The Lie Of Personal Autonomy

Nov 20th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In the 1992 Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Anthony Kennedy penned his famous “mystery passage”:  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Robert Bork called the phrase indicative of “New Age jurisprudence”; William Bennett derided it as an “open-ended validation of subjectivism” that paves the way for drug abuse, assisted suicide, prostitution, and “virtually anything else”; George Will said it was “gaseously” written; Michael Uhlman labeled it a “thing of almost infinite plasticity”; the editors of First Things called it the “notorious mystery passage.”  What seems clear is Kennedy’s underlying conception of human beings as autonomous individuals, choosing their own values and mapping out their own life courses.  Is human autonomy at the heart of liberty?  Does autonomy define the essence of personal freedom and liberty?  As Matthew Reynolds observes, “the fact remains that most human beings—frail, dependent, and sinful as we are—experience it more as a burden than a blessing. After all, with an absolute freedom to determine who I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to live comes an absolute responsibility to realize these goals.  The liberating truth, for believers, is that we don’t have to determine who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to live. At a core level, these are questions God has already answered for us.”  Thus, the proposition of absolute freedom, of personal autonomy is a dangerous lie.  Indeed, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The pursuit of personal autonomy pervades every aspect of our Postmodern, post-Christian culture.  It is both devastating and self-destructive.  Timothy Kleiser in his review of Alan Noble’s marvelous new book, You Are Not Your Own, writes, “. . . a society premised on the sovereign self has no discernible ends, only an ever expanding and ever demanding number of means. Without an essential purpose for our lives, we’re stuck in a process of becoming that never reaches a clear destination. In this sense, our society’s promise that we’ll progress toward greater happiness is more like a warning. As Noble expresses it: ‘You will keep searching, keep expressing, keep redefining, keep striving for your autonomous personhood until you die.’ “Noble compares our purposeless, ceaseless struggle to that of Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity . . . Sisyphus has traditionally represented hopelessness and despair.”

What is the antidote to this senseless pursuit of personal autonomy?  Only God’s revelation provides the answer.  Let’s review three fundamental truths from God’s Word:

