Faith and Autonomy

     The dictionary says that autonomy is “freedom from external control or influence.” The word is also defined as independence. We hear the word used in a variety of ways. We are hearing more these days about autonomy in connection with the operation of automobiles. As someone who drives quite a bit more than average and enjoys being under the wheel, the idea of an autonomous car is both intriguing and a little bit scary.

     The famous “they” say that autonomous cars are inevitable but I am not so sure. The problem of automobile accidents is, of course, real and significant, but given the frailties of computer technology one does wonder that turning vehicles over to electronic devices might be problematic. But we do have technology in other areas now that we never thought we would, so we shall see about autonomous vehicles.

     This use of the words autonomy and autonomous made me think about one of the most important subjects having to do with the relationship between God and man. The subject can be approached by asking a question and then looking to the Bible for the answer. Are we autonomous beings? This is another way of asking if we have free-will. No question about the character of humanity is any more important than this one.

     The question of human free will has been discussed for as long as people have existed. Eve and Adam exercised their freewill when they accepted the devil’s offer of the one thing that God said they could not have. God certainly had the power to keep them from doing what they did but He did not. He made them freewill agents and then let them exercise that free will. There are other examples of people exercising freewill in the Bible. God observed Abraham and stopped him just before he would have sacrifices Isaac. God said then “now I know” about Abraham’s faith (Genesis 22:12). Remember, the question is not whether God could have controlled Adam and Eve or Abraham. He could have. But He did not. We conclude then that we have been made by God with freewill.

    This conclusion is not accepted by everyone, particularly in the larger world of Christian theology. Early on a deterministic element became popular among Christian thinkers. People like Augustine said that man is born a sinner. Much later John Calvin codified this idea by saying that we are born totally depraved. Most of the Protestant Reformation (as well as mush of Catholic theology) rests on the idea that human beings inherit the original sin of Adam. We know that we all do eventually choose to sin (Romans 3:23), but this is much different from saying that we are condemned from birth by the sin of the original couple.

     Indeed, the Biblical definition of sin as coming short of God’s will (Romans 3:23) and going beyond God’s will (1 John 3:4) demands the exercise of freewill by the person so defined as a sinner. So does the acceptance of God’s solution for the problem of sin, the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 5:8-9). The deterministic element in Christianity holds the view that because man’s character is depraved he cannot move toward God on his own. For these folks salvation is not a gift we accept from God (as it is) but is something that God does to us.

     We know that the point of view expressed here is not held by great numbers of people in the Christian religion. People need to understand that our freewill does not obviate God’s sovereignty. Instead, it upholds His revealed nature and His desire that we all have access to His grace (Acts 10:34, Hebrews 2:9). God wants us to examine the evidence that leads to faith (Hebrews 11:1, 6) and then to obey the gospel of Christ (Mark 16:16).

     We really do have autonomy. We have our minds and God reaches our minds not with mystery but with the truth of His Word. Thank God for that.