Monday, October 30, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom? Part 3

Any Christian who believes the Bible is the only ultimate binding source of divine authority for their life ought to realize that the main way the Bible defines genuine human freedom is this: The ability to do that which is one’s greatest preference at the moment. Additionally, one must see that genuine freedom is also compatible with a strong sense of causation behind the desired decision. This is not only the way I define compatibilism, it also seems to be the kind of freedom found in Philemon 14.

In this post I will examine that verse to see why I believe this to be true.

The Letter’s Message
As Paul and Timothy write to Philemon (v. 1)—the latter being the primary author (in light of the use of the first person singular from v. 4 on)—Paul appeals to Philemon, a wealthy Colossian Christian (see Col. 4:9, 17) and host of a house church (vv. 1-2), to receive back and be reconciled to Onesimus, a slave who most likely stole from Philemon and then fled. In the providence of God, Onesimus meets Paul in Rome, becomes a Christian, and now there is a desire to make things right with his master.

In the midst of Paul’s appeal in behalf of Onesimus (verses 8-20), Paul describes the transformation of Onesimus (vv. 8–12) and then affirms how helpful the slave would be to Paul in his current imprisonment (vv. 13–14). Yet, he then turns his attention to the relation of Onesimus and Philemon, asserting that God has been sovereignly involved in this situation perhaps so that the master may receive the slave back now as a fellow Christian (vv. 15–16) who will therefore be all the more useful to Philemon. He concludes with a direct appeal for Philemon to take Onesimus back as he would receive Paul himself (vv. 17–20).

Philemon 14
In verses 13-14, Paul clarifies that though he would very much like to keep Onesimus with him as a helper—by implication treating him as a freedman—nevertheless, Paul knew this would not be right. Paul does not want Philemon to be forced into treating Onesimus differently now that the latter has returned. He wants the master to treat him differently because he truly wants to do so (14). Verse 14 reads: “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” 

There are three terms Paul uses in this verse to address free choice on the part of Philemon. We will look at each of them in turn so we can grasp how Paul views human freedom.

To begin, Paul did not want to do anything without Philemon’s “consent” (gnōmē). Elsewhere Paul uses gnōmē to refer to the results of the thinking process—i.e. a judgment or opinion—what one believes to be true (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10; 7:25, 40; 2 Cor. 8:10). In this context the translation “consent” (ESV; RSV; NASB; NKJV; HCSB; NIV; NLT) is good. In other words, Paul desires Philemon to have heard Paul’s rationale for having Onesimus stay and to have agreed that it was good and thus to have agreed before Paul kept the slave with him. 

It appears that what Paul is writing here in v. 14 not only applies to having Onesimus stay with Paul (which Paul did not pursue), but also to Philemon receiving Onesimus back with a different relationship. This is implied from the likelihood that this letter was sent to Philemon by Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9) and so as Philemon read it, Onesimus would have already been back in his presence. So, what Paul says in v. 14 refers not merely to the possible scenario (if he had kept Onesimus in Rome), but also to the actual situation—i.e. what Philemon will do with Onesimus now. The implication is that Paul desires Philemon to think through the rationale from Paul and to treat the slave differently than he had previously—because this truly is his desire.

The second significant term Paul uses to speak of Philemon’s free choice is this: Paul did not want goodness shown to Onesimus to be “by compulsion” (anagkē). This term is used elsewhere by Paul to refer to a decision and action that one carries out that he has not truly come to desire in his heart (2 Cor. 9:7). That appears to be the meaning here. Paul does not desire that Philemon would engage in a decision or good action that is forced upon him and that goes contrary to what he truly wants.

It appears that in these first two terms used by Paul he is primarily emphasizing that he would prefer Philemon to make a choice to change his view of and relationship with Onesiumus—and most likely to forgive him—that does not by-pass Philemon’s intellect and affections.

