"Only an action freely chosen has any moral value."
- I thought this was an interesting, coincidental take on the Apostle Paul and
'free will'. It's from a Catholic source, but I had never really 'seen'
some of these passages in Paul before in this light. I remember someone
once saying that Orthodoxy was to be found in all the passages they hadn't
underlined before in their Study Bible. Similar sentiments to the line
"Only an action freely chosen has any moral value" are to be found rather
regularly in the Fathers.
From "Paul the Pastor" by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor OP, Thinking Faith (29
> August 2008)Christopher
> ...Goodness by compulsion
> The keystone of Paul's pastoral practice was his conviction that he could
> not impose a moral decision on his converts by means of a direct command. He
> felt that he could not treat a church as if it were an army of which he was
> the superior officer. This crucial insight for understanding his theology is
> perfectly illustrated by two incidents.
> Onesimus was a slave who had injured his master Philemon. In the hope of
> mitigating his punishment he ran to Paul to beg him to intervene. Paul, of
> course, agreed, and his intercession is contained in the letter to Philemon.
> Paul tells Philemon that he has the authority to order him to do what is
> required, namely, to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not as a
> guilty criminal. Yet, Paul continues, because I love you, I prefer to appeal
> to you (v. 8). It would have been simpler for Paul to give a command that
> expressed his desire for Onesimus, but he felt that he had no choice but to
> take the riskier option of persuasion. Why?
> Fortunately no speculation is necessary, because Paul himself answers the
> question, 'I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your
> goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will' (v. 14).
> Were Paul to have given Philemon a command, the latter would have felt
> himself bound to comply. As 'bound' he was a prisoner and could not have
> acted freely. His action would have been imposed by Paul, not freely chosen
> by himself. One has only to reflect for a moment on 'goodness by compulsion'
> to realize what a tremendous contradiction is implied. It goes against the
> very nature of the human being. Paul had to 'appeal' to Philemon to activate
> his 'free will'. Only an action freely chosen has any moral value.
> This incident involving Philemon is not unique in Paul's letters. Precisely
> the same sort of moral issue was involved in the collection for the poor of
> Jerusalem. Naturally Paul wanted the Corinthians to be as generous as
> possible, and unthinkingly slips into the imperative mood, 'see that you
> excel in this gracious work also' (2 Cor 8:7). Immediately, however, he
> corrects himself, 'I say this not as a command' (2 Cor 8:8; cf. 1 Cor 7:6).
> Despite the form of his expression, the Corinthians should not understand it
> as a binding precept. Why? Once again no speculation is necessary, for Paul
> answers, 'Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly nor
> under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver' (2 Cor 9:7). The freedom
> of cheerful choice contrasts vividly with reluctant acquiesence to outside
> pressure. The latter has no moral value. Personal initiative is of the very
> essence of a moral decision.
> There is no better way to drive home this point, which is crucial for a
> correct understanding of Paul's pastoral practice, than to quote one of the
> best exegetes of the Pauline letters, St Thomas Aquinas, 'He who moves
> himself is free. He who is moved by another [i.e. takes orders from someone
> else] is not free. He who avoids evil because he sees it as evil is free. He
> who avoids evil simply because a precept of the Lord forbids it is not free'
> (Commentary on 2 Cor 3:17). The key sentence is the last one. In
> contemporary terms it means that a married couple who avoid contraception,
> not because they are convinced it is wrong, but simply because the Pope has
> forbidden it, are behaving like slaves. By mindlessly doing simply what they
> are told, their 'goodness' is by compulsion and, from Paul's perspective,
> has no moral value.
> How did Paul come to this understanding of the deleterious effect of
> commands in the moral order? Ultimately it derived from his understanding of
> unredeemed humanity as 'enslaved' to Sin or the Law. Pagans were swept along
> by the consensus of false values ('Sin') that ruled society. Jews gave blind
> obedience to the Law; it commanded, they submitted. As prisoners neither Jew
> nor pagan could change their condition. They were programmed. They could not
> choose freely. Paul saw with the clarity that is typical of his incisive
> intelligence that salvation must above all be characterized by freedom. 'You
> are set free for freedom' (Gal 5:1). Thus, for Paul to give orders regarding
> moral actions to his flock would be to return them to their unredeemed
> state. It would be to reduce them to the level of dolls manipulated by a
> puppet-master. It would destroy the maturity that is indispensable for moral
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