Book Review: Liberty in the Things of God:  The Christian Origins of Religious Liberty

Nicholas P. Miller September/October 2022

Robert Louis Wilken, 
Liberty in the Things of God: 
The Christian Origins of Religious Liberty 
(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019).

Do the modern foundations of religious liberty owe more to early Christianity than to Enlightenment thinking?

In his ambitious book, historian Robert Louis Wilken seeks to reveal the role that Christianity has played in the development of religious freedom in the West. By its own terms, it looks past early modern or Reformation roots of Western religious freedoms to the early periods of Christian history. It seeks to show that post-Reformation developments for religious freedom were rooted in teachings and concepts of Christian thinkers from the early Christian centuries, as well as from the Middle Ages. 

In discussing the post-Reformation period, the author pays attention to when and how early modern thinkers referenced and relied on authors from early Christianity and their ideas. There is much valuable material and information in the book for those interested in the development of religious liberty in the West. But in covering such an extended period of time, with a relatively broad thesis—that Christianity has been beneficial to religious liberty—many important people and events have been omitted, and thus many difficult questions ignored or overlooked. 

Thomas Aquinas

These questions include why, if Christian thought was so clearly on the side of freedom and liberty, did so many Christian people and institutions act in such a coercive and intolerant manner for centuries? Without addressing these historical realities, the central argument offered by the book appears at times simplistic, raising as many questions as it answers. 

The author’s approach does not really explain why large groups of Christian people supported coercion and intolerance, while others worked for religious freedom. What did this latter group see that the former did not? Why were the latter severely marginalized for 1,000 years, and why did they suddenly become more influential in the sixteenth century? In making an argument for Christianity being responsible for religious freedom rather than the secular Enlightenment, Wilken seems to overlook the fact that the argument over religious freedom was for many centuries carried out between “Christians,” rather than being a contest between Christianity and pagan or non-Christian groups. 

Early on, the author says he will give an overview of Christian history in relation to religious freedom, and that three themes will provide the focus for his historical account: “First, that religious belief is an inner conviction accountable to God alone and resistant to compulsion; second, that conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that carries an obligation to act; third, that human society is governed by two powers,” Caesar’s and God’s.

The author accomplishes at least some of what he set out to do. He does indeed review the early centuries of the Christian church, and focuses on the writings of a few authors who spoke to issues of freedom of conscience and religious liberty. A major example is Tertullian, a second-century writer, and Lactantius, who wrote in the third century. These authors are important and underappreciated in discussions of the roots of Western religious freedom, as they are indeed quoted by a number of the early modern religious freedom advocates, as Wilken later demonstrates. 

He also talks about the transition into Constantine, where Christianity moves out of the shadows and into a position of influence. He spends meaningful time talking about the religious toleration and freedom extended by the Edict of Milan in 313 by Constantine, but less time on the later moves to formalize the role of Christianity in the empire and to marginalize pagan groups. This becomes a general theme of the book, where any move toward or hint of toleration by significant figures is highlighted, but little to nothing is said about contrary arguments and acts of coercion supported or undertaken by the same persons. 

A good example of this is the discussion of Augustine, famed author of The City of God. Augustine’s encounter with the Donatists is mentioned, where he decided coercion and force is appropriate, and uses Christ’s teaching in Luke, “compel them to come in,” to justify it. But then Wilken asserts that this was essentially an exception to Augustine’s approach to the topic, and that in his “preaching and teaching,” he had a very different view of coercion. Well, he did have a different view in his earlier life, until his experience with the Donatists, and then he changed. To dismiss the move as exceptional or aberrant is not to deal adequately with the move. 

Similarly, Emperor Justinian is mentioned only in a single sentence in passing, as being the bridge to the Christian Roman Empire. But no mention is made of his famous code in which he installed Christianity as not only the sole official religion of the empire, but made the Roman pontiff supreme over Christianity, and gave him power of life and death regarding heretics and heresy. This is a significant event, especially in light of the two swords/two kingdoms theme that the author views as critical to his argument. 

Justinian rules after the two swords distinction is made by papal leadership, and he incorporates the metaphor into his code. The church is not to wield the sword, and the emperor is not to decide religious matters. Yet both are to cooperate, so that the civil ruler will wield the sword on the church’s behalf and at its direction, and the civil ruler can help oversee the affairs of the church. The point is that the two swords/two kingdoms approach on its own may support a very intolerant and coercive approach to religion and religious freedom.

Likewise, the discussion of Thomas Aquinas is quite one-sided. He is described as an important voice in the development of the rights of conscience, although it is clear that Aquinas did not believe that erring conscience should receive full protections. Unmentioned is Aquinas’ famous comparison of spiritual heretics to counterfeiters, in which he argues that counterfeiters of money are punished, even though they cause only temporal harm, so how much more should counterfeiters of doctrine, who cause eternal harm, be punished by the state. 

With Wilken’s recounting, one is left wondering why religious freedom ever left Christianity during the Middle Ages. A discussion of this darker side of the thought and thinkers of medieval Christendom is important to a fuller understanding of the story. A book such as this should at least mention the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the church actions taken against the Waldenses, Lollards, Hussites, and Conversos. It should reveal how these things were justified despite a widespread acceptance of some version of the two swords/two kingdoms model. Instead, the few and rare defenses of conscience are cherry-picked, such as the Las Casas defense of the American Indians. The vast mainstream of opinion that allowed for enforced conversions is left basically undiscussed and ignored. 

