Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Freedom in a Pluralistic Age

Written by Andrew T. Walker Reviewed By Daniel Anderson

The premise of Andrew T. Walker’s book is easy to state and the argument easy to follow: it is a Christian defense of a social ethic of religious liberty grounded in biblical theology. The theological case for religious liberty unfolds in three parts, focused on the themes of eschatology, anthropology, and mission. The structure is clear and helpful: each part contributes a key foundation for a Christian social ethic of religious liberty. The two chapters in each section proceed to establish the outlines of the doctrine, how it authorizes an ethic of religious liberty, and the shape that a theologically grounded ethic of religious liberty will give to our conceptualization and practice of political community. There is much to appreciate along the way: deft sketches of complex theological topics and a willingness to anticipate and engage with difficult questions raised in the course of the argument. At any number of points my “Yes, but…” questions were responded to in the following pages or chapters. For those of us who share Walker’s theological convictions, this is an enlightening conversation about why those convictions should move us toward a particular set of practices.

A central concern of the book, and the point at which it provides its most astringent corrective to classical analyses, is Walker’s desire to provide a genuinely theological basis for religious liberty. For Walker, religious liberty is not an accommodation developed by a society weary of religious wars and sectarian persecution. It flows from the truths of the gospel: the lordship of Christ over all creation, his coming judgement of all things, and the task of gospel proclamation entrusted to the church. Furthermore, he argues that an adequate theological account must also be a biblical theological account: one which is attentive to the canonical unfolding of God’s dealings with humanity in creation, through the history of Israel, with its interpretive centre in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and its telos in the new creation.

The peculiar importance of a biblical theological frame for religious liberty lies in the question why religious liberty should be regarded as a good thing in our present situation while not being permitted by God in the eschaton. A pragmatic, non-theological account of religious liberty avoids the question. A theological account based purely on natural law cannot answer the question either. A biblical theological account, however, enables us to understand the different patterns of God’s action in different periods in their relation to his ultimate goal of exalting Christ.

With this biblical theological framework in view, Walker sets out to provide a description of the time we live in (eschatology), the kind of creatures we are (anthropology), and the task we have been given (mission), and to show how properly understanding these things authorizes a Christian social ethic of religious liberty.

We live in the time between the Son’s resurrection and his return to judge. Christians confess that Jesus Christ has been declared the powerful Son of God through his resurrection from the dead. As this powerful Son, Jesus has been entrusted with the future judgement of the world and subjugation of all opposition to the rule of God. As Paul expounds this to the listeners on Mars Hill, God now commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Prima facie, it’s hard to square how a social ethic of religious liberty sits comfortably with this proclamation. For Walker, the answer lies in allowing a properly inaugurated eschatology to inform the role of the state and the mission of the church in this penultimate age. While religious liberty is not part of the ultimate future for humanity, prior to the final judgement God permits religious diversity to persist as the word of Christ’s rule is shared with the nations. During this “secular” age, the biblical storyline teaches us to expect religious diversity and that the “promise of future judgment demands patience toward erring consciences” (p. 25). Knowing that religious diversity is to be expected, however, doesn’t help us know how to respond to it. Thus, more significantly, Walker argues that God’s permission for religious diversity as well as his response to it in the present age ought to shape our own response.

A fundamental principle for Walker’s case is that God has reserved for himself the right to execute judgement over the consciences of individuals. Walker puts the point firmly and repeatedly throughout the book: “the state does not have the authority to declare what is or is not Christian” (p. 26) or, more expansively, “nowhere in Scripture is the state authorized to judge the conscience” (p. 28). Furthermore, God’s response to false religion is normative for ours. And God’s response in this penultimate age is non-coercive. As Walker eloquently puts it: “the Lord of the universe chose the meekness of human flesh and scorn of rejection, rather than military conquest or political power, to advance his kingdom” (p. 48). Human political institutions, therefore, must not arrogate to themselves the right to judge the fitness of another person’s worship, and must not go further than God in coercing submission to his Son.

All this leads Walker to argue for “Christian secularism” as a vision of how the goods of the overlapping ages (the present-yet-passing-away age of the world and the inaugurated-but-not-yet-consummated age of Christ’s rule) can be coordinated. In this vision, “contestability” is a central experience and preserving the contestability of different religions and ideologies is a crucial political task. Religious liberty is just this practice of preserving contestability which, for Christians, flows from an understanding of both the times and the forbearance of God.

The second section of the book sets out to ground religious liberty in the kind of creatures we are. The central theological concept is the imago Dei. Walker understands the imago Dei as primarily about divinely bestowed individual capacities that serve our created purpose to worship God. Importantly for his argument, this includes a capacity for moral agency exhibited in the gifts of reason, freedom, and conscience. In spite of our fall, these gifts remain vehicles through which God draws and enables our right worship, even while they are employed by sinful humans for idolatry. Religious liberty protects the exercise of these capacities.

At the heart of Walker’s anthropology is a particular understanding of human moral agency that sees it as only genuine, meaningful, and authentic, if free. Voluntary assent to God’s will is implied in our constitution as creatures with rationality and conscience. This becomes further emphasized by the logic of the gospel or, more precisely, an understanding of justification by faith that sees it as requiring an individual, personal, propositionally contentful assent to the saving Lordship of Christ. As Walker explains, “At the ultimate level, the logic of the gospel—such as free/un-coerced response, voluntary/personal assent, acknowledgement of guilt, and faithfulness in obedience in how one lives out the obligations of the gospel—ought to necessarily lead to the reality of there being a penultimate, social, or legal doctrine of religious liberty” (p. 98). A society that maintains an ethic of religious liberty is thus one which pays respect to the fundamental design of our natures and preserves the potential for the right use of our capacities in repentance and faith toward God.

