Tag Archives: Jesus and freedom

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Human Freedom II (What If—22)

The teachings of Jesus about human freedom had a strong impact on the church in the next centuries. The church father Tertullian of Carthage (ca. AD 155-220), the first to write extensively in the Latin language, spoke out strongly in favor of freedom of conscience, even though the Empire was not friendly to the church at the time. A significant moment in human freedom was the altercation between the church father Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the Christian Emperor Theodosius, around AD 390. After rioting in Thessalonica took the life of the Roman governor, Theodosius responded by sending in the army and slaughtering 7000 civilians who had gathered in the local hippodrome. When he heard about this, Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter rebuking him for this brutality and telling Theodosius that he would be refused communion until he demonstrated repentance. The key point in the letter is Ambrose telling Theodosius that “no one is above the law”. Even kings are subject to a higher court, namely the judgment of God. This concept is crucial to western democracy today. Around the same time, Augustine (ca. AD 400) extended the concept of liberty to pagans, arguing that they should not be forced to accept Jesus.

While developments in the Roman world were important, it was in the British Isles that the fruit of Jesus teaching on human freedom would have the biggest impact on our world today. Through the efforts of Saint Patrick (arrived in Ireland around AD 432), the Ten Commandments became the foundation of civil law in Britain. By the time of King Alfred (ca. AD 890), the Ten Commandments and the golden rule had become the foundation of English law. But the key turn for human freedom was the Magna Carta, a thoroughly Christian document written in AD 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I enshrined freedom under law as a key element of British governance and became the inspiration for the United States Constitution five and a half centuries later. So it was in Great Britain that the early Christian advances in the realm of human freedom were passed on from the Mediterranean world to modern times.

The next key development in the march of human freedom was the Reformation, particular the branch of the Reformation centered in Calvin’s Geneva. John Calvin set up an organizational structure for both the church and the city that was based on the Scriptures, particularly the principles taught by Jesus. The Presbyterian model of church governance that arose in Geneva (and followed to a great extent by the Seventh-day Adventist Church) included government by law and elected representatives that included checks and balances. Based on his reading of the Bible, John Calvin was well aware of sinful human depravity, so he did not trust a government without checks and balances against the abuse of power. This was a very important advance in human governance.

The advances in human governance achieved by the Reformation had a strong impact on the “American experiment”. This impact began with the Mayflower Compact, put together by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (AD 1620 and following). These earnest followers of Jesus decided that rule in the new settlement was to be by mutual agreement. All were to be equal under law and there was to be no aristocracy among them, a major step for people accustomed to British nobility. But in spite of the important concepts in the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts Colony was not a bastion of religious liberty. Deviations in theology from the Presbyterian authorities was punishable. So Roger Williams (AD 1636) had to leave the colony and settle in Rhode Island to establish a beachhead of religious liberty on the American continent. Soon after, in Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn guaranteed religious liberty in that part of the colonies. Pennsylvania welcomed people of all religious persuasions from AD 1682 on and in AD 1701 Penn established the Charter of Privileges, which spelled out the religious liberties the colony would protect. So by 1700 religious liberty had established strong roots in the American colonies. But that was only the beginning.