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Liberty is Not License

By Mark R. Rushdoony
January 05, 2014

Liberty must be understood within moral limits or it becomes as oppressive and destructive as any centralized tyranny. Freedom of speech has never been taken to allow any right to shout "Fire!" in a darkened theater, and the Second Amendment's protection of the right to keep and bear arms has never been construed as an absolute right to use those weapons against others.

All of our actions are governed by moral constraints. The only real question is "What moral code dictates those restraints?" But morality is necessarily a religious concern because it deals with the concept of right and wrong in terms of one's understanding of a truth that transcends the individual and his actions.

The Christian View of Authority

A moral ethic that limits man presupposes a transcendent authority. The Christian view is that God is, as the Sovereign Creator, man's absolute authority.

The Bible tells us we have a problem, the fact that we are sinners, rebels against the authority of God. In Genesis 3 Satan tempted Eve to assert her own authority over God. Satan had impugned the truth of God's Word and His motive, claiming that He only forbade the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because He knew it was to Adam's and Eve's benefit to eat its fruit. If they ate it, they would uncover God's lie and find themselves equal to God. God, said Satan, was selfishly keeping them from their full potential. Satan's offer to Eve was that she and Adam would "be as gods knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5).

To "know" good and evil there means to determine it for yourself. A god does not know things by rational understanding; a god knows because he determines. Eve's first sin, before she took the fruit, was this desire to be autonomous, to determine for herself what was right and wrong, "good and evil."

Guess what? It didn't work. Eve had no more right to create her own moral code after her sin than before. All sin since then repeats that first one. Like Eve, we have an authority problem; we rebel against the authority of God and do so under the absurd pretense of our own. How often have you heard someone respond to a declaration of God's Word with a statement that begins, "But I think..."?

The Humanistic View of Authority

If Scripture presents us with a sovereign God whose authority is absolute, humanism is the system of thought that places ultimate authority, right, or prerogative in man. We are familiar with administrative chain-of-command charts. If you created such a diagram of authority for your worldview, God would presumably be at the top.

If God is removed as the highest authority, you have humanism, man as the highest authority. The forms of humanistic order will differ, but the common factor is that all see man as the ultimate authority.

Humanism tends to two extremes. The first is anarchism where the individual is the ultimate authority. The second is some form of statism where collective man is the ultimate authority

Statism, some form of collective authority, always wins out over individual rights because the state presents itself as the highest collective voice of "the people." In doing so, their abstract group is assumed to have a greater right than any individual.

Man's Moral Context

The moral context of man is the revealed Word of God. That is where man finds his necessary environment. He can not survive outside it any better than a fish can survive on dry land. The Christian must present this fact to men living in Adam's rebellion: they are fighting a losing battle against reality. The gospel of salvation necessitates the preaching of God's law and man's sin, because without man's sin, his humanism sees God's law as a restraint on life, not its context. He sees sin and rebellion as normative, and his rejection of God's law-word as a manifestation of his freedom. He defies God because his concept of his own autonomous authority repudiates that of God, so liberty is seen as a license for his self-will. He will see liberty as the absence of moral standards. Having rejected the moral authority of God, he will see all ethical demands as the illegitimate demands of some religion, ideology, or group. Once he sees himself as a free moral agent, he will see his own immorality as a civil right and, beyond that, as a mark of his superiority.

Every Ideology Is Authoritarian

Look for any system's concept of authority. You cannot avoid it. Every ideology is authoritarian because it is based on a view of ultimate authority. If the authority is transcendent in God then all human authority is limited and man can only have secondary rights under God. If authority is immanent in the world, then that earthly power dictates who must yield and there is no inalienable right that transcends it. The authority of any system is the god of that system.

Any concept of either authority or liberty that is not self-consciously placed under God is certain to be abused because man is a sinner who needs to conform to God's law lest his sin causes him to abuse his legitimate bounds.

All authority can be abused. The authority of parents, teachers, the church, or civil magistrates can be used in accordance with the authority of God and His law, in which case it will be benign and contribute to the blessing of all concerned. If such authority is abused, however, it can create a hellish nightmare for all involved.

