To understand St. Paul’s view of freedom, we have to begin by understanding that Christianity is deeply indebted to Judaic literalism. The important events in Old Testament history taken to have really happened, and so subject to the falsifiability principle, in that one can conceive of them as not having happened and so having opened up for ages to come a lively debate about whether the remains of Noah’s Ark lie on top of Mt. Ararat, or whether Joshua could have indeed kept the sun from setting. This has to do with the ways in which human individuality is a kind of freedom, that rediscovered in the Renaissance, but also traceable back from Luther to St. Augustine and to St. Paul himself. The thing is, though, that this is not only an evolution of doctrine but of emotions that are granted by religious experience that can be summarized in doctrine but have a life of their own apart from doctrine. Ideas are the elaborations of what they are sensed to be and that what they are sensed to be is learned intellectually and not just from the unconscious mind or a preternatural sense of the world. Moreover, consciously wrought or acquired ideas also become experiences that are transmitted through their tags or imagistic associations rather than through thought.
“The Letter to the Galatians” is best understood, I think, as a description of the kind of freedom available to a Christian, which is a matter of religious experience, rather than as an argument in favor of one side of a philosophical dilemma. As such, it is very much in keeping with the theology of Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian”. This is a point worth investigating because it traces a central theme of Protestantism back to the very beginning of Christianity. It is also worth investigating because this is a very philosophical notion of freedom, not easily reduced to human experience, and so suggests the secularism of Christianity as very deeply grounded, if one understands secularism in the way it has been proposed here: as the philosophical understanding of a natural world not inhabited by spirits, and so dead rather than alive except as people make it so. The world can be understood abstractly and its situations as necessary, even if, for the modern religious believer, that means that God is also now to be understood as both abstract and necessary, and so different from the world as that is understood by modern secularists, which is a world without a God, but just as dead.
This theme can be garnered by going back to the very beginning of the “Letter to the Galatians”. The letter opens in a lawyerly manner reminiscent of Cicero. Paul says he enters with clean hands the debate between the party of Peter, who want Christians to become Jews, and his own party, whose mission is to preach to the gentiles, those who have never been Jews. That is so because he did not mix with the Judaizer party, even if he had met with the brother of Jesus, a member of that party, when Paul had been in Jerusalem, presumably because James’ special position earned him respect however he stood on the issues. It is as if Malcolm X had boasted that he had met Martin Luther King, Jr. (which he never did) but had not agreed with him on anything.
The gist of St. Paul’s position, however, is not that he had avoided being corrupted by the Judaizers. It is that there is no need for him to gain any authority from them because his own authority comes from the experience he had of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and so had learned directly what those who remain Jews are uncertain cannot be learned outside the framework of Judaism. Paul decries the hypocrisy inherent in the Judaizers becoming more Jewish—not eating with Gentiles—after they had already been eating with Gentiles, though this is not so much hypocrisy as choosing sides in what had become a conflict. Paul treats the prior position of the Judaizers as the one that tells the truth and their recent view of the matter is therefore untenable, which is just the logic he will use when he looks at the priority of experience over law: the law came second and so doesn’t count, even though one could argue that the law was a product of revelation and so a way to enforce or continue the assurances of a revelation. Paul will have none of that.
The rhetoric of advocacy adopted by St. Paul at the beginning of the letter suggests that it is not philosophically tight enough or coolly enough stated to be an argument. St. Paul is the lawyer who casts before his jury a set of comparisons where the one he regards as correct is so clear to him that no further argument is necessary, even though which side of the comparison should be chosen is not at all that clear. His rhetoric would come up lame was it not for the passion with which the loaded sets of choices is presented. That presses the jurors (every reader) to find some meaning for the comparisons that allows them to be settled in Paul’s favor. Attending to that rhetorical process allows the contemporary auditor as well to come to an understanding of what St. Paul is getting at, which is no less than that there is a new idea of freedom to be found in gentile Christianity so that his comparisons are resolved in the way he demands and presumes.
There are four sets of comparisons St. Paul makes and in none of them is it immediately clear which of the two alternatives offered stands to reason as the one to be chosen. First off, St. Paul asks why a person should not prefer what is heard to what is stated in the law (Gal. 3:2). It is easy enough to see why one should prefer the law. That is clear and universal and knowable, while what is heard may be unclear in that its meaning is uncertain and not carefully defined by others. What is heard may also be particular to the person who hears it because, as Hume noted, what is reported by others depends on possibly unreliable witnesses. And it is not certain that the truth of sentiment, which is the basis of what is remembered as a past experience, is truthful in the same way as a legal or other proposition is true, those taken as statements of knowledge or principle. So what could be the appeal of what is directly apprehended (which is what St. Paul means by “heard”) that makes it more appealing than law?