However, before moving on, we must not miss that in verses 6 and 21 Paul clarifies that the good actions are ones which Philemon should do; they are ones which would be to Christ’s glory! So, there is very strong influence and causation present in the context of this lack of will-by-passing-compulsion.

The third significant term Paul uses is found in the last phrase: “but of your own accord” (hekousios). The word hekousios is used only here in the New Testament. It is used several times in the LXX to refer to a “freewill offering,” i.e. an offering for which there is no specific obligation to make, but is made simply because one desires to do it (Lev. 7:16; Nu. 15:3; 29:39; Ps. 119:108).  It is used in classical Greek literature to refer to something that is opposed to legal compulsion (BAGD, 243).

Nine Reasons To See Compatibilistic Freedom In Philemon 14
Because this last term (hekousios) is one of the few places in the Bible where explicit mention is made of “free will” (as seen in an earlier edition of the ESV) or a concept very close to this, it is important to focus in on this word even further. I believe there are nine reasons why this word should be understood to refer to a concept more resembling what Calvinists have termed compatibilistic freedom rather than libertarian freedom.

1. Philemon is a brother in Christ, a “fellow worker,” who hosts a church in his home. Paul believes him to be one who is changed and therefore can and should love others graciously, with a changed heart (Philemon 1-2 [cf. Rom. 12:1-21; 15:1-7; Eph. 4:1-5:2; Phil. 2:1-4f., et al.]). In other words, the fact that the indicative (what has happened to change the Christian) logically precedes the imperative (what a Christian ought to do) in Paul’s theology elsewhere would suggest at the very least that Paul is not expecting Philemon to make a decision whose movement starts in his own heart apart from God’s previous saving and transforming grace. What is more, there is nothing in this letter that would suggest Paul believes this decision by Philemon would be done in such a way that it is not accomplished as part of the “all things” which God works after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). So, to summarize this first point, Paul most likely sees Onesimus as having the general moral ability to do what is right toward Onesimus. And, whatever Philemon chooses to do as a free act can, at one and the same time, happen because it is what God has ordained to take place. In other words, it can be free and caused.

2. Paul believes Philemon to be one who has love toward Jesus Christ and the saints already (5). This undergirds the love and action toward Onesimus to which Paul is calling the wealthy saint. It is a motive that should move strongly or determine his choices in regard to Onesimus. In other words, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should.  

3. Similarly to the previous reason, Paul himself has experienced the love of Philemon and it has brought him joy and comfort (7). He believes that Philemon will respond to Onesimus in a similar fashion. In other words, there exists in Philemon antecedent character, convictions, and affections which should move him to make the choices Paul also would desire. So, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should, and this change should shape whatever desire Philemon has toward Onesimus and what actions he takes. An additional strong influence is Paul’s argumentation that he believes the Spirit will use to bring Philemon to the right decision.

4. Paul seems to utilize significant rhetorical strategy in order to persuade Philemon to act toward Onesimus with a changed relationship and brotherly love (cf. the entire letter, especially 16, 17). In other words, Paul is bringing upon Philemon strong influence toward a particular decision. As in all Paul’s epistles, he believes the Holy Spirit will use the very reasoning and word of God he shares to bring readers to Christ-like and God-glorifying decisions. And so, strong influences and even divine causation can bring about free choices (those for which the person has the strongest preference at the moment). In other words, the Spirit of God can move Philemon to the point he also has the particular moral ability to make the right decision and can actualize that decision.

5. The language of verses 8-9, 14 does not demand that the movement must start in the heart of Philemon apart from the work of God’s Spirit, apart from the decisive decree of God, and apart from any decisive persuasion on the part of Paul.  It is preferable (especially in light of what we discovered about the first two terms) to take the language as primarily focusing upon the need for true desire and willfulness on the part of Philemon that does not by-pass his own intellect and affections, rather than as a choice that is not caused or determined. In other words, Paul believes that the Spirit can move Philemon from merely a general moral ability for the right decision to a particular moral ability wherein the right decision is actualized and it will remain a genuinely free choice.   

