Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos
We can confront the topic of freedom from many angles. The first angle is the moral one, from which man's freedom is to act without being hindered by various duties. The second angle is the psychological one, from which his freedom consists in being able to make decisions without being subjected to various influences. A third angle is the philosophical one, from which freedom is the inalienable right of man, as a rational being, to think and to act. It is also possible for all the other freedoms, social, personal, national, economic, and so forth, to be put into this framework.
Those aspects of freedom will not concern us, but we are going to examine freedom from one angle, that of theology. For we shall discover that it differs greatly from the other angles, in that it is more integrated.
It must be said from the start that independence, or freedom, is an essential constituent of man. When God created man, He gave him free will, which not even He Himself violates.
In Holy Scripture it says that man was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1,26). The holy Fathers have given various definitions as to just what this image is. Sometimes they refer it to man's sovereign dignity, to his superiority and his lordship over the terrestrial world, sometimes to his soul and body, sometimes to the whole man, sometimes to the ruling part of his soul, which is the nous, sometimes to his independence. All these definitions show that the holy Fathers avoid specifying one particular point which is the image, but they rather describe all the functions which express the image. In any case it is a fact that one interpretation of the image also refers to independence, which interests us here.
John of Damaskos' interpretation concerning the image is characteristic. He says that God formed the body from the earth and "by His own inbreathing gave him a rational and noetic soul, which last we say is the divine image". Extending this interpretation he says: "for 'in His image' means the nous and free will, while 'in His likeness' means such likeness in virtue as is possible". Thus 'in the image' refers chiefly to the noetic and independent. In what is to be said below we shall mostly interpret independence, freedom, because there are many misinterpretations on this subject. We shall emphasize some essential points.
a) The relativity of human freedom
Man as a creature, as created by God, has absolute freedom within its relativity. With his freedom he can even turn against his creator, but this freedom is relative. This is because man is not uncreated, but created, which means that he was created by God and therefore has a beginning.
Archimandrite Sophrony observes: "Absolute freedom means being able to determine one's being on all levels, independently, without constraint or limit in any form. This is the freedom of God - man does not have it", for he has not the authority to create "out of nought".
The ultimate temptation for the freedom of man (and in general of subsistent spirits) "is to fashion his own being, determine himself in all things, become a god himself, and not just take what is given, because that would entail a feeling of dependence".
Thus man does not have absolute freedom by his biological birth. But he can acquire absolute freedom by his rebirth and experiencing Christ's life, as we shall explain in the next section.
b) The challenge of freedom
The preceding also leads us to another parallel conclusion, that what is given to man by his existence is a challenge for freedom. True freedom is not just the choice of an event, but the possibility of a self-determined existence.
It has been observed very correctly that: "The ultimate challenge to the freedom of the person is the 'necessity' of existence. The moral sense of freedom, to which Western philosophy has accustomed us, is satisfied with the simple power of choice: a man is free who is able to choose one of the possibilities set before him. But this 'freedom' is already bound by the 'necessity' of these possibilities, and the ultimate and most binding of these 'necessities' for man is his existence itself: How can a man be considered absolutely free when he cannot do other than accept his existence?" Therefore man "as a created being cannot escape the 'necessity' of his existence".
In this light we can interpret an agonising existential question of many contemporary young people: "Why did my parents give birth to me without asking me? Why should I come into existence without being asked?" To be sure, before someone came into existence there was no one to be asked, but in any case this is a question which shows that the greatest challenge for freedom is the fact of existence and the fact that therefore man has to do something in order to be given the possibility of determining a new birth for himself.
Incidentally it should be pointed out that in the opinion of some, the embryo in its mother's womb is asked if it wishes to come to life. And the miscarriage of many embryos is interpreted as their refusal to be born. Thus in a way their existential freedom is preserved. We cannot judge this view from the patristic point of view, because the holy Fathers have not expressed themselves on this matter, at least as far as I know.
c) Freedom and fall
The freedom of man before the fall somehow worked differently from that which works today. Freedom as we know it in the period after the fall, after the victory of sin and the passions, after the illness which came into the whole human race as a consequence of Adam's sin, after the decay of communities and institutions, is receiving dreadful effects and it requires great pains in order to express it in a positive way. In the life before the fall there was the possibility of positive or negative response to the will of God, but that was different from freedom as we live it today. In other words, today we suffer terrible pressures and effects, and therefore it is with great labour and struggle that we make decisions about doing something, while in man's original life this labour and struggle did not exist.