St. Paul is turning on its head the value of law in a way very different from the way Groucho Marx does so when he asks Margaret Dumont whether she believes him or what she sees with her own lying eyes. Groucho has the effrontery to rhetorically claim that his word is better than evidence; St. Paul has the effrontery to claim that what is seen and known as experience is superior to the world of interpretation and practice based on principles, which is what constitutes the law. People are liberated from the law and become abstractly free because they trust to what they sense rather than to what they know, however authoritative the law and its apparatus may be, however much the law has developed over millennia and reaches back to the authority of Sinai.
St. Paul asserts a proposition that would have seemed absurd to his readers except that they are won over by the passion to believe in this new way that sheds the scales of law for the directness of a vision. To have a vision of truth rather than a law that is true is part of the freedom that goes with being a Christian. To be a Christian does not require one to be a student of the law or to turn for advice to an expert on the law. A Christian is independent, the vision of a Christian making the Christian self-sufficient, and in that sense free of others.
St. Paul then asks again (Galatians 3:15) which of the two take priority: the vision or the law? He presents an analogy that contains a comparison. People make wills. That bestows an inheritance, which is what God wants to bestow on whoever are his people. St. Paul claims that an older will takes priority over a newer one; it cannot be changed. Whatever was the truth in his time, it is certainly not necessary to law, however much St. Paul takes pleasure at tweaking those who supposedly follow the law. A modern will can be updated, and it is logical to see a more recent will as taking precedence over an older one. St. Paul uses the image of the will to suggest that the prior promise, the one made to Abraham, takes precedence over later undertakings of God, which is to suggest, this perhaps not particularly helpful to his cause, that the law, as that is elaborated in the time after Abraham, is also God given and authoritative, though just not as much so as the original promise.
There is no end of problems with this comparison. For one thing, the relation of God to his people is not like a will; it is a covenant, which is an undertaking in which God promises what He does not have to promise, which is that He will not destroy people in a flood, or that He will allow Abraham’s people to multiply and become prosperous. So too, I would think, is the covenant by which Jesus is sacrificed for the sins of mankind. God did not have to do this, but once He did it, it could not be undone. That is different from a will, which is merely a convenience, a directive which does not have to be created for property to be transferred through other instruments of the state. And, second of all, why is there a need for a choice between promise and law? St. Paul would not see this as necessary in “Romans”, so why here? He does not explain why law cannot be an expression of, a way of carrying out, a promise.
The preferred choice in the comparison between old and new wills is saved by understanding that there are occasions that cannot be changed by further modifications. The true inheritance is that which is announced in the first flush of feeling rather than as it is adumbrated and altered through later considerations which will inevitably water down the fullness of the promise. We want to know what the one who wrote the will had in his heart as that was when it was in its prime rather than what it was cajoled into being by lawyers or Anna Nicole Smith. God is understood by what He said not by what He is interpreted to have said. What God said cannot be changed, only glossed or, worse, misinterpreted. The Christian is free because the Christian has a place to stand that cannot be altered by new fashions in thought or interpretation. The Christian need not worry that faith will be redefined around him. That is another aspect of the same freedom met in the first comparison. If the Christian is self-sufficient, then what he or she knows can be held to with firmness.
St. Paul’s third comparison also can be considered the provision of a deeper understanding of what that singularity, Christian freedom, entails. St. Paul says (Gal. 3:23) that the law guarded people when there was nothing but the law for them to live under. They are saved from the need of law by the arrival of the promise of salvation and so are “under”, so to speak, only Christ, though that too can be regarded as a now archaic metaphor (however much the Catholic Church may depend upon it) because God resides within people through Christ rather than presides over them like an Emperor. The Christian is free because he or she is under no one except as a contingency of this-worldly existence.
The comparison goes like this. The law provided for people in their various statuses, as gentiles or Jews, slaves or freed people, because it governed the rights and wrongs of those positions. The alternative is the promise of salvation which goes beyond the law because it provides the selfsame salvation to everyone regardless of rank or category. So the freedom of the Christian is recognized in that everyone is equal in their freedom, which might be taken to mean that freedom can mean that only if it is available to everyone and so makes everyone equal, rather than simply the possessor of one or another set of prerogatives, as would be the case with a Jew or a Roman or someone otherwise entitled to one or another freedom as that is granted by a superior power or by a set of natural or man made rules or laws that apply to all or some members of a community.
