The meaning of freedom:what the Catechism teaches about obedience to God’s commandments.

In the fourth in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I am going to look at how freedom and obedience to God’s commandments fit together.

In contemporary British Society (as in the Western world as a whole) there is general agreement that freedom is a good thing. Furthermore, freedom has a very particular meaning. It is understood to mean the right of each individual to decide for themselves how they should live their lives. As Richard Bauckham explains, in a tradition of thought going back to the Renaissance:

‘Freedom is conceived as radical independence. Nothing is received, all is to be freely chosen. Freedom is the freedom to make of oneself what one chooses.’ [1]

The laws governing society are understood within this view of freedom. The prevailing view in Britain today is that these laws are a purely human construct and that they have authority because they represent the collective choice of the members of British society about how they wish to live. When that choice changes the law should change as well (as in the case of the change in the law to allow two people of the same sex to marry each other).

By contrast the Prayer Book Catechism holds that human beings should not regard themselves as free to live in any way that they choose. Rather, they are to live in the way laid down for them by God. This point is made clear in the section of the Catechism that is concerned with the Ten Commandments. This section runs as follows:

‘Question. You said that your Godfathers and Godmothers did promise for you, that you should keep God’s Commandments. Tell me how many there be?

Answer. Ten.

Question. Which be they?

Answer. The same which God spake in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, saying, I am the Lord thy

God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

I. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.

II. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

III. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his Name in vain.

IV. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.

V. Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

VI. Thou shalt do no murder.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?

Answer. I learn two things: my duty towards God, and my duty towards my Neighbour.

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

Answer. My duty towards God is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him, with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life.

Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

Answer. My duty towards my Neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the Queen, and all that are put in authority under her: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.’

What is taught  here is that human beings should not regard themselves as having the right to live in any way that they choose. Rather they have the obligation to live according to a pattern of behaviour laid down by God. At first sight this teaching in the Catechism may seem to amount to the negation of human freedom.  How can we be free if we have to obey a set of laws that God has laid down for us?

From a Christian perspective  this objection fails to reckon with the reality of the human situation. Contemporary Western thought rightly argues that we should be free to be true to ourselves. However, since we were created by God, who we really are is who we have been created by God to be. Consequently, being true to ourselves means being true to the person God has made us to be and choosing to live in the way that he has designed us to live. This is sometimes seen as inimical to human autonomy, but, as Richard Bauckham points out, the very opposite is true:

‘God’s law is not the will of another, in the ordinary sense in which this would be true of the will of another creature, but, as the law of the Creator and his creation, also the law of our own being, in conforming to which we become most truly ourselves.’ [2]

In summary, it is not the case that we have to make a choice between obedience to God and possessing freedom. Freedom is the ability to be true to ourselves, and, for the reasons given above, being true to ourselves  involves living both individually and collectively in obedience to the will of God. The importance of the section in the Catechism dealing with the Ten Commandments is that it gives a clear summary of what living in this way means in practice.


[1] Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 32.  

[2] Bauckham, p.208.

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