Meaningful precursors to the Reformation like Wycliffe, Huss, and Jerome, as well as the Waldenses, are mentioned either briefly in passing or ignored altogether. Wycliffe and the Lollards are given two paragraphs in a chapter, oddly enough on Catholics in England. They were indeed Catholics in England, but at a time when that was the only church that existed, and their connection to claims of conscience and religious freedom are not explored. 

When the Reformation is reached, Wilken pays insufficient attention to Luther, who writes some of the best and earliest statements on the relation of the temporal and spiritual spheres, the two kingdoms. Luther is hurriedly mentioned in the first couple of paragraphs of chapter 3, then the discussion moves on to other, more obscure figures.  He is described in 1521 as “not a ‘Lutheran’ but a medieval Augustinian monk” who was invoking medieval notions of conscience. There is a discussion of Luther’s major writings in this regard only when dealing with a much more obscure figure, a city clerk of Nuremberg, who cites to Luther. This short, backdoor discussion of Luther sets a pattern for the book, which for some reason emphasizes Calvin as the author of the Reformation version of the two-kingdom model. 

No, Luther did it first, and was most influential in that regard. Calvin’s view was obviously derivative, and much less bold. The book consistently errs by arguing that the Calvinist two-kingdom model was frequently the moving factor in the growth of toleration, when the opposite largely is true. Calvin created a modified version of Luther’s model that justified, rather than opposed, church/state union. This is seen by his own government in Geneva—which burned the anti-Trinitarian Servetus at the stake—the Calvinists in England, and the Calvinist Puritans in New England, who hung Quakers on Boston Common.

Quite simply, the author has not given adequate due to the early Luther point of view on the two kingdoms, the priesthood of all believers, and religious toleration. These contributions are mentioned, but only in passing, and Calvinism is given the lion’s share of credit. But this is simply not historically accurate. 

Despite these criticisms, there is material here in the early Reformation section that is not well known and highly interesting. The claims of conscience made by various Catholics, including nuns whose priories were being shut down, is very instructive. It shows that the language Luther used about conscience was more widespread in Catholic circles than one might have thought, and it adds usefully to the picture of thought on conscience in early modern Europe across the confessional divide. 

Still, one would wish for a more evenhanded approach in these discussions. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, is cited as an example of Catholic conscience, which indeed he is. But nothing is said about More’s personal involvement in the prosecution, persecution, and torture of Lutheran “heretics.” More’s stand on conscience cannot really be meaningfully considered without this larger context.

Again, the discussion of ideas continues with a rather odd slant toward Calvin and Calvinism. In discussing Baptist author Thomas Helwys, Wilken describes his ideas as a “distillation of Calvin’s discussion of the duplex regimen in the Institutes.” But in reality, Helwys, who began as a Calvinist, rejected central points of Calvinism after he encountered Anabaptists​—​specific election, the special atonement, infant baptism, and the magistrate’s involvement in spiritual matters. In reality, Helwys is rejecting the Calvinist teaching on the two kingdoms, and implementing an early Luther/Anabaptist version. To view this as a “distillation” of Calvin’s mature ideas is simply wrong.

In the chapter on the mid-seventeenth-century world (chapter 9), the author gives thoughtful commentary on John Owen, William Penn, and John Locke, though with various misattributions to Calvin continuing as noted above. But a rather glaring omission is the absence of any mention of John Milton, who is one of the earliest mainstream thinkers to propose that the state should not support religious ministers or teachers at all. Milton has two treatises on both religious freedom and anti-establishment that are very robust, and this is before either Penn or Locke write on the topic. Given Milton’s profile, it is hard to justify ignoring him. 

The book concludes with an overly broad argument that religious liberty is essentially “an inheritance from the Christian past.” Yet that past is described broadly, as including early Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation. Clearly, this past includes many diverse and even opposite things, many of which actually worked against freedom and toleration. In the discussion of Locke and Madison there is an acknowledgment that they are working primarily in philosophical rather than theological categories. And yet, it is argued, the philosophical categories are really prompted by underlying religious insights. 

I’m not unsympathetic to this argument, having made a similar one myself. And yet as stated here, it raises more questions than it answers. Religion and faith were used more often in the Middle Ages to justify coercion and oppression than religious freedom. Why did that change? What kind of religion or Christianity supported freedom? The book really does not address, in my view, these fundamental questions. The same can be said of Enlightenment thought, some of which helped bring greater freedom, some of it greater oppression. To simply pit faith and Christianity against the Enlightenment and reason is to overlook the underlying nuance that is found on both sides. There is no meaningful acknowledgment or discussion of these realities, or the interplay between these two kinds of thought. 

To end on a positive note, the execution of the book is obviously that of a skilled writer and a broadly capable researcher. There is much new material the author brings to light that adds to the current discussion. The book is written by someone who knows how to colorfully and thoughtfully advance an argument as well as a historical narrative. It is a somewhat flawed yet valuable and useful contribution to our understanding of the development of religious liberty in the West. 

Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.