The Christian Origins of Religious Liberty: A Conversation with Historian Robert Louis Wilken

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Dr. Wilken earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Notre Dame, Fordham, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition to his long career as a distinguished teacher, Dr. Wilken is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s a former president of the American Academy of Religion. He’s a founding member of the North American Patristic Society, and he has also served as chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. He’s often associated with the intellectual circle around the American journal First Things. He’s published a host of books on the history of Christianity, including The Christians and The Romans, The Spirit of Early Christianity, The First Thousand Years: Global History of Christianity, and his most recent book, which is what we’re going to discuss today, Liberty and the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I’m looking forward to my conversation with Professor Robert Louis Wilken.


Professor Wilken, you wrote this book entitled Liberty and the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom in a time in which the ideas of religious freedom and religious liberty are essentially contested. And so, you knew when you wrote this book that you were entering into not only a study of history. And you were not only making an argument, you were making an argument in a very contested terrain. How did the book come about?

Robert Wilken: Well, as you know, my primary field of study and research and writing has been early church, and medieval to a certain extent. And I knew for years that there were several statements of early Christian writers, Tertullian of Carthage in the early third century, and then Lactantius in the early fourth century, that addressed the question of religious belief. And in both cases, they argue that religion is an inner conviction, and therefore it can’t be coerced by external means. And of course, they’re drawing on the Biblical writings, which say that in so many different ways. But what happened was, and this was seven or eight years ago as religious freedom was in the air, I discovered that these texts, specifically by Tertullian and Lactantius, were being cited in the 16th century by Christians who were being persecuted by other Christians. And I also discovered that they began to be part of a dossier of quotations that supported the idea that religion could not be coerced because it was an inner conviction. And so, what that allowed me to do was to move from the early church to the 16th century, and eventually, I was led into the 17th century, to see how what had been received from earlier writers was adapted, modified, expanded in light of the new circumstances of the 16th and the 17th century. Because these texts, as central as they are, did not really play much of a role to medieval Christianity. The ideas were passed on, but they weren’t actually cited. And so, that really became, then, the logic of the book. And I discovered that, for example, Sebastian Castellio, who wrote the very significant work in criticizing John Calvin for participating, or at least supporting, the execution of Michael Servetus … in his work, he quotes Lactantius. And then I discovered, much to my delight, was that the passage from Tertullian was actually cited and debated by Roger Williams and John Cotton.

Albert Mohler: Yes.

Robert Wilken: Those were only a couple of the instances. And so, what I wanted to do was to try to show what the deep background was, and then extend the story into the modern period where religious freedom really becomes a major topic of debate and discussion. And basically the ideas that we still live with were given their definitive form in the late 16th and the early 17th century. So that’s the story of the book.

Albert Mohler: Well, there is a story to a book, and the book tells a story. And the book basically also makes a very important argument, or more properly, you do through the book. And that is that the modern conceit of religious liberty as an Enlightenment gift is fundamentally flawed. It’s wrong. And as a matter of fact, many people looking to your book have contrasted it with a statement made by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post in which he said, “Only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual’s body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of church and state.” But you make very clear, that’s just fundamentally false.

Robert Wilken: It is fundamentally false, and I can tell you, it gave me great delight to read that in the Post. Because it made me realize that what I was saying had not only a historical significance, but a current significance. What I was thinking about more were the Enlightenment writers that are often cited, and also Supreme Court cases having to do with school busing, or pledge of allegiance, where the historical background that religious freedom or liberty of conscience came about because of the consequences of religious disputes in the 17th and 18th century. And so, it was really kind of a reaction, it was a reaction, to Christians squabbling with one another. And the Enlightenment writers, and then, of course, our founding fathers, didn’t want to have anything to do with that. And so, toward the end of the book, I actually discuss James Madison and his famous memorial that is often cited. And I do have a little section on Tertullian, because much to my delight, I discovered that Jefferson knew the text from Tertullian that I begin the book with.

Albert Mohler: Well, I did a lot of my work in the area of Patristics. And Tertullian is one of those towering figures. But I have to admit to you, I had never really connected Tertullian and the issue of religious liberty as you have. And I certainly didn’t connect Tertullian and Thomas Jefferson. But you do so convincingly.

