21st July 2005

Blog :: A Scandalous Review

This is sort of in the vein of my book reviews, but not really. Last Christmas my inlaws gave me a book by Steve Brown called A Scandalous Freedom, with the idea that I would read it and report back my impressions.

It is now July. Obviously things haven't gone entirely according to plan. It's not that I didn't have an opinion; in fact I read the entire book the night I got and immediately formed some rather decided opinions. I have a tendency, however, to hold back when I'm going to criticize something till I've researched, thought, and hopefully written something of substance about why I disagree or don't like something. Sometimes this goes to ridiculous lengths: I'm still working on my book about Gothard, for example.

Well, sometimes I just need to spit it out. So here is finally my off the cuff impression of A Scandalous Freedom. Overall I enjoyed the book. The tone is straightforward and humorous. I have never read anything of Steve Brown's before and I haven't heard him on the radio (I mostly don't listen to "christian radio", but that's a post for another day). I have huge reservations, however, with the ideas Steve Brown expresses.

The thesis of A Scandalous Freedom is that Christians do not live in the freedom that Christ extends to us. I agree with this thesis, but I hugely disagree with how Brown understands that Freedom. First some points of agreement. Chapter 5, for example is entitled “The Masks We Wear... And the Authenticity That Sets Us Free” and chapter 6 is about “The People We Deify ... and the Truth that Sets Us Free”. The content is fairly obvious from the chapter titles and I agree that many Christians/Churches have a problem with the cult of the Charismatic Leader, for example, and that as Christians we should be of all people most able to be transparent with one another (flaws and all).

The valuable points he makes, however, are overshadowed by the huge problems of the early chapters. Let's look at Chapter one:

Many of us say, “as Christians, of course we're free – but that doesn't mean we're free to do whatever we want”. But if we aren't free to do what we want, then we aren't really free. Or, if we are, it is a weird sort of freedom... Some reveal their flight from freedom in the comment “Of course we're free, but that doesn't mean we're free to sin. It means we're free not to sin.” That sounds so very spiritual and I believe there is something to it... Still if that freedom doesn't include the freedom not to obey, then it isn't real freedom.

(I've quoted rather freely here from pages 7,8, and 9 (though I feel I'm doing justice to the ideas expressed.) The ellipsis are mine, the italics are in the original.)

Here is the problem: Steve Brown subscribes to a definition of freedom that is not the definition the Bible uses. Freedom, in his telling, is the ability to do (or condition of being able to choose ) whatever you want. This is a pretty good definition of one of the meanings of the word freedom as we usually use it. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines freedom as “The condition of being free of restraints.” The Bible, however, especially the New Testament, has a particular message to communicate when it uses the term freedom. The comment “we're free not to sin” is in fact the very heart of the Biblical usage of the term “freedom”.

Interestingly, if you perform a search for “free” in the concordance of your choice (I use bible.crosswalk.com, you only get about 30 results for the term “free” in the New Testament. Add a search for “liberty” (which has a slightly different meaning, keep reading) for another 15 passages or so. The vast majority of the results are uses of the word free to mean “without cost” (eg “the free gift”) and in the concrete sense of not being a legal slave (eg “whether bond or free”). If you eliminate these concrete references you are left with only 3 major passages (John 8:31-36, Romans 6, and Romans 8 (verses 1-2 particularly) that deal with the primary meaning of freedom in the New Testament (I will mention the secondary meaning and its corresponding passages later). These three main passages have a coherent and unanimous take on the nature of freedom for the Christian.

An exhaustive treatment is beyond my time (and possibly skill) but even a cursory look at the passages proves instructive:

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." 33 They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, 'You will be made free'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:31-37, NKJV)

In this passage Jesus actually explains what he means by freedom: the state of not being a slave to sin! His initial cryptic comment (“you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”) puzzles His hearers who are thinking in political terms, apparently. (Parenthetically, none of the commentators I've read have a good handle on the statement in verse 33 since it is completely untrue in the political/historical sense.) Jesus clarifies what he means by freedom by saying that sinners are actually enslaved by sin, but the Son can make you free. My most straightforward reading of the passage is that Jesus' statement that “the truth shall make you free” could be read as “the truth shall make you not a slave to sin”.

Romans 6 is entirely too long to quote, and really too cohesive of an argument to excerpt. Suffice it to say that freedom is portrayed entirely as a matter of no longer being in bondage to sin. In fact, far from the portrayal of Christian freedom as being a state of being without obligation, Paul says “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:18). Now granted, Paul isn't entirely happy to use the term slave in connection with righteousness (see the next verse). He is clear, however, that being free is in the specific sense of being free from sin and in no way means that you have no obligations or restraints.

Let's think about that meaning just a little bit. Brown asserts that “it is a weird kind of freedom” that doesn't leave one free to do whatever you want. On the contrary, however, this is the kind of freedom we experience all the time. For example, later on in Chapter 1, he tells an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln purchasing a slave and setting her free (the anecdote is meant to be taken as apocryphal, I suspect). Ignoring the actual point of the story, think about the condition of freedom enjoyed by the newly freed woman. She was not free to do whatever she wanted; citizens of the United States are subject to all sorts of constraints (to obey the law, for instance). Furthermore as a black woman in the 19th century she would have all sorts of legal limitations on her actions and rights as a citizen. The term freedom still makes sense, however, because we are thinking of it in the limited sense of freedom from something.

The American Heritage Dictionary's second and fourth definitions for freedom, then, seem most apropos: “ Liberty of the person from slavery, detention, or oppression” and “Exemption from an unpleasant or onerous condition: freedom from want.”. This is the sense in which the New Testament is primarily using the concept of freedom and the onerous condition, the slavery it refers to is always the bondage to sin. Romans 8:1-2 confirms this view and ups the ante: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Again, I lack the space to explore the link between sin and death, but suffice it to say that Paul conforms to the consistent Biblical witness (OT->NT) in linking sin to death and asserting God's power to free us from both.

There is a secondary usage of the concept of freedom in the New Testament that (at first glance, at least) is more congenial to Brown's treatment. Gal 5, 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, as well as other references explore the theme of Christian liberty. Brown (partially) quotes Galatians 5:13 (full verse in NKJV “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”) and explains that while Paul doesn't want the Galatian Christians to do certain things, they can do those things because they are free. In fact all of these passages again have a consistent theme most obviously evident in Galatians 5. Christians are no longer subject to “the law” as a means of attaining righteousness. Paul repeatedly contrasts “liberty” with bondage to the requirements of the Law. Despite being free (not under obligation to keep the law) the authors of the New Testament urge Christians to restrain their behavior for a variety of reasons (public witness, sensitivity to weaker Christians, etc). This subtheme of “christian liberty” then, also does not mean “freedom from all restraint” but specifically means “freedom from the restraint of keeping the law”.

Whoo. This is why I procrastinate – I doubt my ability to write a review of a book that is shorter than the book itself. I still have more to say about the “Miserable Sinner” theology in Chapter 3. To briefly conclude however, my thoughts on the book are surprisingly positive given my strong disagreement with portions of it. I do agree that some Christians are burdened down with expectations of keeping human commandments, of conforming to a culture of ”christianese”, of an inability to be transparent, honest, and plain human. Unfortunately Brown's diagnostic powers are much more trustworthy than his recommendations for the cure. To be continued...

Update: Review continued here.

Posted on July 21st 2005, 12:46 AM