Friday, March 17, 2017

Early Christians on Religious Liberty

This is a quick gathering and posting of some quotes from early church fathers related the topic of religious liberty.[i] It would have been done much better by those more familiar with the “fathers”. Some quotes are posted twice (from different translations). Many think that the Christian vision of religious liberty is a modern construct, but these quotes demonstrate contrariwise.

Justin Martyr (ca. 100 – 165 AD): For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith. And we think it for the advantage of all men that they are not restrained from learning these things, but are even urged thereto. For the restraint which human laws could not effect, the Word, inasmuch as He is divine, would have effected, had not the wicked demons, taking as their ally the lust of wickedness which is in every man, and which draws variously to all manner of vice, scattered many false and profane accusations, none of which attach to us. (The First Apology, Chapter 10, translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith)

Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 240 AD): “Let one man worship God, another Jupiter; let one lift suppliant hands to the heavens, another to the altar of Fides; let one – if you choose to take this view of it – count in prayer the clouds, and another the ceiling panels; let one consecrate his own life to his God, and another that of a goat. For see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it. Not even a human being would care to have unwilling homage rendered him.” (Apology, Chapter 24, Translated by S. Thelwall)

Tertullian: “We are worshippers of one God, of whose existence and character Nature teaches all men; at whose lightnings and thunders you tremble, whose benefits minister to your happiness. You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion – to which free-will and not force should lead us – the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind.” (Ad Scapulam, Chapter 2, Translated by S. Thelwall.)

Tertullian: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. One man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is not the nature of religion to compel religion. Religion ought to be adopted voluntarily and not by force.” (Ad Scapulam Chapter 2, Translator unknown)

Tertullian: “It is the law of mankind and the natural right of each individual to worship what he thinks proper, nor does the religion of one man either harm or help another. But, it is not proper for religion to compel men to religion, which should be accepted of one’s own accord, not by force, since sacrifices also are required of a willing mind. So, even if you compel us to sacrifice, you will render no service to your gods.” (Ad Scapulam , Chapter 2, translated by Arbesmann, Daly, and Quain, as quoted in Religious Liberty and the Early Church)

Tertullian: “Moreover, the injustice of forcing men of free will to offer sacrifice against their will is readily apparent, for, under all other circumstances, a willing mind is required for discharging one’s religious obligations. It certainly would be considered absurd were one man compelled by another to honor gods whom he ought to honor of his own accord and for his own sake." (Apology, Chapter 28; translated by Emily J. Daly and Edwin A. Quain, as quoted in Religious Liberty and the Early Church)

Tertullian: “But you had best see to it whether this does not concur to the making up of another article of irreligion against you—namely, to deprive men of the liberty of worshipping after their own way, and to interdict them the option of their deity; so that I must not worship the god I would, but am forced to worship the god I would not; and yet it is agreed upon on all hands, that forced or unwilling services are not grateful either to God or man; and for this reason even the Egyptians are tolerated in their superstition, which is the very vanity of vanities : they are permitted to make gods of birds and beasts, and to make it capital to be the death of any of these kinds of deities.” (Apology, Chapter 24, translated and annotated by William Reeve, The Ancient and Modern Library of Theological Literature, Vol. 31, 1889)

Melito of Sardis (d. ca. 180 AD): “But this request alone we present to you, that you would yourself first examine the authors of such strife, and justly judge whether they be worthy of death and punishment, or of safety and quiet. But if, on the other hand, this counsel and this new decree, which is not fit to be executed even against barbarian enemies, be not from you, much more do we beseech you not to leave us exposed to such lawless plundering by the populace.” (Apology to the Emperor, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, 26:6, translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert)

Origen (ca. 185 – 254 AD): “For Christians could not slay their enemies, or condemn to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands, those who had broken the law, and were therefore condemned as deserving of these punishments...” (Contra Celsus, Book VII, Chapter 26, translated by Frederick Crombie)

Cyprian (ca. 200 – 258 AD): “What is this insatiable madness for torture, what this interminable lust for cruelty?...why do you apply tortures to me...Why, when I pronounce myself a Christian in a crowded place with people standing all around, and confound you and your gods by a clear and public pronouncement, why do you concern yourself with the weakness of the body, why do you contend with the feebleness of earthly flesh? Attack the vigor of the mind, break the strength of the mind, destroy faith; conquer, if you can, by discussion, conquer by reason. (Chapter 13) “Indeed, if your gods have any divinity and power, let them themselves rise to their vindication, let them themselves defend themselves by their own majesty...You should be ashamed to worship those whom you yourself defend; you should be ashamed to hope for protection from those whom you protect.” (Chapter 14) (Treatises, Ad Demetrian, Chapters 13-14 in Treatises, The Fathers of the Church, Volume 36)

Lactantius (ca. 250 – ca. 320 AD): “Religion being a matter of the will, it cannot be forced on anyone. In this matter it is better to employ words than blows…Religion is the one field in which freedom has pitched her tent, for religion is, first and foremost, a matter of free will, and no man can be forced under compulsion to adore what he has no will to adore...Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety?... For nothing is so intrinsically a matter of free will as religion”. (Divine Institutes 5, translator unknown)

Lactantius: “Who is so insolent, so lofty as to forbid me to raise my eyes to heaven, to impose on me the necessity either of worshiping what I do not want to or of not worshiping what I wish?” (Divine Institutes 5.14, translated by Mary F. McDonald)

Lactantius: “For who is so arrogant, who so lifted up, as to forbid me to raise my eyes to heaven? Who can impose upon me the necessity either of worshipping that which I am unwilling to worship, or of abstaining from the worship of that which I wish to worship?” (Divine Institutes 5.14, translated by William Fletcher)

Lactantius: “And nothing can be more true than this, if it is referred to those who refuse no tortures, no kind of death, that they may not turn aside from faith and justice; who do not tremble at the commands of tyrants nor the swords of rulers, so as not to maintain true and solid liberty with constancy of mind, which wisdom is to be observed in this alone. For who is so arrogant, who so lifted up, as to forbid me to raise my eyes to heaven? Who can impose upon me the necessity either of worshipping that which I am unwilling to worship, or of abstaining from the worship of that which I wish to worship? What further will now be left to us, if even this, which must be done of one's own will, shall be extorted from me by the caprice of another? No one will effect this, if we have any courage to despise death and pain.” (Divine Institutes 5.14, translated by William Fletcher, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7)

Lactantius: “There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Let them unsheath the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted. We are prepared to hear, if they teach; while they are silent, we certainly pay no credit to them, as we do not yield to them even in their rage. Let them imitate us in setting forth the system of the whole matter: for we do not entice, as they say; but we teach, we prove, we show. And thus no one is detained by us against his will, for he is unserviceable to God who is destitute of faith and devotedness; and yet no one departs from us, since the truth itself detains him. Let them teach in this manner, if they have any confidence in the truth; let them speak, let them give utterance; let them venture, I say, to discuss with us something of this nature; and then assuredly their error and folly will be ridiculed by the old women, whom they despise, and by our boys.” (Divine Institutes 5.20, translated by William Fletcher, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7)

[i] These quotes do not imply endorsement of all posited by these authors, but demonstrate the concept of religious liberty was on their minds. For example, written sometime before 180 AD, Melito’s statement to the emperor demonstrate that he did not believe either pagans or Christians should be persecuted.

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