When our laws ceased to be Biblical they began to be oppressive because they lost any sense of boundaries. We now suffer under government that refuses to acknowledge boundaries. It is now an agent of tyranny that still mimics the rhetoric of liberty.

Liberty, too, when exercised under the discipline of the law of God can be a benefit to the individual and a source of material and social blessings to an entire culture. When liberty is abused to the point of license, however, it leads to the degradation of individuals and the social order. When our liberty became license our self-government began to collapse, and this void was replaced by civil legislation to save us from ourselves.

God's law is an absolute touchstone by which we can recognize righteousness (or justice as the terms are synonymous in Scripture). Once we deny this absolute measure of justice, we are lost in a wilderness of relativity. We will then be left with either the individual's concept of justice or the state's arbitrary definition of justice. Inevitably, the state has its way.

The question we must ask of every philosophy, ideology, or system is "Where does its authority reside?" If it is in man on any level, it is a humanistic system. Authority must be in God. I was in a group recently that was discussing Romans 13. One person repeated the common but simplistic view that Paul's requirement of our subjection to the magistrate's authority as from God was an absolute injunction to submission, ignoring the fact that Paul specifically placed God's authority, not the magistrate's, as supreme. He placed the magistrate in a chain of authority under God; Paul in no way gave total license to the magistrate in the civil realm any more than he did to the elder or parent in the church or the family. This is the problem when we ignore the authority of God-some other authority will fill the void. To the extent that we deny the authority of God, that of men replaces it.

When Theoretical Liberty is Actual Servitude

To the humanist, freedom is from God and His law. Man's freedom is, in theory, unlimited and absolute. But instead of freedom from all government, such humanism always leads to statist government. Just as Satan promised Eve god-like status only to enslave her in sin, the state uses its claim to represent collective man to enslave all. Modern civil government seldom represents the negative terror to "him that doeth evil" that Paul speaks of in Romans 13:4, but tends to see itself as a positive force defining the rights of that abstract group they call "the people," or the disadvantaged, or the little guy, or the disenfranchised. When their ambitions are global in scope, they claim to represent an even larger abstract group-"mankind." The statist who believes that government embodies the nation and its people will always answer a claim of individual rights with collective rights, and will always claim to represent a larger collective group than you do.

Man's freedom can only exist within the context of God's authority. Man's authority is limited because he is under that of God, and his liberty is limited because he can never play God. Man has no absolute freedom either as an individual or as a collective in the state. He cannot claim a legitimacy to his sin and say it is an aspect of his self-defined freedom. Neither can his government.

As individuals, we know our freedom is constrained by our finances, responsibilities, and the rights of others. Likewise our liberty is also limited by the moral order into which we are created.

All man's liberties are limited. The two great limitations on man are that he is, first, a creature, not a god, and second, that he is a sinner. These are the realities of our moral existence, and we ignore them at great peril. A fish is not freer when it escapes to dry land. Likewise we are not freer when we ignore our creaturehood and sinfulness. When we do so we only become outlaws in God's moral order, and the future for such rebels is a bleak one.


Topics: Government, Theology

Mark R. Rushdoony

Mark R. Rushdoony graduated from Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s College) with a B.A. in history in 1975 and was ordained to the ministry in 1995.

He taught junior and senior high classes in history, Bible, civics and economics at a Christian school in Virginia for three years before joining the staff of Chalcedon in 1978. He was the Director of Chalcedon Christian School for 14 years while teaching full time. He also helped tutor all of his children through high school.

In 1998 he became the President of Chalcedon and Ross House Books, and, more recently another publishing arm, Storehouse Press. Chalcedon and its subsidiaries publish many titles plus CDs, mp3s, and an extensive online archive at www.chalcedon.edu

He has written scores of articles for Chalcedon’s publications, both the Chalcedon Report and Faith for all of Life. He was a contributing author to The Great Christian Revolution (1991). He has spoken at numerous conferences and churches in the U.S. and abroad.

Mark Rushdoony lives in Vallecito, California, his home of 40 years with his wife of 42 years and his youngest son. He has three married children and nine grandchildren.

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