Robert Wilken: No one did. And one of the things I learned … I mean, I’m not a historian of the 18th century. But I wrote three or four of the main Jefferson scholars and said, “Where did Jefferson learn this text?” I think he learned it probably from a Baptist preacher in the 18th century. And none of them could give me an answer. And also, none of them seemed very interested, which was also surprising. But it was certainly a text that was floating about. Whether it was Leland or somebody like that, I don’t know. But I couldn’t really nail it down. And I don’t mean to say that Tertullian was a direct influence on Jefferson, because I think Jefferson learned about this later. I think the influence on Jefferson comes from other writers, John Locke and other people that I discuss.

Albert Mohler: Well, you know, out in secular society and in the academy, the general historical worldview for the better part of the last 150 years has been, even with the use of phrases like Dark Ages, is that history is basically of darkness until the Enlightenment.

Robert Wilken: Yes, that’s what Kagan says. And I was astounded. I mean, he’s a very able and learned guy. I don’t know what he has read over the years. But that particular idea’s fairly well established now, and people even assume it, even though I think it’s wrong. But he went much further than that. He just says there was nothing until the Enlightenment.

Albert Mohler: Right. Well, that basically fuels the modern self-conception of … and I don’t want to put this in just political terms, whether left or right, but just in the certitudes held by people in the modern age who consider themselves quite at home in the modern age, they think themselves to have thought every good idea out of a vacuum.

Robert Wilken: Unfortunately, that is too widespread a view. And I think the more one studies the history of our civilization, the more you realize that basic conceptions that govern our everyday life and understanding really go back to the Bible and to the way the Bible was understood by early Christian, medieval, and Reformation thinkers. I mean, I think one of the points of the book, and we might want to discuss this a bit, is to try to show that the basic notion of liberty of conscience is not the result of any one particular Christian tradition. It’s something that is part of a common tradition that all shared in the 16th and 17th century, and then applied it of course to their own unique situations. I even have a chapter dealing with Catholic thinkers. And this was relatively new knowledge for me. A man by the name of Robert Persons, who because the Catholics were being persecuted in early 17th century England, he says that, “How can the king say we can’t breathe the air? The air is free for everyone.” And then the same thing, “How can the king say that we can’t believe what we at our deepest interior realize is the case? How can we live by that?”

Albert Mohler: I do want to get to that in just a bit. As a matter of fact, working on a different project of my own, I’ve been looking at the fact that many of the arguments made by the Protestants under Mary Tudor were also made by the Roman Catholics under Edward VI.

Robert Wilken: That’s true. And I don’t go into great detail, but I try to show that there is a continuity of thought which you can trace from Thomas Moore. But actually, one of the most spectacular texts that I discovered was a community of Franciscan sisters who were in Nuremberg, which is one of the first cities that adopted the Reformation. And when the magistrates decided they were now … basically enforce Lutheran ideas and practices, these women, they closed down their monastery. But one of the women, a woman named Caritas Pirckheimer, began to keep a journal. And we now have that journal. And so, she tells about how sort of step by step they began to dismantle the monastery. And it’s a fascinating story. But the most extraordinary thing is, she appeals to liberty of conscience.

Albert Mohler: Well, let’s talk about that for a moment, if we may. Conscience. Because one of the points you make in the book has theological dimensionality to it, far even beyond the issue of religious liberty. You talk about the fact that with Biblical Christianity, indeed the Apostle Paul, conscience takes on a new meaning for Christians, quite different than it meant for many of the ancients.

Robert Wilken: Yes. That’s a very important point in the book, namely, the term conscience comes from the Latin word for knowledge, “scientia,” with “con,” that means “with knowledge.” And it basically was understood to mean conscienceness, that is, an awareness of one has done. And Paul uses the term conscience in that way in Romans 2, where he speaks about the Gentiles following the law even though they don’t have the Jewish law. But later in Romans, or more particularity not in Romans, but 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks about conscience as something that guides your action. And then early Christian writers, most notably Origen of Alexandria, take conscience then as a kind of pedagogue, a tutor. That is, a guide as to what one should do. And that then becomes the normative use for then Christianity. But then, what happens is that in the 17th century in England, the Crown and the magistrates, began to say, “Well, you can sow whatever you want in your conscience. But you still have to follow the rules of the Church of England.” And one writer, John Owen, a dissenter, says, “No, no. Conscience has to do with action. It has to do with what you actually do. And so therefore, you should be free to follow your conscience in the kinds of worship practices that you wish to follow.” Very significant, I think, in terms of the understanding of conscience. Because it’s easy to dispense conscience as just what one holds in one’s heart. You can do that as much as you wish. But just don’t think it applies to what you’re supposed to do publicly. Which is, of course, the issue that we really face today. It’s whether people publicly, in terms of their actions, in schools or hospitals, can act on what they believe.

