LIBERTY IN THE THINGS OF GOD: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom
by Robert Louis Wilken
Yale UP, New Haven, Connecticut
Hardcover: 248 pages
Reviewed by Michael Quinlan
Professor Robert Louis Wilken is chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the publisher of First Things magazine. He is also the William R. Kenan Jr Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia and a past president of the American Academy of Religion, and the Academy of Catholic Theo-logy.
His books include The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (2013), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (2003), The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (1984/2003), and Remembering the Christian Past (1995).
This book is a wonderful contribution to correcting history. The contemporary West is plagued not just by covid19 but by a subtle yet deliberate and consistent undermining of its own roots and of the Christian foundations of much that ought to be celebrated.
This book confronts the popular myth that religious freedom is a child of the Enlightenment and convincingly demonstrates that religious freedom has its roots in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and traditions.
There is, of course, a risk in reminding the world of the religious roots of the internationally recognised fundamental human right of religious freedom. As the Australian Baha’i Community noted in their submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia in 2011: “There is a tendency to treat the right to freedom of religion or belief as less important than certain other civil and political rights and this right is often treated as a ‘second-class citizen’ in the sphere of human rights” (Submission No 1921).
The situation that the Baha’i Community accurately described in 2011 has certainly not improved since and perhaps those enemies of religious freedom may be enthused in their opposition to it by the historical analysis presented in this short volume.
Beginning with the early Church thinkers, Wilken traces the Christian roots of religious freedom. Although not an objective of the book, the history of Christian approaches to religious freedom is also something of a history of the corrupting influence of power and of the difficulties of “religious” government. The arguments advanced to the Romans by the early Church apologists seemed to recede from the minds of some Christian leaders and governments when they found themselves in power.
A concentration on the commandment to “have no gods other than me” and not to “misuse the name of [the Lord] your God” (Deuteronomy 5: 7,11) without consideration of the balance of the Scriptures has been relied upon by some states to justify punishing citizens who disagreed with their view of religious matters.
Some, including St Augustine, in his reasoning for the constraint of the Donatists, have also relied on the parable recorded in Luke 14: 23-24 to justify force in religious matters. There, the man giving a banquet is recorded (in the New Jerusalem Bible translation) as saying to his servant: “Go out to the open roads and the hedgerows and press people to come in, to make sure my house is full; because I tell you, not one of those who were invited shall have a taste of my banquet.”
Other translations like the New International Version use the word “compel” for “press”. It is a somewhat difficult passage.
However, the addition made by Christ to the commandment recorded in Deuteronomy when he was asked to identify the greatest commandment is crucial here. Deuteronomy records the commandment to “love [the Lord] your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength”(6:2). Christ added the important words “with all your mind” to the commandment, which for him became an obligation to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).
Those rulers and thinkers who justified persecution of heretics and laws proscribing religious freedom in reliance on the Ten Commandments failed to ponder this command.
How one might ask is it possible to love the Lord with all your mind if you are not able to hear a range of views about the Scriptures and about the Lord and to ponder the truth? Such an approach would lead to an unexamined faith and a love of God with less than “all of your mind”.
The Christian Scriptures are replete with graphic examples of what a lack of religious freedom can mean in practice. To name but a few, consider the beheading of St John the Baptist, the scourging and crucifixion of the Christ and the stoning of St Stephen. All killed ultimately because others rejected their religious beliefs.
The tolerance of Christ to his followers and his persecutors also presents an impenetrable barrier to scriptural interpretation that is opposed to religious freedom. Christ does not reject his followers because they run away in fear, or St Peter when he denied him expressly three times, nor St Thomas when he refused to believe the eyewitnesses who proclaimed his resurrection, or the disciples who failed to immediately recognise him when he walked with them on the road to Emmaus.
Nor does Christ reject those who condemn and kill him; or those – like Saul – who by persecuting the followers of Christ, persecuted him. Just as God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to reject him, so does Christ give people the chance to change and to love him with all their mind.
According to Wilken, it was the third-century Christian writer, Tertullian of Carthage, who was the first to set down in writing the fact that religious faith cannot be coerced because it is an inward disposition of the heart and mind.
Wilken quotes Tertullian as saying: “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”
Rather than providing a com-plete history of religious freedom in Western thought, Wilken selects what he considers to be the best representatives of thought on the topic from the beginning of Christianity until the 18th century.
It is a great little history full of wonderful historical explanations for religious freedom, at least as eloquent as Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so saturated with the same understanding of the freedom: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The sadly anonymous “Good Admonition to the Good Citizens of Brussels” (1579) deserves specific mention. It reads in part: “It is well known that human freedom is located particularly in the soul, which is the chief part of us and in view of which we are called human. Freedom of the soul means freedom of conscience. This freedom means that a person may accept and hold such a religion as his conscience witnesses to him and that no one has the right or the power to hinder him in or to forbid it violently. This freedom … properly belongs to an individual by nature and by natural right because religion is a bond that a person has with God.”
It is always valuable to remember the past. Human beings continue to face the same issues and to fall into the same errors by forgetting the events and the wisdom of the past. The virulent opposition to religious freedom by some today is just one evidence of this some-times-deliberate collective amnesia. This book is one antidote to that and a chance to rediscover some of that wisdom and, yes, again to regret the missteps of the past.
Professor Michael Quinlan is Dean of the School of Law, Sydney, at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
LIBERTY IN THE THINGS OF GOD: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom