Quintus Florens Tertullian, 160-220, Church father and early advocate of religious liberty. via Wikimedia

Book Review: Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, By Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, April 2019; 248 pages.

From Chinese concentration camps for Uighurs, to Middle Eastern jihadist ravages, to assaults on conscience concerning moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, religious freedom issues fill current events reporting. This makes a new book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, very timely. Detailed and lucid, it examines how Christian thinkers throughout history made the case for religious freedom’s revolutionary principles.

“Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force,” writes the author, Christian scholar Robert Louis Wilken. Yet individual religious liberty seemed radical during much of human history, for in the “ancient world and in the cities of the Roman Empire, religion was an affair of the community as a whole.” Thus, “Nonconformity was an affront to Roman ways and was thought to threaten the order and peace of the city,” but early Christians “steadfastly shunned Roman rituals.” And died for it.

In this context Wilken identifies the first advocate of religious liberty, Tertullian of Carthage, a third-century North African Christian writer. Tertullian in his writings “freely cites biblical passages, notably the famous saying of Jesus, ‘Render to God the things that are God’s and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21).” Jesus’ referencing the emperor’s monetary image indicates the taxes Christians owe Caesar, while human beings according to Genesis 1:27 carry God’s image, thus “you should offer your money to Caesar, but ‘to God yourself.’”

Tertullian also cited the Jewish scriptures. Daniel 3 famously recounted the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylonian exile, defying King Nebuchadnezzar. “They were obedient to the king in all things, but they refused to bow down before his image.”

Under of the influence of Saint Augustine (354 – 430 AD) Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century analyzed the wrongfulness of obedience “contrary to God.” He taught that, “Conscience is an ‘inner spiritual bond,’ whereas the office of a superior is extrinsic, and hence the bond of conscience trumps the command of a superior.” A particular superior like a military officer may legitimately command “only in those matters to which the vow of obedience extends.”

After enduring Roman persecution, Christians themselves had to confront issues of faith and force when Christian civilization encompassed Europe. Religious freedom and the state became particularly pressing matters when Protestant Reformation movements in the 16th century sundered what had been Western Europe’s Christendom, united by the Catholic Church. “Religion had been the vinculum societatis, the unifying bond of society, and Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, could not imagine a peaceful society divided by religious belief,” Wilken trenchantly observes.

Concerns of principle and power led Catholics and Protestants alike to draw upon Christian beliefs in order to justify individual religious choices. Catholics in Nuremburg, for example, confronted religious diktats from the German city’s newly Lutheran rulers. In response, city chancellery clerk George Froelich, a “humanist with evangelical sympathies,” wrote a “memorandum asserting that secular government had no authority in matters of faith.”

Froelich cited  Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew’s Gospel (“let them grow together”) and went on to explain Martin Luther’s traditional interpretation of Romans 13, one shared by other Protestant thinkers like John Calvin. Wilken says that for Luther, “political authority and law derive from God and that Christians should be obedient to those who are placed above them.” Yet “there is another kingdom, another rule, governed by the word of God” and the “two kingdoms must be kept apart, each fulfilling its distinctive mission.”

Luther’s collaborator Philip Melanchthon, in summarizing Luther’s teachings, noted a “division within the Ten Commandments, the so-called two tables of the law,” each with five commandments, Wilken observes. “The first table addresses the honor due to God” while the “second table addresses the moral life.” Such analysis from Protestants echoed what had become known as the “doctrine of the two swords,” as expressed in a 494 letter by Pope Gelasius rebuking the eastern Roman emperor Anastasius for interfering in religious affairs.

English dissenters from the Church of England, a “national church” founded by King Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church in Rome, emphasized the primacy of individual religious choice. Leonard Busher, an English émigré to the Netherlands, published in 1614 Religion’s Peace; or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience and “thought the idea of a national church abhorrent,” Wilken notes. “Kings and bishops can no more command faith than they can command the wind,” as John 3:8 indicates.

Thomas Helwys, the founder of England’s first Baptist church and Busher’s contemporaneous English émigré to the Netherlands, is, for Wilken, a significant figure. “Helwys had deep prejudices against Catholics,” he says, but “compelling luminosity” in matters of religious freedom, as shown his 1612 book A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.

“In the seventeenth century even prominent defenders of religious liberty like John Milton and John Locke were not willing to grant liberty of conscience to all, and in particular not to Catholics,” Wilken observes (recent evidence suggests otherwise in Locke’s case). Yet, in an appeal for universal religious liberty, “Helwys wipes away any qualifications,” for “liberty of conscience was a natural endowment not a concession by the government.”

The famous English dissenter and colonial American settler Roger Williams argued similarly in his 1644 book Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Having some personal contact with Muslims and knowledge of Islam, he remained a staunch religious freedom advocate even while he “considered Muhammad an imposter who would be condemned to hell.”

Christianity shaped Williams’ fellow Englishman, Locke, but this natural rights thinker called for religious freedom on the basis of universal human reason. Sparse Christian references made his 1689 Letter concerning Toleration the “work of a philosopher informed by Christian thinking, not a theological treatise,” in Wilken’s view. Yet with Locke, “ideas first advanced by Christian thinkers came to be seen as reasonable without reference to their origins,” a reasoning now under attack by modern totalitarian political correctness on college campuses and elsewhere.  

Wilken has created a masterful overview of Christianity’s troubled history that gave birth to ordered liberty of faith. “The events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a catechesis on the nature of faith,” he notes. As the modern world faces religious disputes foreign and domestic, Wilken’s lectionary is all the more important.

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a law degree from the George Washington University Law School.  He can be followed on Facebook and on Twitter at @AEHarrod. 

Andrew E. Harrod is an independent researcher and writer who has published over 500 articles online and in print.  His writings have appeared at the American Spectator, American Thinker, Breitbart, the...