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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Liberty (ἐλευθερία) occupies a prominent place in the thought of NT writers and appears in a variety of significations.-

1. In the political sense.-As denoting the status of a free citizen and in direct contrast with the state of slavery, the word figures in one of the great dichotomies used by the apostolic writers in classifying men from the standpoint of their age (Colossians 3:1 -‘bondman, freeman’). We have no means of knowing even approximately in what proportions the churches of the apostolic and sub-apostolic times were made up of freemen and of slaves. Everything certainly goes to show that many of the latter class became Christians; in all probability, too, they usually formed the majority. It is precarious, however, to find positive evidence of this, as A. Deissmann does with regard to the Colossian Church, in the mere fact that (Colossians 3:18-25; Colossians 4:1) counsels addressed to slaves are given in ampler terms, those to masters quite briefly (St. Paul, Eng. translation , 1912, p. 216). Similar reasoning might argue from 1 Peter 3:1-8; 1 Peter 3:7 that wives were in a majority and husbands in a minority!

The fact that St. Paul, a native of Tarsus, was a Roman citizen is treated as a matter of importance in Acts. It was the Roman Emperors who gave the people of the provinces power to enjoy the rights of citizenship. There is a dramatic turning of tables in Acts 22:28 when St. Paul is able to say quite simply (yet with a touch of pride), ‘But I am a Roman born,’ and Claudius, the captain, turns out to be but a parvenu who had had to spend a lot of money, somehow or other, to acquire the citizenship. The same status is claimed for Silas as well as St. Paul in Acts 16:37.

Not a few of those who are mentioned by name in St. Paul’s Epistles (e.g. Philemon, Gaius, Erastus, Aquila, Phaebe, etc.) must have been of the citizen class. The number of such increased as time went on. In the Ignatian Epistles (e.g. Smyrn. xii. and Polyc. viii.) we find similar references to devoted Christians (Tavias, Alce, Daphnus, ‘the wife of Epitropus’ [or ‘of the governor’], Attalus, etc.) of the same rank. But Christianity had gained access to the palaces of the aristocracy before the 1st cent. was out, and had won adherents there who suffered for their faith-witness the well-known cases of T. Flavius Clemens, the consul, and his wife, Domitilla. And for the same period we have the evidence of an outsider in Pliny’s famous Epistle to Trajan (x. 97), wherein he tells us that he found in his province large numbers of Christians ‘of all classes’ (omnis ordinis). What was true of Bithynia was most probably true of other parts of the Empire.

Citizenship and wealth, of course, did not necessarily go together. In the class of freemen were included people of all ranks, from artisans and labourers up to the wealthiest aristocrats. Unfortunately many citizens were but idle loafers, depending on the Imperial largesse. The existence of the huge, overgrown system of slavery had a sinister effect on the great mass of citizens, inasmuch as ‘paid labour was thought unworthy of any freeborn man’ (C. Bigg, The Church’s Task under the Roman Empire, Oxford, 1905, p. 114). The poor, hired labourers, however, of James 5:4 were not technically δοῦλοι. The same Epistle shows us how soon the Apostolic Church experienced the evils too possibly attendant upon the appearance of the rich man within the circle of the Christian society (chs. 2 and 5).

Though civic freedom is quite evidently valued, we find little or nothing in the apostolic writings bearing on political questions. Lofty moral teaching and profound theology abound, but there is no feeling manifest that political freedom was a thing worth seeking for its own sake. It may indeed be said that in the 1st cent. ‘the prevailing notions of freedom were imperfect, and the endeavours to realise them were wide of the mark’ (Lord Acton, The History of Freedom, London, 1907, p. 16). See, further, article Slave, Slavery.

2. In the sense of freedom of conscience.-‘Liberty’ is used in the NT to denote a man’s freedom to decide what is right or wrong for himself, especially in relation to matters enjoined upon him by some form of external authority. The development of such a notion naturally followed upon the development of the notion of conscience itself, which in turn was bound up with the growing sense of human individuality and personal responsibility. In pre-Christian lines of philosophical and religious teaching (as e.g. in Stoicism) we mark in this respect a praeparatio evangelica. As the ancient conception of man as merely a component unit in tribe or nation faded and gave way to the sense of his value for himself as well as for the community, and of his responsibility for himself, such consequences were bound to follow. So far from morality consisting simply in compliance with commands embodying the will of the community of which the man is a part (which commands may also be conceived as Divinely originated), when man realizes his individual responsibility to God, conscience emerges, and, criticizing those very commands, may disapprove as well as approve, whilst it may also find a whole area of moral interests which the injunctions of external authority do not touch and in which it must decide for itself.

To the rise of Christianity we very specially owe an advanced conception of conscience and its corollary, the claim to freedom to act in accord with the behests of conscience. ‘Am I not free?’ cries St. Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1); whilst ‘Peter and the apostles’ (Acts 5:29) are heard declaring ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ These sayings might serve as watchwords of the new era as viewed from this standpoint (Judaism itself, it should be noted in passing, exhibited in course of time a similar development in its ethical teaching). And the clash between the new order and the old necessarily brought with it abundant scope for the outcrop of cases of conscience such as St. Paul handles in 1 Corinthians 8 ff. and Romans 14 f.

