The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills

If the church fell with Constantine, as medieval scholastics describe it, I presume this fall is like the first. The love of God is traded for the law/knowledge of good and evil in which death will become the means to life. The Constantinian corporate version of the Fall imagines peace and harmony will be achieved through war, death, and violence. With Constantine, Caesars, princes, and soldiers, in spite of their killing, were permitted into the church under the legal provisions of just war, which though it was an exception to the rule, would result in a theological shift. The main stream of thought continued to forbid priests to be soldiers, and penance was required of princes or their soldiers who participated in killing. Shedding blood continued to disqualify a potential priest for ordination. Nonetheless, with Augustine’s neo-platonic notion that one could both kill and love their enemy, allowing not only for just war but for the use of the sword against heretics, the equivocal nature of common vocabulary was made to float around the hidden counsels of God. God determines what is good so that his will is the good, and this turns out to be quite arbitrary. As the biblical writer says, “Who oh man are you to question God?” So, if God wills it, by definition it is good.

 The shift in ethics that is occurring in the Constantinian church comes at a steep price, as this requires focus on God’s essence as freedom or will.  Rather than presuming the love of God as primary, the shift in ethics implicitly requires focus on the will of God. This may have been an unconscious necessity, but the point as outlined by Augustine, is to make it clear that God acts “beyond any external necessity whatsoever” so as “to shape the destinies of all creation and the ends of the two human societies, the ‘city of earth’ and the ‘city of God.’”[1] As Brad Jersak sums it up, “Augustine begins with God’s freedom to love and forgive and save, in which he is accountable only to himself. . . But Augustine is quick to add that it works both ways. God is also free to judge and condemn and damn.”

As Ron S. Dart depicts it,  

Augustine took a position at times quite at odds with the Alexandrian Christianity of Clement and Origen. It is in Augustine that notions such as election, double-predestination, God’s sovereignty, just war and God’s willing and choosing reach a place and pitch that has much in common with the God of Biblical Judaism. . .. [We see] in Augustine the return to a willing, choosing sovereign God, not bounded by goodness or justice. Such a God could and would use his freedom to elect whom he willed for salvation and whom He willed for damnation. This is not a god [we can] truly trust.[2]

This focus on sovereignty will continue in the Voluntarism of medieval theology, which will be definitive of the Protestant Reformation. Voluntarism also places God’s will prior to his goodness in an effort to protect God’s freedom, and it is particularly concerned to explain God’s complete freedom. God’s own nature is thought to be at stake and so there is a primary emphasis on God’s sovereign will as the primary attribute of God. His will is absolute, even beyond good and evil, so that it is not good or evil which constrain God, but that which is good is good because God decrees it. God’s will is a singular absolute, as this is thought to be the only way to preserve God’s freedom. Nothing constrains God, so that he can forgive or condemn as it pleases him, and to try to say why he does anything is to endanger his freedom with something other than pure, unadulterated, will. God is God, law is law, power is power, or will is will, and to suggest that any finite category, such as goodness, love, or evil, might impinge upon this absolute freedom of the will is to degrade God’s sovereignty.  

Calvin goes where all before him had hesitated, and suggests that all events, even evil ones, take place by God’s sovereign appointment. There is no difference between God’s permission, God’s purposes, or what God allows or what he commands. Calvin turns to Romans 9, and the example of Jacob and Esau, to argue that what God does depends upon nothing other than God’s will:

You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.[3]

Calvin makes it clear, God’s mercy and his condemnation are purely gratuitous: “the covenant was gratuitous at first, and such it ever remains.” While one might momentarily think David bases God’s favor “according to the cleanness of my hands,” Calvin points out that God’s unfathomable pleasure precedes this favor. “In commending the goodness of his cause, he derogates in no respect from the free mercy which takes precedence of all the gifts of which it is the origin.”[4]

Calvin concludes:

The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as He commands; that they are not only bound by His fetters but are even forced to do him service.[5]  

So, the evil of the devil and the evil of wicked men cannot be permitted to somehow exist apart from the volition of God. As Jersak concludes, “Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name.”[6]