Robert Wilken: And so, that was very significant for me.

Albert Mohler: Well, it is, I think, another signal contribution of your book. And by the way, it takes us, as you pointed out in the beginning, this takes us right into the 2020 U.S. Presidential campaign, where at least some of the people running on the Democratic side honestly are defining religious liberty in such restrictive terms that it basically means whatever is in your heart, with no public significance whatsoever, no connection between conscience as moral conviction and then action in the external world.

Robert Wilken: That’s very true. And of course, the language that is used is that people have freedom of worship.

Albert Mohler: Right.

Robert Wilken: Or do not have freedom of worship. You know, it’s one thing to have freedom of worship in the sense you can do what you want in your church. But it’s not something that’s going to apply to questions and going to the hospital when you have an abortion or something of that sort.

Albert Mohler: That’s right. That freedom of worship language has found its way by deliberate action into official United States government communications.

Robert Wilken: It has indeed. Though it actually goes back to Roosevelt, his four freedoms. One of them is freedom of worship. But it’s been turned to have another dimension to what was basically in the gates, the practice. Well, anyway, you ask the questions. I’m not going to start giving you a lecture.

Albert Mohler: Well, no, that would be an honor as well. But I do have a lot of questions.

Robert Wilken: Good.

Albert Mohler: And I want to follow at least to some degree the outline of your book. And that means I want to go back to Tertullian again. And I want to ask you the question, if when Tertullian talks about freedom or writes about freedom of religion, I’m thinking here of Alastair MacIntyre’s notion of a social imaginary, of a world of meaning in which this means something in this social context. It might mean something different in another social or intellectual context. So to put the matter bluntly, when Tertullian talks about freedom of religion, to what degree is he talking about what we might define as religious freedom?

Robert Wilken: I don’t think he is. He uses the phrase freedom or liberty of religion, in Latin, “libertas religiones,” one time. But what I think he is stating is simply that people who have other religious ideas should be free to act on the basis of these. But he doesn’t really have any conception of religious freedom. In fact, one of the main points that I try to make in the book is that religious freedom is not the result of what the Church fathers wrote in the second and third and fourth century. It is the result of the developments that depend on that, but are not in fact there. So you can’t really trace it back. It’s a long process of growth and development and modification. So I don’t think it’s helpful to overstate the case, even though the key idea, at least one of the key ideas, is present. And it is interesting that one of the texts that’s used later on is from Psalm 51, “What God desires is a contrite heart.” And so, once you have that kind of language, you’re talking about the nature of religious conviction, but you’re not necessarily setting forth a conception of religious freedom. You’re just simply stating something that Christians saw more clearly than anybody else. But you don’t really have others making that kind of point.

Albert Mohler: History is itself a conversation. The writing of history, the study of history, is in one sense a conversation about that conversation. That conversation is always interesting. It is often controversial. As a matter of fact, on anything important, it’s more generally controversial than not. But that also means that history is an argument. And one of the things I most appreciate about this most recent book by Professor Robert Louis Wilken is that he’s making an argument, he intends to make an argument, and he makes a very important argument. In your argument, you use a phrase that you trace through, better than anyone else I’ve ever encountered before, the history of the Church, and frankly, Western society. And that is the idea of the two swords. And I was surprised how early in Christian history that emerged as clearly as you demonstrate it did.