Freedom of this kind can be properly claimed and used only by the conscientious man-the man who is above all else concerned for harmony between the laws and customs he is called to observe and the inward regulative principle, and who departs from such laws only when an enlightened conscience imperatively demands it. For another important pre-requisite is that the exercise of this freedom shall be based on intelligent judgment. ‘Let each man be fully assured in his own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a Pauline dictum of the first importance. Cf. the deeply significant logion ascribed to our Lord in Cod. D (Luke 6:5) wherein He says to a man found working on the Sabbath, ‘If thou knowest what thou art doing, blessed art thou; but if thou knowest not, thou art accurst and a transgressor of the law.’ A man cannot justifiably set at nought a positive commandment or institution unless he has sight of some higher principle which determines his course of action. The freedom an enlightened man asks is freedom to do what he sees he ought to do, and to do what he may do without injury to others.

For St. Paul very emphatically insists on the necessity of qualifying the exercise of one’s own liberty by regard for the claims of others. It must not involve harm to others or an infringement of their liberty. Self-limitation for the sake of others is, indeed, an example of the truest exercise of freedom.

3. As a description of the Christian life and experience.-Social conditions being what they were in the 1st cent., it was most natural that the life resulting from faith in Christ, as that is presented in the NT, should be described in the apostolic writings by a cycle of metaphors centring in the word ‘redemption’ (Deissmann, op. cit., p. 149). This is specially characteristic of St. Paul.

The Christian life is represented as (a) freedom from the bondage of law.-St. Paul’s treatment of this topic (found mainly in the Epistles to Romans and Galatians) is not easy to follow and is doubtless coloured by his own vivid personal experience. We do not find quite the same line taken in other early apostolic writings that have been preserved to us. By general consent, it is true, it came to be held that Jewish and Gentile Christians alike were free from obligation to observe the Jewish Law in its peculiar institutions and ceremonial rules. The old sacrificial system was abolished ‘that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation’ (i.e. the dedication of the man himself) (Epistle of Barnabas, ii.; so also Epistle to the Hebrews, and Epistle to Diognetus, iv. [regarding Sabbath, circumcision, ‘kosher’ foods, and the like]). But St. Paul has far more than this in view. He is thinking of all law as the expression of God’s will for man’s life and the severe revealer of man’s sin as he departs from it: law that has only condemnation for the sinner (see the autobiographical Romans 7).

That the Apostle countenances an antinomian freedom he himself indignantly denies. Nor did he lack the true Jew’s veneration for the Torah. With him law assumes the form of ‘an imperious principle opposed to grace and liberty only when it is viewed as the condition of justification, the means of attaining to righteousness before God through the merit of good works.’ As the expression of God’s will and the guide of human obedience it is ‘holy, just, and good’ (Romans 7:12; see E. H. Gifford, Romans [in Speaker’s Commentary, 1881, p. 48]). Torah comes to its own in the new life which springs from Christian faith and the unio mystica between the Christian and his Lord. And if other early Christian writers present this life as lived under law (see Epistle of James, especially the happy expression, ‘law of liberty,’ ch Romans 1:25; also 1 John 3:22 ff.), St. Paul likewise lays stress on ‘the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2) and gives us the far-reaching aphorism: ‘Love is the fulfilment of law’ (Romans 13:10).

(b) Freedom from the bondage of sin.-Sin is here personified as a tyrannical master (see especially the line of treatment in Romans 6; cf. John 8:34). An interesting parallel is furnished in the Discourses of Epictetus (iv. i.), where it is laid down that ‘no wicked man is free.’

(c) Freedom from the bondage of idolatry.-See Galatians 4:8 f.-a point of material importance to the Gentile world in apostolic days.

(d) Freedom from the bondage of corruption (Romans 8:21).-This rather belongs to the hope for the world at large which contemplates the social state wherein the new life is perfectly realized. ‘The glory of the children of God’ is a liberty which all creation sighs to share.

It remains briefly to point out that not only does the term ‘redemption’ (applied to the work of Christ in opening to men this new experience of life) derive from the social state in the midst of which Christianity was burn, but ‘adoption’ as used by St. Paul (Romans 8:15; Romans 8:23, Galatians 4:5) similarly gains special significance as denoting entrance upon the life of liberty. Adoption, in a general way, was no uncommon phenomenon in the old world (see υἱοθεσία in Deissmann, Bible Studies, Eng. translation , 1901, p. 239), but it was also one recognized way of giving freedom to a slave.

There is no inconsistency but only striking paradox when this experience which is described as freedom is also described as a servitude to God (cf. 1 Peter 2:16, θεοῦ δοῦλοι, and Romans 6:22, δουλωθέντες τῷ θεῷ). Here, too, it is of interest to recall that it was a Stoic doctrine of liberty that true freedom consists in obeying God, or, as Philo of Alexandria (see Tract, Quod sit liber quisquis virtuti studet) puts it, the following of God. Again, as the Christian is commonly described in the NT as a δοῦλος Χριστοῦ, the singular use of ἀπελεύθερος (= libertus, freedman) in 1 Corinthians 7:22 noticeably introduces the notion of enfranchisement to describe the gaining of freedom in Christ. There may be here the underlying thought that the ‘freedmen’ of Christ stand related to Him somewhat as the liberti stood to their patron, to whom they were bound to render, in the language of Roman Law, obsequium et officium.

4. In the philosophical sense.-See article Freedom of the Will.

Literature.-See works referred to in article Slavery, and in addition to works quoted in foregoing article , T. G. Tucker, Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul, London, 1910; H. Wallon, Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquite2, Paris, 1879.

J. S. Clemens.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Liberty'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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