Gerard Casey’s magnum opus on the history of liberty is titled Freedom’s Progress? The question mark is deliberate. Beginning with early man and ending with Murray Rothbard, Casey invites us to judge for ourselves the many advances and retreats of liberty throughout the millenia. On balance, I believe Professor Casey gives us reason to answer “yes” to his question.
In this, and following articles, I want to limit the survey to just a few issues of liberty as they play out in the Judeo-Christian context.
Progressive revelation – the long run
Anyone who has read the Bible has wondered why God, in the Old Testament, seems harsh, even wrathful, compared to God who sent his son in the New Testament. In giving the law to Moses, God seems more willing to use violence. He prescribes a justice without mercy: “Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Deut. 19:21.
More than once God told the Israelites to destroy their worst enemies completely. 1 Sam. 15:3. He expressly permits moral evils such as slavery (Lev. 25–26) and divorce. Deut. 24:1–4.
More than a thousand years later, Jesus comes teaching an elevated ethical standard:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matt. 5:38–39.
In the gospel of Mark, the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked:
“’Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.'”
“For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark 10:2–9.
Jesus not only clarifies that his teaching supersedes that of Moses, but he explains why God had previously held the Israelites to a lower standard: “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” This comment holds a key to God’s plan for revealing himself and his will for the Israelites and for us all.
Understanding the “dark passages”
In giving the law to Moses, God had to meet those early Israelites at the moral level of the people of the ancient near east. Pope Benedict XVI explained this lower standard and what have been called the “dark passages” of the Bible in this way:
“In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.
“God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.” Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, (2010) ¶ 42.
Pope Benedict notes that God’s use of progressive revelation takes into account the history and barbarous customs of the people, demanding far less of them than would be expected at later stages of history. As St. Paul told the Athenians, “In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.” Acts 17:30.
While God limited his revelation to that which his people could handle, He also set the bar a bit higher than they could immediately reach. As history showed, the Israelites (and later, the Christians) would not instantly measure up to the moral ethics that Moses, and later Jesus, would advance. Some teachings would not be fully accepted—or even understood—at first, but slowly and “despite human resistance,” moral norms would progress.
Newman on the development of Christian doctrine
John Henry Cardinal Newman, in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, wrote that some revealed truths are presented only as seeds—and considering the cultural context—were not at all obvious when first proclaimed:
“In one of our Lord’s parables “the Kingdom of Heaven” is even compared to “a grain of mustard-seed, which a man took and hid in his field; which indeed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree,” and, as St. Mark words it, “shooteth out great branches, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” And again, in the same chapter of St. Mark, “So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground, and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how; for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself.” Here an internal element of life, whether principle or doctrine, is spoken of rather than any mere external manifestation; and it is observable that the spontaneous, as well as the gradual, character of the growth is intimated.”
Newman wrote of the unfolding truth that would grow naturally from the words and actions of Jesus:
“Surely everything our Saviour did and said is characterized by mingled simplicity and mystery. His emblematical actions, His typical miracles, His parables, His replies, His censures, all are evidences of a legislature in germ, afterwards to be developed, a code of divine truth which was ever to be before men’s eyes, to be the subject of investigation and interpretation, and the guide in controversy.” The Via Media of the Anglican Church.
Many of the “seeds” planted by Jesus required hundreds, even thousands of years to be understood in all their implications. Some truths were embraced by the early Church, then trod into obscurity by circumstance, only later to be broadly accepted by both the Church and the world. Respect for human liberty is one of the most persistent of those “seeds.”