Early Church Fathers on Freedom of Religion

Thanks to MandM for these quotes –

Augustine says (Tract. xxvi in Joan.) that “it is possible for a man to do other things against his will, but he cannot believe unless he is willing.” Therefore it seems that unbelievers ought not to be compelled to the faith.[4] – Thomas Aquinas

Lactantius, a 4th century theologian,

I should wish to know, when they compel men to sacrifice against their will, what reasoning they have with themselves, or to whom they make that offering. If it is made to the gods, that is not worship, nor an acceptable sacrifice, which is made by those who are displeasing to them, which is extorted by injury, which is enforced by pain….These things may indeed be said with justice. But who will hear, when men of furious and unbridled spirit think that their authority is diminished if there is any freedom in the affairs of men? But it is religion alone in which freedom has placed its dwelling. For it is a matter which is voluntary above all others, nor can necessity be imposed upon any, so as to worship that which he does not wish to worship. Some one may perhaps pretend, he cannot wish it. In short, some, through fear of torments, or overcome by tortures, have assented to detestable sacrifices: they never do that voluntarily which they did from necessity;[5]

And finally Tertullian a 2nd century theologian

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. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling.[6]

Read the rest of their post here:

The Theological Foundations of the Enlightenment Philosophers | MandM.

Post By Joel Watts (10,107 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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3 thoughts on “Early Church Fathers on Freedom of Religion

  1. Continue the Aquinas quote a bit further, and you’ll see that his opinion is a bit different:

    “Objection 3. Further, Augustine says (Tract. xxvi in Joan.) that “it is possible for a man to do other things against his will, but he cannot believe unless he is willing.” Therefore it seems that unbelievers ought not to be compelled to the faith.

    Objection 4. It is said in God’s person (Ezekiel 18:32 [Ezekiel 33:11]): “I desire not the death of the sinner [Vulgate: 'of him that dieth'].” Now we ought to conform our will to the Divine will, as stated above (I-II, 19, A9,10). Therefore we should not even wish unbelievers to be put to death.

    On the contrary, It is written (Luke 14:23): “Go out into the highways and hedges; and compel them to come in.” Now men enter into the house of God, i.e. into Holy Church, by faith. Therefore some ought to be compelled to the faith.

    I answer that, Among unbelievers there are some who have never received the faith, such as the heathens and the Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will: nevertheless they should be compelled by the faithful, if it be possible to do so, so that they do not hinder the faith, by their blasphemies, or by their evil persuasions, or even by their open persecutions. It is for this reason that Christ’s faithful often wage war with unbelievers, not indeed for the purpose of forcing them to believe, because even if they were to conquer them, and take them prisoners, they should still leave them free to believe, if they will, but in order to prevent them from hindering the faith of Christ.

    On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.”

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