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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: God and Freedom

Faith and freedom are the two most important aspects of man’s fundamental need: love. Where love reigns, faith and freedom follow. When love dies, faith and freedom die also. Love, however, is almost impossible to assess from without. The reality or absence of love can best be seen in terms of faith and freedom in the case of persons and of civilizations. The New Testament relates these realities in different ways. In one sense, love is the first fruit of faith: We love because God first loved us; only by trusting that love can we ever find our fruition of love. But in another and deeper sense, love is the greatest of all spiritual gifts and, beyond gifts, the only way to fulfillment of life. In this sense faith follows the finding of love, and is, indeed, as Emil Brunner explains, the affirmation of love, while freedom, as the title of this section suggests, follows faith.


Our first task is to understand our basic terms, faith and freedom, with particular reference to the former. Faith is primarily a quality of life, a dynamic state of being. Faith is somehow a response of life. We must depend here upon the general, ordinary use of language. Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith frees the self. Fear binds the self. People of genuine faith are in the deepest sense free, while people oppressed by fear lack freedom. What, more particularly, do these general affirmations mean?

Faith is an evaluative response to reality. It is hard to know whether what is outside self or what is inside self comes first, or whether they are, in fact, so closely interrelated that they cannot be taken apart by analysis. To do so, nevertheless, is the task we have undertaken. Conscious of how inseparable these two aspects of faith are, we shall try our best so to analyze their relationship that they are not left apart. Technically speaking, we are dealing with the relation of fides quae to fides qua, what we believe with how we believe, with the relation of notitia to assensus, the content of faith with our response to it.

It is difficult rightly to relate what is outside the believer to what is inside. When what is believed is generally taken for granted or at least held naturally by a community, the priority of the content of faith seems obvious. Then the objective side dominates. When, however, many differing faiths are compared along with the intensity or naturalness with which they are all held, the subjective aspect becomes the more prominent. Those firmly within a given state of faith have little patience with those who stress difference in content, the strength of the subjective side, and the almost relative nature of what is called the objective part of faith. One thing is certain: faith has both sides. For myself, the vision of what is actually given for faith, the objective side, is so overpowering that I have to make myself face the fact that I find communicating what I see, convincingly and contagiously, difficult beyond belief; others, like SØren Kierkegaard, have been almost equally impressed by the subjective side of faith.

One side of faith is acknowledgment; the other is affirmation. We acknowledge what is outside us; we affirm that which is within. No acknowledgment, however, is mere reception; no affirmation is without reference to the outside world. Even existentialism refuses to be reduced to mere subjectivism. On the other hand, extreme objectivism cannot do without subjective appropriation; in the most objective field, physical science, we are increasingly aware of an element of construction: Ernst Cassirer has observed that

the scientist cannot attain his end without strict obedience to the facts of nature. But this obedience is not passive submission. The work of all the great natural scientists -- of Galileo and Newton, of Maxwell and Helmholtz, of Planck and Einstein -- was not mere fact collecting; it was theoretical, and that means constructive work. This spontaneity and productivity is the very center of all human activity.(An Essay on Man [Yale University Press, 1944], p.278)

We have to acknowledge because knowledge itself is a social act, depending upon ages of accumulative work. Language itself is necessary to knowledge, and language depends upon a process coeval with man as a human being. In other words, what is outside comes to us already largely interpreted by the history of the race. The interpretation may not be either necessary or right, as witness, for instance, the change and difference in all fields of knowledge; but no one can start to think without any previous interpretation. All new insight depends upon depth of background. Whether the acknowledgment is conscious or not, faith in what is outside us begins, on one side of its nature, with this act of knowledge.