We should further point out that man's freedom even to sin and to withdraw from his Creator was a sign not of perfection but of imperfection. For his vacillation about what to do, instead of being stimulated by love and freedom towards the purpose of creation, the lack of impetus in man towards his archetype, shows a weakness and imperfection. Man should naturally be led towards the good. St. Maximos the e Confessor, interpreting the request of Christ's prayer "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" says that he who impels his rational power towards God and worships him mystically becomes a participant in the angels' worship of God. In this case the words of the Apostle Paul apply: "For our citizenship is in heaven". Among these men desire does not sap their powers through sensual pleasure, "but there is only the intelligence naturally leading intelligent beings towards the source of intelligence, the Logos Himself". The perfection of man's freedom lies in his turning naturally towards his archetype.
d) Natural will and will based on opinion
While speaking of man's independence, I think that something must also be said about Christ's independence. St. John of Damaskos speaks "about the wills and independence of our Lord Jesus Christ". It is the subject of a dogma which shows us true freedom, how the two wills in Christ work and also how the saints too, who are united with Christ, can experience true freedom.
There is a difference between 'willing' and 'how one wills'. To will is a work of nature, just as seeing is, since in all men there is willing. However, 'how one wills' is not of nature, "but of our opinion", just as how to see well or badly is also a matter of the particular opinion and freedom of each man. The "willing" is called will and "natural will", "how one wills" which is subject to the will, is called "will based on opinion".
Through His incarnation Christ assumed human nature, wholly without sin. Thus in His hypostasis the divine was united immutably, inseparably, indivisibly with human nature. Since Christ had two natures, therefore "we say that his natural wills and natural energies were two". But since the hypostasis is one, therefore "also we call one and the same both his willing and his doing". And Christ wills and acts not in a divided way but in unison; for He wills and "each form acts in communion with the other". It is one who acts, but in any case He has two natural energies and wills which do not act separately, but each single energy works in communion with the other. In any case "we call the wills and the actions natural and not hypostatic".
We have said that in each person there is the natural will and the will based on opinion. Christ had two natural wills, which worked "in communion with each other", but he did not have a will based on opinion. The will based on opinion is that of option, which is expressed after judgement, thought, dissent and decision. There was none of this in Christ. Therefore St. John of Damaskos says characteristically: "It is impossible to speak of opinion and option in Christ, if we want to speak literally". Opinion is a fruit and result of seeking and will and judgement about the unknown. After the opinion is formed, the option prefers one or the other. But Christ was not simply a man, but also God who knew everything, and therefore "he was unhesitating in thought and seeking and will and judgement, and naturally he was at home with the good, and evil was alien". Christ's will was naturally guided to doing good and to withdrawal from evil. This is why as God He never sinned, nor did He have any possibility to sin. What the human will desired did come about in the Person of Christ "not in contradiction of opinion but in identity of natures". This means that "He wished these things naturally, at the time when His divine will wished and allowed the flesh to suffer and do the same things". Thus in Christ there was not dissent, wavering, inner conflict when there was something to be done.
Christ, being God and man, naturally had "a will", but He did not have the will based on opinion, as we said before. His human will "yielded and submitted to His divine will without being moved by his own opinion, but willing those things which his divine will wanted it to will".
Each will of Christ, both the divine and the human, willed and moved independently. For in every intelligent nature there is independence. How was it possible to have intelligence and not to have independence? So Christ's soul "was independent in his willing and wanted to moved independently", "but wanted those things independently which His divine will wanted it to will". Thus the two wills in Christ differed not in opinion, but in natural power: the divine will was without beginning, accomplishing all things, therefore having power and dispassion; His human will began in time, suffered natural and blameless passions and, while naturally it was not all-powerful, still, since it had been assumed truly and naturally by God the Word, that is why He was all-powerful.
All these things indicate that since in Christ there were two natures there were also two wills. Likewise his independence, which is closely connected with his human nature, acted naturally towards the good, following the divine will.
e) The freedom of the saints
What has been said is needed in order for us to understand the limits of human freedom and also to understand how freedom, independence functions in the saints. As we shall see in what follows, the saint's independent will, precisely because he is favoured with divine grace, always moves naturally towards the good. When I speak of a saint I mean the deified person who partakes of God's deifying energy.
The Apostle Paul offers this witness: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2,11). He has the certainty that Christ lives in him, and so elsewhere too he says: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11,1). St. Gregory Palamas, bearer of the same Revelation, interpreting this teaching of the Apostle, says: "Do you see clearly that grace is uncreated? Not only is such grace uncreated, but also the result of this sort of energy of God is uncreated; and the great Paul, no longer living the temporal life but the divine and eternal life of the indwelling word, came to be without beginning and without end by grace". And a little further on: "Paul was a created being until he lived the life which had come about by God's command; then he no longer lived this life but a life which had become indwelt by God, become uncreated by grace: and wholly possessing only the living and acting word of God".
