Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Ancient Period (until 475 CE)

Author: David Little

The time-span covered here ranges roughly from the fifth century BCE, with the compilation of the Pentateuch, or the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament, to the end of the fifth century CE, and the collapse of the Roman Empire. The sources include the remaining books of the Old Testament, whose exact number is disputed among Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, and the books of the New Testament, composed largely in the first century CE.
Beyond the biblical sources, there are relevant selections from the writings of the Church Fathers that bear on the treatment of unbelievers, as well as statements on the subject by early church councils, and in some legal and political texts from the late ancient period. The writings of the Church Fathers, who lived from the second to the fifth centuries CE, represented both Western and Eastern Christianity.

The Old Testament selections express what various Christians came to interpret as competing commitments to the liberation of belief from coercion, on the one hand, and to the need for orthodoxy of belief, on the other. Something similar can be said of the New Testament selections, though as related to the distinctive Christian emphasis on evangelization and conversion. For example, in the Matthean account of the Parable of the Great Banquet, the host, disappointed by the failure of his guests to appear, simply “invites” others to attend, while in the Lucan account he “compels” them to do so.

Over the course of his career, Augustine (354-430 CE) illustrated the ambivalence in the New Testament. Having declared as a young man that compelled belief is no belief at all, he changed this view in his later years. Citing the Lucan version of the Parable of the Great Banquet, and the need to avoid confusion and scandal among the faithful, Augustine supported the civil punishment of a heretical group known as the Donatists.

In that spirit, some Church Fathers, like Augustine’s contemporary, Ambrose, rebuffed pagan appeals for tolerance, and fourth century figures, like Pope Leo the Great and Emperer Theodosius II, actively persecuted the “heathen and schismatics.” By contrast, other Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and Lucius Lactantius, shared the sentiments of the young Augustine that true religion cannot be coerced, thereby anticipating the Edict of Milan of 313 CE, which was issued by Emperor Constantine after his Christian conversion. That edict established religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire, while simultaneously bringing Christianity and the civil authority into an intimate relationship.

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