ESSAY
Rehabilitating Autonomy
POSTED
April 9, 2019

It is pretty standard in conservative Christian circles to condemn unbelief for pretensions of “autonomy.” Cornelius Van Til famously (at least among those of us who knows who he is) said that “There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy.” Greg Bahnsen appealed to this quotation by labeling his particular view of the applicability of the “Old Testament law” (I use quotation marks here because I'm not sure which passages count as this law and which don't).

Obviously, Human beings, as God's creation, ought to obey what he commands. Labeling the refusal to listen to what God commands can rightly be called an assertion of autonomy.

However, I don't think this is the most common use of the word in much of the English-speaking world. As a result condemning the aspiration to autonomy may not communicate to people what is intended. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary offers the following definitions for the adjective “autonomous”:

  • Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent: an autonomous judiciary; an autonomous division of a corporate conglomerate.
  • Independent in mind or judgment; self-directed.
  • Independent of the laws of another state or government; self-governing.
  • Of or relating to a self-governing entity: an autonomous legislature.
  • Self-governing with respect to local or internal affairs: an autonomous region of a country.
  • Autonomic

Of these, the autonomous actions that are a form of unbelief are covered by the definitions having to do with government. But the first two definitions don't necessarily have anything to do with a claim to not be accountable to higher authority.

The Wictionary provides this helpful definition: "Acting on one's own or independently; of a child, acting without being governed by parental or guardian rules." Children begin life with no autonomy whatsoever, but then are supposed to become autonomous adults who can make decisions without parental oversight.

The Apostle Paul famously refers to this kind of autonomy when he writes, "I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father (Galatians 4:1–2; ESV). Moving from slavery to freedom with an inheritance is another way of saying that men and women are meant to become autonomous as they grow up.

I believe the language is important because empowering humanity to be autonomous is a major theme is Scripture. Paul wasn't appealing to an obscure truth in Galatians 4:1-2, but a central theme of Biblical revelation. We can see this, ironically, in Israel's rejection of God in choosing a king. In First Samuel 8 we find that Samuel is obligated to "obey" Israel even when the people are being disobedient.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7–9; ESV).

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city” (1 Samuel 8:19–22; ESV).

The contrast between God's reaction to Israel when they rejected him in the wilderness (which we are explicitly reminded about in the text) and God's reaction now could not be more different. In the wilderness, God killed a lot of people when they chose to reject him. But here, he tells Samuel to obey the people. Plainly, Israel has been given authority to act autonomously in a way that was once off limits. They can make their own decisions without immediate intervention by God. They aren't little children under constant parental supervision.

In Proverbs, Solomon warns sons that folly and sin will lead to an end of the autonomy they were meant to enjoy.

  • "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor" (Proverbs 12:24).
  • "Whoever troubles his own household will inherit the wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise of heart" (Proverbs 11:29).
  • "A servant who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers" (Proverbs 17:2).

Such warnings assume that autonomy is a desirable state and a God-given blessing.

Autonomy was both the original state of humanity and the future hope. Adam and Eve were left alone to deal with Satan's temptation and then evaluated for how they handled their time without supervision. Had they done well there is good reason to believe they would have been awarded greater autonomy.

Jesus illustrated this process in his parable of the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-28) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In both stories, the master leaves the servants without giving any instructions about what to do with the money other than make some profit. When he returns, he doesn't ask for an explanation of what happened, and only the rebellious servant feels the need to say what he did. The servants acted autonomously and when they proved capable they were offered more autonomy. "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much" (Matthew 25:21).

To summarize my argument and perhaps fill in out a bit more here are nine points for your consideration.

  1. If we take the -nomos suffix as “law” then theonomy is good and autonomy is evil, because one should submit to God’s law rather than be a law to oneself.
  2. But being “autonomous” does not typically mean being a law unto oneself. It can mean simply being self-governed. A child becomes “autonomous” to a degree at the age of eighteen because the child becomes an adult and is permitted to make choices for him or herself. One becomes “autonomous” when one is given space and time to make one’s own decisions without immediate supervision.
  3. In other words, you are autonomous when you are expected to supervise yourself rather than be supervised by someone else.
  4. Autonomy can be a matter of degree: you can be told to report back in two weeks or six months on a project. You are autonomous in that you are “on your own” until the appointed time of review. Or you can be given a mission without being given minute instructions on how to succeed at the mission. Determining your best strategy to complete the mission is part of the mission itself. So in both cases you have a lesser or greater degree of autonomy without denying a higher authority.
  5. So God has left us largely autonomous, or rather, with the charge to become autonomous and thus complete his mission for us.
  6. In other words, God wants us to grow up. We have to learn to supervise ourselves rather than come under someone else's perpetual supervision.
  7. And if we are supposed to supervise ourselves, then each one of us must be obligated to bring one’s self under one’s control as a unified person in order to be a fit instrument and weapon for an end.
  8. But to what end? If we don’t have at least an overarching plan for human beings in mind, then how can we unify our desires, perceptions, and impulses toward an intelligible goal? With no goal, we become slaves to vices. With a false goal, we will eventually find that our “autonomy” is actually slavery to some principle that doesn’t truly suit us.
  9. If God is truly the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit revealed in the Bible, then only by governing ourselves to serve him and model ourselves on him can we be truly self-integrated and self-governing.

So, this is the conclusion of the matter: Theonomy is the only path to real autonomy. And Christians need to clearly challenge unbelievers that their commitment can only lead to enslavement and captivity. Only by trusting Jesus and embracing the Gospel can they find true autonomy.

Mark Horne holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and  writes at www.SolomonSays.net.

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