Robert Wilken: Well, for very good reasons, because the first three … most of the fourth century, Christianity is a small, persecuted minority. It has no political power. And so, it’s completely dependent on the ruling authorities. But in the fourth century, that changes with the conversion of Constantine. And as the emperors become Christians, they begin trying to control what Christians actually do. Because it was assumed that political authority had a responsibility in religious matters. And so eventually, then, there was going to be conflict. And the conflict came to a head in the fifth and the sixth centuries. And of course, the two figures, then, were on the one hand the emperor, and on the other hand, the bishops, but in particular, the Bishop of Rome. And Gelasius, who was a Bishop of Rome at the end of the fifth century, said to Anastasius, the Emperor, he said, “You can’t tell us what we are to do in religious and doctrinal matters.” And he then really sets down the notion of two authorities, two powers. And of course, behind that is the passage, the words of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things that are of Caesar, and the things to God the things that are of God.” So that’s really the beginning of it. But what I discovered … and of course, it then runs throughout the whole Middle Ages. Because one of the main stories of the Middle Ages is the conflict between the Pope and the king. But to my astonishment and delight, I discovered that in Nuremberg again, that when the magistrates become Lutherans, they took over the management of religious affairs in the city. And one prominent citizen wrote a treatise, and he uses the term two swords. And he says they have to be kept clear. They have to be kept distinct. That you can’t use the political, the civil sword, to enforce the religious matters. Well, then that gets picked up, and becomes really a kind of main theme of all the writers on religious freedom and liberty of conscience.

Robert Wilken: So again, it’s a Biblical idea.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Robert Wilken: And so, by the time you get to Jefferson and his letter to the Baptists in Danbury, and even though he uses the metaphor of a wall, the idea is commonplace. Everyone agreed to that.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. Well, at least amongst the founders. But religious liberty’s still a very contested issue. And for example, I think one of the issues that’s not very commonly articulated amongst the political elites, but it’s nonetheless true, that you could not possibly imagine Mohammed saying, “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto Allah the things that are Allah’s.” Because that two-fold distinction between the things rendered to Caesar and the things rendered only to God, that is an innovation beyond the imagination of most modern Americans.

Robert Wilken: Well, going back to the historical point, the difference between Christianity and Islam is that Islam begins as a political form of religion. And it is spread as a religion that has political power, and it also spreads in some cases, in many cases, by the sword.

Albert Mohler: Indeed.

Robert Wilken: Whereas Christianity begins purely as a religious movement, only later. And so, it’s very difficult, and that’s kind of the ongoing issue. There’s a book recently by Dan Philpott, maybe you saw it. And he really goes through how the modern Muslim states have had such difficulty dealing precisely with this issue. So it’s very distinctive to Christianity. It’s not distinctive of Judaism, either. Because obviously the modern state of Israel has a limitation on certain regard with respect to this matter. But that has to do with the whole history of ancient Israel.

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Robert Wilken: I mean, the kings, they were priest-like figures. And of course, medieval Christianity, the bishop becomes a priest-like figure. But that eventually is … But it continues on. For me, one of the most dramatic passages was in the 16th century when a Frenchman around the year 1560 … by that time the Calvinists, we call them the Huguenots, were really beginning to grow in France. He writes to a friend, and he says, “Can you imagine that when we were young, that there would be two religions practiced in one city?” Now think about that for a moment. I mean, that is so unbelievable to a modern person, where that’s the only thing that we ever know is that you have more than one religion in a city. And so, that shows you what really the exponents of liberty of conscience and religious freedom, what they were contending against.

Albert Mohler: And for a very long time, a very long time. So for example, you mentioned the 16th century, and that French state, that was one I was going to ask you about just momentarily. You beat me to it, which is good. But you had crowned heads, such as Henry VIII, who could not imagine the realm in which throne and altar were genuinely separated. And …

Robert Wilken: No.

Albert Mohler: … you concede in your book something that many others do not, and that is the fact that Henry VIII, for all of his, well, let’s just say conflicted issues, he was deeply theologically concerned.

Robert Wilken: Oh, of course. And the thing is is that it’s not just the 16th century. It’s the 17th century and the 18th century. And so, by the time of the American Revolution, England was still struggling with this. Because it was assumed. And it was only in the 18th century that England begins to finally put laws on the books that give a place for dissenters. So it ran very deep. And-

Albert Mohler: Well, to be intellectually honest, bring it to the United States, where even after the ratification of the Constitution, there were still questions about the extent to which religious liberty had to be respected by the individual states. Some of them not settled until the 14th Amendment.

Robert Wilken: That’s true. And it’s understandable. I mean, when you think about it, it would be very nice to live in a city where everyone followed the same religion. I could see much satisfaction in that. I mean, I realize all the arguments against it. But so that you’d feel part of a community that was not just civic, but was also religious. But that’s a dream. That’s never going to come back.

