The UK Bible Students Website

Christian Biblical Studies







By Will Resume 

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty – 2 Corinthians 3: 17

So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty – James 2: 12


All citations are to the King James Version, unless indicated otherwise


IT IS GENERALLY accepted in modern democracies that all citizens have the right to freedom of thought and expression, though these liberties, at the level we now enjoy them, are of relatively recent origin.

In times past, the State often felt obliged to prevent the dissemination of ideas which might work against the ‘public good’, shorthand for state control of its citizenry. However, unlike freedom of expression, it was not so easy to crush freedom of thought.


But freedom of thought is of little value without freedom of expression in some form or other. One who feels strongly about any particular truth political, philosophical, or religious is often compelled from within to make it known (Jeremiah 20: 9; 2 Corinthians 5: 14, New King James Version). One whose thinking leads him to call into question the prevailing ideas and customs which regulate the behaviour of those around him, who rejects the beliefs which they hold, and envisions a better way of life than that which they follow (rightly or wrongly), cannot but make known his attitude: in mode of dress; different social habits; passive or militant activism; or by simply standing on a platform and giving voice to his thoughts.[fn1] The sight of a speaker at Hyde Park Corner in London, berating the State, while a constable looks on impassively, is anecdotal and eloquent testimony of the freedom of expression which has prevailed in Britain. We are apt to be blasé about such liberties, but they have been long in coming.


Greece, Rome

By the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, the Greeks had attained a free outlook on the world. It might be safe to say that European science and philosophy began in Ionia (in Asia Minor). Most of the philosophers of Greece were materialists, such as Xenophanes, Socrates, and Plato. Socrates himself emphasized the supremacy of the individual conscience and the public value of open debate, tenets which underpin the present-day values of free speech.


In the Roman Republic few restrictions were imposed on the expression of private opinion. The general rule of Roman policy was to tolerate throughout the Empire all religions, an aid to maintaining peace in the dominions. Most of the leading thinkers, though unbelievers in the pantheon model of ‘religion’, or cult of the State, considered it valuable for the purpose of keeping the lesser-educated populace in order.


Judaism, Christianity

As far as the Roman Republic was concerned, one religion stood out from the rest: Judaism. Because of its exclusiveness and intolerance Judaism was regarded by the otherwise tolerant pagans with disfavour and suspicion, though its devotees were protected by the emperors even from the troubles which their own fanaticism aroused. It was with the beginning and growth of Christianity that the question of freedom of thought and expression, allied with the supremacy of conscience, assumed critical importance.[fn2]

The Christian religion was seen at first, by the Romans who knew of it, as a sect of the Jews. However, as it grew, two factors brought upon it the wrath of Rome: its making many proselytes (which the Jews had not done) and its objecting (along with the Jews) to the ‘worship’ of emperors. This to the Romans was one of the most sinister signs that this new religion was dangerous. The rapid advance and success of the new religion stimulated a change in social behaviour and invited, on occasion, a harsh response from the State.[fn3]


Christians were accused of witchcraft, immorality, murder, and were even blamed for some natural catastrophes by those who feared Christianity’s advancement. The persecutions under Decius were continued by Valerian. Emperor Diocletian, whose radical administrative reforms would help to preserve the Empire for another century, desired to support his work of political consolidation by reviving the Roman spirit, and sought to infuse new life into the official religion. To this end he attempted to suppress the growing body of Christians, resulting in their severe persecution, especially during the years 303-313 (Revelation 2: 10). These sufferings were brought to a close during the reign of Constantine, by the Edict of Toleration (311) and the Edict of Milan (313).


At the Council of Nicaea (Asia Minor) in 325, at which Constantine presided having, as Emperor, declared in favour of Christianity the year before the Church, now confirmed as the official victor in the Arianism controversy, was for all practical purposes established. Under the sponsorship of Constantine, the Church was ‘clothed in the imperial purple’.[fn4]At this juncture we may date the tentative joining of Church and State. From a persecuted minority the Christian church became, in course of time and at the leading of certain ambitious men, a powerful theocratic system which sought to regulate the conscience of the individual, frequently crushing those who expressed contrary opinions.


A Throne Gained, A Privilege Lost

The Church gained this position in the World at the high cost of forsaking its original primitive force simplicity and disentanglement from the World. A sect which in its infancy stood firm against pagan emperors and proclaimed liberty of conscience as the believer’s prerogative, would in time set about denying this right to those who came under its own authority, and clamping down with an iron hand on those who ventured outside its doctrinal walls. Whereas the free intellectual atmosphere of secular Greece and Rome had been marked by a lack of sacerdotalism, the entrenched religious classes now dictated the limits of thought and expression. The faith which our Lord proclaimed would ‘make you free’ became by turns the author of imprisonment physical and mental.[fn5]


Renaissance, Reformation and Rationalism

Generally, the two spheres in which freedom of thought and expression operate, the Secular and the Religious, are intertwined, and the opening up of freedom in one sphere fosters freedom in the other. Beginning in the fourteenth century, three conjoined cultural, intellectual, and reform movements would alter the complexion of European civilisation and rock the Church’s place in the wider world.