6. In v. 21 Paul writes, “confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Even though Paul is not commanding Philemon how he must act toward Onesimus and even though he wants Philemon to act in accordance with what he truly wants to do, he also believes that changing his view toward Onesimus and acting graciously toward him in Christian love is the right thing to do—i.e. what the Spirit of God would have him to do. Since this is the case, Paul believes Philemon will do what is right, what he should do because he wants to do it—and this because, as a transformed Christian, he wants to please God and God wants him to do it. This verse, as much as any in the short letter, implies that Paul believes Philemon will do what is right because he is a changed man  and because, as a result, he wants to please God (his desires have been transformed). As such, though Paul wants the movement to come from Philemon’s heart, it does not have to be ultimately from his heart only and thus does not have to be decided apart from previous movements (both divine and human)! This is consistent with compatibilistic freedom, not libertarian freedom.

7. According to verse 6, part of doing what is right in this case is doing it “for the sake of Christ” (eis Christon). This is part of Paul’s appeal to the spirit of Philemon, which has been transformed by the Spirit of God and is now being led by that Spirit. Paul believes the Spirit will use these words to persuade Philemon freely to do what is right, that which glorifies Christ. After all, the regenerate person has been delivered from moral blindness (2 Cor. 4:4) to the kind of general moral ability wherein he sees God’s glory in Christ (2 Cor. 4:4) and desires to honor Christ (Phil. 1:20-23).  

8. Paul’s closing words, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” strongly suggest that Paul believes the transforming grace of Jesus Christ must be behind true Christian action (including love) and thus moves the heart of the saint (in this case Philemon) to do what God desires (see Titus 2:11-14). Paul is not suggesting that a person has the power in herself, apart from the Spirit of God, to do what which is right. It must be by saving and transforming grace.

9. Finally, Paul’s means of persuasion and what he desires from Philemon are very similar to the manner in which he seeks to persuade the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8-9.  There he brings to bear upon them strong reasons for giving, wants their giving to be something they truly want to do, and believes God’s Spirit will graciously work in them so that their actions will show the reality of their profession and will glorify God. In other words, it is compatibilistic freedom.

If the understanding of Philemon 14 that I have just set forth is accurate, the end result is this: If Philemon freely (i.e. with his consent and according to his preference) chooses to accept back Onesimus as a brother, treat him differently, and be reconciled to him—as he should do for the glory of Christ—the following antecedents would have moved, caused, and determined this choice: God’s predestination; Philemon’s regeneration and justification; his ongoing transformation by the Holy Spirit; his conviction that what pleases God is important; his desire to glorify Jesus Christ; his love for Onesimus; the Spirit working through the power of the Word of God; and perhaps a respect for the Apostle Paul, just to name a few.   As can be seen, then, this entire process of choice on the part of Philemon is very consistent with compatibilistic freedom.

What I have argued in my explanation of this text is that how Paul sought to influence Philemon, what he believed about the transformation of the wealthy Christian, and the expectation of how he would respond, all are in line with compatibilistic freedom—and that the choice Philemon would prefer to make is the one Paul sought to convince him to make, and, at that point he could not genuinely make the alternate choice, because he would not want to do so.[1]

So, genuine human freedom from Paul’s perspective is what the Calvinist would term compatibilistic freedom.

Before leaving the subject of human freedom, in my next post I will address some additional problems found in the concept of libertarian freedom.

Joyfully And Freely Following Our Sovereign God With You,


[1] One of the interesting realities about libertarian freedom is this: for it to be true, a person must be able to choose at the moment of decision that which is not his strongest preference. Aside from this kind of phenomenon not being able to be demonstrated, it also introduces a strong possibility that such “free” decisions must be haphazard and not even what is in accordance with what the mind reasons to be best. It seems odd to me and not in accord with how we make choices. 

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