Albert Mohler: No, it’s never going to come back here. But I really appreciate you making the point that way you did. Because that is actually the impulse in much of the world right now.

Robert Wilken: Well, it is. And that’s why Christianity’s being persecuted in so many parts of the world. You know, most Christians don’t realize in the 20th and 21st century is the time of the greatest persecution of Christians. I mean, the statistics year after year after year after year are really frightening.

Albert Mohler: Indeed. I want to as you to go back again, because as a historical theologian, I have to wonder why in your book, even given the argument you’re making, why is Augustine such a shadow figure in your book?

Robert Wilken: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, for one very simple reason. He’s not a player in this debate. I do have a few pages on him. And there are two things to say about Augustine. One is that when he was faced with militant dissent in the cities of North Africa, in present-day Tunisia, and he was unable by preaching and persuasion to bring them into line. And these were really militant people, we would almost call them terrorists, who were killing bishops and so forth. And finally, he capitulates and says, “Let the political power deal with them.” And that, of course, has been a big stain on Augustine’s memory. And you read the books on Augustine, they’re always going to make a big point out of that. I’m not as troubled by that, because I think that there were very good reasons why you needed to use some other kind of force beside arguments. On the other hand, there’s another side to the argument. And I quote a key passage from his commentary on the Gospel of John where he discussing the text where Jesus says that you should draw people to you. And the Latin word there, “trajo,” means you can actually draw them forcefully. And Augustine says, “No, that’s not what it means. Because you can drag a person and force them to be baptized. But you can’t force a person to believe.” So Augustine actually says precisely what Tertullian and Lactantius says. But he says it in the commentary, and he’s not really engaged in it. However, Gregory the Great, a century and a half later or more, Gregory the Great uses the basic idea that you get from Tertullian and Lactantius to deal with the problem of Jews in cities that are now all Christian, and whether they have to be respected. And he says they have to be respected. You can’t force them. And then, probably the most striking case is the famous advisor to Charlemagne, when Charlemagne … I mean, Charlemagne was brutal in terms of missionizing the Germans and forcing them to be Christians. And Alcuin writes him a letter and says, “You can’t do that. You can’t force people.” So there are several instances where the early idea still is alive. But Augustine is just not a major player, because in his situation, he did not find it necessary to make this appeal that is with Donatus.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, let me make the argument, however, and this is just for fun and short. But I would make the argument that after the Apostolic Age, and prior to the Reformation, the most important text related to these issues is actually Augustine’s City of God, without which … with a distinction between the two cities, I don’t think you could have a lasting distinction between the two swords. So that would just be my argument on behalf of Augustine. Augustine was not facing the same issues, and you’re very honest about that. But it’s really hard to understand how Luther and Calvin and the Puritans would come to understand a distinction between earthly hopes and heavenly hopes.

Robert Wilken: Yes, but I’m not sure I would read … in fact, I know I would not read the City of God that way. And I discuss that particular matter in my earlier book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Because in Book 19 of the City of God, Augustine says there has to be a common area that we work together. And so, he realized that you couldn’t draw … I don’t think the City of God is really an example of the two swords. I think it’s a different kind of problem that he’s dealing with. He’s dealing with the way in which the corporate reality of the Church and the corporate reality of the government, because of the needs of society, have to join hands in certain areas. But he makes it very clear that the worship of God has to be primary. So it’s not at all a modern notion. 

Robert Wilken: Anyway, that-

Albert Mohler: Nor is he a modern man. Yeah, not by any means.

Robert Wilken: No. No.

Albert Mohler: But as with Tertullian, people take an argument further than it was envisioned …

Robert Wilken: Yes.

Albert Mohler: … imagined, or intended by those who make the argument originally. I want to get to another important question in the thesis of your book. And that is the fact that as you trace the story, we also have to make another distinction. And that is between liberty for religious communities, and religious liberty as an individual right. Those also are two different things. They develop in different ways, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not.

