In 1611, English lawyer and Baptist preacher Thomas Helwys arranged for the printing of a small treatise called The Mystery of Iniquity. It was the same year the King James (“Authorized”) Version of the Bible first appeared. Helwys was the founder of England’s first Baptist church and part of a growing number of Christian “separatists” suffering persecution for beliefs at odds with the officially established Church of England. The Mystery of Iniquity was Helwys’s impassioned plea for religious liberty. It was remarkable for its time, not so much for its theological insight, but for its clear-eyed assessment that religious liberty, in its truest form, is a liberty for all: “Men’s religion is between God and themselves,” Helwys writes, and the king could not “be judge between God and man.” He goes on: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Even the most liberal English thinkers of the day weren’t willing to go that far, weren’t willing to extend religious liberty to “heretic” Catholics, much less to Jews and Muslims. Helwys understood the radical implications of this freedom, and his candid appraisal stands out for its clarity.
In his forthcoming book Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, Southern Baptist scholar Andrew T. Walker stands firmly in the Helwys tradition. Christians must advocate religious liberty not just for themselves, Walker argues, but “with the conviction that true freedom means allowing fellow citizens… to freely exercise their beliefs with dignity.” Supplying a biblical and theological grounding for that conviction is a major part of Walker’s project. Thus, what Helwys may have lacked in theological depth, Walker ably supplies. Across seven dense chapters, he articulates what he calls an “apologetic” for religious liberty arising from distinctly Christian principles. The result is a book brimming with fresh insights, even as there is work yet to do to bring them all together.
Historically speaking, Christian reflections on religious liberty tend to emphasize a few key biblical passages, like Jesus’s teaching on Caesar’s coin (Matt. 22:15-22) and the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Walker eschews reliance on prooftexts in favor of a more systematic account. He offers a three-part framework focused on eschatology (the kingdom of God), anthropology (the image of God), and missiology (the mission of God), each commanding two chapters of his book. The first and third parts, on kingdom and mission, are Walker’s most fruitful work.
His eschatological argument is grounded in the “now and not yet” of the kingdom of God. This kingdom, though launched in the resurrection of Jesus, still awaits a final consummation, when Christ will return, death will be dealt with, and God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15). Such “inaugurated eschatology” is central to Christians’ understanding of history, and Walker deftly wields the concept to fashion a Christian doctrine of religious liberty. Between resurrection and consummation, he asserts, we live in an “age of contestability” characterized by divergent beliefs and competing claims of truth and authority. Pluralism is to be expected in the present fallen age—it’s a feature, not a bug—and it means the Gospel goes forth by persuasion, as individuals hear and respond (or not) to the news of God’s arriving kingdom. This demands religious freedom. In Christian terms, it means “patience toward erring consciences in the present” and a “posture of humility toward religious diversity.” Religious freedom is a “concession” to the present age, Walker writes, a “temporal doctrine that helps us manage social and religious differences” until Christ returns. Christians are committed to a pluralist social order and religious liberty for all, “not because pluralism is the ultimate ideal, but because in a fallen world, legal coercion will not produce the kingdom of God.”
Thus, where Reformers like John Calvin used a doctrine of “two kingdoms” to argue for religious liberty, Walker is offering something like a doctrine of “two ages,” where religious liberty is less about sphere sovereignty (civil vs. religious) and more about the eschatological gap (present vs. future, “now and not yet”). The relevant distinction is not spatial but temporal.
Walker is tilling fresh ground here, and he spends the rest of the book exploring the implications. The final two chapters on Christian mission yield a surprising insight: if religious liberty is grounded in the contestability of the present age, then it is neither an eternal ethic nor an ultimate right. It is, rather, an “interim social ethic,” a temporary concession to a penultimate age so that individuals may be free to seek after God. So conceived, religious liberty is not an end in itself; it doesn’t belong under the auspices of “rights.” It is but a means, an evangelistic tool, for advancing God’s kingdom on earth because it “foster[s] the ideal conditions for the mission of Christ to continue.”
Here, I think, Walker’s conception of religious liberty is in tension both with historical Christian understanding and with the rest of his book. From Tertullian onward, the Christian understanding has been shaped by the idea of conscience, itself grounded in the creational truth that humans are moral agents made in the image of God. To be sure, image-of-God anthropology takes up the middle two chapters of Liberty for All, where Walker explores these ideas and calls religious liberty “an inviolable right,” “innate to personal integrity,” and rooted in the “sacredness of the human conscience.” But this sits uneasily with the rest of his account. To say, as Christians have long said, that religious liberty is an essential aspect of our image-bearing humanity is different than saying, as Walker does, that it’s a time-limited accommodation to religious difference in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel. The former implies a Creator-endowed right, something inalienable. The latter suggests a mere social priority, one that yields to other important religious or political objectives this side of the eschaton.
There is more work to be done here. In the two chapters on anthropology, Walker might have offered a more robust critique of the role of the imago Dei in Christian political thought. Christian reflections on the imago tend to be one-sided, emphasizing its creational significance for a doctrine of conscience and human rights but failing to reckon with the aftereffects of the Fall. Yet because of sin, we are at best fractured images. Both our perception of truth and our reflection of God’s goodness into the world have become distorted. But in the resurrection of Jesus, these distortions regain proper focus. The resurrection is the lens that makes sense of God’s redemptive history and lets us glimpse what his future kingdom, the new creation, will look like. And it will not look like political or social dominance—it will look like humility, service, and love (Mark 10).
It is the resurrection, then, that might draw together the different threads of Walker’s argument: image-bearing in the now-and-not-yet of God’s kingdom, and what that means for religious freedom. In fact, Walker already offers a hint of this. Near the end of his second chapter, he muses in passing that religious freedom is ultimately rooted in the character of God himself: “The Lord of the universe chose the meekness of human flesh and the scorn of rejection, rather than military conquest or political power, to advance his kingdom.” Religious freedom is thus the way of the Lamb. It is the way of humility rather than coercion so that, in Paul’s words, “[all] should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). This idea—letting the death and resurrection of Jesus shape our concept of religious freedom—remains tantalizingly undeveloped in Liberty for All. It deserves more sustained Christian reflection.
For Helwys in 1611, putting religious liberty on theological footing—grounding it in the relationship “between God and man”—meant extending it to all persons, regardless of religious persuasion. Four centuries later, Walker’s Liberty for All has grasped the same insight, anchoring a broad conception of religious liberty in the rich soil of biblical Christianity. Those of us who care deeply about this issue, from pastors and theologians to lawyers and public leaders, will undoubtedly look to this book again and again as we seek to preserve and steward this precious freedom for coming generations.