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Early Christian Roots of Religious Freedom

December 12, 2016

The first person to claim freedom of religion as a right was Tertullian, a Christian teacher in Carthage, in a Latin treatise in defence of Christianity addressed to Scapula, the Roman proconsul, written ca. AD 211. Here’s the crucial opening statement:

“It is a human law [humani iuris] and a natural right [naturalis potestatis] that one should worship whatever he intends; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another.”

In another treatise, Tertullian’s Apology, he uses for the first time in history the phrase “religious freedom.” Earlier, of course, Roman imperial authorities had granted toleration or privileges in matters of religion to certain groups, such as Jews. But granting a privilege is one thing, and claiming something as a natural right is quite another. It appears that the latter idea arose first among early Christian apologists.[1]

Scholars have sometimes ascribed the notion of religious freedom to the so-called “Enlightenment,” often citing John Locke’s Letter on Toleration (1689) as the charter text and Locke as the initial champion of the idea. But in a small volume that arose from his 2014 Père Marquette Lecture, Robert Louis Wilken shows convincingly that “the roots of religious freedom in the west are to be found centuries earlier in the writings of Christian apologists who, in the face of persecution wrote to defend their right to practice the religion they wished without coercion”: The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom (Marquette University Press, 2014), 11-12.

Wilken tracks this emphasis forward from Tertullian through other early Christian figures, including Lactantius (a Christian apologist and contemporary of Constantine), who insisted that “Religion must spring from a free act” and cannot be coerced. Similarly, Alcuin, an advisor to Charlemagne, wrote forcefully to Charlemagne opposing his efforts to Christianize the Saxons by force.

Wilken then briefly explores likely biblical notions that influenced these writers, such as Paul’s statements about “conscience,” portrayed as an inner voice that urges action, even against the views of others (e.g., 1 Cor 10:23, 29).

Wilken takes us on a brief tour through key figures and developments of the middle ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the proliferation of varied religious groups and movements of the 16th and17th centuries. As he notes, the road wasn’t a straight one, and through this whole period, especially in various European nations, the notion persisted among many that political solidarity and loyalty required religious conformity, which was often coerced, recalcitrants often executed. But, amidst all this, the development and spread of ideas of religious freedom and liberty of conscience were fuelled in, and by, the emergence of dissenting religious groups, especially in the 16th century.

This involved also a separation between political loyalty and religion. Dissenters of that time insisted that they could be loyal to the ruler, even if they did not share his/her specific religion. Influential figures of those centuries included Roger Williams and William Penn. John Locke was a contemporary of Penn, and had met him in Holland. Locke’s Letter on Toleration appeared in Latin in 1689, some two decades after Penn’s Great Case for Liberty of Conscience (which was published in English). Moreover, Locke drew on the Bible in defending his views. Wilken concludes: “Though the idiom of Locke’s thought is different from that of Penn and Williams, his work is saturated with Christian assumptions drawn from the Scriptures and Christian tradition. His thinking cannot be understood without reference to Christianity” (38-39).

It will be particularly interesting to Americans, living now in a time of anxiety about religious differences that is being milked for cynical purposes at the highest political levels, to follow Wilken’s brief discussion of how early figures such as Madison and Jefferson as well show the influence of these ideas that emerged first in Christian writers of the early centuries.

But here’s Wilken’s final point made by others as well:  Liberty of conscience was initially asserted and held dear in “an age of strong beliefs.” Religious freedom arose first among people who fervently believed that beliefs mattered greatly. “Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of scepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith” (46).

[1] Peter Garnsey, “Religious Toleration in Classical Antiquity,” in Persecution and Toleration: Papers Read At the Twenty-Second Summer Meeting and the Twenty-Third Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, edited by W. J. Shiels (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 1-27.

My own most recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

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  1. Ron Minton permalink

    Larry, as usual, scholarly, helpful, and fair. I appreciate both – and you do not belittle those who disagree with you.

