyndale Magazine sat down with Dr. Victor Shepherd, Professor of Theology and Dr. Paul Franks, Assistant Professor of Philosophy to discuss the meaning of freedom from  theological and philosophical perspectives.

Q: What does freedom mean from a philosophical and a theological viewpoint?


Dr. Franks: As a whole, philosophers would say that freedom is something like freedom from constraint or compulsion. As long as what you are doing comes from you, that you desired it, that you had an intention that was formed, then you are free.

The bulk of Christian philosophers, however, say something different. Freedom is also the ability to be in control of the desire that you have. It’s not just freedom from having someone forcing you to do something, it’s also having alternatives available to you so that for any action that you take, it’s a free action: nothing determined that you should do what you did.

The bulk of the philosophical community are typically compatibilists. Determinism is still compatible with saying that it was a free action. Most Christian philosophers, though, tend to say that compatibilism isn’t the most robust notion of freedom. Many Christian philosophers would say it’s not only freedom from constraint but  also a genuine ability to have done otherwise.

Dr. Shepherd: At street level, freedom is the capacity to choose among alternatives. If I go to an ice cream counter may I choose vanilla, strawberry or chocolate? From a theological perspective we would just call that indeterminism. There’s no outer coercion, nobody is twisting my arm, but there’s no intrapsychic coercion, there’s no inner determination. To contrast that, as we must with theological freedom, when Paul says in Galatians 5:1, “for freedom Christ has set you free, therefore do not return to this [i.e., slavery],” he would never mean that Christ has set us free to choose between obeying Christ and not disobeying. He would never say Christ has set us free to believe in Him or not to believe in Him. He means that we have been set free by Christ for obedience and love only.

It isn’t a case of freedom of choice, it’s freedom from choice in this respect. Theologically you are free only when you are freed…when you are freed from impediments to be acting in accord with your true nature, which by God’s grace is to be a child of God.

Dr. Franks: The freedom we read about in Galatians is just a different type of freedom than the freedom to choose from among alternatives. There are different notions. It’s the same term being used in a different way.

We call it freedom because it issues from my desires but it’s not that I have control over my own desires. That’s where you get into what could be in one way the debate between the Calvinist perspective and a Wesleyan or Arminian perspective.


Q: Can you explain the perspectives on freedom of the different denominations?


Dr. Shepherd: Arminius said it is only by grace we can decide for grace. And the Calvinists would say the same thing, only in terms of election. Whereas the Arminians would speak of prevenient grace and the Calvinists would speak of election, both are saying that only by grace can we choose for grace. The difference is the Arminians would say that by the grace of God we may choose for grace. Calvinists would say by the grace of election we must choose grace-there’s no possibility of not choosing grace.

Freedom is always related to what we believe to be the nature of the human being. What we mean by freedom always presupposes your understanding of the human.

Dr. Franks: Freedom to act according to our nature, the freedom to love God, choose God. It seems like we might be able to think of the distinction between the freedom to do what one ought to do versus the freedom to do what one wants to do. That wanting to do, it’s a simpler notion. Ideally you become the type of person where what you want to do is what you ought to do. But that’s not always the case.

Dr. Shepherd: In that sense, once you say what I want to do versus what I ought to do-freedom-am I free to sin? Absolutely. Am I free not to sin? Only by God’s grace am I freed not to sin. Is there any impediment to the fallen will willing sin? No. Then the fallen will is free to will sin. Is the fallen will free to will righteousness? No. Then it has to be freed. In that sense then we are freed by Jesus Christ for conformity to him.

Dr. Franks: That is, I think, going to be a more comprehensive, universal understanding no matter what theological tradition you come from. The difference is going to be in the distinctions between what people of different traditions mean by grace. One way of understanding the difference between prevenient grace and a more Calvinistic understanding is that prevenient grace is given to everyone. Are we free to choose God, to walk in righteousness? Well, yes, but the distinction is going to be, what do we mean by grace? Who does it apply to? What results from it? It’s going to be a difference of who has been given that grace and whether or not you can resist it.

Dr. Shepherd: In the Arminian tradition, prevenient grace guarantees the possibility of embracing Jesus Christ who has first embraced me. In the Calvinist tradition, the grace of election guarantees the inevitability of my embracing him who has first embraced me.

Dr. Franks: The minority view among Christian philosophers is of compatibilism, that our freedom is consistent with being determined to act in some particular way. Of those compatibilists though, there’s almost a one-to-one correlation with being a compatibilist and being a Calvinist.

Q: What do all the denominations share when it comes to the word “freedom?”


Dr. Shepherd: If they are theologically informed, it would be Galatians 6-to be freed by Christ, is to be freed by Christ for Christ.

But most people are not theologically informed. We are only free in so far in some way, at some level, we have beheld our blessed Lord who therein frees us. Most church people, in all denominations, understand freedom in terms of “Am I free for self-determination in some way?” Nobody has ever disputed this. It’s not an issue.

Q: How do these concepts of freedom play out in everyday life?


Dr. Shepherd: In World War II all allied flyers in the Pacific were given, along with their parachutes and life rafts, shark repellent. If a flyer’s plane was shot down in the water he squeezed his shark repellent and a little yellow sphere formed around him. Is he free to swim outside the range of the shark repellent? Sure, he’s free. He is also free to be eaten alive. If he wants to live, he’s freed to live only as he remains within the orbit of the shark repellent. Now the righteousness of Christ is the orbit of shark repellent. In the secular understanding of freedom, freedom’s our capacity to swim wherever we want. From the theological perspective our freedom is to remain in the orbit of Jesus Christ’s righteousness and find our life thriving because outside the orbit of Christ and his righteousness there is only deadliness.

Q: How do you bring the philosophical concepts of freedom into daily life?


Dr. Franks: I want to help students to think about the concept of freedom that they are actually using then, to try and help them make a philosophical understanding of that. Some students recognize that whenever the rubber hits the road in their daily living, they behave as if libertarianism is true. They realize that they behave as if they really do have this ability to choose otherwise. Well, if that’s right, that means I must have this more general libertarian conception of freedom.


Concepts of Grace

Arminian concept of grace: God's mercy calls us to himself and enables us to respond but doesn't guarantee a positive response; i.e., we may be called and repudiate the call.

Calvinist concept of grace: Same as Arminian definition but with the difference that God's call guarantees our positive response; we shall invariably respond positively.


Compatibilism: The view that even though determinism is true, free will can exist within such a world.

Determinism: The view that every event is brought about by the conjunction of past states of affairs with the laws of nature; given the same past states of affairs and the same laws of nature, you’ll always get the same future

Grace of election: Grace is God-in-his-love faithfully keeping his covenant with us, keeping his promise ever to be our God.  Mercy is God's grace meeting our sin.  'Grace of election' is the faithful God's mercy calling us to himself and enabling us to respond to that call.

Libertarianism: The view free will is not compatible with determinism and humans do have free will (thus, determinism is false).

Prevenient grace: Latin:  'pre'= before, 'venire' = to come. Prevenient grace is grave that "comes before" someone's appropriation of saving grace; comes before the sinner is aware that she is a sinner; comes before she understands or has even heard of the gospel

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