Book Review

Did Christians pioneer the idea of religious liberty?

A look at Robert Louis Wilken’s "Liberty in the Things of God"

July 9, 2019

Robert Louis Wilken, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, is one of this generation’s greatest historians of early Christianity. In Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, he delivers a readable, compelling history of the idea of religious liberty, ranging from the church fathers to John Locke. That scope is essential to Wilken’s basic argument, which is that Christians pioneered the idea of religious liberty. 

Religious liberty did not begin with the Enlightenment

When Locke advanced the best-known argument for religious liberty (or at least toleration) in Western intellectual history, he was simply restating what Christians had been saying for millennia about the sacred rights of conscience. To Wilken, Locke was hardly an innovator, yet Locke obscured the debt he owed to Christian history for his argument in favor of religious toleration and the rights of conscience. Because of writers such as Locke, historians got the misguided notions that Enlightenment thinkers invented religious liberty, and that the concept was relatively secular in origin. 

Instead, to Wilken, the belief in religious liberty was and is deeply Christian. He suggests that religious liberty should retain an honored place among Christians, and that church-state separation should never be used to disadvantage believers or to justify the violation of their consciences.

As seen in passages such as Matthew 22:21 (“render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”), the Bible itself contains resources for understanding the sacred rights of conscience and a certain kind of church-state separation. Wilken turns to early church history, however, to show that believers quickly crafted arguments to validate their worship of Christ alone, and not the pagan gods of the Romans. 

The church father Tertullian, Wilken shows, was the first writer in the history of Western civilization “to use the phrase ‘freedom of religion’” (11). The biblical tradition and church fathers did not prevent churches from seeking partnerships with government, however. Constantine and his successors crafted the concept of a Christian society in which churches worked with civil magistrates to preference and sometimes to enforce godly belief and practice. This blending of religion and government was the default mode in the ancient world. It was no surprise that Christians followed the model when they could, even if it led inexorably to the corruption of the church as a tool of state power. 

The Reformation and religious liberty

Wilken skips over the medieval period fairly quickly, moving on to the Reformation. The fact that he largely passes over about a thousand years of church history may speak to the paucity of relevant sources in between the church fathers and the Reformation. But it also makes me wonder, if there really was such a deep churchly tradition of religious liberty, why did it show up so infrequently between Constantine and Luther?

In any case, Wilken argues that the circumstances of the Reformation forced the latent tradition of religious liberty into the open among Christian dissenters. These could include Protestant sects, as well as dissenting Catholics, who found themselves as a persecuted minority in places from Nuremberg to London. Reformation-era persecution and dissent were the great drivers of the arguments for religious liberty.

Wilken provides a wonderfully illuminating survey of ideas about church-state separation during the long Reformation. Religious liberty was rarely so simple as just allowing people to worship as their consciences dictated. Some advocates of toleration argued that people could believe what they wanted, but they could not be allowed to exercise that belief, especially in public. Doing so threatened the health and stability of the godly society. Others (including Locke) argued that Protestants might be permitted to worship openly, but not Catholics, because Catholics were ostensibly sworn to obey a foreign power (the pope). Others, such as Rhode Island’s Roger Williams, made a firm distinction between church on one hand, and the moral law of society on the other. The civil government was responsible for the latter, but it should not touch the former, according to Williams.

Baptists and religious liberty

As much as Wilken seems to appreciate the voluntary quality of true faith, Baptists might notice that Wilken does not grapple with the problems inherent in a “parish” view of the church, or the associated issue of infant baptism. Virtually all Christians practiced infant baptism at the dawn of the 17th century. Wilken shows that Christians dating back to Tertullian had argued that true religion was voluntary in nature, and he incidentally notes episodes such as Pope Innocent III’s condemnation of the forced baptism of Jews. “If one has not of his own accord sought baptism, he cannot have faith,” Wilken explains (38). But infant baptism, which had become a fixed practice by the sixth century, inevitably complicated the voluntary ideal. 

The parish model and paedobaptism also guaranteed some blending of church and state, at least at the local level. In the parish model, people became Christians (at least by implication) by being born in a Christian town with a Christian church where you were baptized as an infant. Some pietists, Puritans, and other “hot Protestants” started to question that assumption, insisting that being baptized as an infant did not lead to spiritual regeneration. But it was left to the Baptists and continental “Anabaptists” to make baptism and church membership more fully voluntary, and to call for the (sometimes elusive) ideal of a regenerate church membership conditioned on believer’s baptism. To them, this voluntary congregational order entailed a return to the original biblical model.

The English Baptist Thomas Helwys receives pride of place in Wilken’s assessment as arguably the most consistent and forward-thinking advocate of religious liberty. In Wilken’s conclusion, he returns admiringly to Helwys, because of Helwys’s advocacy of religious freedom not just for Baptists or Protestants, but for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims. If the civil magistrate takes any role in enforcing true worship, as Locke would still have had it, liberty must be restricted to the government’s preferred brand(s) of faith. But if the government’s job is just to protect the free exercise of religion, and not to play religious favorites, then liberty of conscience transforms into a gift granted equally to all. That arrangement was the genius of the American constitutional order.

Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019), and Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022). You can follow him on … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24