  2. Great post – I need to read this Wilken book. If only Christian tradition hadn’t tanked, in between the early and modern periods, into an anti-religious-freedom stance! In that connection, I recommend A.D. 381 by Freeman. It’s quite the real-life tragedy!

  3. Deane permalink

    Nice to see Wilken revive Philip Schaff’s Christian apologetics about Tertullian from – what? – the 1850s.

    • Nice to see you avoiding (??) the force of the evidence? Or do you have a point?

      • Deane permalink

        I’ll be the judge of the force of the evidence, thank you. As Barthes said, the blogger is dead as soon as his or her words hit the webpage – or so I read Barthes.

        My point is that Wilken’s Christian-apologetic employment of Tertullian is old hat, and more complex. The Christian-apologetic interpretation of Tertullian is itself already part of the modern discourse on tolerance. Wilken mentions Penn’s influence on Locke, but surely John Owens is a proved and direct influence? And in Owens we already find this Christian-apologetic employment of Tertullian’s statements as supporting a distinctly modern notion of ‘toleration’.

        Tertullian’s point only had force, though, if he had been appealing to common ground between Christians and Romans: that there is no compulsion in ‘true’ religion. It’s a commonplace trope in both classical and Christian (and rabbinic) thought: that the binding of religion is – by nature – internal, not external. Of course, Tertullian had no control over his words either, which is why they have been so amenable to both modern Christian apologetics and modernism.

      • But, Deane, Tertullian’s argument obviously didn’t have much force in the setting in which he uttered it! Otherwise, he and other early Christians wouldn’t have been opposed/persecuted for their religious stance. The argument may well have become “a commonplace trope” subsequently in Christian and rabbinic thought, i.e., centuries after Tertullian. Is it simply apologetics to make testable historical claims about this or that thing emerging first in early Christian texts and practice? Do I detect a certain allergic reaction?

      • Deane permalink

        (I shall pass over that descent into ad hominem implicit in you final question.)

        Yet don’t you think that the force of Tertullian’s point should rather be seen within its literary, elite, philosophical context, not in the context of the pragmatics of Roman governance? And here, his ploy does indeed play to a sympathetic audience. And it builds on an already commonplace set of philosophical opinions: that one cannot coerce cultic practice, that offerings to the gods depend on internal dispositions, etc. So – it relies on a commonplace already present in the centuries before Tertullian, not after.

        I am quite open to accepting innovations in Christianity, such as the equation of Jesus and (the High) God that we begin to see from about the end of the 1stC/beginning of the 2ndC. I am simply interested in establishing the facts, not in defending any dogmas of the left or right.

      • Dean, if you’re a disciples of Roland Barthes, how can you ascribe any intention to me such as ad hominem? But, more to the point, no, I think that Tertullian wasn’t engaging in philosophical banter, or trying (unlike some commenters) to exhibit his learning. Instead, he wrote to the Roman governor about real persecution of fellow Christians. Whatever topoi he may have drawn upon was precisely to alter Roman judicial practice.
        And also, if you can prove that Peter Garnsey and Wilken et al. are wrong to ascribe any innovation to Tertullian, then gather your evidence and publish it, and we’ll all be able to judge.
        One further point on which you might research further: Bousset, Johannes Weiss, Martin Hengel, and a host of more recent scholars (among whom, moi) have found that treating Jesus as the “kyrios” who received cult devotion like God/a god erupted within the first few years at most, in the 30s, not at the end of the first century. That’s when the remarkable dyadic pattern of cultic devotion emerged, that noteworthy innovation.

  4. Luke permalink

    Is it not controversial to translate potestatis as right rather than power? It seems anachronistic to speak of such human rights in that period

    • Luke: In this case potestatis refers to something that Tertullian urges must be recognized. It is, thus, a “power” that is not actually exercised freely, but should be (so he urges). That is what a “right” is: something that we should be able to exercise, but that may not be recognized by others.

  5. I don’t know how I haven’t heard of this book ’til now, Larry, but thanks for highlighting it. It’s a hugely important thesis in several discourses…

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