Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

The new edition of our theological journal Foundations has just been published. It contains a number of very helpful book reviews, including this one by Tim Dieppe:

Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom
Robert Louis Wilken, Yale University Press, 2019, 248pp, £17.44 h/b (Amazon); Kindle £13.53

Contemporary received wisdom says that religious freedom is the fruit of the Enlightenment. As the story goes, following the Reformation, Christians persecuted each other, on both sides of the divide, and set in motion the so-called wars of religion. We had to wait till the middle of the seventeenth century for “men with greater wisdom and less religious fervor” (1) to expound the benefits of religious freedom. Modern ideas of freedom of conscience and tolerance therefore originated with “enlightened” thinkers who realised the superiority of reason over faith and were distrustful of religious claims.

It is not difficult to see how this account is hostile towards Christianity, portraying the faith as intolerant and tending towards violence. Tolerance and freedom of religion are said to have emerged in the West as religious faith declined. It is this narrative which Robert Louis Wilken, Professor of Christian History at the University of Virginia, seeks to challenge in this, his latest book.

Wilken first takes us back to the early church. Those Christians were faced with a Roman Empire which was distrustful to say the least of foreign cults, and wanted to impose uniformity of worship, resulting in the persecution of adherents to the newly-formed faith. Tertullian used his writing gifts to defend the rights of Christians to worship as they saw fit. He was actually the first person in the history of Western civilisation to use the phrase “freedom of religion”. (11). “I am not allowed to worship what I wish, but am forced to worship what I do not wish. Not even a human being would like to be honoured unwillingly”, (11) he wrote, deliberately scorning forced piety.

Then came Lactantius (c. 250-c. 325) who argued that “religion cannot be imposed by force… only by words, not by blows” (20). Or again, “Laws are able to punish offences, but they are unable to punish the conscience” (20). He went on to suggest that religious acts which are forced are a mockery of God if the mind is not persuaded. The Edict of Milan in 313AD, by Constantine and his co-Emperor Licinius, allowed freedom of religion throughout the empire. Its impact was short-lived, but the ideas lived on.

By the time we get to the Middle Ages, the church was developing a theology of two powers, or two swords – that of the church and of the state. The idea of separating church and state, and therefore allowing dissenting groups to flourish, was a radical one. Pre-Reformation Christians and others “could not imagine a peaceful society divided by religious belief” (80). A theology of conscience was also developed which allowed people to follow their consciences as long as this did not impinge on others. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) spoke out against the persecution of Jews, writing that they should not be forced to believe, but persuaded, and criticising the practice of forced baptism (30). Ambrose argued that “The things of God are not subject to the authority of the emperor” (34).

Wilken then takes us, chapter by chapter, through the Reformation across Europe, focussing on Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and finally England. In each chapter he shows how arguments for freedom of religion were made by Christians who made use of Scripture to defend the principle and often appealed to church fathers for support. Martin Luther, of course, famously defended himself by saying “My conscience is captive to the Word of God… to go against conscience is neither right nor safe” [PH1] (52). Wilken also quotes from the journals of Caritas Pirckheimer, abbess of a convent which resisted the reformers’ attempts to convert them. “We cannot find in our conscience that we should believe and hold fast to what everyone wants us to”, she writes (50). Her appeal to conscience echoes that of Luther. Both sides of this divide, therefore, were appealing to the dictates of conscience and thus for freedom in how they worshipped.

One of the highlights of the book is an anonymous tract, Good Admonition to the Good Citizens of Brussels (1579) which introduced the idea of a “natural right” of religious freedom (109-110). Another is Thomas Helwys, founder of the first Baptist church in England, and author of A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612). Helwys went so far as to argue for religious freedom not only for other dissenting Christians, but also for Jews, Catholics, and Muslims (140). His is not simply a defence of the rights of Christians, but a more thorough defence of the principle of religious freedom for all. Helwys was the first to argue comprehensively in this way. He was followed by Roger Williams, who in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) aimed to show that the Scriptures offer no support for the persecution of religious believers (148). Once again, he was not just talking about Christians, but pagans, Jews, Turks, and even antichristian consciences, arguing that God has clearly allowed such worship and that uniformity of religion in a civil state is contrary to the will of God because it confounds civil and religious matters. John Owen, following the 1662 Act of Uniformity, also wrote eloquently on toleration, reaching back to Tertullian, Lactantius, and others to argue that “liberty of conscience is a natural right” (164).

The book concludes with John Locke, who studied under Owen at Oxford. It was said that all Owen’s students, including Locke, promised to defend “liberty of conscience” (169).  Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration argues forcefully for freedom of religion from both Scripture and reason. He advances no new arguments and clearly stands on the shoulders of Owen and many earlier Christian writers in making his case. Unlike Owen and others, though, Locke does not cite earlier Christian writers such as Tertullian, Lactantius or Gregory the Great to support his argument. Wilken concludes:

Locke’s ideas on religious freedom cannot be understood without reference to Christianity. The Letter Concerning Toleration is, however, the work of a philosopher informed by Christian thinking, not a theological treatise. No doubt that is one reason it came to be held in such high regard in the generations after Locke’s death. In his hands ideas first advanced by Christian thinkers came to be seen as reasonable without reference to their origins.” (179)

Wilken has manifestly succeeded in demonstrating that ideas of religious freedom did not originate in the seventeenth century or in the writings of John Locke. It was early Christians who first defended freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. It was they who first advocated for a separation of church and state which paved the way for freedom of religion within a state. Freedom of religion was not born of religious scepticism, but of faith.

This book is a much needed, and valuable counter to the prevailing narrative on religious freedom. It does not offer an up-to-date defence of the concept, or a discussion of its limits, but ably defends the Christian origins of religious freedom. Al Mohler, in a revealing interview with the author, describes it as “the most important book written on religious liberty in a very, very long time.”[1] It comes highly recommended for those interested in religious freedom or church history.

Tim Dieppe
Head of Public Policy, Christian Concern

[1] https://albertmohler.com/2019/09/17/robert-louis-wilken


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