Since faith on the content side is evaluative response, acknowledgment must involve selection. Not all experience is equally valid, good, or trustworthy. Evaluation means choice and preferential arrangement of what is experienced. What is given on the outside is not merely produced by the self; it is received, but it is received differently by different responders. This is the mystery of faith. Some contents of faith are selected by some; other contents, by others. Certain realities given for experience are trusted by some and feared by others. Usually both the selection and the response involve ambiguities. They are seldom clear cut. Therefore, at this point acknowledgment and affirmation come together. Why should there be such difference, beyond difference in background, in the interpretation of what is outside us, and in the evaluative response? How does affirmation affect acknowledgment?

The secret of the relation between affirmation and acknowledgment is freedom. We are free from the truth. We are free from the truth by the power of acceptance or rejection. Neither act is fully pure but is mixed with our own finitude both of seeing and of willing. Freedom from the truth also resides in our power to distort what we see in line with what we want to see. But neither is such distortion whole cloth. Acknowledgment presides over affirmation, demanding recognition, and if rejected by the conscious mind, takes vengeance in the subconscious. Truth can be distorted, but the distortion is registered in the self.

Freedom from the truth also comes through the power to select from what we see. Affirmation chooses to acknowledge certain data more than others. We choose context from what we acknowledge, and assume the right as well as the need to organize our experience around our preference. Such organization and interpretation of experience is both acknowledgment and affirmation. Truth cannot be forced. No one and no content can compel us, because of our freedom from the truth.

We are also free from the truth by the power of acceptance or rejection in terms of our seeking it or of our fleeing from it, our trusting what we find or our fearing it. Not all freedom from the truth is indirect through distortion or subtlety of selection and organization. We are free to face reality or to hide from it. In short, we are free to have faith or to have dread. Perhaps man’s fundamental choice is his attitude toward acknowledgment; his affirmation or rejection of reality; his opening up or closing in on himself. Whether we take Martin Heidegger’s positive choice of defiance or Rudolf Bultmann’s passive acceptance, the choice of faith, what matters is the quality of affirmation, the intensity of affirmation, and the direction of affirmation. No state of being, no stance for response, no act of affirmation or rejection is without admixture, but the quality of life is determined by the relation we accept between affirmation and rejection.

We can also be free in the truth. Such freedom leaves no subconscious frustration and feeling of guilt. It precludes the sense of meaninglessness. Such freedom is the fullest possible relation between acknowledgment and affirmation, integrity and trust. And we can be free not only from and in the truth, but for the truth. Truth is always a construction, a combination of acknowledgment and affirmation, and therefore is creative. Truth is both had and made. This is why there is an adequacy and validity of personal truth within the unending ocean of truth, far beyond all social control or conventional tests. Truth requires faith and freedom. Besides, there is the freedom for the truth that comes from discovery and invention. The genuinely new is seen in the mode of knowledge and art, of direct receiving and indirect presentation. Truth requires both prose and poetry for its fullest expression. The new truth craves new language, while language itself facilitates freedom by liberating man from the concrete.

There are three stages of faith in its freedom: believing, believing in, and believing that. Believing is straight affirmation of what we acknowledge, the way we acknowledge it. It is confrontation, encounter, acceptance, and if we may coin a word, "faithing." Its opposite is rejection and fear. This stage of faithing is Martin Buber’s I-thou relationship. Here belongs Karl Jaspers’ insistence that whatever transcendence man can know must be known through Existenz. Here also fits Kierkegaard’s exceedingly subtle analysis of existence-communication as opposed to objectification. Believing in is one step in the direction of abstraction. It can be a stage of alienation from primary confrontation and acceptance of reality, a weakening of affirmation in its acknowledgment. But it can also be the fuller acceptance of the nature of the affirmation, a trusting of the understanding involved in the affirmation.

Believing that, the third stage, Buber calls the greatest disaster of faith, its death by abstraction. Believing that involves something "coming between" affirmation and acknowledgment. It can nonetheless be faith’s fullest fruition; the understanding of the content involves its fullest implications. By freedom, the stages can either weaken faith by abstraction or fill trust full by understanding. For instance, I believe God, I believe in God, I believe that God, can be a progressive weakening of faith or, oppositely, its crescendo. I believe God, I believe in God the savior of men, I believe that God will save his whole creation.


