A Time to Remember the Origins of Religious Liberty

on November 9, 2013

This year marks the 1700 year anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which ended pagan Rome’s hostility to Christianity, opened the door to Christian civilization, and serves as a model for religious freedom for all religions under the auspices of a state favorable to Christianity. Contemporary historians hold it to be not an imperial edict but an essentially a summit meeting between the West and East Roman emperors, Constantine and Licinius, who determined on an imperial policy of religious freedom for Christians in the Roman Empire after centuries of at times intense persecution from the days of Nero forward. The almost 300 years at the beginning of Christianity should not be thought of as a time of unremitting systematic persecution, as the Ante-Nicene fathers (who had to be able to live their lives and produce their writings, despite persecution) and the existence of church property (restored by the edict) testify. But there was also severe persecution in this period, and a common policy that Christianity was illegal. The “edict” marked the decisive end of this policy, and a new world of freedom for Christians.

The stated justification of the edict is a kind of agnosticism; whatever deities there are should be pleased with the worship they receive and be “kindly disposed” to the Empire, although the edict does seem to recognize that there is a “Supreme Deity.” Christians are mentioned specifically as being free to practice their religion, and ending their persecution is the reason for the edict. Despite the lack of explicit Christian doctrinal justification, it has been noted by recent historical opinion that the concept of religious freedom was specifically Christian in origin, with Jesus, Peter, and Paul counseling that divine commands are superior to the state, and Tertullian claiming that there is a “fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.” This provided the background for a state policy of religious liberty when the Empire became more favorable with Constantine’s victory at Milvian Bridge.

Nevertheless, intolerance has come to be associated with the rise of Christianity in the popular mind. The contest between orthodoxy and heresy in the fourth century ended in the triumph of orthodoxy by century’s end, and toward the end of this time, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire (by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380). In general, religious policy from the end of the fourth century followed the rule that Christianity is the truth, with penalties attending belief and/or practice of other religions or heresies. The Edict of Milan did not serve as a model religious policy for Christendom, only a marker of the initial liberation from paganism on the way to Christian civilization.

The freedom modern Christians have come to believe in is in part a result of uncertainty and conflict resulting from the breakup of Christendom from the Reformation on, but also from the increasing belief of Christians that religious coercion is not the will of God and incompatible with Christian love (expressed by Roger Williams and John Locke).

Celebrations of the Edict in 2013 centered on the city of Nis in Serbia, the birthplace of Constantine, and were sponsored by the Serbian government and the Serbian Orthodox Church as part of the Edict of Milan Project. As noted, other celebrations occurred in Rome, Jerusalem and several other European cities, but principal celebration was at Nis, and involved in large measure Orthodox Christians. An “epistle” of the Serbian Church concerning the edict correctly notes that “Constantine was ‘more modern’ and more noble than many of the rulers who came after him, or who govern today, when millions of Christians suffer throughout the world.” Additionally, both Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued statements concerning the edict and in support of the religious freedom it heralded. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate organized a seminar on religious freedom, held May 17-18 to “explore the historical, legal and political aspects of religious freedom in Europe and throughout the world.” Patriarch Bartholomew also noted that the edict’s principle of freedom is essentially a modern one, extending to many religions, and that this idea of religious freedom, born at Milan, has now gone beyond historically Christian societies to become the ideal for “the entire world.” But with this freedom, “Christianity and the Truth are not only not out-dated, but have in fact increasingly matured … faith is not a social phenomenon or mere ideology. It is the sanctifying grace … something discernible among those who obey God’s will but even recognizable among those who disobey his commandments.” A similar commitment to religious liberty for all while still holding to a final truth was evident nearly 50 years ago at the Second Vatican Council, which in its decree on religious freedom established the current Catholic doctrine, which prescribes freedom to practice the religion of one’s conviction as part of the human dignity of seeking the truth.

This year, as alluded to several official statements noted above, the anniversary of the Edict of Milan comes at a time when the Christian world (i.e., the Christian population of the world, Christian nations have passed into history) is struggling to maintain the integrity of Christian life against the Enlightenment and its consequences. The hard persecutions of the French Revolution and the much more ominous and overwhelming threat of communism seemed to have been decisively overcome in 1989. But the Enlightenment’s de-Christianization has returned in the attempt by secularists to legally eradicate religion from public life, and to legally require acceptance of the sexual revolution in general and homosexuality in particular. In a wide ranging attack affecting numerous areas of the lives of the Christian citizens of western societies, from the right to wear religious dress or symbols in public, to the right to educate and discipline children in line with their parent’s beliefs and convictions, to the legal requirement to provide goods and services that facilitate homosexuality as part of civil rights law, to the right of religious organizations to hire and fire employees by their own religious standards, Christian life is under grave threat in much of the West, and ironically, mostly in those parts that never knew communist rule. Disturbingly, this is accompanied by the slow but unabated acceptance of the sexual revolution by Christian churches and Christian institutions. Similarly, in the political sphere there is a general abandonment or threat of abandonment of social conservatism by conservative parties. The net result threatens to make orthodox Christian belief and practice again illegal in a civilizational policy, as firm if not as yet as intense as the civilizational policy pagan Rome had against Christianity.

The secularist commitment to suppress Christian orthodoxy is not only as strong as that of pagan Rome, but in many respects is the same kind of commitment. Pantheism and materialism at a philosophical level, polytheism and magic at a popular level, general state tolerance of religious belief and practice provided the state cult of the emperor was practiced when required, and a sexual world of socially accepted prostitution, abortion, homosexuality and general promiscuity all characterized pagan Rome. Without an emperor cult, the secular West is again requiring that Caesar be placed before God, and the rest is indeed returning. Christians even stand accused “hatred against mankind” in their exclusivism, as was the charge in the time of Nero.

It is at times of crisis such as the present that Christians are led to hope more intensely for Christ’s return. The moral collapse already seen in the twentieth century prompted intense interest in eschatology then, as well as (rightly or wrongly, depending on one’s theology) the appearance of the Israeli nation-state. The hope of Christ’s return is commended by scripture. But the real rock Christians should always cling to is Christ and his Word, which by God’s grace we know to be true. Our position is different, however, from that of the early Christians, in that we have many centuries of Christian civilization behind us. This is both a sorrow and a resource, as we commend God’s truth to a world fallen away.

  1. Comment by Marco Bell on January 19, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Thank you Rick Plasterer for such an educated article.
    A well documented summary of History, and a fair assessment of events that truly do alter Life as we know it.
    No matter how differently we may see things, I think Christendom will survive the contemporary world, and we will all enjoy a good laugh when all is said and done.

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