Addicted To Autonomy

Carl Trueman’s two volumes on Modernity, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) and Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists redefined identity and sparked the sexual revolution (2021) are essential for understanding what is happening around us. As he notes, what we are experiencing now has been a long time coming. I point my students to the death of René Descartes (1596–1650) as a convenient turning point. Descartes was a Christian who sought to defend the faith not by beginning with God or divine authority but by beginning with the human self. His argument may be very roughly boiled down to the sentence, “I am doubting, therefore I exist.” The subject of the verb in the sentence is I. Before Descartes and the rise of Modernity, the subject of the verb had been God, as in, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis 1, God is the subject of the verb. He is sovereign. He is speaking. He is defining. In the garden, Adam asserted his autonomy and, in Modernity, we codified autonomy as the norm. The creature formally became the subject of the verb and sovereign man has refused to relinquish his throne since.

In Western history, as in Scripture, it never goes well when man defies God—as Adam, Cain, Pharaoh, Achan, Uzzah, the boys at Bethel (2 Kings 2:23), Judas, or Ananias and Sapphira. Yet, in Modernity, the West has defied God for centuries. In the 20th century alone the arrogant Modern doctrine of human perfectibility (and earthly utopia) brought about the death of more than 100 million people and yet, in the 21st century, intellectuals and others continue to embrace these fundamental convictions and somehow expect a different outcome, and people have the nerve to doubt the Augustinian doctrine of sin.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be pundits and theorists writing and talking about where American politics goes from here but precious few of them will address the most fundamental issue: the corruption of the human heart. One leading primary symptom of the depravity of the human heart (Jer 17:9) is our addiction to autonomy. What is it? Basically it is, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, “the right of self government.” Here it helps to distinguish two spheres of human existence, the ultimate and the penultimate. As a matter of our secular, civil life in the here and now, autonomy can be a good thing. People should not be allowed to grab anyone they will and take them away. As an American, I sympathize with those who want autonomy for their nation, who resist being invaded by another nation. Autonomy relative to God, however, is another thing.

Some years ago, the late radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (1951–2021) characterized abortion as a sacrament for some in America. He had a point. It is a sacrament of autonomy. It signifies the freedom to defy consequences, to pursue an expressive individualism, self-fulfillment, upward social and economic mobility, and it seals the same to the one who has an abortion. It says, “you are sovereign. You are ultimately accountable only to yourself. No other human being, not even the most helpless human growing within you, who is utterly dependent upon you, has a claim on you.” Make no mistake about it—many women who could raise a child, whose circumstances are not tragic, knowingly choose to end the human life growing within them. The days of being able to plead ignorance are long past. We have all seen the high-definition images of infant humans growing in the womb. We know whom and what the autonomous woman is doing: killing another human being, and advocates of abortion regularly admit it now.

It is true that sometimes abortions are sought by those who are in dire straights (e.g., forced into it by an abuser, rape, incest, and the life of the mother). It is true that, after Dobbs, it is more difficult to get an abortion than it was before. It is also true, however, that there has been a cadre of women who seek and obtain abortions for purely selfish reasons and that some do use abortion as a form a birth control. According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, “about 2% of U.S. women aged 15–44 have an abortion; 47% of them have had at least one previous abortion.”1 A more recent study concluded that 50% of women having an abortion have already had one. Blessedly, in some places, Planned Parenthood clinics have closed giving the lie to their preposterous claim that most of their revenue was not from abortion. Still, deep blue states such as California have declared themselves abortion sanctuaries and several high-profile employers have pledged to fly employees to abortion-friendly states to get the procedure. The companies have run the numbers. They need female employees and it is less expensive to kill an infant in the womb and more profitable to get the employee right back to work than to fund child-care and to risk losing the employee to motherhood and family. It was a steely cold business decision. In last week’s mid-term elections, as Daniel Silliman observes, “[v]oters in Vermont, California, and Michigan enshrined the right to abortion in their state constitutions with ballot initiatives.” The Federalist Society, the Trump Administration, and the Supreme Court may have finally overturned the abomination that was the complex of pro-abortion decisions (Roe, Doe, and Casey) but none of them can change the human heart.

There is only one thing for the cult and culture of autonomy: “You must be born from above” (John 3:3). The abortion question has, for now, been returned to the states, but abortion is a big business and abortion providers are finding ways to continue serving their clients. Women will continue to seek abortions and, if this is the correct interpretation of the recent mid-term election, will continue vote for politicians who pledge to protect the availability of abortion. Women who will probably never have an abortion resent even the idea that they might not have that option. They resent the restriction of their autonomy, their “options” (the most sacred thing of all to postmodern pagans) that pregnancy and motherhood represent. That is a heart problem, a spiritual problem and only the Holy Spirit can change the heart. People sin for many reasons but fear of what might be and the loss of control over one’s autonomy is a powerful motive for to sin. Of course, Modernity did not invent autonomy but only we have codified it and given it a visible, deadly sacrament to ratify it. We are the first to declare abortion a “right.”

When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, he was being clever. He thought that he could meet with the controversial rabbi undetected, but Jesus knew Nicodemus’ real problem and told him right away. Nicodemus was spiritually dead. “That which is flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit” (John 3:6). Until a person is given new life by the Holy Spirit, they are spiritually deaf and blind. They need a circumcision of the heart (Her 4:4). They need the scales removed from their eyes (Acts 9:18). These are all operations of the Holy Spirit. No political consultant, pollster, or candidate can do that. Only God can, and he does it through the preaching of the law and the gospel. The wonderful thing is that the Spirit does this. He also uses our prayers to accomplish his purposes. I cannot tell you how it works—it is a holy mystery—but I do know that this is why Paul was forceful in his epistles in asking for prayer. He knew that even his ministry, an apostolic ministry, was utterly dependent upon the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In scripture we see the fruit of the Spirit’s secret work. The Apostle John closes the loop on the Nicodemus narrative (John 19:39). He says, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” (ESV). It is a subtle indicator but an indicator nonetheless. It is John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ boldness with Nicodemus was not without fruit. The Spirit used the words of Jesus to give Nicodemus new life and he is still doing that very thing today. Keep praying and giving witness as the Lord gives you opportunity. Pray for the women you know, that God the Spirit might give them new life, true faith, so that they might be able to see what they are: marvelous bearers of the image of God, and that little tiny humans in the womb are also little image bearers.


1. The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cite a 2001 study by the Guttmacher Institute.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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