Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom by Professor Emeritus Robert Louis Wilken is published by Yale University Press. It is a hardback book affordably list priced at $26.
This book was incredibly pleasing to me in a variety of ways. It was scholarly without being technical. It covered a wide range of history going from the time of the Church Fathers through the Reformation. It was a combination of historical, political, and theological studies. It affirmed the Christian faith and Christian struggles with conscience issues. It is the kind of book that makes me say, “This is why I have chosen to make history my life study and to teach it to others.”
Sometimes, we are given the impression that Christianity, the Church, and religious folks in general have been the enemies of freedom, especially freedom of conscience. If you are wanting to slap Christian really hard in the kisser, history provides plenty of examples of sins, bad rulings, and oppressive actions. To be fair, history has enough sewer running right down through the middle of human affairs to throw everyone and every cause into it.
But what was the ongoing and developing direction of history? As this book points out, Christian leaders repeatedly came back to recognizing that the conscience of a person, his or her inner convictions, cannot be commanded, controlled, or coerced by Church or State. And without being overly progressive or unduly optimistic about human nature, the Faith has matured in its convictions and practices regarding religious differences.
In many Christianized societies of the past, serious leaders were completely troubled by the idea of two religions co-existing in the same realm. The idea that religious beliefs might take on a thousand different shades was beyond their grasp. In their better moments, it was conceded that those whose convictions differed from the state religion or religion of the realm would need to exercise their faith and liturgy somewhere other than the public square.
It is easy to be condescending to everyone in the past from our modern perspective. They were narrow minded, but we are broad minded. We have embraced the virtue of tolerance, but they were intolerant. Granted, a person today faces no attacks from the ruling or ecclesiastical authorities for his views on the Lord’s Supper. But we have our own “religious dogmas” that cannot be tampered with. Thankfully, the diversity within the United States allows some freedom of movement, expression, and action for those of us who go against the accepted (politically correct) views of our time.
Speaking out sexual, economic, racial, political, and even some scientific views can get a person banned from the academy, politics, or even Facebook. We have our own religious battles in our own society. That is all the more reason to study books like this one.
A free church in a free state is a golden ideal. Neither is accomplished without lots of ink and maybe blood. Neither can achieve permanent status in this world. But if it is freedom that one desires, it is to the Christian tradition that one should go to find it. Christians erred many times, but in the ongoing clash of ideas, of working through the theology, the recurring idea has prevailed. I cannot make your religious, Christian, or moral. That does not necessarily rule out laws to restrain all human impulses, but it does bring us back to a formula for a society of faith existing alongside societies of differing views.
I have several of Robert Louis Wilken’s books, but this is the first time that I have given one of his volumes a serious and complete reading. It will not, Lord willing, be the last time. The mark of a good book is that the reader hurries to get through it, then is sad that it is finished, and then wants to read it again. That is very true of this book.