Another way of understanding focus on pure freedom and will is as a turn from the person of God (defined by love) to a focus on impersonal power. Personhood does not really figure into the discussion of freedom, as the normal constraints of personhood are set aside. To say that one’s choices are unconstrained – unconstrained by circumstance, unconstrained by time or place, etc., – in the case of a human is clearly contradictory. Someone constrained by nothing would have to be dead or nonexistent, but of course this is the ultimate constraint. But the same thing holds true for God – to say that nothing constrains his will would mean that his personhood is sublimated or overridden by his arbitrary choices. This is not a description of a person but is a description of pure arbitrary or “gratuitous” power (in Calvin’s words).

I would suggest that the Constantinian shift is a repetition of the Fall – as with all sin. The turn from love to freedom, as definitive of the divine essence, is simply a return to the law. To imagine that there is life in the law is synonymous with the reduction of God to raw power. In this system, one does not speak of relationship, covenant, and love prior to the law, but one begins with the law itself as if it is its own reason. “The law is the law – yours is not to question but to obey.” This primary focus on the law is definitive of the sin which the writers of the New Testament are putting to rest.

Paul explains that the law – the law of sin and death – is the power that has been unleashed on the world and which is being defeated by Christ. The Mosaic law per se, Paul explains, was not the problem, but we can follow what was done with the Mosaic law to perceive the problem. This law was grounded in a promise fulfilled in Christ, but the Jewish inclination is to forget the love, to forget the covenant, and to focus on the marker of the law.

John explains that the law was not an end in and of itself. The law is not grace, the law is not truth, as this is the place of Christ (Jn. 1:17). Jesus corrected, reinterpreted, completed, and suspended the law as he is the final and full revelation of the loving truth of who God is. “God’s essence is not pure will. His essence is selfless love. God’s primary attribute is not freedom. God is first of all good.”[7] We know who God is through Christ, and to presume otherwise is to return once again to the law.

As David Bentley Hart has put it, “It is a sort of ‘oblivious memory’ of Paul’s message that all the powers of the present age have been subdued, and death and wrath defeated, not by the law – which, for all of its sanctity, is impotent to set us free – but by a gift that has cancelled the law’s power over against us.”[8] The sovereignty of man (the man Constantine) and the will of humans are playing the decisive role in the turn from love to freedom. God’s sovereign purposes are thought to reign supreme in the Sovereign Constantine, so that all the benefits of law and freedom seem to be accruing, through history, by a different means than the love of Christ. As is always the case with law – there are advantages to those who wield this weapon. God willed, it was thought, that some be rulers, some be powerful, some be on top. God willed it, that settles it, bow before this casuistry. In Western history the devolving focus on pure will makes it obvious that one can take hold of this force and wield it – should he be uber-man enough. The will to power, the will to freedom, the will to throw off all constraints, except as those constraints accrue to my benefit, describes the modern end of the turn to freedom.  

Throwing off the constraints of tradition and religion and turning to the “I am that I am” of the cogito, founds the absolute law of reason and of the individual. This “thing that thinks” is as mysterious and unapproachable as the God who wills. This autonomous, isolated, immortal, entity, is dependent upon no contingency. There is only the free movement of the will, as neither body nor thought impinge upon this mysterious automaton.  The problem is that this thinking thing is as removed from thought as the council of the sovereign God is from history, from Christ, and from love. The curse of this power is that it operates beyond reach, beyond reality, and beyond love. This thinking thing is constrained by nothing – and this death and nothingness is its curse – the curse of the law.

With Paul we might cry out, “but who will deliver me from this law of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 7:25, 8:1).


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions of Saint Augustine, (Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2008), 7. Quoted from Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (p. 314). CWR Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jersak, 64.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.23.6. http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Calvin%20Institutes%20of%20Christian%20Religion.pdf

[4] Calvin, 3.17.5

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.17.11. Reference in Jersak, 315..

[6] Jersak, 66.

[7] Jersak, 79.

[8] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 319. Thank you Matt for this gift that keeps on giving.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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