Wilken, Robert Louis. Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2019. 236pp.

The story of religious toleration, as it is usually told in American education, did not begin until John Locke wrote his famous work, Essay Concerning Toleration. As the story goes, the Enlightenment finally allowed reason to win over the irrationality of beliefs in a higher power. Locke’s essay supported America’s belief in religious toleration.

While the situation is not perfect, at least Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Muslims, and every other religious belief can live in relative peace. God bless John Locke, and God bless America.

Robert Louis Wilken throws a wrench into this narrative. Religious freedom, Wilken says, originated not with Enlightenment writers, but in the early Christian Church. Locke and company were not innovators, but wrote on the shoulders of a long literary tradition, beginning with third-century writers. In Wilken’s view, there are four Christian figures who provide the four basic tenets for Enlightenment philosophers’ arguments for religious liberty: Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Callistus II.

The Early Christian Origins of Religious Toleration

Second-century Christian apologist Tertullian’s discuss the intersection between Christian faith and practice and service as Roman citizens, including Christian participation in Roman games, military service, and marriage. In his examination of Roman policy on Christians, entitled Apology, Tertullian is the first Western writer to use the phrase “freedom of religion.” Writing within the context of Christian worship of Christ amidst the Roman pagan tradition, he asks for the freedom to “[l]et one man worship God, another Jupiter.”

Origen of Alexandria is also critical to the development of Christian arguments on religious freedom. In his prolific Biblical commentary, Origen comments on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were debating whether or not meat offered at a dinner party prepared in a pagan sacrificial context was fair game for Christians, and Paul advised them to listen to their consciences, implying their consciences had moral authority in the moment, rather than being judges of actions post facto. Says Origen, commenting on Paul’s advice: “The testimony of the conscience... [is a] pedagogue to the soul… to admonish it to do what is better or to correct and convict it of faults.” Origen’s argument for conscience’s moral force to act had powerful ramifications. For example, during the Reformation, the Dominican Convent of St. John the Baptist in Kirchheim am Teck refused to capitulate to attempts by the Protestant Duke of Wurttemberg to reform their monastery, stating, “[T]hese reforms are against [our] [sic] consciences.” Likewise, Protestants such as Roger Williams implicitly used Origen’s argument that one’s conscience has moral authority, and used this thinking as a justification for the formation of their own communities.

Augustine of Hippo added one of the most important tenets to the development of a robust conception of religious freedom. Though Augustine, bishop, theologian, and author of Confessions and The City of God, originally found it acceptable to coerce the Donatists to come to Christ, he later argued that “faith could not be coerced.” Augustine’s thinking in time became normative for the Church. In 1120, Pope Callistus II published a bull entitled Sicut Iudaeis, which decried the forcible baptism of Jews. Pope Innocent III, writing on the same topic in 1199, agreed: “We decree that no Christian shall use violence to compel the Jews to accept baptism.”

Bishop Gelasius (later Pope Gelasius, AD 492-496) provides the material for Wilken’s third theme. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Roman bishop wrote a letter to council critic Emperor Anastasius, in which Gelasius argued that there are “two powers… by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power.” With this fourth principle, the fundamental ideas supporting the Enlightenment conception of religious liberty were established: the idea that religious practice should be free; conscience has an obligation to act; it is immoral to coerce religious faith and practice; and there is a between the authority of the Church and the state.

Wilken and the Enlightenment

Wilken’s historical argument seems to conflate early Christian arguments for religious freedom within the Roman pagan empire with Enlightenment arguments for tolerance of religions. For Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine, the concern was with carving out a space solely for Christians to worship freely within a larger Roman Empire, on the basis that their religious beliefs were not a threat to the state. Would these same Church Fathers have supported the broader, more liberal conception of Enlightenment thinkers that endorsed religious freedom for all religious opinions, “whatsoever,” as Thomas Helwys argued? Certainly some Enlightenment philosophers, like Locke, argued against the rights of atheists and Catholics on the grounds that they threatened the integrity of their nation, (because atheists’ oaths meant nothing and Catholics looked to the pope as an authority higher than the monarch), but his view of conscience is still far more inclusive than that of early churchmen. 

Early Christian writers would have submitted to their leaders, due to Romans 13, and probably would not have supported the undermining of their authority by religions antithetical to Roman rule. Wilken does not address this issue, and even praises Helwys for his “clearness of mind” in discerning that “liberty of conscience” should extend to all citizens in a nation. It is arguable that there is much less overlap between the early Christian conception of religious liberty and that proposed by Enlightenment thinkers.

Although Wilken’s thesis is simple and his analysis lacks on a significant point, his contribution to the religious freedom conversation is undeniable. Readers of this book interested in the development of religious freedom will have their apertures widened by fifteen hundred years.