Our first task was to consider in general the nature of faith and freedom; our second, is to take up the relation of God to faith. We shall consider God as the ground of faith, God as the goal of faith, and God as the glory of faith.

God is the ground of faith. Neither God nor faith is optional. Man must relate himself to God through faith. God is, as Martin Luther claimed, that on which the heart depends, on which it wholly relies. God is the ultimate context of our lives, the center of our evaluative response, whatever governs life. The Second Epistle of Peter affirms that whatever innuence gets the better of a man becomes his master. Finite man cannot be self-sufficient in knowledge or in life. He comes from, and is dependent upon, the reality in which he finds himself. God is whatever is most important and most real, whatever has the highest value and the strongest power for life. Faith is our response to God. Luther said that as we believe God so have we him. The choosing of context is inescapable; it is part of man’s situation in living. The choice is faith. Man is incapable of total fear. Faith may be fear-laden or hopefilled, but every man has faith. To live is to believe.

Paul Tillich in Theology and Culture distinguishes between the ontological and teleological way to God. The former knows God as the presupposition of life, the unconditional ground of meaning and power. The latter seeks from concrete existence to gather evidence for God, or to interpret God in terms of experience. Tillich chooses the ontological way. The truth is, however, that both ways are necessary. God as the presupposition of life is immediately available and logically inescapable. Every man has faith. To live, we repeat, is to believe. But the nature of God is more than formal meaning, more than the unconditional element presupposed by experience. Concretely for each person God is what is put first in life. This is the God of affirmation. But the God of reality, the God acknowledgeable beyond mere affirmation, is whatever has the right to be put first. Our ultimate is the true God only insofar as we interpret knowledge rightly or construe aright the truest indications of knowledge.

Thus God is not only the ground but also the goal of faith. Man, in the first sense, would not seek God, as Pascal knew, unless he had already found God. We seek God, and afterward we know, as the hymn writer claims, that it was God who first sought us. Or, to think with Abraham Heschel: "to have faith means to justify God’s faith in man." (Man is Not Alone [Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951], p. 174.) But these affirmations refer to the objective, ontological side of faith, with God as its ground. The other side of faith is the quest. The comparison of Augustine’s "voice from without" with "the truth within" is the life’s hardest as well as most important task. It involves the correct joining of acknowledgment and affirmation. It means the making of a finally right evaluative response.

This is the goal of life. God is thus not only the ground but the goal of faith. Made by him and for him, our restless hearts seek him. This statement is true by definition and by experience. God is the ultimate ground on which our lives depend and by which they are grasped, but we have to discover the nature of that dependence and that grasp. The need for such discovery is life’s constant task, giving it good reason for restlessness. This quest of faith for God involves man in what Kierkegaard called "the dizziness of freedom."

Whatever fulfills life is its ground and goal. Whatever frustrates life alienates it from the ground and goal. If life offers both, only a fulfillment large and deep enough to give meaning to frustration can be God. As Gardner Murphy has eloquently shown, frustration augments tension, and tension is the condition for creativity.(Cf. Personality (Harper & Brothers, 1947), p. 305.)

The ground of faith and the goal of faith must together justify the way of faith. If no context for life and thought can join together the ground of faith (God as the presupposition for life and thought) and the goal of faith (God as the fulfillment of life and thought) in such a way as to give appropriate meaning to the relation between both, we are left with no God rightly to worship. Then acknowledgment and affirmation fail to come together, and we are left with confusion and fear, with Jean Paul Sartre’s empty freedom, with Heidegger’s defiance, but never with the faith that sets free through fulfillment.

The Christian faith claims, far beyond our proving or explaining here, that God is holy, faithful love. Reality, in such a view, can be trusted. Right acknowledgment and right affirmation come together in trust. Such trust is the glory of faith, for it sets man free. It sets man free with respect to the objective side of experience: God can be trusted. It sets man free with reference to the subjective side of experience: man can be free from himself. Man, in accepting God, can thereby know himself to be accepted. Such trust sets man free for others and toward nature.