Robert Wilken: Well, I’m glad you bring that up, because I think that’s one of the most important things that I learned. And it goes back to the very beginning of the Reformation. That this man who wrote this book about the two swords, what he was concerned about was the appearance of Anabaptist communities. And the Anabaptist communities, who were very radical, and they said, “We can’t go along with infant Baptism.” And they began to form their own communities, call and elect their own leaders, follow their own discipline, and basically cut themselves off from the religious institutions that governed the life of the rest of the community. It’s a profound change, because it introduces a wholly new understanding of the Church as a voluntary society. And so, one of the points that I make through the book is that in fact, it’s because of this that modern ideas about religious freedom develop. The best example of an individual was the case of Servetus, who was burned in Geneva because he was a heretic. But all the debate in the late 16th century and the 17th century is about the rights of religious communities. And that’s completely beyond the pale of what I think most people understand by …But that’s the issue today. It’s not about individual liberty. It’s about communities. And the first to see that I think most clearly were some Dutch writers in the late 16th century. And they said, “Well, okay, liberty of conscience is fine. But that’s not the way religious communities are. Religious communities have to do with worship, they have to do with practice, they have to do with education.” And then they use the phrase, and I was very please to find … they have to have exercise of religion.

Albert Mohler: There it is.

Robert Wilken: They have to be able to do what they …And that, then, became really the issue. It was a issue in England, and there was a issue on the continent with, of course, the Calvinists. So I’m glad you bring it up, because that seems to me to be … And I’ve spoken in recent months about this book in various places. And in some cases, before … I was at Villanova law school the other day and I made the point I don’t think … and I’m not a legal scholar, obviously … that I don’t think there’s much space within American jurisprudence for such an idea. That religious liberty and conscience have to do with the rights of communities. We understand it only in terms of the rights manusia. But today, that is the issue.

Albert Mohler: Yes, well, and boy, this takes us back to some interesting recent American history.

Robert Wilken: Of course.

Albert Mohler: One of your friends of decades past, and others, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, writing about the importance of mediating institutions. The left has hated the idea of mediating institutions, wanting nothing between the individual and the state. And I think that’s one of the most profoundly problematic issues of our time.

Robert Wilken: No, and Richard and Peter were way ahead when they wrote that book. I remember very, very well when they were just starting to think about it. So that really, now, is I think … you’re right, once you get into the political realm, but also in the religious realm.

Albert Mohler: Well, the Church is a mediating … it’s far more than that. It’s the Body of Christ. But it is also, sociologically, a mediating institution, which is one of the reasons why I think there are so many who celebrate secularization and are doing everything they can to sideline the influence of institutional Christianity.

Robert Wilken: I agree completely. And that’s why it’s essential for the growth and the health of the Church for there to be sound communities that people identify with. And you know much better than I because you move in a world where you’re dealing with training seminarians and also with clergy. And you realize that the breakdown of the communities in certain parts of our country, just not everywhere, has all sorts of consequences for people’s lives.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Robert Wilken: You know, when you don’t have this … and people have even brought that up in relationship to the terrible tragedies in recent years, and said had there been a community of people in which a young man was nurtured, people knew what he was doing, they were friends, he had friends, it’s less likely that one is going to do something really extreme. But if you’re a loner living on the internet with these websites, who knows what you’re going to do? And we know what you’re going to do. So yeah, I’m completely on your side on that.

Albert Mohler: I want to ask you another question, and I’m asking as a Baptist. And so, I’ll just put that right out there. This is …

Robert Wilken: Oh, I was waiting …

Albert Mohler: Yes.

Robert Wilken: … for this to come in.

Albert Mohler: You draw a great deal of attention to the contribution of the Baptists. John Leland and Thomas Helwys in particular, and many others, for kind of offering a quintessential defense of religious liberty in a way that we moderns can understand. But in reading your book, I had a question I wanted to ask you. And because of this conversation, I get to ask you. Don’t you think … and I’m saying this as a Baptist, so I’m loading the gun here … don’t you think that the issue of believers’ baptism is, to a considerable degree, what kind of forced the Baptists to some of these conclusions before others?

Robert Wilken: Oh, I’m not so sure of that. I think what forced them … Well, first of all, there was the reality. You take Thomas Helwys, John Murton, well, of course, Roger Williams. They were members of small voluntaristic intentional communities, of believer’s churches. And so, that was their basic experience. And of course, the condition for membership was that you would be re-baptized. However, that’s not the way they make the argument. They make the argument that the king has no right to interfere in the practices of people who have religious convictions. And they’re simply building on what was already there, namely, this distinction between the two swords. And there’s no question about … in fact, reading Roger Williams … One of the things, I should say this to you, in terms of the Baptists, you know, I have a section on John Locke. And I try to show that he’s really much dependent on Christian ideas. But the truth is is that when I read books about John Locke, nobody seems to understand that he’s saying things that Roger Williams had been saying.