In the Apostle's words and in the interpretation by St. Gregory Palamas, champion of the theologians, it is clear that a man who has been united with Christ, who has attained illumination and deification, by grace becomes uncreated and without beginning, because he has the living Christ within him.
And St. Maximos the Confessor, interpreting the words of the Apostle Paul that Melchizedek, who is a type of Christ, was "without father, without mother, without genealogy" (Heb. 7,3), writes: "The person who has mortified the earthly aspects of himself, thoroughly extinguishing the will of the flesh within him and repudiating the attachment to it which splits asunder the love we owe to God alone; who has disowned all the modalities of the flesh and the world for the sake of divine grace... - such a person has become, like Melchizedek, 'without father, without mother, without descent'. For because of the union with the Spirit that has taken place within him he cannot now be dominated by flesh or by nature".
Every Christian, when he is united with Christ, is deified, sanctified, and his whole being, and somehow also his freedom, which is always subject to God's will, is shown favour. In this sense we say that by His incanartion He granted us freedom. He freed us from sin, death and the devil and we enjoy this freedom in our spiritual rebirth. Nicholas Kavasilas says characteristically: "It was when He mounted the cross and died and rose again that the freedom of mankind came about, that the form and the beauty were created and the new members were prepared".
We have already seen that the challenge for freedom is the given fact of existence, and this creates an existential problem. But by rebirth in Christ, which takes place within the Church, the people overcome this existential problem. Just as great as the difference between biological birth and spiritual birth is the difference between the struggle over the fact of existence and the possibility of self-determination of the new existence. Man is born spiritually by his own will. This spiritual birth has great meaning and importance. St. Gregory the Theologian speaks of three births. The first is the biological birth from the parents, the second is through the mysteries of holy Baptism, the father of which is God, and the third is through tears, and the father of this birth is the man himself. To express ourselves through St. Maximos the Confessor, by the first birth we come into being, by the second into "well being" and by the third, which is identical with resurrection, into "ever well being"
Thus man is called to this new life, and if he responds, he is born into "ever well being", overcoming the provocation and temptation given in his existence. And since the deified person becomes "uncreated", "without beginning" and "without genealogy" - by the grace of God - for this reason he acquires a freedom which is absolute within human limits and facts. Since his freedom has an impulse towards God through love, there is no ambivalence in him, his independence functions naturally and so he becomes perfect by grace, since he has abandoned the imperfection of his nature, which is indicated by the battle for single-mindedness.
St. Symeon the New Theologian says that our self-determination, our free will, is not removed by Baptism, "but it grants us freedom no longer to be held against our will in the devil's tyranny". Baptism grants man the freedom not to be tyrannised by his desire, by the devil. After Baptism it again depends on us whether we remain self-willed towards God's commandments or we depart from this way and go back to the devil through his cunning practices.
St. Diadochos of Photike, referring to the desire for self-determination, says that independence is a desire of the rational soul, which moves readily "towards whatever it desires". Therefore he urges us to persuade it to move only towards the good. When it is moving towards the good, it is fulfilling its purpose and moving naturally.
The same saint writes that all men are formed in the image of God. "But to be in His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God". "Only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like Him who through love has reconciled us to Himself". From these words of the saint it can be seen that the likeness belongs to the saints who have mortified their passions and subjected their freedom to God through love. He emphasises the subjection of freedom to God, but this comes about through love. For in fact it is only then that freedom moves and functions naturally.
It can be added that "the only exercise of freedom, in an ontological manner, is love". True freedom cannot be expressed without love; it loses its ontological content. And this means "that personhood creates the following dilemma for human existence: either freedom as love, or freedom as negation".
In the saints we encounter the co-existence of love and freedom. They love God really, I could say ecstatically, and therefore their freedom, having been released from different admixtures and ailments, is directed towards God, it moves naturally. And in this way the saints are true men, what we have usually called persons.
Since, however, I do not wish to take my stand on a philosophical and theological level, which may seem abstract - although I do not think it is, for the theological position is necessary - I shall go on to present some expressions of freedom, as it is experienced in the ascetic life of the Church. One is man's freedom from death, another is the freedom of the nous from logic and the senses, and the third is man's freedom from the environment. These topics will reveal clearly the great value of freedom, as the members of our Church experience it.