Acceptance of reality and self, of life’s ultimate and intimate center, gives man freedom to accept all else. Man is caught in no choice between inner- and other-directedness; rather, he finds God-directedness. Such God-directedness gives freedom within and without, with respect to self. What this freedom is, and how it is to be had, we shall discuss in the next chapter. Even now we know enough, through our experience of the way the fever of life shuts the self in on itself and how fear poisons, weakens, and binds the self, to be convinced that its opposite, faith, when really attained, can set the self free in the fullest and best way possible.

This, then, is the glory of faith. God can set free the self that has futilely struggled with its own chains. Fear suffers, or as the Bible says, has torments. Joy and peace come through believing. Such analysis we know to be right. To lose fear and find faith, especially in God as the ground and goal of life, is, existentially speaking, life’s hardest lesson. Most people miss the glory of faith. Fear-filled eyes acknowledge as reality the dark spots or the drab gray of the average life. The life of fear keeps pulling weeds anxiously without permitting time for the enjoyment of life’s flowers. Few find the faith that lifts life and gives it glory. Such faith roots in God as the ground of life; puts ultimates unequivocally first in life; and in the goal of life, trusts most fully the best we have seen in life. No facts can force such a choice. To be sure, certain experiences and insights can facilitate such a faith, but such soaring faith, the glory of man, can finally be nothing but a free act. Therefore, we turn from God and faith to God and freedom.


God is the ground not only of faith but also of freedom. Within a world of many wills there must be some ultimate unity of willing, if freedom of fulfillment is to be open for all. The condition of such freedom for all is an ultimate order, generally available, where persons are fulfilled by willing together some common good. God is the ground of such freedom. His will is for the highest good of all. He has so ordered and so controls the world that there is a lure for harmony of being within the self and among selves, both as a direct possibility of intrinsic human need and of resources in superhuman reality for meeting that need, and also as an indirect possibility of learning through the nature of experience in terms of the consequences of choice.

Just as the realm of faith of some kind is inescapable, even so man cannot elude freedom. Sartre is right. Freedom is a necessity. Choose we must. Freedom is the birthright and the responsible heritage of every life. Each person is unique and is created to choose. Man becomes increasingly what he chooses. No one can ever choose for anyone else the ultimate meanings and qualities of relationship.

God is the ground of freedom both as the condition for freedom, without which the many wills would conflict and frustrate each other, and also as the giver of life where choice is the core of its inner nature.

But God is also the goal of freedom. Just as in the case of faith its presuppositional nature gives it no concrete content but only the necessity of choosing context, even so God as the ground of freedom gives it only the general conditions for the freedom of all and the inner necessity of the freedom of each. God as the goal of freedom provides the content in experience for the fulfillment of freedom, personally and socially. Freedom as self-determination is given to each and all; there is no choice whether or not to have it. The primary choice is how to use it, whether to affirm it or to try to flee from it; the lesser choices involve the ways in which we implement our primary choice. Freedom as goal involves the actual discovery of the nature of our freedom and how it can be fulfilled.

God as the goal of freedom is the destiny of man. The more man asserts his freedom the more he becomes a real self. The way he asserts that freedom determines his nature as a self. The, assertion releases and creates the self. The content of that assertion makes the kind of self we become. Nicolas Berdyaev is surely correct in designating man spirit and in claiming that the essence of spirit is freedom. The more man becomes spirit, the freer he becomes, and the freer he becomes, the more he is spirit. Tillich knows that "freedom without destiny is mere contingency and destiny without freedom is mere necessity."(Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 130)

Aldous Huxley began by extolling freedom; now, in later life, he sees that the freedom he advocated was false, a mere cover for self-assertion. R. G. Owen has written that Marxist Communism understands that "real freedom has to do with the knowledge of, and conformity to, the true end of life, but it misunderstands the nature of man’s true end. The point, however, that libertarianism misses altogether, is that real freedom resides, not in endless, unrestricted and capricious choices, but in choosing the true end and in committing oneself to it." (Body and Soul [Westminster Press, 1956], pp. 211-212). Certainly such a claim is the immemorial heritage of Christian freedom: to this fact the history of theology bears eloquent witness.

God as the goal of freedom is beyond law. To be bound is not to be free. As long as the law is over man or against him, he is not free. Full liberty is not within the law but beyond the law. The stage of obeying the law, as law, is over. This is the jubilant cry of Paul. This is the triumphant shout of Martin Luther. This is the preposterous claim of John Wesley. Law lies dead where freedom reigns. But such a claim has nothing to do with lack of right relation. Freedom never violates the true nature and function of law. God as the goal and glory of faith is the God of love, and love fulfills the law. It overflows the law. It drowns law’s claim to priority by the fullness of righteousness and in the end leaves law a dead structure, powerless over the man of liberty who walks according to "the law of the Spirit." Where Christ is, there is liberty. Fear needs the law; full freedom encompasses the law but never lives by it. Freedom lives the law not as duty, i.e., as law, but as love, as the new-found joy of right relations, spontaneous in its motivation.

God as the goal of liberty is the God of co-operative community within the creative resources for common fulfillment. It takes freedom to learn to trust such love. Freedom lives in the love learned by faith. Freedom to learn is given by God, the ground of freedom. The conditions for learning, the school of freedom, are given by God, the ground of freedom. Learning such freedom through experience is, however, made possible by God the goal of freedom. He abets its attainment. This is the case where the meaning and function of frustration, of evil, can be included in the process between God the ground of faith and God the goal of faith, whose means and media are the responsible choices of freedom.

The freedom of choice can be used to find the freedom of life. Freedom of life is the fulfillment of the freedom of choice. It is the state where neither fear nor duty oppresses choosing; the choice is authentically free in motivation as well as in exercise. Such choice is autonomous, not as self-limited liberty, but as God-fulfilled freedom, good for all and available to all. Brunner and Tillich rightly name such freedom theonomous. In this sense God is not only the ground but the goal of freedom. He is the beginning and the end of liberty. The process in-between belongs to our limited, learning selves. The process of life in human time is pedagogical. Man’s full liberty comes in the joining of acknowledgment and affirmation, the two basic aspects of faith in the free service and the full friendship of God.

God as the ground and goal of freedom is peculiarly the giver of freedom. God is love. The nature of love is to fulfill other persons. Persons, to be real, can be fulfilled only in freedom. Therefore, God as love gives freedom as the condition for learning and living love. In giving love, he gives himself; in giving freedom, he makes possible our true acceptance of his greatest gift. Therefore, love is not only a spiritual gift, but "the more excellent way" of Paul’s hymn to love. God is Spirit and the nature of Spirit is freedom. God made us spirits. The foundation of our lives is liberty. The more we accept ourselves the more free we are. True selfacceptance is the receiving freely and fully of reality: God the ground and goal of freedom.

God is personal. To be personal is to confront other persons. Genuine confrontation is a meeting of free persons. It may be encounter or it may be communion. Community is unity within togetherness. Love is the total gift of God, the experience of oneness ultimately and intimately within the richness of creative diversity. Spirit makes us free within, in our internal relations. Personal being is authenticated by our receiving freedom toward what is outside us, in our external relations. Rightly to receive God is to be set free by the Spirit both in our personal and in our social relations. Such freedom comes from trusting God as love. Faith and freedom come together in God, and go out insolubly from God universally and unconditionally. What the conditions for such freedom are, and what such outgo of faith and freedom involves for individuals and societies, we are to examine in the next two chapters.

Our age can accept or deny the effective living of faith and freedom, but it cannot do so except in relation to God, for God is the ground and goal of both faith and freedom. The problem is to walk wisely all the way from ground to goal, from the necessary conditions of faith and freedom to their fruition.

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