Albert Mohler: Yes.

Robert Wilken: And it just astounds me that people are … Most recently in the … maybe you saw in the op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal 10 days ago …

Albert Mohler: Absolutely, yes.

Robert Wilken: … about a new … And I wrote the author of that, and I said to him, you know, I said, “There’s another side to this whole thing.” And seemed unaware. He uses the frame in this new manuscript, he uses the frame “a soul rape.” Soul rape is a word from Roger Williams. And I actually quote a passage from Roger Williams on the end of civil government as opposed to the ends of religious communities. And that’s exactly what John Locke says. And then, of course, I make the point that the first person to say that if you’re going to take this liberty of conscience seriously, it’s got to apply to everybody. Got to apply to the Catholics, but it’s got to apply to the Jews and the Muslims. And that was a Baptist.

Albert Mohler: Yes.

Robert Wilken: So I give a loud shout-out for the Baptists in this … I don’t think that’s where the …

Albert Mohler: You do.

Robert Wilken: I think that they’re working with material that has been handed on and received and worked over by other Christians. But clearly …

Albert Mohler: Yeah, I don’t deny that at all. I don’t deny that at all. And I appreciate your attention to the Baptists. Just as a Baptist theologian, I want to make the point that what Baptists kind of in the believer’s Church tradition that also came before the Baptists or the Anabaptists, but in the believer’s Church tradition, there was the absolutely different point of view from someone like a Richard Hooker, in which case, as you say, to be an Englishman is to be a member of the Church of England. And along come the Baptists saying, “No. There’s no infant baptism. You’re not a member of the Church until you make a public profession.” And then the entire Church is a believing church. I think that clarified issues for Baptists.

Robert Wilken: Yes, I think it did. And of course, Richard Hooker is a prime example. In fact, you know I quote him in the … But in terms of the infant baptism, you got to remember one thing about me, Professor Mohler. I was raised a Lutheran.

Albert Mohler: Oh, I remember that well, yes. When I met you, you were a Lutheran, I believe.

Robert Wilken: So yeah, and Richard was, too. So infant baptism is kind of in our genes.

Albert Mohler: No, I understand that. And I guess that’s why, as a Baptist, I see a distinction there. And, by the way, as a Baptist who finds my theological identity and Baptist identity out of the Reformation. And beyond that, out of Apostolic Christianity. So that’s why, by the way, I have for so long appreciated your writings and your contribution, and frankly, I think I’ve read every one of your books, and …

Robert Wilken: Oh, that’s very good.

Albert Mohler: … most of all of your articles or essays I’ve been able to find.

Robert Wilken: Well, I am very appreciate of that. I mean, I had a high regard for you’ve been doing, and … So …

Albert Mohler: Well, it’s an ongoing conversation. We’re dependent upon one another. But we’re particularly dependent upon scholars like yourself who’ve written books like this that, I dare say, will exert an influence far beyond your own lifetime. And I appreciate the fact that it’s published by Yale University Press. It’s a part of the ongoing cultural conversation. And I think it’s the most important book written on religious liberty in a very, very long time. I don’t say this as a complement. I say that with gratitude. I’m very thankful this book will, of necessity, reset the conversation amongst the people who care about the truth.

Robert Wilken: Well, I’m grateful for that. It is a work of love. And I worked over it for what, seven or eight years, and tried to write for readers. That’s one of the things I learned very early on. And you know the story about scholars, they only want to see where their name appears in the index, and so they can see where you quoted them. There’s a story about, I think it was Bill Buckley and Norm Podhoretz. And Bill Buckley sent a book of his to Norm Podhoretz. And he knew the first thing he would do would be to look in the index. And right where it had Podhoretz’s name was Buckley had written, “Hi, Norm.”

Albert Mohler: Oh, that’s fantastic. And sounds just like William F. Buckley. I have a couple of final questions just to ask you.

Robert Wilken: Sure.

Albert Mohler: And they’re really one question with two different predicates. What do you believe is the most important lesson you learned in doing this research for the Church, and then for American society?

