“The truth will set you free” is surely one of the most quoted of all Bible verses, often cited by people who have no idea where it comes from. But it is also one of the most misunderstood.
It is found in the Gospel of John, chapter eight, where Jesus is speaking to both supporters and opponents. The full verse reads: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
The non-believing members of his audience say they have never been slaves; what does Jesus mean by free? They are slaves to sin, he tells them – that is why they are looking to kill him.
Jesus is not endorsing the 21st century interpretation of freedom, which is understood mostly as personal autonomy. Today freedom is chiefly described as the power to choose, whether between 142 brands of washing powder, to watch Netflix or Amazon, or to do what we want with our own bodies.
In the ancient world, whether Christian or pagan Greek philosophy, what counted was not the freedom of choice itself but the nature of that choice. What was utterly essential was to make the right choice. That is why Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living.
As American philosopher David Bentley Hart puts it, freedom is the ability to realise one’s essential nature, which is what leads to human flourishing. Hart says we become free in the same way, to use Michelangelo’s metaphor, that the statue is “liberated” from the marble by the sculptor.
Freedom itself is not the virtue; the virtue is in its proper exercise.
“This means we are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well. For to choose poorly, through folly or malice, in a way that thwarts our nature … is to enslave ourselves to the transitory,” Hart says.
In other words, all choices are not equal, and neither is all freedom. Freedom itself is not the virtue; the virtue is in its proper exercise.
This is not to deny that freedom of choice is desirable. Personal autonomy is generally held to be a good thing, but this does not include the unrestrained satisfaction of every appetite, for some are damaging. Think of gambling or other addictions.
The essence of Christian freedom is this: the desire and ability to serve God and neighbour, to align our desires and choices with biblical teaching.
Australian church historian John Dickson describes God’s statutes, precepts and commands, especially the Ten Commandments, as “a charter of freedom”, which is how they were read in the Old Testament and through much of Western history.
The law of God, says the Bible, brings joy, blessing and life.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.