  1. A human being is a Created Person:  Humans are both dependent on God (created) and relatively independent (person).  Humans are both a creature (dependent) and a person (independent).  Genesis 1-2, part of the Creation Ordinance of God, stipulates that God intentionally created human beings as the crown of His creation: Humans have dominion authority over His creation—to “subdue and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (1:28, ESV).  Humans are God’s theocratic stewards.  Human beings are not the product of a random, impersonal force.  Humans are the product of a direct, intentional act of Almighty God, with the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:28).  Human beings are creatures of God, who manifest a profound dependence on Him.  Yet, human beings are also persons, who manifest a degree of independence, a degree of responsible freedom.  To be a person means to be able to make decisions, to set goals, and to move in the direction of those goals.  Humans possess the freedom to make responsible choices; we are not robots governed by an outside source or power.  We have the power of self-determination and self-direction.   Therefore, to be a creature means that I cannot move a finger or utter a word apart from God; to be a person means that when my fingers are moved, I move them and that when words are uttered by my lips, I utter them.  Theologian Robert D. Brimstead writes:  “The creaturehood and the personhood of [the human being] must be held both together and in tension.  When theology stresses creaturehood and subordinates personhood, a hard-faced determinism surfaces and [the human being] is dehumanized . . . . When personhood is stressed to the exclusion of creaturehood, [the human being] is deified and God’s sovereignty is compromised.”
  2. Humans are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God.  According to Genesis 1, God’s creative activity reached its apex on Day 6, when the divine counsel determined to create man in God’s “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (demut).  [Theologians call this the imago Dei.]  These two terms define the first and fundamental truth about the human race:  That humanity was created in God’s “image”, which means that humans represent God.  Humans have the capacity to mirror God in everything—and are commanded to do so.  Since God created male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27), both equally share in that image—both represent God.  [The Hebrew term for “image” is used 17 times in the Old Testament.  It always has the idea of representation.]  The term “likeness” has the idea that human beings resemble God.  Since God is spirit (see John 4), we understand that humanity’s resemblance to God excludes the notion that God has a body.  Rather, “likeness” means that human beings resemble God in what are usually called the communicable attributes of God (e.g., intellect, emotion, will).  That humanity is created in the image and likeness of God to both represent Him and resemble Him stipulates humanity’s uniqueness, dignity and honor as God’s creatures.  No other part of God’s creation shares this position of dignity and significance.  Note too that after God created Adam and Eve in His image and likeness, He greeted them with a benediction (1:27)—to fill the earth and have dominion authority over His world (1:28).  Human beings are thus God’s vice regents; His dominion stewards. In summary, the human race is both lowly in origin (from “the dust of the earth”) and yet exalted in purpose.  As a created person in God’s image and likeness, humanity reflects the person and work of God the Creator and has the privilege of an intimate, personal relationship with God the Creator, both in time and in eternity.  If our Postmodern culture is ever to recover from its addiction to narcissism and radical autonomy, it will be by discovering once again the biblical truth that the image of God is fundamental to humanity’s relationship to God and to one another.
  3. Humans are Fallen, Rebellious Creatures:  The Bible connects the origin of human sin with the rebellion of Satan.  Ezekiel 28:11-15 describes the privileged position of Satan before his rebellion:  “full of wisdom” and “perfect in beauty” (v.12), dazzling in appearance (v. 13), an “anointed guardian cherub” at God’s throne (v. 14)—until “unrighteousness was found in you” (v.15).  Satan was a created being with astounding beauty and power, but the Bible assigns pride as Satan’s fundamental sin (1 Timothy 3:6).  Isaiah 14:12-15 is a rich poetic image of Satan empowering the king of Babylon:  “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God.  I will set my throne on high . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”  Thus, the rebellion of Satan had begun.  If we understand Revelation 12:4 correctly, one-third of the angelic host joined Satan in this rebellion (see also Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4).  Genesis 3 brings humanity into this rebellion.  Will God’s image-bearers join Satan?  The tragic answer is yes, and all the devastation, dysfunction and hurt of a fallen, broken world began.  Wayne Grudem posits two devastating consequences of sin:
  • Sin struck at the basis for moral/ethical standards —i.e., “What is right?”  In the Garden, God defined what was right and wrong.  The test of that standard was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which they were not to eat.   Adam and Eve were moral creatures and, when faced with an ethical standard, had the capacity to choose obedience or disobedience.  Satan knew that and successfully challenged God’s goodness and His ethical standards; Adam and Eve joined the rebellion.  As God’s revelation continued to unfold throughout history, humanity has persistently defined “what is right” its own way; ignoring the standards that God as Creator and Sustainer of all life had revealed.
  • Sin also gave a different answer to the question, “Who am I?”  The correct answer was that Adam and Eve were created persons:  Of value and worth as God’s image-bearers, yet dependent on Him and subordinate to Him as dominion stewards (Gen.1:26ff).  But once they sinned, the answer changed— a declaration of independence from God.  Since Genesis 3, humanity has been pursuing autonomy from God—a rejection of Him personally and of His standards.  In our Postmodern world today, humanity has embraced a thoroughgoing pursuit of autonomy, defined as a rejection of authority and ethical standards, all in the name of individual rights and liberties.


Because humanity is “dead in its sin” [Ephesians 2:1] and because God is perfect, righteous and holy, God must remake us; He must do something that will permanently deal with our sin, for He can have nothing to do with sin, evil or unrighteousness.  Someone had to pay the price, suffer the punishment, for humanity’s sin.  Since death is the judgment for sin, someone had to die!  Someone had to be the Savior of the human race.  But the worth of salvation depends on the worth of the Savior.  If He were sinful like every other human being, then His death could only pay for His own sin.  He had to be perfect and He had to be sinless.   The Bible’s teaching about Jesus Christ (Christology) and its teaching about salvation (Soteriology) here intersect.  For salvation to be complete, the Savior had to be both fully and completely human and fully and completely God; He had to be humanity’s perfect substitute.  Since Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection provided a permanent, substitutionary atonement for sin (a “once-for-all” atonement—see Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10), God applies this finished work to our lives when we place our faith in Jesus.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, therefore, offers a radical solution to the bankruptcy of personal autonomy. Again, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, ‘I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.’”


See Matthew Reynolds, “The Lie of Self-Ownership” in CT Books (26 October 2021) at; Clifford R. Goldstein, “Justice Kennedy’s ‘Notorious Mystery Passage’” in Liberty Magazine (July/August 1997).

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