Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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

by robert louis wilken
yale, 248 pages, $26

Among secularists, Christianity is associated with intolerance, largely because its attitudes toward sex do not square with the progressive status quo. But Christianity’s reputation for intolerance can be traced back to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and to public intellectuals such as Voltaire, who cultivated an incandescent hatred for the Christian faith, denouncing its bigotry as the ultimate evil. The Enlightenment’s hostility to Christianity became embedded in the Whig view of history, according to which progress entailed ever-­expanding intellectual and political freedom. In this reading of Western history, the Christian past is a dark age marked by fear of freedom of thought. The heroes are the enlightened thinkers of the early modern age, who invented religious toleration, championed it, and rescued civilization from Christian closed-mindedness.

Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God is a revisionist challenge to this view. The idea of religious toleration did not originate with the secularist heroes of the Enlightenment, Wilken argues, but rather with early Christian thinkers such as Tertullian, “the first in the history of Western civilization to use the phrase ‘freedom of religion’ (libertas ­religionis),” and the first to speak of “choice in divine matters” as a “human right” (ius humanum) and “natural capability” (­potestas naturalis).

Wilken traces the idea of religious freedom rather than the practice of toleration. His purpose is not to exonerate Christianity from its repressive past but to correct a common misunderstanding of the origins of the concept of liberty of conscience. This ideal emerged from faith rather than from indifference, skepticism, or hostility to religion. Wilken demonstrates this fact economically. Rather than making an exhaustive survey of the history of toleration, he offers a close reading of texts that reveal key lines of development in the Western concept of religious freedom: the conception of religious belief as an inviolable inner conviction that resists compulsion; the belief that this conviction—­identified as conscience—is not passive, but compels action; and the distinction made between Caesar and God, that is, between earthly governments and spiritual authorities.

After a brief but incisive introduction to the handful of early Christian writers who developed these concepts in response to persecution by the Roman emperors, Wilken moves quickly through the medieval millennium, when ­Christianity achieved hegemony in the West and these concepts received relatively little attention. He then devotes close attention to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when modern ideologies of religious freedom were forged in the fire of violence and persecution. In this section, the heart of the book, equal attention is paid to the major Protestant traditions, to radical Protestants, and to Catholics.

In its main thrust, Liberty in the Things of God focuses on the effects of the Protestant Reformation and the ways in which Christian disunity made religious toleration necessary, a subject examined quite differently by Brad Gregory in The ­Unintended Reformation (2012). Religious coexistence first emerged in areas plagued by religious splintering, such as the Netherlands, England, and ­certain German cities and principalities. Most of these local instances of sustained multi-­confessional coexistence developed without the guidance of treatises on religious freedom. Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith (2007) arguably offers the most eloquent and convincing argument for the primacy of ­pragmatic, improvised arrangements of toleration over high ideals of religious freedom.

In the sixteenth century, as religious wars and persecution intensified, the coexistence of different religious communities began to be viewed as a positive development rather than a violation of core Christian principles. The radicals who promoted this kind of thinking were few in number—spiritualists such as Sebastian Castellio, Dirck ­Volckertszoon Coornhert, Sebastian Franck, and Caspar Schwenckfeld—but as religious violence intensified in the seventeenth century, especially during the Thirty Years’ War, the voices of these pioneers of toleration were amplified by a growing chorus. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes made religious toleration one of the chief beliefs in their secularist creed.

Throughout the book, Wilken points out affinities between the writings of early Christians and those of later thinkers. Stressing “inflections” in thought rather than some disembodied transmission of fixed ideas, Wilken argues that none of the modern proponents of religious freedom disentangled himself entirely from the Christian matrix of Western European culture. This matrix remained suffused with concepts articulated by Tertullian and others in the Church’s first centuries, two of which were foundational for Reformation-­era arguments for religious freedom: first, that the inviolability of every individual conscience has a social dimension, which makes it necessary that the rights of religious communities be protected; second, that this inviolability is a natural human right, not a privilege to be granted selectively by civil or ecclesiastical rulers.

Terminology and concepts are pivotal, Wilken argues. Certain formulations and phrases have been as essential to the evolution of modern conceptions of religious freedom as changes in social and political circumstances. Libertas religionis provides an example. In the Netherlands, torn by religious strife, this notion reappeared in Johannes ­Althusius’s writing, rephrased as “liberty of conscience” and “liberty of mind.” In dissent-ridden England, the ­nonconformist John Owen, familiar with Tertullian’s ius and naturalis, spun their meaning in order to argue that “liberty of conscience is a ­natural right.” John Locke, too, whom Wilken describes as “a philosopher informed by Christian thinking,” paraphrases Tertullian. What Wilken says of Althusius’s indebtedness to early Christian thinking, he more or less says as well of Owen, Locke, and all early modern proponents of religious freedom: “­Althusius’s thinking is an inflection of what had been said by earlier writers, but it reflects a hard-earned clarity learned from experience.”

Wilken, an expert on early Christian history and theology, presents the textual links between early modern thinking on religious freedom and the Patristic heritage of the Christian West, and he does so in a novel and provocative way. Liberty in the Things of God traces routes that most Reformation experts seldom, if ever, traverse, even those who consider themselves intellectual historians. In the process, he provides a new way of framing the evolution of theories of freedom and toleration in the early modern age, and indeed of all discussions of these in our own day. By arguing that “any account of the rise of religious freedom must give a large place to the spiritual passion and intellectual energy of Christians,” Wilken proposes a corrective to current debates. Our most cherished freedoms do not depend on secularist hegemony. In fact, that secularist hegemony may spell their demise.

Carlos Eire is T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.