That idea carries out the program of “Isaiah” to universalize the god of the Jews, and it is particularly telling because it makes the idea of freedom very philosophical, in that it becomes a capacity of all people rather than an outside restriction or outside sufferance made available to some. It still does not solve the problem of why a person cannot be both spiritually free and still subject to the law. St. Paul may not have considered this as presenting a real difficulty until he had to deal with the Corinthians, and had to put down their transgression of the moral customs that are inscribed in law and are not merely the dietary habits and other matters that however emotionally important to a person as a sign of their being tied to their original community are not in themselves significant unless being part of that original community has ultimate authority.
So St. Paul is so concerned to rid people of their narrowly defined past that he does not as of yet see what aspects of law cannot be shed. St. Paul can therefore be said to be concerned in his third comparison only with law when it is trivial to all but the believers in every bit of the law, and so he is creating a straw man that may, however, represent most of the conventional Jews with whom he had to deal and even though it might seem to a modern day reader that it is obvious that some kind of law must apply even to the saved at least, that is, until Jesus returns to earth to establish a kingdom that is like no kingdom ever known in that people will live at peace without the need of law. This is a magnificent vision of a social world transformed that, unfortunately, utopian communities have found it difficult to imitate in these times before the Second Coming.
St. Paul’s fourth comparison is the most curious and problematic of the four, perhaps because he is reaching for some comparison that is so compelling that no listener will withstand it. St. Paul again uses the Abraham story, quite correctly judging that to be at the heart of the Jewish experience, more so even than the Exodus story, which is about collective freedom and history rather than the existential situation. St. Paul asks whether it is better to be Abraham’s offspring by Sarah or to be Abraham’s offspring by Hagar. It is better to be Isaac than Ishmael, St. Paul opines, because Isaac was the first legitimate son as well as the fulfillment of God’s promise that Sarah would give birth, even though an old lady. In that case, there is an allegory in that the comparison of Isaac to Ishmael runs parallel to the comparison of Jesus, who comes after the time of the law but is the legitimate son of God, to the law itself, which is, like Ishmael, the consequence of the slavery of the Jews to the law rather than the direct offspring of God. The law is for those who are not free and so is the law for slaves.
There are many problems with this analogy. First off, Hagar’s son was not an object of scorn, just a son who could not claim Abraham’s inheritance, even though Sarah, for some reason, took a dislike to him when he was grown. The significance of Abraham fathering a son himself was that God was so generous he could make this happen and the event was a way of declaring that being fruitful was a good rather than a bad thing and so did not in itself make the fathering of Ishmael a bad thing. It was Sarah’s jealousy that made it that. Moreover, Hagar’s offspring was legal in that Sarah had given Abraham her permission to go in with Hagar, which suggests that this was a customary practice for expanding a tribe.
There are still problems with the allegory, even putting aside St. Paul’s lack of anthropological knowledge. Think of the reverberations. Sarah’s child was born of both the flesh and the spirit. That was the point of it, and that sets the scene for Mary, whose child is also the product of both the flesh and the spirit, though the Mary myth may not have been part of Paul’s consciousness. That myth, however, is familiar to commentators that have to deal with this passage and somehow miss the analogy which must be there in the text if God knew both of these stories before either of them happened. Moreover, why should the child of the slave be less significant than the child of the chief’s legal wife? If Jesus could come to earth as a baby born in a manger, then surely the slavery of Ishmael’s mother should not be held against her.
The way to resolve the matter of why St. Paul uses Sarah as the preferable mother requires the definition of another element of freedom, the ultimate one which Paul provides in Gal. 5:13: “For you are called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Paul has put the idea of slavery to good rhetorical effect. It has been redefined as the bond of love that cannot be severed among members of the new community and, as such, is the substance of the spirit that moves the community and is present in the community aside from law. Freedom is in the understanding of the slavery in this world and to this world as the opposite of freedom and so freedom is purely spiritual, not a matter of what law allows you to do or disbars you from doing.
The distinctive idea of freedom provided by this fourth comparison or choice is that it is love that makes you free, just as it is the love of God for Abraham that made it possible for Sarah to have a child. That most Pauline notion is earned in this last comparison by being the climactic rendition of the seamless idea of freedom, that had first been understood (and sensed) as obvious or overt because it is, as it were, visible; secondly, freedom sensed as a personal conviction rather than a socially supported conviction; thirdly, freedom sensed as universal in that it cannot be conceived as applicable to some rather than to everyone; and here, fourthly, as the freedom to do what one wills to do, if faith is sufficient, which is have a child by Sarah, rather than to do what the exigencies of the moment, as those are hallowed through law, which is to have a child by Hagar.
The idea of freedom propounded in “Galatians” is profound because it does not make freedom depend on any actual earthly freedom, though it does suggest that anything can happen if it is approached through faith. The Christian knows at every moment what it is to be free rather than sometimes more or less restricted in his or her choices. That makes Christian freedom totally otherworldly and unconcerned with the laws that make one free or a slave, which is immaterial.
This is, on the surface, quite different from the way in which freedom is understood in the modern world, where it is identified with the making of voluntary choices. Modern people choose their toothpaste and automobile, and they decide to marry by mutual agreement rather than because of what their parents decide for them. They also pursue vocations of their own choosing and vote for their political officials in that most signal of modern institutions, representative democracy. Everyone is in any number of walks of life a creature of their own calling rather than of someone else’s and callings are not limited to religious and professional ones. There are even people in New York City who choose to be Boston Red Sox fans. This is part of the overall individuality of modern life, but is only one part of it in that voluntary selection is thought of as a product of individuality, which is the “free will” of every person. Freedom centers on the fact of choice and the experience of choice rather than the causes or reasons for choice. Americans take pleasure in the fact that voters can elect anyone they damned please even if some of them support candidates which make them seem dumb or venal or immoral in the eyes of those who support their opponents.
St. Paul, in “Galatians”, in fact, does provides a basis for thinking about people as creatures of their choices when he posits that the choice of being a Christian is free and voluntary rather than a compulsion dictated by ritual or law. This is different from the idea of freedom available in the ancient world where it was a matter of obedience or following some virtue regarded as the greatest good or from avoiding the extremes of one or another emotion in favor of some golden mean. The narrow religious meaning of choice can therefore be thought of as the model for all freedom, once it is shorn of its religious meaning, and even if Luther wants to restrict freedom back to being only religious.
But there is more to St. Paul’s analysis than even that. The problematic analogies that St. Paul invokes, always choosing the most counterintuitive of the alternatives as the correct model for a person choosing to have faith in Jesus as the Son of God, make more sense when they are understood as enumerating some of the characteristics of freedom itself, what it means to make any choice that is voluntary rather than coerced. Freedom understood as what one sees as opposed to what the law commands puts freedom into the hands (which is to say, the consciousness) of a person. The person is the final arbiter of truth, just as the person is the final arbiter of who is the best candidate for office and which toothpaste will sell. Freedom in the second sense of a prior version of a declaration taking priority over a modified version of the declaration suggests that a voluntary choice is made when one remains true to one’s basic insight about things rather than subject to the latest advertising campaign. The person who heeds their original sense of things is inner directed and so free while the person who is changeable is without a gyroscope, which is the way David Riesman put it, and so is not really making a free choice. Freedom in the third sense is that it is meaningful only when it is universal rather than a characteristic of one or another station one holds in society. It appends directly to personhood rather than to one’s category in life. This is close to the modern Kantian doctrine that a moral law, all moral laws, are ones that are engendered by one’s category as a human being rather than by a prescription of prudence which will lead people to consult their circumstances. Only activities that are not prudential can be regarded as strictly moral, done for the purposes of being moral, and so too a person who votes can recognize the outsized seriousness of that venture by recognizing that it is, in theory, applicable to all adults in the community. Freedom in the fourth sense is the recognition that its meaning is transcendental rather than causal. It is not that your vote is not influenced by advertising or campaign fervor. Of course it is. But a person knows that their vote is something different than the choice of a lottery number or an opinion offered to a polster. A vote is determinative; it is official; it is ritually enacted at a voting booth. As contemporary political sloganeering has it, a vote at the voting booth is the only vote that counts. What makes it that way is the aura that surrounds it as the key moment in the drama of democracy. We are free when we vote not when we say who we might vote for; that is just provisional. The four arguments St. Paul uses to justify freedom therefore remain the criteria by which we identify the fact of freedom.