Robert Wilken: Well, I think the most important thing is that we can’t live without memory. That memory gives us a sense of who we are, where we have been, and what life is that we find most fulfilling. And I think that more than anything else is being lost in American society today. That the young people are not given the kind of education that they learn to love what they have received, and to make it their own. So I would say … I think I’ve written a little bit on that, but not much. But I think without memory, there is no fully satisfying life.

Albert Mohler: Yes.

Robert Wilken: My mother, when she was elderly, she was suffering from depression. And the darn fool doctors at that point were recommending shock treatment. And we agreed and went to it. And she lost her memory. So she lost who she was. And it was a terrible thing, because she lived quite a while beyond that. So my answer, very simply, memory. Without memory, there is no … for Christianity. And that’s why we’re so blessed to have such a long and rich tradition. And to have the Scriptures.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Robert Wilken: I mean, I pray the Psalms in the morning, and I pray them in the evening, and I pray them when I go to bed. And I realize that so much of praying the Psalms is just having these words become part of your own life. I know Augustine says in the Confessions, I think it’s beginning of Book 12, he says, “The words of the Bible, of Your Holy Scriptures, pound my heart.” Not the ideas, you know, the words. And it’s the words that we want to hold onto. Because without the words, and so then we just … I’m getting on another topic, but the historical critics did us in on that one.

Albert Mohler: Well …

Robert Wilken: They taught us the-

Albert Mohler: Yes, they did their best.

Robert Wilken: The did their best, and it was a great run. But what they didn’t really remember was that the Bible was not a book from the past, and that it … And so, when preaching, unfortunately, I can’t preach anymore, the most important thing is to lead people into the Bible and to let them think in the terms of the Bible, not to translate it into something else. But now I’m getting off part …

Albert Mohler: That was worth it, trust me.

Robert Wilken: Yeah. So, no. So memory. And I’m so grateful for … And it was reading the Church fathers that … In my last years as a graduate instructor, it was the Evangelical students who were coming to do doctoral work. Because they learned that the Church fathers took the Bible seriously. And actually Dwayne Lifton’s son was a student of mine, and he came wanting to work on Tertullian.

Albert Mohler: Well, that’s happy news for us all. And I say that as president of a theological seminary. And again, Professor Robert Wilken, thank you so much for joining me for Thinking in Public. It’s been a great privilege.

Robert Wilken: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Albert Mohler: Many thanks to my guest, Robert Louis Wilken, for thinking with me today. It was a fascinating conversation. The kind of conversation you can really only have with a serious individual of ideas, as Robert Louis Wilken is. He also, just in terms of the decades of his life and his own scholarly work, has been long engaged in these issues. But when you think about it, one of the great tributes of his scholarly life is that he is still open to new questions he hadn’t considered before. That’s really what produced by his own testimony this most recent book Liberty and the Things of God. That’s the kind of aspiration we should all have at every stage of our lives, even after a very long scholarly or intellectual career. On the other side of long ministry and long life after one is the case of Professor Wilken, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, to still be found asking questions, working on them, doing the serious work of thinking them through and trying to communicate an argument based in that kind of scholarship. That’s the kind of aspiration that should drive us all. And it makes me even more thankful for the fact we just had this conversation. A conversation that I could not have had with Professor Robert Louis Wilken 40 years ago, because he hadn’t thought these thoughts yet. He had not written this book yet. It’s a reminder to us that every single one of us is not only embedded in an intellectual stream of conversation and concern and investigation and scholarship and intellectual back and forth. It is also the fact that our own lives over time represent that very same kind of timeline.

I also appreciated Professor Wilkens’ generosity of spirit. One of the marks of true Christian scholarship is being continually open to the kinds of conversation that other scholars will ask. That graciousness was very evident, even in this conversation today. But as I conclude, I simply have to come back to the fact that this book is, as I said earlier, I believe one of the most important indeed … I would say the most important book on religious liberty to have been written and published in recent decades, and now, in a situation in which religious liberty is so seriously imperiled even within the United States and our American Constitutional order. For that reason and for more, I can only hope that this new book by Professor Robert Louis Wilken will have an ever wider and wider audience. And now, I’m glad to say that includes you, the listeners to Thinking in Public.

Again, I want to thank my guest, Professor Robert Louis Wilken, for joining with me. If you enjoyed this episode of Thinking in Public, you can find over 100 of these conversations at under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.