Liberty in the Things of God

The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

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Robert Louis Wilken
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , April
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (hereafter Liberty) attempts to situate the roots of modern political doctrines of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion firmly within the history of the Christian tradition. In this book, Robert Louis Wilken displays an impressive grasp of the nearly two-thousand year history of Christianity. However, the central weakness of Liberty has to do with what scholarship it leaves out. In the first chapter, Wilken argues that figures of the patristic era, namely Quintus Tertullian and Lucius Lactantius, living in the 3rd and 4th century respectively, were the first in the history of Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion.” According to Wilken, these ancient Christian apologists were the earliest defenders of Christianity as a religion of inner conviction. Lactantius argued that, unlike Christianity, pagan Greco-Roman religion was mere ritualism (i.e., it lacked the element of inner conviction that was the core of Christianity).

Yet, as S.R.F. Price observes in his book Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge University Press, 1984), the majority of modern attempts at understanding Greco-Roman religion (for example, the Roman imperial cult) are “taken over directly from the attitude of the early Church” (13). Although Liberty makes no mention of the imperial cult, it uncritically puts forward Christianizing assumptions that dismiss the religious significance of non-Christian Greco-Roman cults. Doing so only serves to insulate early Christian history from critical scholarship by making it impossible to recognize any possibility that Greco-Roman religion influenced early Christianity.

Moreover, Wilken argues that Tertullian and Lactantius had a biblical basis for their claims, since, “The term conscience enters the vocabulary of Christians in the writings of the apostle Paul” (16). It is unfortunate that Wilken makes this claim in a rushed way, because this assumption has been questioned by a growing number of New Testament scholars at least since the early 1960s, when Krister Stendahl published his groundbreaking essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”  [Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (Jul., 1963): 199-215].

On the whole, however, Liberty offers a fairly systematic account of how, from the very beginning, Christianity was forced to wrestle with the issue of religious freedom, especially after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the 4th century. Moving from one historical figure to the next in a relatively uncontroversial way, Liberty traces the major events in Western Christianity that involved the question of religious freedom. To Wilken’s credit, he balances his account with the inclusion of many historical examples in which Christians failed to honor the religious freedom of others, both non-Christian and Christian alike.

This is true especially in chapter 2, where Liberty briefly touches on: 1) the varying degrees to which Jews suffered persecution, compulsory conversion, or even (at times) enjoyed religious freedom under the reigning Christian powers in medieval and early modern Europe; 2) how Augustine of Hippo (albeit resignedly) coerced the Donatist Christians, yet simultaneously concluded that Christian faith rests on the persuasion of the inner conscience alone; 3) the disagreement between Charlemagne and a member of his court, the Englishman Alcuin, who, after Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxon people, “vigorously protested the imposition of Christianity on the conquered peoples” (32); and 4) Bartolomé de Las Casas’ use of Thomas Aquinas to defend Native Americans in the Valladolid debate in the middle of the 16th century (Las Casas argued against their virtual enslavement under the encomienda system and for “the natural right of freedom” (43)). Additionally, Wilken does not ignore the fact that it is anachronistic to project back upon the premodern world modern political concepts relating to freedom of conscience. Wilken does not claim that modern political doctrines of freedom of conscience were created by ancient Christian thinkers. Indeed, Wilken insightfully observes that in the ancient world religious freedom referred to “the privileges of a community, not to the beliefs of individuals” (12-13).

The bulk of the book offers a fairly standard account of the Reformation—albeit  one that focuses on the unfolding of modern notions of religious freedom. Wilken makes the central claim of the entire book regarding religious freedom in chapter 2: “The most significant development was the establishment of a Christian civilization in the Mediterranean basin following the conversion of Constantine and the spread of Christian institutions and culture of the people of northern Europe” (25). Chapters 3-6 cover the reformations in Germany, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands, respectively, and chapters 7 and 8 focus on England. The final chapter discusses the aftermath of the Reformation in England, specifically the noninstitutional Puritan John Owen, the Quaker William Penn, and the philosopher John Locke.

Liberty makes the claim that genuine religion is a matter of correct belief according to one’s innermost conscience, which is free because it cannot be compelled by external forces. However, nowhere does Liberty offer a theological or philosophical defense of this claim. It more or less takes for granted these Augustinian/Lutheran assumptions. It would have been interesting if Wilken had discussed philosophers like Kant, or even Kierkegaard, since they share the view that true religion is a matter of inner conviction of conscience. Wilken’s focus is on the history of the Reformation, and not the philosophy of the Enlightenment. There is no mention of Hobbes, Spinoza, or Rousseau, and no mention of concepts associated with modern political philosophy (e.g., ‘state of nature’). No modern philosopher is discussed save Locke.

Although Liberty claims to focus on religious freedom, its focus is actually on Christian freedom. That is, Wilken fails to look outside the Christian tradition for historical examples in which religious freedom was promoted. For example, Wilken could have attempted to open up a dialogue with the work of Abdulaziz Sachedina, who argues that, of the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam holds the greatest resource for constructing a pluralistic society. Sachedina’s argument relies especially on certain Qur’anic notions like the eternal existence of the Mother Book and the concept of the People of the Book (The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, Oxford University Press, 2001). Moreover, an important addition to Liberty would have been a critical comparison of the extent to which religious freedom existed in the ancient and medieval world not only under the rule of Constantine and Gregory the Great, but, say, in Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century, or in Spain under the Umayyad Empire in the centuries prior to the Reconquista in 1492.

With Liberty (and books with similar apologetic themes), it is important to keep in mind that religious freedom is not the same thing as religious pluralism. In the first chapter, Wilken makes it clear that the early Christians living in the Roman Empire faced persecution not because of their beliefs and practices per se, but because they sought the right to abstain from the public worship of Greco-Roman gods. The account of religious freedom in Liberty has a great deal of contemporary significance that Wilken fails to touch upon. For example, one might consider the ways in which claims of religious freedom are currently being made by certain conservative Christians in the US who wish not to be compelled to participate in the public square (e.g., the freedom to deny health care service to members of the LGBTQ community and to women seeking birth control or abortion). Nevertheless, on the whole, Liberty puts forward an excellent introductory account of how certain modern notions of freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression have roots in Christian history, especially the protestant traditions of Europe.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Rodriguez is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His many books include The First Thousand Years, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.


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