The final section of the book situates religious liberty in the context of the divine commission given to the church. Religious liberty fosters the conditions for Christian mission by enabling the proclamation of the gospel and ensuing the work of defending and commending it through the life and good works of God’s people. Walker reminds us of William Carey’s famous statement to one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society before departing for India: “I will go down, if you will hold the ropes.” Seeking and defending an ethic of religious liberty is a “rope holding” activity for the Church’s mission. It does this most directly at the interpersonal level through creating the “possibility of unhindered proclamation and the free response of humans” (p. 151) and at the social level through enabling the church to display its distinctiveness from the surrounding society.

Thus far the theological foundations Walker draws upon are relatively uncontroversial among evangelical Christians of various denominational stripes and at the broad level the implications he draws are welcome and warranted. Issues with the argument arise, however, in that many elements of Walker’s specific vision for an ethic of religious liberty appear to rest on a conception of moral agency that is underdeveloped in the text. I find statements like the following somewhat eye-brow raising: “Entry into God’s kingdom depends on the conscience being convicted of sin and persuaded by the gospel, which means rationally self-chosen without external coercion” (p. 45). Don’t get me wrong, I’m cheering along until we get to that epexegetical clause. When I read “rationally self-chosen without external coercion,” however, my mind slips to the messy business of growing up into the faith in a Christian family. I’m sure that Walker would assure me that “rationally self-chosen” can encompass both a reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation as well as the gritty outworking of this doctrine in relationships of influence, moments of trauma and triumph, personal capacities and external opportunities but I’d appreciate more detail on how this is the case. When I read the Bible with my young children or take them along to our church youth group, sometimes it involves external coercion (albeit benign) to pry them away from beguiling screens. Again, I can hear Walker assuring me that prohibited kind of external coercion is only that applied by the state, or of one morally competent adult over-riding the will of another. But again, this simply reveals the need for a much more thoroughly worked out discussion of freedom in its relation to our social and individual moral formation.

I would argue, and I think Walker would agree, that our capacity for moral agency, while divinely granted, is arrived at intersubjectively. We learn what to will, and even how to will, in relationships of care and esteem, in moments of disrespect and violation, and in countless encounters of mutual recognition. The lack of attention to this in Walker’s argument often leaves one with an unsatisfying impression that this is a sophisticated theological argument bolted together with a naive moral and social psychology. And unfortunately, I think this ends up diminishing the force of Walker’s most concrete conclusions about the social ethic of religious liberty. The bottom line is that it is possible to agree with him on the theological fundamentals of his argument while not reaching the same conclusions about normative pluralism or the separation of church and state.

This disjunction in the progress of the argument is likely more evident to those of us who come from outside Walker’s own theological tradition. I might be flashing my Anglican petticoats, but the more one listens to Walker’s vision for an ethic of religious liberty, the more one detects a distinctly Baptist and American theological accent. (Walker speaks to this directly in his fascinating appendix: “Why Religious Liberty Made Me a Baptist.”) It is particularly evident in passages such as the following:

The prospect of a voluntary church consisting only of those with expressed faith in Jesus Christ makes possible the critical division necessary to identify the church as something distinct from the world and to identify the church’s mission to the world. A flourishing church is a church that understands its distinctiveness and its calling to be an outpost of the kingdom of God. A free church operating in a free state may pursue its mission of evangelization and disciple-making most freely. (p. 171)

It is, of course, no criticism of an argument that it arises from a specific theological tradition and formative national experience, but it does invite the question: Why did other Christians get it wrong? Unfortunately, Walker provides too little engagement with the broader historical Christian tradition and particularly that of the magisterial Reformation. The reality is that thinkers like Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer shared virtually all of Walker’s theological presuppositions but saw a more active role for the political sovereign in the exercise of judgements upholding the law of Christ. They certainly didn’t embrace normative pluralism. We might find Calvin’s support for the execution of Servetus troubling, but it wasn’t because he was unaware of the implications of Christian eschatology, anthropology, and mission for the social ethics of Geneva. The reality is that he had another conception of how moral agency is formed and exercised and that made all the difference in his movement from theological principle to political policy. This is not to say that Calvin or Luther or Cranmer got it right. Walker’s picture of a social ethic of religious liberty is attractive. It might even be that we should embrace a Baptist liberty for all. My point is that without a more sophisticated and realistic account of moral agency and a deeper conversation with alternative church traditions of thinking about political authority this argument lacks the normative force that Walker intends.

Walker has given us a stirring and stimulating defense of religious liberty. His connection of biblical theological foundations with this specific Christian social ethic enables us to take religious liberty as a diagnostic for how any given society (and its rulers) understands itself in relation to God’s rule. With this in mind, we should continue to pray for the extension of religious liberty more deeply and more expansively through the societies of our world, hopeful that such an extension is both an indicator and enabler of the progress of the gospel in human hearts.

Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson
Lachlan Macquarie Institute
Murrumbateman, New South Wales, Australia

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