Religious Liberty And The Early Church -- By: Paul Hartog
DBSJ 17:1 (2012) p. 63
Religious Liberty And
The Early Church
Modern concepts of “religious tolerance” often view religion through a skeptical lens, ground during the Enlightenment, which magnifies the historical wrongs committed by organized religion.2 As Voltaire penned in his Treatise on Toleration (1763), “The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery.”3 It is no wonder that Voltaire described theological controversy as a “plague” and an “epidemic illness.” For many historians, therefore, the Enlightenment plays the hero in the quest for religious freedom.4 As a corollary, “Constantinianism” (portrayed as the Christian utilization of the power of the state to accomplish religious purposes) is often seen as the inevitable outgrowth of the very essence of Christianity.5
“But,” warns John Bowlin, “these assumptions of Enlightenment historiography cheat the truth.”6 The common interpretation does not
DBSJ 17:1 (2012) p. 64
take into account the historic role of religious groups, such as Baptists, upon the development of “religious liberty.”7 The common interpretation also overlooks the emphasis upon religious liberty in pre-Constantinian (“ante-Nicene”) Christianity. In fact, the phrase “religious liberty” (libertas religionis) was actually coined by an early church author, Tertullian of Carthage (c. a.d. 197).8 Early church leaders defended religious freedom based upon the proper nature of religious belief, religious worship, religious persuasion, and religious defense.9 Moreover, the universal arguments underlying the early Patristic position were pertinent to all, not only to fellow Christians.
The Nature Of Religious Belief
And Religious Practice
Philip Schaff, the renowned church historian, asserted, “The early Apologists—Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius—boldly claimed the freedom of religion as a natural right.”10 In the mid-second century, Justin Martyr resolutely argued that coercion is contrary to religious devotion.11 Several decades later, Tert...
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