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Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian origins of religious freedom, by Robert Louis Wilken

15 January 2021

Nick Spencer looks at the right to be different

IN AN episode of The Simpsons, a hurricane obliterates the house of the Simpsons’ Evangelical neighbours, the Flanders family. They take refuge in their local church, the sign outside of which reads “God welcomes his victims”.

There is a sense of God — or at least the Church — welcoming his victims when we talk about the emergence of religious liberty in the West. Some modern secular narratives see nothing but darkness and intolerance before the Enlightenment, at which point Voltaire emerged and all was light. The reality, as the American historian Robert Louis Wilken reminds us in this short, clear, and helpful book, is very different. The arguments for religious (and political) freedom were being theologically justified long before Voltaire took to the stage.

And yet that theological justification for liberty was made in the teeth of theological arguments against it. Freedom might have won out in the end, but Christians ended up rationalising a great deal of unfreedom before it did. The Church liberated the people it also oppressed.

Wilken covers arguments for religious liberty in Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and, in greatest detail, England. He is careful to draw out the differences between pleas for individual freedom of conscience and for corporate freedom of worship and expression, and never whitewashes the story.

Nevertheless, it has to be said, this is familiar territory, already covered in great detail in, say, Quentin Skinner’s classic Foundations of Modern Political Thought, published more than 40 years ago. Wilken introduces the reader to some relatively obscure figures, such as George Froelich in Germany and Philip Marnix de Saint-Aldegonde in the Netherlands, but much of the story revolves around well-known names: Sebastian Castellio in Switzerland, John Owen, William Penn, and John Locke in England, as well, of course, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and their peers.

The book’s added value comes in the way in which it connects these Reformation arguments with those made by Christians of the Roman Empire, in particular those of Tertullian and Lactantius in the third to fourth centuries. Both of these penned forceful tracts justifying religious freedom on grounds of conscience, on the nature of religious belief, and on humanum ius (which can fairly be translated as “human right”). The more learned Reformers often reached for their arguments, quietly sweeping sola scriptura under the rug in the process.

Liberty in the Things of God is, thus, a learned, fair, but slightly workmanlike assessment, although one that deserves a place in today’s debates about religious liberty and where it comes from.


Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.


Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian origins of religious freedom
Robert Louis Wilken
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