The renewed appreciation of art and classical studies and the spread of humanistic learning, during the Renaissance, led to an uneasy cohabitation by the new men of letters with the prevailing religious culture. And, also, during this period, early sparks of the Reformation began to flash – sparks that would be fanned into a flame of reform by early in the sixteenth century.


The papal Church had long espoused its belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth (based on Aristotle). In adopting such a stand on scientific knowledge, the Church had formed a solid rampart against the advancement of knowledge for centuries.[fn6] Both Reason and Faith were thus led captive in chains of superstition and ignorance. Martin Luther’s blow at papal authority strengthened the reform movements already under way, and had the effect of making possible the development of a freer atmosphere in which philosophy could re-emerge and science could resume in earnest. This freed-up atmosphere led not only to a flowering of Protestant (‘reformed’) denominations, but spurred a crop of rationalist thinkers who, from the late seventeenth century to the eighteenth, the Enlightenment period, would (ironically) contribute to the undermining of the Christian faith as effectively as Luther had weakened the walls of papal supremacy.


Christian Teachings Ripe for Attack

The opening up of secular freedoms had been stimulated in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the War of American Independence (1775-1783), in its break from British rule, and the Revolution in France (1789-99), whose motto Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! epitomised the conflict between Sacerdotal-Aristocracy and Secularism. Such historic changes triggered a wide-spreading spirit of inquiry and a flowering of intellectual and societal freedoms which lie at the root of the liberties we take for granted today.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, many of the extra-Biblical religious notions and teachings of the Church general (Catholic and Protestant) were the outcroppings of a shallow creedal foundation cobbled together from the rulings of councils, scholarly opinion, tradition, and some educated guesswork, and so were especially vulnerable to these infidelistic assaults and the new science. The theory of Evolution as propounded by Charles Darwin and promoted by Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’), delivered a body blow. So powerfully did the sceptics assert their ideas as against Genesis and the prophecies and miracles of the Bible, that they altered the relationship of the believer to the Bible to such an extent that today such topics are often derided in the pulpit even by Christianity’s own supporters.


It was not, of course, a one-way street, and Christianity responded with some eloquent defence, including profound arguments drawn from ‘natural theology’. Prominent exponents of this particular approach, such as Bishop Butler, Thomas Chalmers, and Henry Drummond, argued that the observed phenomena of the natural world proved the existence and goodness of God. In the closing decades of the century a number of social-religious movements started up the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s Christian Association and religious teachers such as Charles H. Spurgeon in Britain and Charles T. Russell in the United States spurred a popular shift back to piety and study of the Bible.

To be continued in our next issue





[fn1] This freedom still largely prevails, in spite of the increasing tendency of social legislation introduced by the British Parliament which effectively stigmatises certain classes of expressed opinions as ‘hate speech’ and, by implication, the mental process which gives rise to them, as ‘thought’ crimes. A similar proscriptive trend in legislation is on display in other countries.

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[fn2] J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (Oxford University Press, London, 1957), 28. 

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[fn3] J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (Oxford University Press, London, 1957), 28. 

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[fn4] J.M. Roberts, History of the World (1993; Oxford University Press; New York), 228. 

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[fn5] It is worthy of note that to some extent liberty of thought was restricted by the very nature of the cumbersome doctrines of the Trinity, the Absolutism and Idolism of the Church, hell-fire, and other intimidating strictures, to the extent that the rank and file of adherents never reached the stage of thinking freely, let alone expressing dissident views. Those who did run the risk of protest were rounded up and forced to recant and, on so doing, were often imprisoned or killed anyway.

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[fn6] Galilei Galileo (1564-1642), confirming the earlier findings of Copernicus, discovered through his improved telescope, the moons of Jupiter and solar spots. His observation of the spots in the sun strengthened his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. In the pulpits of Florence he declared his findings. He was denounced to the Holy Office of the Inquisition. It was decided by an ecclesiastical court that the Copernican system was absurd and heretical. Galileo was summoned to see Cardinal Bellarmin and ordered to retract his views and Galileo, not being a hero, obeyed. [History of Freedom of Thought, by J.B. Bury (1957; Oxford University Press, London), 66-68.]

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