The Biblical Origins of Freedom as Non-Domination

What is Biblical freedom, or freedom from sin? I believe there are several ways to understand it. The notions of positive and negative freedom that Isaiah Berlin distinguishes in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty can help us grapple with this question. Berlin defines positive liberty as “mastery over the self,” 1 which in the Biblical context can be interpreted as mastering sin, and thus becoming freer because sin is under our control and our decisions are no longer influenced by an external force. On the other hand, Berlin understands negative liberty as “the absence of interference by others,” which leads us to understand freedom from sin as not having it interfere with our ability to make the right choice. I find these two interpretations of Biblical freedom unsatisfactory, and I believe that Philip Pettit’s understanding of freedom as non-domination provides a better answer to this question.

Pettit discusses this notion in his book Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government as a critique to the dichotomy that Berlin established between positive and negative liberty. Pettit finds fault with Berlin’s definitions of positive and negative liberty because “mastery and interference do not amount to the same thing.” 3 He claims that it is hypothetically possible for a slave to have a master who does not interfere with him at all. Accordingly, there is no real dichotomy between mastery and lack of interference, for they can both occur simultaneously. Pettit believes that this leaves room for liberty as non-domination. Unlike negative liberty, which focuses on the absence of interference, liberty as non-domination focuses on the absence of domination—a lack of a master over oneself. This conceptualization of freedom better complements Berlin’s definition of positive liberty as mastery over the self. Biblical freedom should be best thought of as a state of being where there is some interference from sin, but one is not mastered by sin, which corresponds to Pettit’s definition of freedom as non-domination.

For Pettit, freedom as non-domination is much more than a philosophical possibility, it is a historical reality. Pettit believes that non-domination was how both elites and the common people of the Roman Republic understood liberty, and that this conception of freedom was carried on throughout history by writers in the republican tradition. While I think that Pettit is correct when he argues that the ancient Roman republicans understood liberty as non-domination, I believe that this notion has much older and Biblical roots. Pettit states that in the classical republican tradition, “liberty is always cast in terms of the opposition between liber and servus, citizen and slave…. The condition of liberty is explicated as the status of someone who, unlike the slave, is not dominated by anyone else.” 4 Let us explore whether the Bible discusses liberty in a similar manner.

In Exodus, Joseph’s descendants are described as being held as slaves in Egypt. The Egyptians “ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” 5 The Israelites were miserable in their condition and they “groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.” 6 Therefore, it falls to God to deliver the Israelites from slavery. God tells Moses:

“Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.’”

7 It is interesting that God tells Moses “I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel…” This suggests that the main reason why God delivers the Israelites from slavery can be found in the covenant that they made with God.

Looking back into Genesis 17, when God first makes a covenant with Abraham, God tells Abraham:

“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

8 Here, God is conferring citizenship upon Abraham—He is making him a citizen of the City of God and promising Abraham that the City of God will reign on Earth. Consequently, it would not be right for the Israelites to be slaves on Earth when they were meant to rule over Canaan. Clearly, the freedom that God is giving the Israelites is non-domination, by freeing them from their Egyptian masters.

In the same way that God delivers Israel out of slavery to other nations, Jesus delivers humanity out of slavery to sin. When Isaiah prophesizes the coming of Jesus, he contrasts the sinful way in which the Israelites conceived fasting with the way Jesus’ fast will look like. He says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” 9 This is precisely what Jesus did through his death on the cross. By conquering death and sin, he released humans from bondage to them.

The consequences of Jesus’ actions can best be understood as non-domination because before, humans were mastered by sin, but now, humans have a way out through the forgiveness that Jesus’ death and resurrection have given us. However, sin is not absent in our lives, for “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 10 Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you might be able to endure it.” 11 Though sin still interferes with our lives through temptation, Paul assures us that through Christ we are freed from slavery to sin. Biblical freedom, therefore, should not be understood as negative liberty, but rather as non-domination.

From these previous examples, there is strong Scriptural evidence for Biblical freedom to be understood as non-domination. The abundance of evidence makes sense because logically, both freedom as non-interference and freedom as self-mastery are irreconcilable with the Gospel story. The notion of negative freedom does not apply to us because human beings are fallen, and sin will always interfere in our lifetimes. Thus, if Biblical freedom is indeed negative freedom, humans are not free at all because sin constantly interferes with our lives.

Similarly, positive freedom has its problems because trying to master sin as much as possible can be dangerous. One danger is that trying to master sin can lead to pride. A good example of this comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll tries to prevent himself from becoming Hyde, who is full of vice, by engaging in philanthropy. However, when walking in the park one day, Jekyll thinks about how good he is, which causes him to transform into Hyde, due to his pride. This shows a significant downside to freedom as self-mastery—it relies on our insufficient human nature.

Freedom as non-domination seems to work best with the reality of living as fallen human beings in a broken world. It allows for interference from sin, but it also dictates that we as Christians, through Jesus’ blood, will not be dominated by sin.



  1. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty
  2. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty
  3. Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  4. Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  5. Exodus 1:13-14 (ESV)
  6. Exodus 2:23 (ESV)
  7. Exodus 6:5-6 (ESV)
  8. Genesis 17:6-8 (ESV)
  9. Isaiah 58:6 (ESV)
  10. 1 John 1:8 (ESV)
  11. 1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV)


Image: Janus by Christo Coetzee from Wikiart.

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