The Freedom of the Person of Christ

It is necessary to grasp the meaning of three freedoms if we are going to be able to explain the full significance of freedom. These three freedoms are 1) divine freedom, 2) created freedom and 3) human freedom.

1) Divine freedom is to be understood as the uncreated freedom of the one, sovereign and free God who is the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Divine freedom, as uncreated freedom, is noncontingent freedom. This means that this type of freedom possesses the absolute freedom to exist. It depends on nothing outside of itself for its existence.

2) Created freedom, on the other hand, is a contingent freedom. Created freedom has boundaries that differentiate it from God’s type of existence. We say that God is the eternal reality, but that the world is not. As God’s creation, the world possesses a created freedom that is different from God’s uncreated freedom. The world’s created freedom may reflect in some ways the divine freedom, but the one cannot be confused with the other. The divine, uncreated, noncontingent reality of the transcendent and sovereign nature and being of God can never be thought to be the same as the material, created, temporal and contingent things of the Earth.

3) Human freedom can be understood only as it exists within the created freedom of the world. In a unique way, human freedom is allowed to echo divine freedom.

Outside of the Lord Jesus Christ, no integration of divine, created and human freedom is possible. Outside of him, we remain alienated and fragmented in our understanding of how God has actually accomplished the integration of these three freedoms. We turn the apparent freedom we enjoy into an idol when we are unable to integrate into our thinking the transcendence and the immanence inherent in these freedoms. There is a Christological center, if you like, to the secret of the rationality and intelligibility of human freedom. It is the subject of this center that I now wish to address.

When I teach students in my theological courses at university or seminary level, I like to show them how we have progressed from the Ptolemaic cosmology of the ancient world (where philosophers tried to transcend the earthly aspects of thought to reach the "perfect and eternal forms" that philosophy seemed to see with its "mind’s eye"), through the Newtonian "system of the world" (which reduced everything to empirical systemization of cause and effect) to modern scientific method (which is committed to understanding the world according to its real nature). We seek through thought to comprehend the real universe in ways that are faithful to its nature. We do not merely subject the world to our speculations about it, but allow it to teach us to know it for what it really is.

The history of human thought and human freedom have experienced real transformations as we have brought our minds into a creative relationship with the actual nature of the world we live in. These transformations only affirm the truth we find in the gospel. They are, I believe, a good indication of what is meant by our freedom as our civilization has developed under the providence and prophecy of God’s Word.

Thus, I would argue for the cogency of the Judeo-Christian tradition in shaping human understanding about both human and divine freedom. In this tradition, Christology shapes and forms the substance and content of the center of world history with a freedom whose nature has integrated for us the three freedoms we have been dealing with. As we understand the freedom of the Person of Jesus, we shall understand the freedom of God, the freedom of the creation, and the freedom of humanity. So, how do we go about this?

I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Alexandrian grammarian John Philoponus (a.d. 490-560). He was misunderstood by the church as a heretical monophysite. He had tried to write a treatise on the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ for the Emperor Justinian. It was hoped that some reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Sees of the church in Justinian’s empire might be realised if a fresh understanding of the Person of Christ could be arrived at. I learned the following from Philoponus about the freedom in Christ Jesus as the Eternal Son and Word of God.

The ancients recognized that understanding Christ meant resolving in some way the problem of the divine and human natures of Jesus. Thus, the Person of Jesus Christ is bound up with the resolution of the ancient philosophical problem of the whole and the parts. Philoponus argued that, in the case of the Person of Jesus Christ, the impossible had occurred and we had to face this fact or deny God his divine freedom. The Person of Jesus Christ was neither brute fact nor some pious phantom. The wholeness of the Person of Jesus Christ is at once bound up with the wholeness of the life of God himself and the humanity of the Word become flesh. When he assumed his flesh in the Virgin, a new reality, unknown in the cosmos prior to Jesus’ birth, entered the world. And here we have the key to understanding the different types of freedom.

Creative freedom thus wills to make mankind in the image of God, a profound restoration of all that mankind had lost in its disobedience to the Word of God. With a divine freedom that only he possesses, God has gone out of himself and become something or someone he had never been before, while at the same time, remaining who he truly is. With this uncreated and divine freedom he has acted to make himself known as a man to all mankind. He has entered into his creation and as a creature within his creation he spoke the Word of God whose truth would free men and women from their covenants with death, sin and evil and prepare them for the new creation. In this way, the Creator as our Redeemer has indicated the way we must learn to think about the interaction between the divine and the human in the created reality of God’s universe.

There are, Philoponus thought, different ways of conceiving the relationship between a whole and its parts. Take a house, for instance. It is made up of parts – floors, walls, roof, etc. Each of its parts occupies its own space. We lump together the number of these spaces when we want to define the house as a whole. We may say that a house is the sum of its parts. Number rationality is sufficient for us to define the house. But when we consider the wholeness of a bronze statue of a person, we cannot simply number the spaces of the parts. The bronze metal of the statue and the form of a person occupy in this case the same space. Its parts do not occupy their own places. The two are one, not by the numbering of their places but because both belong to the form and content that is the one space of the statue. We may think of this kind of wholeness as having an aesthetic kind of rationality, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here we think beyond mere number rationality for our grasp and appreciation of this whole statue. However, neither of these cases is adequate for explaining the whole and the parts of the divine and human nature of the Word become flesh.

In the incarnation, the divine freedom of God’s Word creates its own space-time for the flesh he assumes. Only the divine Word that God the Son is can define the particular man Christ exists as, in the nature of God’s creation. The Word establishes his own reality within the space-time structures of the world. This is a divinely free act that creates what is utterly new in the history of the world. Here we understand the importance of imageless knowing in theology. God in his eternity has made himself present with and for us in his creation, that is, on earth. In this way, human freedom from within the free creation has been given real union and communion with the Lord God’s very own divine freedom.

It is important to understand that the Word did not leave some place in order to become this particular man Jesus. It is also important to understand that human time has here been given real touch with God’s eternity. All that we mean by divine freedom and all that we mean by human freedom is bound up together in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Word did not go into a flesh that existed outside of himself, but assumed his holy flesh as the man Jesus Christ. The Father did not assume this flesh. The Spirit did not assume this flesh. But God, in his own divine freedom, assumed this flesh as the Word or Son of God. This is to say that it was with a very particular mode of his free being that God became incarnate. In this way, Philoponus sought to appreciate the Person of Jesus Christ as the Light of the World.

His long-standing condemnation by the church is not easy to understand. It has been only very recently that the Eastern Orthodox Church has changed its mind about the anathema against him. I believe that this represents a new appreciation for the meaning of freedom. I believe that this Alexandrian grammarian put his finger on a very vital point. To explain the free interaction of a free God with a free world and its humanity we need a fresh appreciation for the significance of this Person in his freedom to be with us now.

I would argue that, unless we can understand him in his freedom, we shall not understand any of the three freedoms we have been discussing. We cannot turn human freedom into either some abstract or idealistic philosophy or some brute fact or autonomous will intrinsic to the nature of the human race. We must learn to appreciate our freedom in the freedom God has made known to us in Jesus Christ. Unless we can appreciate this kind of creativity, we shall not understand how it is that the Incarnation is the confirmation of the divine freedom of God to create in the beginning, and the affirmation of every true beginning in God’s good creation. Without an appreciation of this divine freedom in all beginnings, we shall not grasp in all its depth the meaning of human freedom.

John McKenna
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